Cultural Autonomy in the United Kingdom

Cultural Autonomy in Britain[1]


Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado

Let me analyse and define the terms of our agenda. ‘The purpose of the conference is to examine the nature of the balance between the cultural autonomy of ethnic, religious and other minority groups and their responsibility to the state or community within which they exist.’

Therefore, we are here to conduct an enquiry, not a debate or negotiation. We must enquire into the nature of a certain balance, presumably in order to determine whether it already exists, or is possible or desirable to create. To do so, we must examine its fundamentals. So, analysis and definition of terms are in order.

In physics, balance involves a fulcrum: a point where it occurs, and a beam joining the weights to be balanced. With equal weights, the fulcrum lies in the middle of the beam. With unequal weights, it lies nearer the heavier weight.

The balance here is metaphorical: between autonomy and responsibility. These are political, legal, social and moral terms. Balance, in such a context, implies conflicting interests or intentions. The fulcrum is the forum where conflicting interests or intentions are debated and negotiated. The beam is the field of debate or negotiation. If the fulcrum is fixed, giving a level beam, or playing field, the side with the weightier arguments or the most support will tilt the outcome in its favour. If equilibrium is sought, irrespective of the weight of the respective arguments, the beam or field must be rigged to ensure that outcome.

Three questions arise: Who or what is the fulcrum here? Are the contending parties of different weights? How may the beam be rigged to ensure equilibrium? Who is the fulcrum?

Who, in Britain, has the authority to grant autonomy to ethnic or religious minorities? My guess is Parliament. The question of relative weights is answered by a tacit assumption in our agenda’s terms, implied by its use of the word ‘minority’ for the ethnic, religious and other groups involved. This implies that the state or community in which they exist is a majority, therefore heavier.

Whereas the minorities in question are defined as ethnic or religious, that assumed majority is left undefined. This makes one wonder whether it exists, and how, if so, it is to be defined: ethnically, religiously, or otherwise.

How may the field be rigged? The legal means currently available to override majority rule, and lend weight to minorities, are human rights legislation. Is such legislation relevant here, and if so how?

Leaving that question for later, let me continue analysing and defining terms.

The balance here is between autonomy and responsibility. These are both simultaneously descriptive and normative concepts, describing and mandating conduct in political, legal, social and moral contexts.

Autonomy is from; responsibility to. The balance here in question is between the cultural autonomy of ethnic, religious and other minority groups from and their responsibility to the state or community within which they exist.

There is a gap in this formulation of the matter. While autonomy is qualified as cultural, responsibility is left unqualified. Since the cultural autonomy in question is that of ethnic and religious minorities, culture here seems meant in terms of religion and ethnicity.

This leaves one wondering if responsibility is also thus meant. If so, the minority would have an ethnic and religious responsibility to the majority state or community. This does not make sense.

Let me supply what I think must be the missing term, or rather terms, to qualify responsibility here; for responsibility is here directed at two related but different things: the state and the community. Responsibility to a state is political and legal; to a community social and moral. Of course in broader terms of definition, all these entities, politics, law, society and morals, are cultural, for they differ in different cultures. Thus, to progress any further with this enquiry we must define what we mean by ‘culture’.

Culture is not just putting on a suit and tie and going to the theatre to drink Champagne. Culture pervades everything we do, and determines how, and what we do it with. Culture is the material and notional medium within which we live, and the instrument whereby we relate to our environment, shaping and controlling it.

An enquiry such as this is both itself an artefact and instance of culture, and requires understanding culture properly to be performed. Since, moreover, it enquires into conflict between differing cultures, it requires understanding not only culture as such, but cultural identity, in theory and in practice.

So: What is culture? and What is identity? Identity is based on binary association and dissociation: association with one set of definitions, and dissociation from another. Identity is definition of self by an individual or group, or of that individual or group by others, as distinct from some, and identical to others, in some respects.

Culture, in the present forum, is the respect in which we define group identity. Culture consists of assumptions or descriptions, values or prescriptions, patterns of behaviour and systems of meaning. An individual or group identifies him, her or itself by these, or is so identified by others. Cultural identity is based on conventions, defining patterns of behaviour, systems of meaning, prescriptions, values, descriptions and assumptions, whereby people identify themselves, or others, as belonging to a given culture, rather than another.

