Multiculturalism: An outlook on life that dare not speak its name…..

by , under All categories, Enrique

By Donn Flynn*

Remember the prime minister’s speech in Munich attacking multiculturalism exactly one year ago? We take a look here at the way opponents of his ‘muscular liberalism’ thesis have been considering the issue in the 12 months since..

We are a year on from Mr Cameron’s famous speech in Munich in which he issued a broadside against ‘state multiculturalism’.

On that occasion he set out the view that “a much more active, muscular liberalism” was needed to counter what he saw as a tendency for groups to fall back into ethnic ghettos. The danger of “extremism” loomed large in this situation, with the finger firmly pointed as radical Islam as the source for all this discontent.

The speech encouraged counterblasts from a number of commentators and activists who were prepared to defend the concept of multiculturalism and insist that it has a role to play in informing our viewpoints on who we can live together in diverse ethnic societies.

Defending multiculturalism

Multiculturalism: A very short introduction by Ali Rattansi is the most accessible of the defences mounted on behalf of the subject. Drawing on the range of thinking that has gone on this area, Rattansi makes the case that whatever else multiculturalism is, it is not a dogmatic political programme pursued without reference to the real circumstances people and communities find themselves in.

To that extent, it is unhelpful to say, as the prime minister did in his Munich speech, that multiculturalist policies have failed, because the approach has not given rise to a definite set of policies as such. He lists other unjust claims, such as it giving rise to a dogmatically asserted notion of ‘group rights’ which the minority can assert to get its way against the majority community.

Rattansi sees no evidence that has happened in the UK. Concessions occasionally won by some groups, such as religious Sikhs to wear turbans instead of motorcycle crash helmets, or with workplaces respecting Muslim or Jewish holidays, are not group rights since their benefit (or inconvenience) accrues only to individuals from within the respective communities who wish to make use of them. For the non Sikh, Muslim or Jew, and for the non-religious amongst those communities, life goes on pretty much as before.

Neither does multiculturalism uphold any ‘rights’ on the part of ethnic minorities to deny human rights which have the force of law to any member of their communities who require their enforcement. What it can do, however, is provide the intercultural sensitivities which allow the relevance of human rights to be made in appropriate language in circumstances where the assertion of a particular proposition, such as ‘only oppressed women would wear the Islamic veil’, has clouded the discourse.


Another book that has appeared since Cameron’s speech is the collection of essays edited by Hassan Mahamdallie, Defending Multiculturalism – a Guide for the Movement.

The perspectives of hard left campaigners predominates in this volume, but the core message overlaps with Rattansi: multiculturalism is not a dogmatic approach to policy but rather a set of principles which outline an approach to living in inevitably complex communities based on the need for mutual respect for cultural heritage.

The standout essay is supplied by Tariq Madood in his consideration of the concerns the political elites have for multiculturalism and other approaches. He identifies four currents: assimilation, individual integration, cosmopolitanism, and finally multiculturalism itself.

The first, assimilation, corresponds most closely to Mr Cameron’s call for muscular liberalism and the drive for a ‘stronger national identity.’ It is an approach which essentially ‘blames the victim’ for any discrimination which exists in society since this is considered to be conjured up by the difference which newcomers carry around as part of their physical characteristics and origins. The only course of action is to seek the elimination of all the signs of this difference which antagonises the natives.

The ‘individualist integration’ approach is a step down from this severity in that it at least allows the person concerned to be different in her own private space. The rest of the time she would be expected to assimilate. ‘Cosmopolitanism’ is raised by Madood in rather unsympathetically terms. In favouring an equality of cultures, with no one being allowed to claim the privilege of being the mainstream, cosmopolitanism equally requires the deconstruction of all cultures in order for individuals to ‘pick and mix’ from all the ensuing fragments.

Madood’s caution arises from the fact that this task of dissection will be more amenable to emotionally and intellectually secure members of the majority culture who have the wherewithal and confidence that they will be able to piece together a happy outcome for themselves. For outsider groups, more likely to be wounded by years of disrespect and an existence on the margins, the dismantling happens on a level that is perhaps their sole source of solace and comfort.

One year on…

In the meantime the absence of any coherent sense to what Cameron might have intended as a follow-up to his broadside against multiculturalism might suggest a vacuum at the heart of the thinking of the centre right itself. A recently reply to a Parliamentary question about government plans for its community cohesion policy elicited the response from minister Andrew Stunnell, that the coalition will “trust people to take the lead in their local areas.”

In the context of the prime minister’s thoughts on this issue, paralysis on the part of central government might be the best we can hope for. The space remains open for people working with some version of the multicultural perspective to continue to lead the way.

*This blog entry was originally published on Migrants’ Rights Network, MRN.