20/06/2013 05:06 BST | Updated 19/08/2013 06:12 BST

How to Really Make Multiculturalism Work

It didn't used to be like this. 50 years ago, in most parts of the country, you not only knew your neighbours but there was a reasonable chance that they were pretty much like you. You were involved in common local activities and institutions. Religiously, you probably behaved, believed and belonged in the same way as everyone else.

You don't have to be particularly observant to realise that's not the case any more. The recently released census figures show that we are becoming increasingly diverse in lots of ways, not least in religion. We've also become more fragmented, less connected through institutions and less likely to encounter each other in our day-to-day lives. In the aftermath of events like the London riots of 2011 or the horrific Woolwich attack we wring our hands and theorise about how we can build a more cohesive society.

Well, theory only gets you so far. In a new report by David Barclay for Theos, the religion and society think tank, launched this week, we argue that it is only in pragmatic, local, "political friendships" that we will learn how to live together again in this new plural context.

Political friendships are those built when people come together to work for the good of their community. They are often particularly effective when they involve people of different religious commitments, as religious communities are one of the few remaining places that can mobilise people and bring them together. They are hampered by a liberal obsession with progressive values. The squeamish inability to partner with or even be seen with those you disagree with is seriously harming cohesion. In recent years those on the left, and even some on the right, have applied "progressive tests" for those that should be included in common action. Witness, for example, the regular agonising of the Labour Party over whether to co-operate with socially conservative faith groups. Whilst outwardly championing tolerance and diversity, some are in fact deeply judgemental and restrictive in who they are willing to work with. Hoping that those labelled as "regressive" will go away if we refuse to engage with them is not just mistaken but dangerous. Simply excluding people at a grass roots level does nothing to change their views, and can instead make them more susceptible to conspiracy theorists who claim it as proof that their concerns are being silenced by the Establishment.

Instead, we should be applying "relational tests": anyone who is interested in rolling up their sleeves and helping tackle common concerns should be allowed a place at the table, even if we strongly disagree with them on a range of issues.

This will of course be uncomfortable, and will require us to get better at dealing with difference. In the research we looked at two movements who are leading the way on this. The Government funded Near Neighbours programme is, for example, bringing evangelical Christians and the neighbouring mosque in Leicester together to work with HIV/Aids sufferers, as well as enabling Christian, Muslim and atheist teenagers in Newham to talk about sexual health at school.

Meanwhile the community organisers Citizens UK use a similar 'relational test' for joining their alliance. If groups can sit at a table and work with others from different perspectives on local issues, they are welcome to join regardless of whether they happen to have the 'right' opinion on the checklist of progressive issues. That's how the East London Mosque came to be working alongside synagogues, churches and trade unions in the fight for the Living Wage and a cap on the interest charged by exploitative payday lenders.

Both these examples require everyone involved to actively decide to work with those radically different from themselves. Both these approaches also provide a space where people can engage authentically, not having to hide their motivations - religious or secular. They have been effective in restoring trust and common life in areas that were not just diverse but divided.

We would all like to avoid the discomfort of dealing with difference. In the past this was possible. It no longer is, and the longer we attempt to work only with those who agree with us, or only those who pretend to agree with us, the less healthy society will become. We need everyone in honest, active 'political friendships' with those different from themselves working together for the common good.

Read the full report at