This is the second part of the transcript of my Milton K Wong lecture that I delivered in Vancouver last week. I posted the first part earlier this week. The talk will be broadcast in full on 22 June on the CBC’s Ideas strand.

The story I have told so far is of a Europe that is not as plural as many imagine it to be, and of immigrants less assertive of their cultural identities than they are claimed to be. Multicultural policies emerged not because migrants demanded them, but primarily because the political elite needed them to manage immigration and to assuage anger created by racism.

Why, then, have we come to imagine that we are living in particularly plural societies,  in which our cultural identities are all-important? The answer lies in a complex set of social, political and economic changes over the past half century, changes that include the narrowing of the political sphere, the collapse of the left, the demise of class politics, the erosion of more universalist visions of social change. Many of these changes helped pave the way for multicultural policies.  At the same time, the implementation of such policies helped create a more fragmented society. Or, to put it another way, multicultural policies have helped create the very problems they were meant to have resolved. I want to demonstrate this through two examples. The first is a riot in Britain, of which you may not have heard, the second a cartoon crisis in Denmark, about which everyone has heard.

In 1985, the Handsworth area of the English city of Birmingham was rocked by riots.  Blacks, Asians and whites took to the streets in protest against poverty, unemployment and, in particular, police harassment. In the violence that followed, two people were killed and dozens injured. It was almost the last flicker of the Eighties inner city conflagrations.

Twenty years later, in October 2005, another riot erupted in the area. This time the fighting was not between youth and police but between blacks and Asians. An unsubstantiated – and almost certainly untrue – rumour that a Jamaican girl had been raped by a group of Asian men, led to a weekend of violence between the two communities, during which a young black man was murdered.

Why did two communities that had fought side by side in 1985 fight against each other 20 years later? The answer lies largely in the policies introduced by Birmingham Council after the original riots. In response to those riots, the Council proposed a new political framework for the engagement of minority communities. It created nine so-called Umbrella Groups, organizations based on ethnicity and faith that were supposed to represent the needs of their particular communities while aiding policy development and resource allocation. These included the African and Caribbean People’s Movement, the Bangladeshi Islamic Projects Consultative Committee, the Birmingham Chinese Society, the Council of Black-led Churches, the Hindu Council, the Irish Forum, the Vietnamese Association, the Pakistani Forum and the Sikh Council of Gurdwaras.

Birmingham Council’s policies were aimed at drawing minority communities into the democratic process. The trouble was, there was precious little democracy in the process. The groups themselves had no democratic mandate, and indeed no mandate at all. After all why should the Council of Black-led Churches presume to speak for the needs and aspirations of African Caribbeans in Birmingham? Why should all Bangladeshis be represented by an Islamic organisation, or all Sikhs by the gurdwaras? And indeed what is the Bangladeshi community or the Sikh community and what are its needs and aspirations?

Imagine if the council had set up a ‘White Forum’ to represent the needs of the white community in Birmingham. Could such a group have represented the interests of all white people in the city? Clearly not. Why should we imagine that Bangladeshis or Sikhs or African Caribbeans are any different?

This points up a paradox in the multicultural vision. The staring point of multicultural policies is the acceptance of societies as diverse. Yet, there is an unstated assumption that such diversity ends at the edges of minority communities. Birmingham council’s policies, like much multicultural policy, treated minority communities as homogeneous wholes, ignoring conflicts within those communities. As the council’s own report put it,

The perceived notion of the homogeneity of minority ethnic communities has informed a great deal of race equality work to date. The effect of this, amongst others, has been to place an over-reliance on individuals who are seen to represent the needs of the whole community and resulted in simplistic approaches toward tackling community needs.

Multicultural policies, in other words, have not responded to the needs of communities, but have helped create those communities by imposing identities on people. And they have created communities by ignoring internal conflicts – conflicts that arise out of class, gender and intra-religious and other differences. What multicultural policies do is empower not minority communities, but so-called ‘community leaders’, who achieve power not because they represent their community but because they have a relationship with the state.

At the same time as they ignored conflicts within minority communities, Birmingham’s policies created conflicts between them.  As one academic study of Birmingham’s policies observes,

The model of engagement through Umbrella Groups tended to result in competition between black and minority ethnic communities for resources. Rather than prioritising needs and cross-community working, the different Umbrella Groups generally attempted to maximise their own interests.

Once political power and financial resources became allocated by ethnicity, then people began to identify themselves in terms of those ethnicities, and only those ethnicities.

Imagine that you are a secular Bangladeshi living in Birmingham. You don’t think of yourself as a Muslim, you may not even think yourself as Bangladeshi. Over time, however, you come to see yourself in those terms, not just because those identities provide you with access to power, influence and resources, but also because those identities possess a social reality through receiving constant confirmation and affirmation. It is how you are seen; so it is how you come to see yourself.  You come to fear and resent African Caribbeans and Sikhs and the Irish, partly because they are competitors for that pot of council largesse and power, and partly because the rules of the game are that your identity has to be affirmed as distinctive and different from the identities of other groups.  Being Muslim also means being not-Irish, not-Sikh and not-African Caribbean.