For example: one may identify oneself as liberal, rather than illiberal; conservative, rather than destructive; socialist, rather than antisocial. Or one may define oneself as Liberal, rather than Conservative; Conservative, rather than Socialist; and Socialist, rather than Liberal. When self-definitions are shared with others, and become political parties, a Liberal may consider Conservatives and Socialists illiberal; a Conservative may think Liberals and Socialists destructive; a Socialist may brand both Conservatives and Liberals antisocial.

Much in identity depends on whether one identifies oneself, or is identified by others. The same goes for culture. The sets of definitions whereby cultures are defined are of many kinds, combining assumptions, descriptions, values, prescriptions, patterns of behaviour and systems of meaning, in differing proportions and degrees.

Systems of meaning may be languages, such as French and Dutch, whereby two groups in one state, Belgium, distinguish themselves. Or they may be dress codes, say suit and tie, as opposed to trainers and hoodies, or styles of grooming, say of Sikhs or Rastafarians, as opposed to straight back and sides, whereby members of a group identify each other, and distinguish themselves from outsiders. Patterns of behaviour may involve, say, free association of the sexes, or their strict segregation. Or they may be rules governing body language. One can tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese, among other ways, by how they walk and bow.

Cultural identity is based on differing combinations of these elements. For  instance, by combining differences of system of meaning within a single language, English, such as speaking of loos rather than toilets, with differences in patterns of behaviour, such as pouring milk into a cup before or after tea, the British have long differentiated themselves into distinct and sharply defined social classes, so different from each other as to constitute, in Disraeli’s words, quite different nations within a single country.

Despite these differences, however, and at a time when they were far more marked than now, British people of all classes came together to fight an external enemy, first their own King’s cousin, the Kaiser, then Hitler, the darling of many Lords and Ladies, as well as of some working-men.

The British overcame their differences in defence of their homeland. One wonders whether, now that those differences have been somewhat eroded, both between the British classes, and between the British and some of their neighbours, the British will again unite to combat a threat to their homeland, perhaps of a rather different sort.

Nationality and culture may, therefore, coincide or overlap, or not. Many national cultures extend beyond the borders of their states. Others are coterminous. The state itself may be defined by its criteria for belonging.

Those for being British are complex. To be born in Britain is not necessarily enough. British patriality is necessary. Yet birth inside the USA grants automatic citizenship. Germany’s definition is ethnic, or racial. Proven descent from Germans grants German nationality to those born elsewhere, while those of non-German descent, even if born in Germany, are not automatically Germans. Ethnic or racial definitions of nationality once prevailed in the Austrian, Russian and Ottoman Empires, and generally in Europe. Jews  living in Europe were regarded as a nationality, as well as a race and a religion.

Culture is often defined in terms of religion. Northern Ireland is an example. Spain long defined itself as Catholic; Britain as Protestant. Religion may be fused with other forms of definition, such as language. Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs speak the same language, but write it with different alphabets, and think of it as different. Or it may fuse with race, as in the orthodox Jewish notion of the Hebrews as a chosen people. Or it may split on racial lines: Arab Saudi Arabia and Aryan Iran are both, in different ways, Islamic theocracies, self-defined in terms of different, rival versions of the same religion.

Religion is a form of culture, so, made of the same elements. Values and assumptions are aspects of each other, and may be overt, covert or ostensible. Assumptions are ostensibly descriptive; values overtly prescriptive.

In religions, prescriptive values lie covert under ostensibly descriptive assumptions. A religion states an ostensible description: God created Adam, then Eve. On inspection, that description turns out to be designed covertly to justify an overt set of values that apparently derive therefrom: the subjection of women to men. Thus, the reverse is also true: description derives from values.

Which comes first, chicken or egg? Assumptions based on religion generate values. Values generate systems of meaning and patterns of behaviour, and vice-versa.

Assumptions based on science, telling us, say, that both sexes evolved simultaneously, or maybe even ladies first, generate other values, systems, and patterns. Recently, societies increasingly base their assumptions and values on science, rather than religion. This is called modernity.

