The Ties That Bind: Multiculturalism and Secularism Reconsidered

Date01 September 2009
Published date01 September 2009
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 301±26
The Ties That Bind: Multiculturalism and Secularism
Brenna Bhandar*
The article examines contemporary controversies over the rights of
Muslim women to wear various forms of the veil, in both France and
the United Kingdom and argues that despite their apparent differences
as political ideologies, both multiculturalism and secularism are
deployed as techniques to govern difference. It traces a common
philosophical lineage of these two ideologies, and their shared
genealogical relationship to the subject of Enlightenment and post-
Enlightenment thought. Drawing on Marx and Hegel, it argues that at
the core of secularism and multiculturalism there lies the germ of a
subject and law formed through a concept of culture that was to a great
degree indivisible from religion. While secularism ostensibly decouples
culture from religion to produce a common political culture, and
multiculturalism purports to accommodate a diverse range of cultural
and religious practices, both fail to accommodate difference that
stretches the bounds of a citizen-subject defined according to Anglo-
European norms of culture, which implicitly includes Christianity.
The campaign [by the Vatican to define the Christian tradition as critical to the
very constitution of Europe] plays upon the sense of a traditional Christian
territorial unity threatened by a growing Islamic minority and secular
depreciation of the spiritual dimension of culture.
ß2009 The Author. Journal Compilation ß2009 Cardiff University Law School. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
*Kent Law School, Eliot College, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2
7NS, England
Thanks to Davina Bhandar, Didi Herman, and Stewart Motha for insightful comments on
an earlier version. The comments of the anonymous reviewers were also very helpful.
1 W.E. Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (2008) 29.
On 28 July 2008, the latest instalment of the legal contest between the rights
of young women to manifest their religious faith through their dress (in this
case, a five millimetre-thick metal bangle, called a kara in Punjabi) and the
ability of the state to prohibit such expression was settled. Mr. Justice Silber
of the High Court found that Sarika Watkins-Singh had suffered indirect
discrimination on the grounds of race when Aberdare Girls' School in Wales
first segregated Sarika from the other students, and then suspended her from
school for refusing to remove her kara, one of the five symbols of faith
observed by Sikhs. In the eyes of the school authorities, her refusal to
remove her kara violated the school's no-jewellery policy.
The five millimetre-thick kara was deemed to be a reasonable expression
of religious and racial difference. As we will see, other expressions of
religious difference such as the jilbab,orhijab have created political
tempests on both sides of the English Channel (among other places), and
have been found by state authorities to be an unreasonable, unacceptable
expression of difference. Under English and Welsh law, Sikhs are considered
to be a racial group, unlike Muslim communities.
The legal distinction
between race and religion and the process by which communities come to be
perceived as racial versus religious ones are interesting inventions, but not
the main focus of this article. The relatively recent recognition in the United
Kingdom of religion as a ground upon which discrimination claims can be
made, and the definition of Muslim communities as religious rather than
racial communities arguably sets them apart from other minority, racialized
subjects (such as Jews or Sikhs), with regards to how they have been legally
interpellated. Along with this, the current climate of Islamophobia has
seemingly produced new assemblages of race, religion, and culture that
present challenges to both Muslim minority communities and the dominant
political subjectivity of the nation state.
Yet ± are these new assemblages? The conflicts over the ability of Muslim
girls and women to freely veil themselves in different forms can be (and has
been) articulated in various idioms that recall long-standing political
questions over how the nation state ought to manage racial and religious
difference: as a conflict of individual religious rights versus the interests of
the broader community or nation state; as an expression of difference that
breaches the limit of tolerance of minority practices; or alternately, as the
violation of an ethos (or state principle) of secularism. Some scholars have
characterized the `politics of the veil' as an instance of the rigid application
2Watkins-Singh, R (on the application of) v. The Governing Body of Aberdare Girls'
High School & Rhondda Cynon Taf Unitary Authority [2008] EWHC 1865 (Admin)
(29 July 2008).
3 Sikhs are considered to be a racial group under British law, as established in the
judgment Mandla v. Dowell Lee [1983] 2 A.C. 548. In Watkins-Singh, the judge
accepted the claim that Watkins-Singh had suffered discrimination as a Sikh on both
religious and racial grounds (paras. 35 and 36).
ß2009 The Author. Journal Compilation ß2009 Cardiff University Law School

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT