The violent events and atrocities of the past few years have ushered in a period not only of dreadful conflicts but also of considerable confusion. The politics of global confrontation is frequently interpreted as a corollary of religious or cultural divisions in the world. Indeed, the world is increasingly seen as a federation of religions or of civilisations, ignoring all the other ways in which people understand themselves. Underlying this line of thinking is the belief that the people of the world can be categorised according to some singular and overarching system of partitioning.

A single-focus approach is a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world. In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups. The same person can be a British citizen, of West Indian origin, of African ancestry, a Muslim, a vegetarian, a socialist, a woman, a jazz lover, a teacher and a mathematician. Each of these categories gives her a particular identity. It is for her to decide what relative importance to attach to these affiliations, in any particular context. Central to human life are the responsibilities of reasoned choice.

In contrast, violence is promoted by cultivating a sense of the priority of some allegedly unique identity. In enlisting Hutus for killing Tutsis, the potential recruits are told that they are just Hutus (“we hate Tutsis”) and not also Kigalians, Rwandans, Africans and human beings (identities that a Tutsi may also share). The imposition of an allegedly unique identity is often a ­crucial component of sectarian confrontation, including religion-centred ­terrorism.

Unfortunately, many organised attempts to stop violence and terrorism are handicapped also by a single-focus vision. Attempts to politicise Islam have come not only from terrorist recruiters but also from those opponents who take the Islamic identity to be a Muslim person’s only identity. They seek, therefore, to enlist a “properly defined” Islam in the “right” cause, rather than trying to enhance the political and civic roles of people who happen to be Muslim. This has vastly magnified the power and voice of religious leaders, sometimes at the expense of civil society.

These global problems have considerable bearing on internal policies in contemporary Britain. In many ways, Britain has been very successful in integrating people of diverse backgrounds and origins within society, compared with some other countries in Europe. The roots of integration can be traced to a variety of commitments to support the opportunities and freedoms of all legal residents – immigrant as well as native. Perhaps the most important contribution, the significance of which is often under-recognised, comes from giving immediate and full voting rights to all British residents from the Commonwealth, the origin of most non-European immigration here. This has been supplemented by largely non­discriminatory treatment in healthcare, schooling and social security, which has also helped to integrate rather than divide. It is important to see that amalgamation, rather than isolation, has been the central feature of this constructive process.

So far so good. But Britain, too, is increasingly affected by the dangers of a single-focus vision, in particular that of seeing people in terms of religions and communities. It is not surprising that religious warriors relish that view, but those divisions have gained some ground even in official policy. This is not a question of whether multi­culturalism has gone “too far” in Britain. It is a question of the direction in which multiculturalism should proceed, particularly one of focusing on freedom rather than isolation. Multiculturalism can be understood in terms of making it possible for people to have cultural choice and freedom, which is the very opposite of insisting that a person’s basic identity must be simply defined by the religious community in which he or she is born, ignoring all other priorities and affiliations.

The state policy of actively promoting new “faith schools” – now for Muslim, Hindu and Sikh children as well as Christian – illustrates this approach. It is not only educationally problematic, it encourages a fragmentary perception of the demands of living in a desegregated Britain. Many of these new institutions are being created precisely at a time when religious prioritisation has been a major source of violence in the world. This adds to the history of such violence in Britain itself, including Catholic-Protestant divisions in Northern Ireland, which are themselves not unconnected to segmented schooling. Tony Blair, UK prime minister, is certainly right to note that “there is a very strong sense of ethos and values in those schools”. But education is not just about getting children, even very young ones, immersed in an old, inherited ethos. It is also about helping children to develop the ability to reason about new decisions any grown-up person will have to take. The important goal is not some formulaic parity in relation to old Brits, with their old faith schools, but what would best enhance the capability of the children to live “examined lives” as they grow up in an integrated country.

People’s priorities and actions are influenced by many different affiliations and associations, not just by their religion. For example, the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan was connected with loyalty to Bengali language and literature, along with political – including secular – priorities, not with religion, which both wings of undivided Pakistan shared. Muslim Bangladeshis – in Britain or anywhere else – may indeed be proud of their Islamic faith, but that does not obliterate their other affiliations and capacious dignity.

Multiculturalism with an emphasis on freedom and reasoning has to be distinguished from “plural monoculturalism” with single-focus priorities and a rigid cementing of divisions. Multicultural education is certainly important, but it should not be about bundling children into preordained faith schools. Awareness of world civilisation and history is necessary. Religious madrasas may take little interest in the fact that when a modern mathematician invokes an “algorithm” to solve a difficult computational problem, she helps to commemorate the secular contributions of Al-Khwarizmi, the great ninth-century Muslim mathematician, from whose name the term algorithm is derived (”algebra” comes from his book, Al Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah). There is no reason at all why old Brits as well as new Brits should not celebrate those grand connections. The world is not a federation of religious ethnicities. Nor, one hopes, is Britain.

The writer, Lamont university professor at Harvard University, was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize for economics. He will speak at the British Museum in London on the theme of this article. His next book, Identity and Violence, will be published by WW Norton in March

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