Modernity offends some citizens who base their values and assumptions, and so their systems of meaning and patterns of behaviour, on religion. Some such citizens seek to secede from modern society, or violently to destroy it, and subject it to their own religion.

Most such citizens today espouse one or other of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Abraham is said to have tried to kill his son, Isaac, as an offering to his god. Some say he failed, others not.

Violence arises today because modernity developed, and has triumphed, in much of the territory the Abrahamic religions once ruled, and also because of those religions’ intrinsic nature.

Each of these religions claims exclusive possession of the truth, to the exclusion of the rest, and of all else. Therefore, they have been responsible for much strife in the world. Judaism and Christianity have both been somewhat neutered and tamed by their passage through the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Scientific Revolution, though there are holdouts, called fundamentalists, in both of them.

Islam has yet to undergo, or at least to complete, a process of neutering and taming similar to that of Christianity and Judaism. Some students of Islam believe that it is undergoing it now, and that this is why its fundamentalists are fighting back so fiercely. Perhaps this is so, and eventually Abraham’s troubled legacy can finally be laid to rest.

Meanwhile, we must cope with its turbulence. That is why we are here today: to examine ways to defend modernity from religious violence. That this is our goal is clear, because we are conducting free enquiry, mixing genders and cultures, in pursuit of knowledge.

This in itself is an example of modernity. That the threat is religious is shown by asking: Who would deny us the right to free enquiry? We can ask this in a democracy. Some states would deny it on political grounds, but we are not in one of them.

There are, in a democracy, sources of violence other than religion, and other definitions of groups or cultures, such as ethnicity, occupation, wealth, education, age, political persuasion, sexual orientation, preferred leisure activity, and so forth. But no group so defined challenges modernity itself. Certainly ethnicity does not.

The majority in most ethnic groups represented in British society are happy with modernity, sharing its assumptions and values, systems of meaning, and patterns of behaviour. Only religion, often transcending the ethnicity whence it springs, has a fundamental quarrel with modernity as such, and so poses a threat to modern society. This threat should not be overblown. Modernity is likely to prevail in the long run, but in the meanwhile, religion can cause much mayhem.

How then should we seek to defend modern society from religious violence? Our agenda proposes a concordat:  ‘The conference will seek to identify both the nature of current antagonisms and the means of establishing and gaining acceptance for an appropriate concordat.’

The word ‘concordat’ itself identifies ‘the nature of current antagonisms,’ at least for the framers of this sentence. It is clearly religious. True, ‘concordat’ is also used, in United Kingdom law, to denote agreements between, on the one hand, United Kingdom government departments, and, on the other, the devolved Scottish Government, and the Cabinet of the National Assembly for Wales, over administrative matters.

But this does not seem to be what is meant here by ‘concordat’. Rather, the word evokes treaties defining the relationship between the Papacy and states with a largely Catholic population. Concordats typically grant the Catholic Church recognition as the official state religion, granting it privileges, including exemption from certain taxes and legal liabilities, plus the right to maintain schools and seminaries. These privileges are often granted in exchange for the right of governments to influence the selection of bishops, and to use religious charitable institutions and personnel as unpaid providers of social services and education.

That being so, we may ask, with whom is a concordat proposed? Since this conference is held in Britain, one must assume that Britain is a party. If so, the British signatory of this concordat must be the British state. More precisely, since the proposed concordat is religious, it must be the British monarch, as Head of the established Church of England.

Who would the other signatory be? Clearly one involved in ‘current antagonisms’. I am not aware of any current antagonisms between the British Crown and the Papacy. But given their relationship since Henry VIII, a concordat seems unlikely. In any case, Catholics in Britain no longer suffer from legal disabilities, requiring a concordat to enfranchise them, or let them go to university. The legal status of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, Wiccans, Shintoists, and even atheists, in the United Kingdom, is likewise equivalent to that of the rest of her Majesty’s subjects: free.

