How do we build trust between cultures? by Amina Yaqin and Peter Morey

Addressing the controversy over multiculturalism that has raged in recent years, the novelist Zadie Smith noted wryly that the majority of social problems are to do with issues of class or money. By contrast: ‘Multiculturalism as a policy or an ideology is something I have never understood … We don’t walk around our neighbourhood thinking how’s the experiment going? This is not how people live. It’s just a fact of life, and once people are able to move freely in the world, by plane or by boat, it’s an inevitability’ (Guardian 21 May 2010).

In Britain – as in most other countries of the West – ideas of the nation are built on a particular post-Enlightenment liberal tradition of political thought with individualism at its heart. This individualism emerges both in the way rights are distributed and in an economic system that privileges individual labour, property and wealth. It places an emphasis on reconciling the interests of each with the rights of all to create a good society by appealing to enlightened self interest. The problem, as Bhikhu Parekh highlights, is that this model treats human nature as universal, fixed and essential, and community as a singular notion. This is clearly a problematic model for multicultural societies because it ignores the fact that humans are culturally embedded and that cultures differ significantly.

Fighting back against the effects of this unwieldy diversity as enshrined in state multiculturalism, David Cameron sought to invoke and reinvigorate what he called a ‘muscular liberalism’ in his notorious Munich Speech in February 2011. The basic message was that ‘we’ in the West have a monopoly on the right way to organise a good society and we should expect other groups in our midst to sign up to it. In the fraught context formed by continuing terrorism, the fall-out from overseas conflicts initiated as part of the War on Terror, and increasing population movements caused by resulting refugee crises, the challenge for a multicultural society is how to find a strong enough consensual basis for trust that takes into account cultural difference. Put another way, in the terms coined by Robert Putnam, how can we build bridging social capital between communities? How do we develop that so-called ‘thin trust’ that binds us to those we do not know and with whom we have limited first hand dealings, to go along with the ‘thick trust’ that develops from personal familiarity? Opening up spaces where individuals and communities can come together, free from the restraints imposed by pre-determined (and biased) agendas, appears to be part of the solution.

In multicultural environments culture has been both a means of celebrating difference in the practices of everyday life and, latterly, a signifier of irreconcilable divisions within society. Within the political, journalistic and media frame in which relations between Muslims and others is currently held, culture comes to play a crucial role as a conduit for images and stereotypes of the other, but also as the battleground upon which cultural difference is played out. Culture has been elevated to totemic status and marks the difference between, in Wendy Brown’s terms, those in the West who have a culture, and Muslims who are a culture. In our co-authored book Framing Muslims, we referred to a particular media led narrative in which a xenophobic culturalism had become ascendant.

In the Muslims, Trust and Dialogue project (MTCD) we argue that both the political multicultural paradigm and the integrationist discourse that has recently been reasserted in response to the so-called ‘failure’ of multiculturalism, are still governed by the framing assumptions of essential difference. In examining these issues MTCD has both a theoretical dimension and a practical side. It explores social, ethical and moral codes of trust in relation to different spheres of activity, such as multiculturalism, Islamophobia, and Islamic capital, considering the challenges posed by each. Understanding trust means understanding the conditions in which it can flourish, conditions which are far from straightforward in polycultural modern nations where ideas of what a ‘good society’ looks like, the balance of rights and responsibilities, and the parameters of free expression are all hotly debated. To get a practical understanding of the question we have also undertaken case studies with community arts groups to see trust building in action.

The fieldwork comprises five original case studies that research and document how the arts scene in Britain is providing vibrant alternative spaces for the emergence of a wide variety of interfaith and intercultural groups. Participant observation and in-depth interviews with organisers and participants in several creative ventures has revealed what could be described as a ‘toolkit’ for building trust and intercultural relations. The fieldwork has shown how communities have used the creative space to rebuild eroded trust and encourage intercultural dialogue in difficult contexts.

These case studies, augmented by our methodological and theoretical innovations offer important lessons from the grassroots level that policymakers and other stakeholders could benefit from. Drawing on our findings we make two key suggestions: first, that culture, with its utopian articulations of new ways of being in the world, is itself a tool to greater understanding; and second, that both multicultural and integrationist paradigms – with their procedural, outcome-focused bias – could usefully be replaced by an emphasis on interculturalism: that is to say, a focus on the processes of negotiation and dialogue by which disputes are resolved, difference overcome and trust fostered. Our work suggests that shared goal-setting, collaborative approaches, and mutual vulnerability leading to empathy are of more value in promoting trust than entrenched positions. Proven in individual and small group settings, such tactics are yet to be tested in the wider political sphere where intercultural trust can most visibly succeed or fail. They require a much greater degree of flexibility than current rhetoric – about ‘our’ civilisation somehow under threat, or ‘fundamental British values’ – allows for. In the era of Brexit, where racist violence and intolerant rhetoric are in the ascendant, it is now more essential than ever to challenge the idea that shaping Britain’s future must be an antagonistic process, and to reiterate the fact that a society at ease with itself is one where all members can participate.

With the decline of faith in multiculturalism, any attempts to overcome strangeness and difference are depicted in terms of risk. However, we need to be aware both that all interchanges carry risks all the time, and also, at a more fundamental level, that without taking such risks – something we all do every day – there would be no society, diverse or otherwise. Instead, trust building through shared endeavour and mutual vulnerability requires a willingness to be open to understanding the lifeworld of another. This most certainly does not mean that one needs to agree with its every detail, nor to, in some way, concede something essential in oneself. It does however need to understand where other ideas are coming from – historically and intellectually – and to take on board the useful parts for a modern, polycultural society. In other words, the doors need to be kept open, not slammed shut.

This is not necessarily comfortable, nor does it make for glowing tabloid headlines. You can also see that this is less to do with deradicalization and more to do with a holistic understanding of the cultural coordinates of minority groups in a broader sense. Our preliminary findings suggest that approaches that fetishize difference too much – at the expense of considering what can be constructed through dialogue and practice – are less likely to be successful in the long run than approaches which place mutual responsibility on participants in an open dialogue. In the end, this is the only certain way to build trust.

For further information about the Muslims Trust and Cultural Dialogue project please visit the project website

The Muslims Trust and Cultural Dialogue project shares the Knowledge Quarter’s dedication to making a change in society through critical thinking, and contributing to an environment of new ideas and approaches. Our project of building trust across cultures resonates with the aims of the knowledge cluster.

This article has been co-authored by Amina Yaqin, from SOAS, University of London, and Peter Morey from University of East London.

Photography © Peter Sanders