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“State” Multiculturalism

February 5, 2011

This is England?

I woke up this morning to discover that apparently “state multiculturalism” has failed. According to Prime Minister David Cameron:

…when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious frankly – frankly, even fearful – to stand up to them. The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don’t want to, is a case in point. This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. And this all leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and something to believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology. Now for sure, they don’t turn into terrorists overnight, but what we see – and what we see in so many European countries – is a process of radicalisation.

In this speech, given in Germany, Cameron claimed that the West needs to “wake-up to what is happening to our countries” and basically realize that our tolerance of other people’s cultures is responsible for the terrorist threat, 7/7, etc.

And as if to perfectly echo the point, the rather fascist self-styled English Defense League – a full blown anti-Islam group that wants to ban mosques, people that are not white, etc had a large rally in Luton today.


It seems ridiculous that I have to make the point that I DON’T think the PM is an EDL member, etc. etc. And I’m sure he felt the timing of his speech was unfortunate – but this does serve to highlight some points I’ve been unscientifically thinking about for a while.

After having lived in the UK for nearly 10 years (including some poorer neighbourhoods and in council estates), it doesn’t seem to me that the UK has ever given multiculturalism a chance. And having read the Prime Minister’s speech, it doesn’t actually seem that he knows what multiculturalism is.

In the UK, and in the speech, “multiculturalism” seems to be “let’s let those people go and live in that ghetto over there”. It’s never been about integration – just a kind of reluctant (or “hands-off”) tolerance. But this is not really multiculturalism – at least I think as it has been practiced elsewhere or even as it could be.
Multiculturalism – to me – would suggest an exchange: keeping the practicses of ones’ culture alive within the context of a liberal, pluralist society. And yes, we can make demands on someone to respect certain liberal civil values. I’m not sure it was ever really about allowing people to stand up and defend their hatred of homosexuality, women’s rights and the like. Suggesting that this is multiculturalism seems to me to be an unfortunate co-opting or gross misunderstanding of the term. It seems to be the hated “multiculturalism” of the right (the kind that wants to ban Spanish in America) that the PM has bought into rather than what it could stand for.

Additionally, it doesn’t so much seem to me to be the case that it is a policy of multiculturalism that drives people to live in ghettos – but the fact they are poor. According to a report released last year by UK think tank Demos, Muslim people in the UK are more likely to be unemployed and to suffer discrimination:

Occupationally, Muslims are the most disadvantaged faith group in the Western European labour market. Muslims on average experience higher unemployment rates compared to national averages, and more often than not, their occupations are not compatible with their levels and fields of education. In respect of housing and poverty, there is marked clustering of communities that has resulted in the ghettoisation’ of some areas, leading to social tensions.

Another interesting thing about PM Cameron’s speech is what he means by “state” multiculturalism? As opposed to what other kind of multiculturalism? Non-state multiculrualism? He never says.
Is there an alternative? The Labour Party and Gordon Brown used to speak of spreading “British Values”. But I’m not even certain that the British know what Britsh values are. While one can look back and find reference to notions of the “liberties of all Englishmen”, they’re very undefined. (Particularly since the UK never really got around to writing them down). And this is a very legalistic notion of what “values” are. And besides ethnic and religious differences, are British values the same in the south of the country as the north? Or in the other ‘nations’ like Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (where some Christian MPs regularly denigrate homosexuals). So Cameron is speaking about a “common identity”. But really, there just doesn’t seem to be any sense that the government has anything else to put in place.

So if he wasn’t advocating an alternative, what’s this about then? There has been some suggestion in the media that Cameron’s speech is to prepare the UK for some changes to come following a review of the “Prevent” strategy – the UK’s anti-extremism/radicalisation policy which is under review (mostly because it seems to have cost a lot of money and achieved little results).

But it would seem to me that multiculturalism, however imperfect, would seem to offer a platform to combat inequality and mistrust and to promote integration. You know, some of the things you’d want to do to combat extremism. And I think it would be easier than promoting a “shared national identity” – especially considering there are nationalist/separatist movements in Scotland and Wales.

I think it can be easily said that no sensible person would advocate funding organizations that fundamentally contradicted liberal values. And I don’t think that we should accept racism, sexism, anti-semitism or any other bad-ism from whatever the source. But I don’t think that the government should claim that accepting these things is the result of multiculturalism when I think there are many other factors to point at. It’s not about tolerating the intolerable.

Without articulating an alternative, or perhaps even suggesting a different take on multiculturalism, the PM risks having this message of challenging intolerance and extremism mixed with that of the EDL. (Certainly they must see this as some kind of propaganda coup?) And that’s not doing anyone any favours.

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Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interests are in the area of international law, security, terrorism and technology. Currently, she is teaching in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, technology and warfare and foreign policy.

Stephanie holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and published her thesis as Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (Columbia/Hurst, 2010). Her most recent book is Science, Law, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict” (Cambridge, 2015) co-authored with Michael J. Williams. In 2009 Carvin was a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University Law School and worked as a consultant to the US Department of Defense Law of War Working Group. From 2012-2015, she was an analyst with the Government of Canada focusing on national security issues.
Stacie Goddard