Raxstar, Atif Aslam and Zack Knight
Artillery Row

Supporting multiculturalism is the natural conservative position

Attacking it attacks the very essence of Britishness

In 2015, Mohamed Sohail Alimohamed opened a small café in Leicester selling Indian tea and South Asian street food. It was called Chaiiwala, the Indian term for tea-seller. The café became extraordinarily popular among local British Indians, and opened branches across the country in areas with large Asian populations. Chaiiwala has evolved into a sort of Asian version of Starbucks: today, the menu boasts an array of teas, including traditional cinnamon and mint “karak chaii”, as well Kashmiri pink tea. But you can also buy a chaii latte, ice chaii and desserts ranging from classic Indian delicacies to Nutella wraps and “choc chaii mousse”.

British Asian youth culture is not a failure of integration

You couldn’t get many of these things from a tea-seller in Delhi or Mumbai. Chaiiwala is a British phenomenon, its menu reflecting the tastes of customers in Britain. It’s a favourite not primarily among immigrants from South Asia, but among their children and grandchildren. British Asian youth culture today is something distinctive, and unrecognisable to many Britons. Spiced tea from places like Chaiiwala features prominently in this culture, as does Indian street food. In cities with large Muslim populations like Birmingham, Bradford and Leicester, hundreds of dessert lounges are packed full of people on Saturday nights (Muslims don’t go to pubs or bars).

British Asian music is also more successful than ever among young people with Asian heritage who were born and bred on these shores. Zack Knight, who was born in Lincolnshire and has Pakistani roots, is a tremendously popular singer. His music videos garner millions of views on YouTube, the songs including an eclectic mixture of English, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Arabic lyrics. “For so long I was in denial about my heritage or the colour of my skin,” he tweeted in 2016, “[I was] wanting to fit in and be accepted. How naïve of me.”

Knight isn’t alone on the British Asian music scene, which is growing by the year and represents an unusual synthesis of music genres. “Raxstar”, born in Luton, creates songs that combine rapping in English, singing in Punjabi and elaborate Indian flute melodies.

British Asian music is rivalled by popular music produced in India and Pakistan, which tends to be more family-friendly, poetic and romantic. It’s enduringly popular among British Asians. The lyrics often reflect a deeply religious worldview: “Allah, You made me capable of bearing this pain — You turned this storm into a shore for my boat,” Atif Aslam sings in Hindi in the opening verses of his 2018 hit song O Saathi (“O My Companion”).

Another famous singer is Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, nephew of legendary singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He was trained by his uncle in the Qawwali tradition of Islamic devotional music but has also sung dozens of famous Bollywood songs. Nusrat was beloved by migrants to Britain in the 1980s, and today his nephew’s music is famous among their young descendants. Rahat sold out the Wembley Arena in London in 2021, performing a mixture of Qawwali and pop music.

This points us towards a significant fact. Many young British Asians are not just distinctive in Britain because of their culinary preferences, or because they represent some form of aesthetic diversity. They’re often also distinctive for their religiosity (this is especially true of Muslims). A twenty-year-old British Muslim woman is far more likely to be religious than the average Brit her age, reflected in not only her daily practices but also her values, some of which will appear to most people in the country as bizarrely old-fashioned. She might see her religion not as some superficial identity marker but as a metaphysical truth, and an all-encompassing way of life. What this means is that much of the diversity in modern Britain is deeply profound. It’s a diversity of values as well as of aesthetics and music preferences.

The cultural phenomenon I’ve just described has nothing to do with a progressive ideological attack on “whiteness” or a desire for “deconstruction”. It’s not the result of diversity quotas or corporate unconscious bias workshops. More often, it’s because of a conservative urge at play among ordinary people — the desire to hold onto a particular conception of the sacred, or to prevent the total loss of an old and beautiful culture. The conservative political position, then, should be to support multiculturalism.