Indeed, so far as I know, there are no British laws in force limiting the exercise of any particular religion, or subjecting its members to any legal disabilities. This means that human rights legislation is irrelevant. Any concordat would be a political negotiation. So, who seeks a concordat with Britain?

Most current religious antagonists of the British state and its assumed majority are militant Islamists. But their goal is not to enhance their own community’s autonomy within the British state; rather to overthrow it, and set up an Islamic theocracy instead. It may be asked if a concordat with such groups, or with Islam as a whole, is possible, let alone desirable.

First, let us consider Britain’s problems in contemplating a concordat with Islam. Historically, concordats regulate the interaction between the practice of a given religion and secular practice, in states whose majority espouses that religion. Short of mass conversion to Islam, this would not be the case in Britain. Moreover, given the Queen’s role as Head of an established Church, Britain, in any such negotiation, would play a role more like that of the Papacy, than like that of a secular state. Thus any agreement between Britain and Islam would be a treaty between religions, rather than a concordat.

Next, let us consider Islam’s problems in signing such a treaty. There is within Islam no institution, commensurate with the Papacy in terms of religious and political authority, with which to establish such a treaty. While the Papacy’s authority is far from universal among Christians, excluding Orthodox and Protestants, not to mention non-Christians in post Christian societies, it has historically been broad and enforceable enough, where concordats have existed, to deliver its side of the bargain.

But in Islam today, there are diverse religious and political authorities, competing with each other to the point of holy war between them. Thus, there is no guarantee that any treaty signed with any one of them would be honoured by the rest. Since, in Britain, there are many different sorts of Muslims, representing a broad array of such competing entities, it would be necessary to sign a treaty with each of them.

This, however, would likely prove counterproductive, for two reasons: one, it would import into British law formal obligations to diverse entities at war with each other, thus importing their war; two, the groups of young men who constitute the main source of ‘current antagonisms’ are unlikely to feel bound by any such treaty, or be deterred by it from committing atrocities. This is so both for psychological and religious reasons.

Psychologically speaking, such young men are rebelling against authority itself: as much against their own community’s, as against the perceived ‘enemy’ community’s. For elders from their own community to tell them to refrain from killing perceived ‘enemies’ will merely further incite them to do so, on the grounds that such elders are ‘sell-outs’ or ‘traitors’.

Moreover, in terms of religion, Islam, in its foundational texts, the Koran and Hadith, arguably offers such rebels justification for their hatred of Jews and Christians. So, by putting holy hatred into practice, they can claim to be fulfilling holy writ.

I quote from the Koran: ‘O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.’ ‘So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.’ ‘Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.’ ‘O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness; and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil).[2]

Of course one can find very similar passages in the Judaeo-Christian Bible, parts of whose Old Testament Islam shares.[3] The difference is that those few in the West who take them seriously are held in check by law and custom. The same cannot be said for Islam.

Thus, from the point of view of Britain, contemplating a concordat with Islam, there is not only the problem of Islam’s divisions, but that of its fundamental hostility to nonbelievers, and its goal, enshrined in its foundational texts, and maintained by many of its militants, to eliminate all other faiths, and achieve religious and political world domination.

Any concordat not involving Islam’s explicit renunciation of such hostility, and of that goal, is not worth signing. But there is no authority in Islam able to renounce them in Islam’s name as a whole, and to enforce compliance on the part of all Muslims, including those who constitute the main source of ‘current antagonisms’.

So, a concordat with Islam seems unlikely to solve the problems such antagonisms pose.

That being so, how should we address them? Our agenda proposes two other possibilities: ‘… the conference will consider both existing best practice and the development of new solutions.’ Existing best practice may be considered with examples; new solutions with theories. Let me start with examples.

Britain itself is one. British history is full of antagonisms, some resolved, some not: among Ancient Britons, Celts, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Normans, York, Lancaster, England, Wales, Scotland, Britain, Ireland, Catholics and Protestants, Roundheads and Cavaliers, Liberals and Conservatives, jocks and swots, straights and gays, mods and rockers, supporters of one football club or other. Current members of all these groups or their descendants make up the modern British state: that majority whose definition still eludes us, although, in the name of modernity, we here endeavour to defend them.