The consequence is what the great Indian-born economist Amartya Sen has called ‘plural monoculturalism’ – policy driven by the myth that society is made up of a series of distinct, homogeneous cultures that dance around each other.  And policy makes such a segmented society a reality. The result in Birmingham was to entrench divisions between black and Asian communities to an extent that sparked inter-communal rioting.

*  *  *  *  *

Not only have multicultural policies entrenched the idea of homogenous communities, with disastrous consequences. They have also enabled the most conservative figures to be seen as the authentic voices of those communities.

Consider, for instance, the controversy over the Danish cartoons. We all know what happened. A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published a series of inflammatory cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Islam forbids the depiction of the Prophet. So millions of Muslims worldwide were enraged to the point of violence.

Except it never happened like that. For a start, there is no universal Islamic prohibition on the representation of the Prophet. It was, in fact, common to portray him until comparatively recently. A number of Islamic, especially Shiite, traditions continue to accept the pictorial representation of Muhammed.

Shortly after Jyllands Posten published the cartoons, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr reprinted them. They were accompanied by a critical commentary, but Al Fagr did not think it necessary to blank out Muhammad’s face, and faced no opprobrium for not doing so. Egypt’s religious and political authorities, even as they were demanding an apology from the Danish Prime Minister, raised no objections to Al Fagr’s full frontal photos.

So, if there is no universal prohibition to the depiction of Muhammad, why were Muslims universally appalled by the caricatures? They weren’t. And those that were driven by political zeal rather than by theological fervour. The publications of the cartoons in September 2005 caused no immediate reaction, even in Denmark. Journalists, disappointed by the lack of controversy, contacted a number of imams for their response. Among the first was Ahmed Abu Laban. He seized upon the cartoons to transform himself into a spokesman for Denmark’s Muslims. Even so, it took more than four months of often hysterical campaigning, and considerable arm-twisting by Saudi diplomats, to create a major controversy.

Why did journalists contact Abu Laban in the first place? His Islamic Society of Denmark had little support. Out of a population of 180,000 Danish Muslims, fewer than a thousand attended the Society’s Friday prayers. He was, however, infamous for his support for Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks. From a journalistic viewpoint, it made sense to get a quote from someone so controversial. But politically, too, it made sense.

Western liberals have come to see figures like Abu Laban as the true, authentic voice of Islam. The Danish Muslim MP Nasser Khader tells of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing newspaper highly critical of the caricatures. ‘He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims’, Khader recalls.  ‘I said I was not insulted. He said, “But you’re not a real Muslim”.’ In liberal eyes, in other words, to be a real Muslim is to find the cartoons offensive. Once Muslim authenticity is so defined, then only a figure such as Abu Laban can be seen as a true Muslim voice.

The myths about the Danish cartoons – that all Muslims hated the cartoons and that it was a theological conflict – helped turn Abu Laban into an authentic voice of Islam, and to silence other voices.  At the same time Abu Laban’s views seemed to confirm the myths about the Danish cartoons.

The question at the heart of the Danish cartoon controversy is not simply ‘what is offensive?’ but also ‘who decides what is offensive?’ In other words, ‘Who speaks for the community?’ Abu Laban or Nasser Khader? That is also the question at the heart of many of the flashpoints about ‘offensiveness’, from the global confrontation over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to the local struggle over Sikh writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Bezhti which was forced off stage in 2005 by Sikh activists in Birmingham who objected to it.

The issue of free speech and the giving of offence has become central to the multiculturalism debate. Speech, many argue, must necessarily be less free in a plural society. For such societies to function and be fair, we need to show respect for all cultures and beliefs. And to show respect for all cultures and beliefs requires us to police pubic discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise friction between antagonistic cultures and beliefs, and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it,

If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.

One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

Leaving aside the question of whether there is anything morally wrong with giving offence (and I don’t believe there is), the problem with this line of argument is that what is often regarded as offence to a community is in reality a debate within that community.  That is why so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – not just Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, but also Hanif Kuresihi, Monica Ali, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin, MF Hussain, and so on.

Take the Rushdie affair. Neither Rushdie nor his critics spoke for the Muslim community. Each represented different strands of opinion in that community. Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in the 1980s was deeply entrenched. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots, but, rather, to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the truev oice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. And they succeeded at least in part because secular liberals embraced them as the ‘authentic’ voice of the Muslim community.

Just as Abu Laban was seen as an authentic Muslim and Nasser Khader as not a proper one, so Rushdie’s critics were seen as authentic Muslims and Kaur Bhatti’s critics as proper Sikhs, while Rushdie and Kaur Bhatti themselves were regarded as too Westernized, secular or progressive to be truly of their community. The consequence  is that the most conservative voices are often seen as the authentic representatives of those communities, while the progressive voices get marginalized.

*  *  *  *  *

Having explored the problems of multiculturalism, I want briefly to look at the criticisms of multiculturalism. Much of that criticism is undoubtedly driven by racism, bigotry and sheer hatred for the Other. Nowhere is this more savagely evident than in the case of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer.

