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Cultural Relations in a New Century

WORLD FUTURES 2022, VOL.78, NOS2-4, 148-155

Martin Rose

Retired British Council Officer 


This essay examines Ziauddin Sardar’s ideas on Cultural Relations, and specifically his relationship with the British Council, primarily through two pieces of his writing, his 2004 British Council 70th Anniversary Lecture and an essay of the same year about being a British Muslim. It reflects on his concepts of “transmodernism” and “mutually assured dialogue” both as theoretical and as practical tools in Cultural Relations.


We need to make two basic transitions: from modernity to transmodernism, and from multiculturalism to mutually assured diversity (Sardar, 2004a, p. 15).

In 2004 Ziauddin Sardar was invited to give the British Council’s annual lecture. It was a significant occasion, celebrating the Council’s 70th anni- versary. He chose the title Beyond Difference: Cultural Relations in the New Century, and it is the ideas behind that lecture that I shall mainly talk about here (Sardar, 2004a). He had much to say about culture and identity, and about the pitfalls of Cultural Relations, and it remains a stimulating reflection, asking some fundamental questions and proposing some uncomfortable answers. Zia knew the British Council well: at that time, he was in great demand as a Council lecturer overseas, wrote well for us, and advised me wisely when I ran for the Council a Cultural Relations thinktank called Counterpoint.

It is remarkable to look back 16 years to a time when the British Council was engaged within itself in challenging discussion of the principles underlying its work. The space for such discussion is narrower today. Even when it was first delivered, this lecture puzzled and perplexed many of its listeners; if, as I suspect, it is quite forgotten in the British Council of today, that fact witnesses broader amnesia among public institutions about their own past. This is a pity because as is his wont, Zia sees clearly into cultural paradoxes, of which Cultural Relations are both an example and a touchstone. This is not to say that his argument offers a practical paradigm for institutional change or a new code of practice for the Council. It could not and it does not. But in highlighting the paradoxical thickets through which an “official” Cultural Relations organization must hack its path, it threw down challenges to all of us in our own attitudes, assumptions, and ways of thinking about our work.

The discourse of Cultural Relations at that time was peppered with profligate use of the word “mutuality,” which was much cited in the largely forgotten strategic planning document Strategy 2010, published the following year (British Council, 2005). Mutuality always ran the risk of being used as a rhetorical fig-leaf, and I wanted then to explore the con- siderable latent power hidden within the idea: with a colleague I wrote the first tentative definition of mutuality for the British Council, in a short book, Mutuality, Trust & Cultural Relations (Rose & Wadham- Smith, 2004), to which Zia refers at several points in his lecture. We pro- posed that mutuality was in fact the central ethical principle of Cultural Relations, which had as its objective the earning of trust and the building of trust-rich relationships. In doing so we were conscious of some of the tensions and contradictions that Zia would soon elaborate, but at the same time we were constrained (politically and perhaps also intellectually) by the nature of the British Council. As the epigraph to our book we chose, a little unkindly, the words of Lewis Carroll (1865),

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean.’

Our book was an attempt to pin down this perhaps deliberately ill- defined catchword and to make something useful of it. Mutuality, we wrote,

describes the quality of a two-way relationship, with overtones of benefit distributed between the two parties, of ownership shared. There are implications of equality in the relationship and there is certainly a strong sense of movement in both directions between the parties. (Rose & Wadham-Smith, 2004, p. 9)

That seems to me a good approach not just to Cultural Relations, but to relations and communications of most kinds. But in the international context for which we had framed it, the concept had a number of deep- seated problems which Zia dissects delicately but precisely in his lecture. Those problems go to the heart of the unresolvable contradiction represented by the British Council and other national cultural organizations. Much of our book is devoted to how a government-funded organization with a government-defined mission could act in an ethically coherent and effectively independent way. Zia shows us, with infinite tact and delicacy, that this circle probably cannot be squared, and that there is a more important question lying behind this one.

He is clear that one must go beyond the how to seek out the why. Mutuality may be a defining ethic, but there is a greater dilemma within it.