While their cohabitation is far from friction-free, it is as peaceful and stable as that of any equally complex society with an equally complex history, and more so than many. So how has it resolved or overcome antagonisms among its constituent elements? In some cases by war, victory and defeat; in others by accommodation and compromise. British history has examples of all sorts of practice, best and worst. The best are those involving mutual respect and tolerance, in the framework of the rule of laws made by Parliament.

This brings me to another example of best practice: polytheistic syncretism, as practiced in the Roman empire at its height. What held the Roman empire together, as much as the force of Roman arms, or the rule of Roman law, was polytheistic syncretism. This was the theory that the gods and goddesses of one part of the empire were equivalent to those of another. Thus, Roman Jupiter could be seen as Greek Zeus, Egyptian Serapis or Syrian Haddad; Minerva as Hera, Isis,[4] or Allath. The emperor, in his role as Pontifex Maximus, or supreme priest of the state religion, could and did preside over the worship of any manifestation of the listed deities. These were so many, that almost no part of the empire was excluded.

Almost, except of course for the Jews. They and their religious heirs, the Christians, refused to cooperate. Eventually, Christians infiltrated, undermined and seized the Roman empire, rather than overthrowing it. Its overthrow was left to pagan barbarians.

Would adopting syncretism stave off a similar fate for the British state? What would a British syncretism look like? The Queen would have to become, not only head of the Church of England, but of England’s Catholic cathedral, Orthodox basilica, Islamic mosque, Buddhist temple, Hindu ashram and Shinto shrine.

Somehow, I do not see this happening. Quite apart from the problem of her sex, insurmountable for some of the cults she would be asked to head, such a project would founder on the same stubborn refusal to participate as, in the end, did Roman syncretism: the refusal of any of the Abrahamic religions to acknowledge the validity of any other, let alone of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Wiccan or Shinto.

Other cases from the history of multi-ethnic, multi-confessional empires, other than Rome, are sometimes alleged as examples of best practice. On close examination, these turn out to be myths. One such, often cited by Spanish apologists for Islam, is that of the alleged happy coexistence of three cultures, the Abrahamic trio, under the Caliphate of Cordova, in Mediaeval Spain.

In fact the evidence shows that Jews and Christians were subject to special taxes, disabilities and persecutions, and were far from happy. They took the first opportunity for change by supporting the Christian Reconquista.

The Jews were soon betrayed, finding themselves expelled from Spain, along with Muslims. Many sought refuge in the Ottoman empire. This is also claimed by some apologists as an example of best practice. The recent history of the numerous successor states to the Ottoman empire, in the Balkans, North Africa, and the Near East, puts the lie to that. Like the Austro-Hungarian and Russian, later Soviet, empires, it merely kept the lid on intercommunal ethnic and religious hatreds, rather than resolving or overcoming them.

A better example of best practice is that of a republic: Switzerland. There, different communities, with different religions, ethnicities languages and cultures, are bound together in an overarching community, loyal to the state. Individual citizens, on the whole willingly and conscientiously, assume and fulfil their responsibility to the state, and to their communities.

How does this work? It is based on a simple idea: that of an explicit  balance of rights and responsibilities. Values and assumptions underlying and defining citizenship are precisely and narrowly defined. And, most importantly, they are taught in school from the earliest age.

While such a system works admirably among the Swiss, one wonders whether it could be transposed to Britain. Despite its single national language, Britain seems too diverse, and its attitude towards ideas and authority too sceptical, to admit of such a simple, orderly, rational solution. Still, it may be worth a try.

Another republic, once often cited as a model, but no longer, is that of the USA. Built on a strange combination of idealism, genocide, and slavery, it had, from the start, much to resolve and overcome. As a result of its history, it is as much an empire as a republic. It was once called a melting-pot. Now it seems more like a crucible that may explode. Whether it will finally resolve and overcome its culture wars is an open question. One wishes it well and hopes for the best, but it is, at least for now, no model of best practice.

A very different example of best practice is that of letting each group within a heterogeneous society govern itself autonomously, according to its own laws. An interesting experiment along these lines was that of the International Zone of Tangier, which existed from 1912 to 1956.

