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Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

A vintage term. Its use in political commentary greatly expanded in the last decade. In the 1960s it was the favourite concept of sociologists studying 'multi-ethnic' societies. By the 1990s the fall of the Berlin Wall, among others, occasioned the flourishing use of the term as synonym for vigorous contestation in the field of politics.

In Britain it was the need to explain the impact of large-scale immigration from the ex-colonies that 'ethnic pluralism' was employed. Whereas 'conservatives' advocated repatriation or assimilation to English-speaking, Christian, secular Britain, some 'liberals' saw the evolution of a 'pluralistic society' where communities would interact with each other but maintain their distinctive features. ' Equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual respect,' is how Roy Jenkins the Labour Home Secretary put it in 1966.

The nature of the state, however, would be unaffected and everyone should remain loyal firstly to it then express affection for community or country of origin. The structure of power would remain unchanged by this kind of pluralism. The established rules of party politics defined political pluralism and participation in this game was and is the only possible avenue to power and influence. Furthermore, there would be one law, no legal pluralism.

Assimilation to the dominant culture is the opposite of pluralism. A single homogenous society is the antithesis of a society of diverse individual and collective identities. Today assimilation has disappeared from our vocabulary and pluralism remains. But only because of years of struggle against racism. This struggle continues. The Race Relations Act meant to protect ethnic minorities are constantly transgressed not only by right-wingers but also by forces within the state apparatus such as the police. Racism - overt, covert and systemic - is undoubtedly the major impediment to genuine pluralism.

'Actually existing' pluralism is severely limited. It has run its course and is flawed. The complexity and range of demands and issues competing for recognition - by the state, in the public sphere - exceed the capacity of this concept. Ethnic identity, which is what was supposed to be the grounds for a plural society is but a single element of a range of expressions of identity. Religion and race are confused in the current understandings of pluralism. Sikh and Jewish expressions of identity are protected under the Race Relations Act against discrimination, but not Muslims. Islamic identity is not an aspect of ethnic identity as the state had imagined.

Muslims citizens of various ethnic origin have made demands over many years that their Islamic identity and values be recognised and respected. Does a Muslim student in the Midlands by the name of Susan or Anne or Fatima deserve protection if she decides to wear hijab to school? This demand would be a religious one, not ethnic.

Pluralism cannot thrive if it is confined to ethnicity. Contemporary pluralism should move on and accept claims of identity rooted in Islam. Diversity and tolerance is at the heart of a plural society and the desire of individuals and communities to pursue a full life as Muslims should be respected. It is primarily the state that has to give formal recognition to demands grounded in this identity.

And while we are on pluralism we have to ensure that it is a living value among Muslims in our affairs. Pluralism must be a value of the state but extends far beyond it into every aspect of society. Unity and common purpose does not exclude multiplicity and plurality. If we demand pluralization we have to ensure it among ourselves as well.