The big question about cultural relations, even as mutuality, is what it is for. Is it a staging post on the progress to a globalised, homogenous world where the expression of difference will be contained within common adherence to a basic set of principles and institutions that have been extracted from the history and ideas of just one civilisation? (Sardar, 2004a, p. 14)

Or not. “It is my contention,” writes Zia, “that if mutuality is located within the familiar western framework of dichotomy, it is destined to fail" (Sardar, 2004a, p. 14). That failure is implicit in its history. “I want to argue,” he says, “that in the UK something from the past of cultural rela- tions is clouding our vision of the future: this is the twin influence of ‘modernity’ and ‘multiculturalism’” (Sardar, 2004a, p. 5).

These two bundles of ideas, in Zia’s view, run like a fracture not just through Cultural Relations, but through the whole continuum of interac- tions between the West and the non-Western world—and between the dominant cultures of western countries and their “minorities.” The epi- graph to this essay quotes him as saying that “we need to make two basic transitions: from modernity to transmodernism, and from multicultural- ism to mutually assured diversity (Sardar, 2004a, p. 15).” His argument is dense and at times a little opaque; but fortunately he provided, the same year, in an essay called What does it mean to be a British Muslim? (Sardar, 2004b), a case study in which some of these arguments were applied in less theoretical terms. To this, I shall return.

Two-way relationships, however open-minded they may be, are shaped by power and history. Mutuality is always an aspiration, never a descrip- tion. As Zia puts it,

Cultural Relations is about a kaleidoscope, seeing the world in a diversity of ways – but with a kaleidoscope we have to remember that there is one eye and one hand providing the point of perspective and shuffling the patterns into an array of pleasing, delightful colours and configurations. In the end with a kaleidoscope one has to concentrate not on the delightful lights and colours but on the hand and eye manipulating the show. (Sardar, 2004a, p. 7)

That hand, and that eye, belong to the West. Zia is far from the first to observe that modernity is a Western and culturally specific construction that is derived from the cultural history of the Christian and post-Christian West. But he goes on to argue that its near-universal acceptance across the world makes true mutuality, and therefore equitable and fruitful Cultural Relations, effectively impossible.

The monocultural nature of modernity distorts both ends of the Cultural Relations equation. It creates, with the best will in the world, an inequitable relationship, between one party representing the destination and the other, a point along the journey toward it: a fully-formed “Us” and a half-formed “Them.” This has a distorting effect: the disparity is glaringly obvious to “Them,” “We” are often quite oblivious to it, because it is natural, normal, “how things are.” Becoming and remaining aware of it requires insight and effort. As my daughter said wistfully after her first day of school in a new country, Canada, her classmates had all com- mented pointedly that she had a “British” accent, “But I don’t, do I Dad? I don’t have an accent at all!” Well, yes, we all have accents, but we have to cultivate with care and determination the ability to hear our own.

Zia talks of a “push” and a “pull” effect of modernity, the first obvious in the cultural domination of the West; the second subtler, in the cultural subservience of non-Western elites, who accept the rules of the game— the destination—and abandon in whole or part the traditional culture that underpinned their identity. There is a deeply conflicted relationship with the traditional cultures that express most non-Western societies—an embarrassment which leads to cultures being relegated to a decorative role and a lost Golden Age; and a reaction that tries to create non-modern, traditional cultural, and political spaces.

The first function of Cultural Relations as far as I am concerned, is to bring parity to and among diverse cultures. This means we must restore confidence in traditional cultures while restraining the excesses of modernity. We have to enable what Unesco has called ‘living communities of cultures’ to speak in their own terms and we must seek to understand them with their own concepts and notions. (Sardar, 2004a, p. 15)

In place of modernity, Zia proposes transmodernism. By this he means, I think, a fundamental recalibration of the nature of tradition and our attitude to it: tradition is not something that holds societies back and needs to be left behind in the process of modernity. Rather, it is a vehicle of adaptation and change.

Non-western traditional societies do not think of tradition as something which will take them [back] to pre-modern times; on the contrary, tradition will take them forward, with their identity and core values intact, to a future beyond modernity ... [They] wish to shape a future where these ideas [often religious] play a predominant role. (Sardar, 2004a, p. 16)

Understanding this is what Zia sees as the major requisite change in Cultural Relations.