Run by the main European powers, the USA and the Moroccan sultanate, it meant that the resident citizens of any of the European powers or the USA, represented by their consuls, were subject to their own country’s laws (or such thereof as their consul saw fit to enforce) while the Moroccans were subject to their sultan, but protected from some of his worst exactions by the international administration.

This period is fondly remembered by older Tanjaouis. Such a system has been proposed to solve the problem of Jerusalem. It has also been proposed for Britain, by no less a person than the Bishop of Canterbury, whom one of his chaplains here calls the Grand Mufti of Lambeth: Muslims in Britain would be subject to Sharia law.

But it is difficult to see how this could work in practice, since Sharia involves practices, such as amputation, stoning, and beheading, contrary to British law. A Muslim threatened with such punishment could apostatise, and ask to be tried under British law. A Sharia enforcer who beheaded him or her for apostasy would be contravening British law.

Enough of examples of best practice, real or alleged. In closing, let me turn to the development of new solutions. This means addressing the question: Having understood cultural identity, how does one affect it?

One thing is certain: one cannot affect it for the better by direct decree or legislation. As China under Chairman Mao shows, government attempts to alter culture by decree have unforeseen results, and may lead to disaster. While it is helpful to understand the nature of culture, in order to live with it, as well as within it, it is very risky to try deliberately to change it. This can only be done slowly and delicately, if at all. For culture, like species, tends to evolve by its own form of natural selection.

That being so, an indirect strategy is to render the environment such that adaptation to modernity gives the best chance of successful survival. This argues against ghettoisation in the name of cultural autonomy, which favours non-adaptive survival.

If direct cultural engineering is to be attempted at all, then it would be wise to start, not with the end product, patterns of behaviour, or even with systems of meaning, values or prescriptions. One should start with the roots: assumptions and descriptions.

The best way to do this is through education. But in so doing, one must proceed with caution, indeed with stealth. Rather than directly challenging the root assumptions of religions, and their irrational descriptions of reality, one should concentrate on fully, accurately, and above all interestingly describing a palpable, material reality that is all around us, and is the product of rational, non-religious thought: what anthropologists call our material culture.

The relationship between material and notional culture is too large a subject for the present forum. Suffice it to say, citing a religious text: ‘by their fruits ye shall know them’.[5]

Our modern material culture is as much the product of the rational thought of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and of the consequent Scientific Revolution, and so of modernity, as are free enquiry, open-mindedness, and sexual equality. And it is, for many, much easier to understand.

If education in the notions whereby our material culture has developed is properly conducted, the habit of rational rather than irrational thought may be introduced by stealth into such minds. This involves drawing attention to the rational thought processes underlying our material culture’s  conception. This is a way of teaching that moreover makes the subject attractive to restless young minds. They are highly susceptible, because of their immediate cultural surroundings, to the temptations of irrationality. While a proper understanding of science, and of the habits of mind that produce good science, does not guarantee against radical religious extremism, it may help to make it less likely. Yet some will slip through the net.

What about these? Just as important as understanding culture, and seeking to alter cultural identity, if only by stealth, is understanding psychology.

What motivates some young men, and even some women, to want to blow themselves up, together with as many others as possible? Self-hatred, combined with hatred of others. While culture and religion play a role in this, it is more likely that of providing assumptions and values, in texts such as those cited above, lending meaning to acts that such people are anyhow prone to commit, for reasons of their own, unknown to themselves, rather than directly causing them to commit such acts.

Understanding such persons’ cultures may help one catch them before they commit such acts, and so prevent mayhem. But only their own understanding of the deep psychological roots of their hatred of self and others will help them resolve and overcome it. A psychological defence strategy, rooted in science and modernity, seems more promising to me than attempted appeasement with unenforceable concordats.


[1] Originally delivered at the UK Defence Academy, Shrivenham, 2008.

[2] Koran 5.51; 9.5; 9.29; 9.123.

[3] E.g.: Deuteronomy 7; 13; 17; 28.

[4] The ancient  Egyptian goddess, not the modern Islamic terrorist group.

[5] The Gospel according to St. Matthew, 7.16.