In the two decades that he served as the United Kingdom’s Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks continued the tradition of his predecessor, the late Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, of positioning the office as a key voice in national debates. While Jakobovits was famously aligned with the views of Margaret Thatcher, in marked contrast to the established Church of England, Sacks adopted a more non-partisan approach, venturing insights into a range of issues–most importantly, on multiculturalism–that were not beholden to the orthodoxies of either the Conservative or Labor parties.
This week, Sacks again dived into the multiculturalism debate. In an interview with the London Times (subscription only) to mark his departure from office, Sacks reiterated his dismay at how the concept of multiculturalism has been interpreted and applied in Britain. “The real danger in a multicultural society,” Sacks argued, “is that every ethnic group and religious group becomes a pressure group, putting our people’s interest instead of the national interest.”
As Sacks explained in his 2007 book, The Home We Build Together, this societal Balkanization is inimical to a healthy democracy. “Liberalism is about the rights of individuals, multiculturalism is about the rights of groups, and they are incompatible,” he stated baldly. In his conversation with the Times, Sacks honed in on Britain’s unresolved anguish over the integration of its growing Muslim population. The radical contrast between the Jewish and Muslim experiences of living as minorities is, Sacks said, critical to understanding why uncomplicated integration has succeeded with the former, but not the latter: “The norm was for Muslims to live under a Muslim jurisdiction and the norm, since the destruction of the first Temple, was for Jews to live under a non-Jewish jurisdiction.”
Interestingly, the firestorm of outrage that typically greets such remarks has centered not on Sacks, but on the unlikely figure of media mogul (and Times owner) Rupert Murdoch, whose appreciative tweet–“Good for UK Chief Rabbi Sacks! ‘Let’s put multiculturalism behind us’. Societies have to integrate. Muslims find it hardest.”–angered Muslim activists in his native Australia. Mohammed Tabbaa of the Islamic Council of Victoria warned that Muslims “feel the full brunt” of such comments, while Nareen Young of Australia’s Diversity Council bemoaned the fact that Murdoch’s support for Sacks had left “a whole lot of Muslim Australians” nursing “hurt feelings.”
One is tempted to say that these reactions deliberately miss the point. Sacks has contested neither the reality nor the desirability of a multi-ethnic society; instead, he has consistently argued that the communally-centered model of multiculturalism that prevails in Britain has frustrated attempts to forge an overarching British identity. No one is talking about how to persuade Muslims to leave the historically Christian nations in which they’ve settled, but rather how they might remain on peaceable terms.
The example of Britain’s Sharia courts, which provide an alternative venue for Muslims to settle their legal disputes, neatly illustrates the wider problem which Sacks has addressed. As the BBC reported last year, an estimated 85 Sharia councils are now operating in Britain, all of them dealing with a growing caseload. “On average, every month we can deal with anything from 200 to 300 cases,” Sheikh Haitham al-Haddad of the Islamic Sharia Council told reporter Divya Talwar. “A few years ago it was just a small fraction of that.”
What al-Haddad didn’t say is that the judgments arrived at in Sharia courts routinely violate the sensibilities of a liberal democratic society. Indeed, al-Haddad himself is a notorious offender in that regard; as the blogger Ben Six has noted, here is an individual who “endorses genital mutilation, tells parents to marry their daughters off while they are young, orders women to obey their husbands, and tells people not to question men who beat their wives.” (You can see a video of al-Haddad nonchalantly supporting the practice of female genital mutilation here.)
To paint objections to this Saudi-esque judicial philosophy as a hangover from the days when opposition to immigration was grounded upon race–as the British Muslim writer Sunny Hundal did in a recent piece for the Guardian–doesn’t just willfully misrepresent what critics of multiculturalism, like Sacks, are saying. It also condemns the victims of Sharia courts, many of whom are women seeking a way out of abusive marriages, to an indefinite purgatory in the name of tolerance. While Hundal insists that multiculturalism’s critics refuse “to get to grips with how Britain has changed,” the truth is more nuanced: registering that these changes have occurred does not imply a duty to passively acquiesce to them.
In highlighting the historic unwillingness within Islam to accept that there are situations in which Muslims will be a minority, Sacks has captured one of the key reasons why British Muslim leaders are preventing their flocks from following the precedent set by other immigrant groups–like the French Huguenots, the Jews, and the Afro-Caribbeans–in maintaining their native identities while embracing the broader notion of Britishness. Perhaps the violent collapse of Islamist rule in Egypt, at the fulcrum of the Muslim world, will persuade nervous Britons that Sacks has a point after all.