Transmodernism introduces two major shifts in cultural relations. First, it sees tradition as dynamic, amenable, capable of changing and eager to change; and it sees traditional cultures not as pre-modern but as communities with potential to transcend the dominant model of modernity. This is a profound shift; and its real importance lies in ways of seeing non-Western cultures. ... Transmodernism forces us to see traditional cultures on their own terms, with their own eyes (ideas, concepts, notions), and as (part of) the common future rather than the past of humanity. (Sardar, 2004a, p. 18)

It breaks the monopoly of the West on modernity and leaves the dom- inant partner disorientated. In fact, it offers substance to the discourse of mutuality, by requiring the substantiation of fine statements of principle. For a Cultural Relations organization to operationalize this transformative worldview is hard—probably impossible—to imagine. It would involve laying aside a dense, compacted fabric of history, philosophy, and self- esteem and becoming a different thing altogether, of much less use to the government which pays for it. To my mind, the journey is in fact more likely to be personal than institutional, a development of much greater self-awareness in those who “do” Cultural Relations—and a recognition that much of what Zia would call Cultural Relations goes on (as it must) outside the perimeters and even the purviews of official Cultural Relations organizations like the British Council.

There is a second concept that requires, in Zia’s view, fundamental surgery. He insists on the replacement of multiculturalism by what he calls “mutually assured diversity.” He does not hold multiculturalism in very high esteem, seeing it as “an attempt to marginalise diverse histories.” So, this MAD of Zia’s

is a non-competitive conversation whose protagonists recognize a central factor in human development: that it is the transmission of identity across change that is the cultural reflex par excellence, because identity is the attribute of belonging that grows from knowing oneself. (Sardar, 2004a, p. 22)

He sees that multiculturalism is a framework for tolerating difference, but only within the value system of liberal Western society. It appreciates, celebrates, and ultimately digests—but when push comes to shove does not engage on equal terms with—“minority” cultures. MAD does. “It is not about niceness but acceptance of the necessity, and willingness, to redistribute the concept of power.” It is a dialogue between equals, or as he puts it, a “polylogue” which privileges self-description and under- stands that 

Culture and identity are constantly in flux because they are systems of interpretation. They are also systems of preference for particular ways of knowing, being and doing that have a rationale justified by recourse to values, to history and to material circumstance. Cultural rationale offers a balance sheet that distributes rights, responsibilities and duties in distinctive ways. (Sardar, 2004a, pp. 24–25)

Now the further we go down Zia’s road, the more impressive the moral and analytical edifice that he has built: but where does it lead, practically speaking? The “redistribution of power” is both metaphorical and actual: if this is Cultural Relations, it is also intensely political. The Council has always been a pragmatic rather than an intellectually-driven organization and it is hard to imagine it engaging with this line of argument—and if it did, it would fight very shy for reasons that are quite comprehensible. It is simply not concrete enough, though there is no doubt in my mind that Zia is right—that what one might describe more crudely as communication and coexistence based on valuing cultures equally and offsetting, as well as just understanding, the inequitable slope on the playing field is essential to the future of our world.

But I am not at all sure that this even constitutes Cultural Relations, at least in the sense that the phrase has been used over the past half-century. Zia’s is a much bigger project, concerned with redesigning the mentalities of a world which does not much want its mentalities redesigned at all. I write in what may be a moment of slender hope, on the eve of the precipitate departure of a US president who has gloried in and promoted, aggressively and unreflectively, a white nativist agenda and a vicious demeaning of nonwhite citizens. And for whom the very notion of mutually assured diversity would be both incomprehensible and deeply inimical. But political developments in Britain and parts of continental Europe seem to tend in the same direction. It is not a great moment for transmodernism and mutually assured diversity.

