Can Muslims be Citizens in a Liberal Democracy?

A viable way to ensure that minorities such as Muslims are included within definitions of citizenship is to ensure that they are full participants within liberal democracies. Participatory democracy (defined as institutional and national identification) is important for the majority as well as the minority. However, it takes on special significance in the context of minority protection. Most obviously, minority groups whose members and viewpoints are not represented within major political and legal institutions will find it difficult to identify with them.

Institutional Identification

Public institutions are not, and should not be viewed as neutral agents. Rather they play a wide range of functions, which influence private identity as well as political and civil society. This in turn challenges the strict separation of the private and the public sphere. It also raises questions about national identification. The increasing importance of ‘recognition’ as a political demand that characterises recent political struggles illustrates one consequence of the link between private identity and the public sphere. Moreover, there are certain types of institutions that perform a critical function as a locus for private identity. Public institutions allow individuals to participate in shared social practices and they are a source for creating the common meanings that are a basis for community. The argument that certain political, legal and civic institutions are constituted by, and draw on, common meanings, develops the idea of community in a much stronger form. It suggests that there are certain institutions that rely on and sustain inter-subjective meanings. These meanings can be understood by all participants and therefore contribute to the formation of a common language and vocabulary.

National Identification

The importance of institutional identification becomes even more significant when we consider that identification with the fate of a political community is also the only viable way of forming a national identity that can include minority groups. This line of argument makes it especially urgent for all minorities such as Muslims to take part in participatory democratic politics.

The traditional liberal approach constitutes the British public as members of a political community based on rational, liberal values. Citizenship identifies an unmediated relationship between individual and state; any involvement by citizens with voluntary, private or civil organisations must be voluntary and consensual. Contemporary approaches to the protection of minorities have supplemented toleration with a second strategy guaranteeing an individual right to non-discrimination. Although most versions of this right permit a limited measure of discrimination in the private sphere, non-discrimination ensures that minorities have access to politics, the economy and key sectors such as public services and education. This clearly affects the way in which the majority will conduct not only their private but also some of their public affairs.

One alternative to a traditional liberal definition of political community is ‘conservative nationalism’ which remains a popular mechanism for defining national identity. This strategy defines the terms of belonging to a political community according to criteria such as race, common memories, a dominant culture or a majority religion. In this context national identity becomes something that is given historically rather than as a matter of choice or negotiation. In most Western democracies, the presence of large numbers of racially and culturally diverse groups is a permanent barrier to forging a shared national identity along the lines advocated by conservative nationalists. The fear in contemporary plural states is that the inflexible use of these criteria will necessarily exclude, or coercively assimilate, large numbers of citizens.

Of these concepts, forming a national identity as ‘a sense of belonging to a political community’ is advocated and relies on citizens identifying with the common legal and political structures in the state. Even those who argue that a shared national identity is not essential accept that this ‘sense of belonging to the polity’ is vital for stable democratic institutions. In this context, diversity (of culture, ethnicity and belief) will continue to be a problem. Minorities faced with political institutions in which neither their members nor their values are adequately represented will find it difficult to view them as structures of identification. Doubts about the capacity of ‘neutral’ forms of governance to generate institutional identification inevitably take on a greater urgency in this context.

Conservative Nationalism, with its insistence that national identity can be formed around criteria such as a common language, colour, race or religion is necessarily coercive of large numbers of citizens in modern plural democracies. The traditional liberal cultural contract (which relegates issues of private identity to the private sphere) is also an unsuitable basis for responding to recent demands by minorities for recognition in both the private and public spheres. Theorists have increasingly questioned the adequacy of traditional liberalism’s focus on universal individual rights as a sufficient guarantee for minority protection. Under conditions of ethnic or cultural diversity it is argued that concentrating exclusively on tolerance and an individual right to non-discrimination may operate as a form of ‘benign neglect’ of minority groups and that multiculturalism can provide a solution.


Multiculturalism, as a normative rather than descriptive term, requires policies that go beyond non-discrimination. Its concern is not limited to the protection of individuals against specific instances of discrimination but it also extends to ensuring the flourishing and survival of diverse groups (as a collective entity) within one political community. Some forms of multiculturalism seek to address this problem by giving overwhelming priority to mechanisms of belonging which draw on the many sources of private identity (both individual and group) such as race, ethnicity or sexuality. Where there is a conflict between the established public or national identity and these various sources of private identity, the latter should always be given preference. This form of multiculturalism can compensate for the obvious defects of the liberal ‘cultural contract’ which relegates issues of personal identity to the private sphere. It also avoids the exclusionary consequences of ‘conservative nationalism’ that defines national identity according to historically given criteria. However, seeking a solution in such an uncompromising version of multiculturalism is not free of difficulties. If participatory politics requires national identification by the minority, then this is equally true for the majority. An ‘exclusive’ version of multiculturalism which ignores the needs of the majority also fails to meet the criteria for an inclusive form of participatory politics.

All of these approaches ignore the possibility that a common public sphere can emerge which is neither neutral between cultures nor a perfect mirror for personal identity. Developing ‘a sense of belonging’ which remains attentive to both the majority and the minority, and generating a common public culture within which different groups co-exist, requires compromise and adjustment by the parties. For the minority, this means that their private identity cannot automatically be reflected in the public sphere without some limited assimilation to the shared values that are the agreed basis for a common public life. For the majority, this re-negotiation carries with it the inevitable costs of attempts to transform the public sphere and institutions: from exclusively reflecting the dominant culture, towards a common culture which also seeks to accommodate some of the most urgent needs of minorities.

Minority Protection Strategy

Institutional identification is therefore of critical importance as part of a minority protection strategy. Citizens are more likely to identify with the decisions of representative institutions and so they are an ideal forum for policies which go beyond the toleration of minorities, e.g. non-discrimination policies which impact on the majority and multiculturalism. However, affirming the potential contribution of representative institutions to minority protection generally, and multiculturalism in particular, is not synonymous with displacing the well-earned and pivotal role of judicially protected individual rights for minorities. It is rather a much-needed antidote to the cherished assumption that a judicial remedy should be the sole focus of attention. Minority groups should lobby representatives so that policy makers take their interests, and the interests of other stakeholders, into account before formulating policies.

This is not to say that representative institutions are a panacea. Minorities such as Muslims face obvious difficulties in advancing their interests through political processes in the absence of real political power and adequate representation of their interests. Simplistic appeals to political equality leave all the most intractable difficulties unanswered in this context. ‘Each citizen shall count for one’ fails to account for individuals who are a permanent minority and whose concerns are not adequately represented within the political process. However, this speaks to the need for reform rather than abandoning the role of representative institutions altogether and a focus on transforming elected assemblies at all levels.

Institutional identification is more likely where substantive issues concerning the common good are discussed. This in turn makes a unique contribution towards developing common meanings and a sense of community. In the context of complex plural states, the only viable and inclusive way of defining national identification is to ensure that all citizens can identify with key political and legal institutions. It is essential that minority issues are raised in forums and at ‘the point where people engage with the full range of political alternatives and the full spectrum of policy concerns’. The likelihood that not only a minority such as Muslims, but also the majority will treat representative institutions as structures of identification becomes critically important for minority protection and is especially important in areas of significant and controversial social reform of the public sphere. Such reform is likely to include, inter alia, the re-allocation of political, social and economic power from one group to another. Most importantly it will also have to provide political solutions to deep multicultural conflicts that require one group to make important concessions on key aspects of their principles or identity. Dilemmas concerning the acceptance and accommodation of Muslims in Britain often seem intractable. Many solutions, although not all, are likely to be found through the greater participation of Muslims in mainstream democratic politics.


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