Yet many see British Asian youth culture as representing a failure of integration into British society. This view is mistaken; British Asian culture is distinctly British, bearing little resemblance to anything anywhere else in the world. An average British Pakistani teenager is almost certain to have far more in common with his white British friend at school than with a teenager in Pakistan: in terms of language, sense of humour, shared experiences and what TV shows they watch. But this British Pakistani might also lack any desire to stifle the elements of his culture influenced by his Pakistani heritage. The children and grandchildren of immigrants don’t always see their immigrant culture as something embarrassing or repressive. Much of it they discard, but some of it they retain and meld with their British identity: this is the essence of multicultural integration.

English upper classes self-segregate in their own social circles

And it’s successful: consider Britain’s Muslim communities, which are generally in the middle of controversies surrounding multiculturalism. British Muslims are significantly integrated into society, contrary to popular belief. There are zero “no-go zones” for non-Muslims — all the actual data shows that Muslims may be distinctive in some ways, but they don’t at all live parallel lives separated from the majority. They identify strongly with Britain — even more strongly than the general population does — and are more likely than Brits in general to live in ethnically mixed areas; religious segregation has consistently been declining. Problems with criminality certainly exist, but these are more often features of deprived inner-city life (half of British Muslims live in poverty) than anything else. Alarmist polemics about how migrants, especially Muslims, are threatening the societal fabric are unsupported by data. Multiculturalism doesn’t mean self-segregation and a rejection of Britishness; many ethnic minorities feel British in the understanding that Britishness allows them to express their distinctiveness while engaging with wider society.

When they’re told that multiculturalism has failed and they need to integrate, many Muslims read this, reasonably, as being a call for them to assimilate, to discard (or conceal) aspects of themselves that seem too unusual or foreign. But what specifically, we might ask, are British Muslims supposed to assimilate into? After all, regional cultures vary wildly. For someone moving to Birmingham, assimilation might mean eating at Pakistani restaurants and listening to Zack Knight’s songs. The English upper classes, moreover, self-segregate and move in their own social circles, even sending their children to private schools — they don’t assimilate into the culture of the majority. There is no single way to be British: indeed, Britishness itself is threatened by the movement for Scottish independence. The question today is whether a national identity can be cultivated that is accepting enough of diversity to avoid alienating vast swathes of the country.

The conservative lament that modern life is in flux, that globalisation threatens local cultures, that social atomisation is increasing, and that many people crave stability, security and a firm sense of identity is perfectly valid. But multiculturalism isn’t responsible for “liquid modernity”, or for the fact that most young people don’t share their grandparents’ conception of the Good Life. Many British Muslims, following a worldview which reveres family, community and religion, have a lot in common with an older, Christian Britain. Ethnic minorities tend to be more religious than the white majority — multiculturalism stands in the way of the victory of a bland secular monoculture. As John Holmwood argues, the government’s attacks on multiculturalism have eroded religious liberty — which conservatives conventionally defend.

We might also consider that a country cannot possibly colonise vast swathes of the world and then complain when its own shores experience immigration, especially when immigrants and their descendants from the former colonies attempt to maintain their own traditions. In the Queen’s crown is the Koh-i-Noor, brought from India to Britain after being surrendered by a Maharaja. In Powis Castle there are hookahs, daggers, rubies and coats of elephant armour, brought to Britain after the submission of the (Muslim) Mughal empire to the East India Company. More of these precious artefacts can be found in Wales than in any Indian or Pakistani museum. It would, quite simply, be outrageous to say that this is fine while accusing Muslims of a failure to fit in.

Colonialism made Britain multicultural, and to honour our country’s multiculturalism is the natural conservative position. To attack it, by contrast, is to attack Britishness itself. It is true that this notion might be difficult for some people to accept. But British Muslim teenagers drinking tea in Chaiiwala after praying at the local mosque aren’t confused or conflicted. They don’t feel they need to justify their presence in this country or learn Britishness from anyone else: they’re at home.

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