However, this is no reason to abandon the insights that Zia delivered in his 2004 lecture, and fortunately, he provided a practical gloss in What does it mean to be a British Muslim? (Sardar, 2004b), the essay I referred to above, published the same year. You could see this as the other half of the argument—from the general and theoretical to the specific and the grittily practical. In this essay, Zia offers a case study of what being a British Muslim tells us about the obstinately autopoietic but nonetheless slowly changing nature of Britain.

Zia describes himself here as “a British Muslim from Hackney,” and muses on the armor-plated, self-regarding mental habits of the British that make this such a curiously contentious self-description. He also describes himself as “Johnny Foreigner within,” the internalized Other who changes the rules of the game. To walk with Zia the polylogic intellectual through the library at his club, the Athenaeum, and watch as, long-haired and leather-jacketed, he exchanged pleasantries with somnolent bishops in leather fireside armchairs was to watch Johnny Foreigner quite at ease at the heart of an older England. And how he enjoyed it.

Racial categories, he explains, are designed to exclude, to fix the outsiders as “ethnic” and suffocate them with multiculturalism. Insisting on multiple identities—“I am a Muslim, a British citizen, of Pakistani origins, a man, a writer, a critic, a broadcaster, an information scientist, a historian of science, a university professor, a scholar of Islam, a rationalist, a skeptic, a traditionalist and a partial vegetarian” (Sardar, 2004b, p. 12)— he takes for deeper examination the one which, by no accident, stands at the head of that list: “the one label that I identify with more than any other—that of being a Muslim" (Sardar, 2004b, p. 13). A religious identification as a primary identity is, he maintains, highly problematic in the class-based, imperially mind-conditioned society that is Britain, “simultaneously xenophobic, internationalist and parochial" (Sardar, 2004b, p. 14). He talks of how the whole edifice of Britishness is built on controlling history—as George Orwell put it in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past”— and telling a story that upholds traditional ideas of Britishness. “It really is quite dumbfounding,” writes Zia, “how much of Britishness, and by association Englishness, is based on fabricated history” (Sardar, 2004b, p. 16). Crucially:

It is not surprising that the English feel threatened. Moreover they feel threatened not simply because they see identity being eroded. What they are more worried about is the evaporation of the power that identity confers. But an all-powerful identity is like an all-powerful tree in the garden: it sucks the life out of all other plants. When power is skewed in this manner, it is not possible to exist in symbiosis. (Sardar, 2004b, p. 18)

Or indeed in mutually assured diversity. And so they cling tightly to stories that corroborate their solipsistic cultural security, their fragile, over-extended identities. The whole sorry carnival of Brexit has been no more than this, a desperate retelling of tall stories about an imagined British past, shored up with absurd clinging to past glories, garbled political myths, and xenophobic riffs. It is from this, now more than ever, that we need to escape toward what Zia the theoretician might call trans-modernist MAD; but which Zia the writer describes more eloquently.

[It’s] not just about giving voice to a faith community like the Muslims—it is also about understanding the core role of faith in identity, understanding what we need to give and what we need to take in order to prosper together. That understanding must begin by appreciating that people are more than a racial category. It’s the ‘more’ that makes us a fully cultured personality and gives us something distinctive to offer—different ways of seeing things, expressing ideas and responding to issues. For me, that’s what multiculturalism [though perhaps here we should read MAD] is all about. (Sardar, 2004b, p. 21)

A story about Zia that I have treasured since I was first told it, has him arriving to lecture for the British Council in an Eastern European country. He was accompanied by the British Council Director, a British woman of Ukrainian background. They came down the steps of the aero- plane together and were warmly received by a courteous welcoming party. After greetings, one of the party said, rather hesitantly, looking around and behind his visitors, “But where are the Brits?” to which Zia replied with a zest that anyone who knows him will recognize at once, “WE are the Brits!”


British Council. (2005). Strategy 2010. British Council.

Carroll, L. (1865). Alice in Wonderland. Clarendon Press.

Rose, M., & Wadham-Smith, N. (2004). Mutuality, trust and cultural relations. Counterpoint, British Council.

Sardar, Z. (2004a). Beyond difference: Cultural relations in the new century. Counterpoint, British Council.

Sardar, Z. (2004b). What does it mean to be a British Muslim? In What is British? Counterpoint, British Council.