Many feel that faced with a monster like Breivik, we must close ranks and defend that which he wishes to destroy. It is a version of an argument that has gained ground as rightwing leaders, from Germany’s Angela Merkel to Britain’s David Cameron to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have in recent years become more fiercein their criticism of multiculturalism. It is an argument that misunderstands both multiculturalism and Breivik’s hatred. The real target of Breivik’s assault is not so much multiculturalism as immigrants, immigration and diversity.

The problem with multiculturalism, I have suggested, is that in putting people in ethnic boxes it undermines diversity. I am critical of multiculturalism precisely because I want to defend diversity. Breivik, however, does not oppose multiculturalism because he wants to defend diversity. Rather, he opposes diversity because he wants to put people into cultural boxes, in his case primarily labeled ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’. In his twisted, fantasy world the presence of Muslims in the Christian box pollutes and defiles it and needs to be eliminated.

Few but the most psychopathic have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. Yet, many agree with his intellectual assault. The idea that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat, that Muslim immigration amounts to an invasion, and that ‘Western civilization’ is facing collapse finds a widespread hearing. In a television debate during the French Presidential elections, Nikolas Sarkozy called for a restoration of border controls and passport checks in order ‘to defend a European civilization’. Christopher Caldwell, whose work I mentioned earlier, suggests that Islam has ‘broken’ the fundamentals of the European tradition, ‘not enhancing or validating European culture’, but ‘supplanting it’. In his polemical screed America Alone, the Canadian journalist Mark Steyn talks of the Madrid train bombings and of 7/7 attacks on the London transport system as the ‘opening shots of a European civil war’ that will lead to ‘societal collapse’, ‘fascist revivalism’ and a never-to-return journey into ‘the long Eurabian night’.

Such ideas draw their power from a vision of a world torn apart by a ‘clash of civilizations’. An idea first popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntingdon a decade before 9/11, it has, for many, come to define the decade after.

What is striking about these two approaches – multiculturalism, on the one hand, the clash of civilizations, on the other – is how much they have in common. It is true that there is little love lost between multiculturalists and clash of civilization warriors. The former accuse the latter of pandering to racism and Islamophobia, while the latter talk of the former as appeasing Islamism. Beneath the hostility, however, the two sides share basic assumptions about the nature of culture, identity and difference. Both view the key social divisions as cultural or civilizational. Both see cultures, or civilizations, as homogenous entities.  Both insist on the crucialimportance of cultural identity and on the preservation of such identity. Both perceive irresolvable conflicts arising from incommensurate values.

It’s not just multiculturalists and clash of civilizational warriors who draw upon these themes. The far right, too, in recent years, has increasingly, in public at least, swapped the old language of biologicaldifference, for the new idiom of cultural identity. At the heart of the far right and populist assault on multiculturalism is a defence of ‘my culture’, ‘my history’, ‘my tradition’.

Listen to the language that Breivik employs. Multiculturalism, he told his trial, is a ‘hate ideology’. He lamented its ‘deconstruction of European cultures and traditions’, and saw himself as acting ‘in defence of my culture and of my people’.  This is precisely the language of culture and identity that multiculturalism has done so much to foster in recent years.

If the far right has appropriated the language of pluralism, many pluralists have slipped into the idiom of exclusion. The late Isaiah Berlin was probably the pre-eminent philosopher of modern pluralism, hugely influential, not least on that torchbearer of Canadian liberalism, Michael Ignatieff. Shortly before his death Berlin was interviewed by the political philosopher Steven Lukes. Was it possible, Lukes asked, for peoples of different cultures to live together?

‘When you have two peoples of different origins and cultures’, Berlin replied, ‘it is difficult for them to live together in peace… it is quite natural that each side should think that they cannot lead free lives in an integrated society if the others are there in quantity.’ Black immigration to Western Europe, he added, was ‘a problem’ because ‘cultures which have grown up with no contact with one another have now collided’.

Berlin is not alone in making a multiculturalist case for ‘keeping them out’. Will Kymlicka, who gave this lecture four years ago, has perhaps inherited Berlin’s mantle as the most important and cogent philosopher of multiculturalism, a highly subtle thinker, and an unswerving liberal. In his book Multicultural Politics, Professor Kymlicka makes a case for the right of cultures to protect their unique characters from changes wrought from the outside. ‘It is right and proper’, he argues, ‘that the character of a culture changes as a result of the choices of its  members’.  But ‘while it is one thing to learn from the larger world’, he insists, it is quite another ‘to be swamped by it’.

That is a telling phrase. For the fear of being ‘swamped’ has long been a rightwing trope, used to whip up fears about immigration. It’s at the heart of the current hysteria about Islam. Professor Kymlicka is liberal to his bones, resolutely hostile to the arguments against immigration and Islam. Yet, once it becomes a matter of political principle that cultures should not be swamped by outsiders, then it is difficult to know how one could possibly resist the anti-immigration arguments of the right.

The irony of the polarised debate in Europe is that the assault on multiculturalism is all too often pursued through the language of multiculturalism.  Perhaps the biggest indictment of multiculturalism is that it has transformed racism into another cultural identity.

*  *  *  *  *

I began this talk by distinguishing between the idea of diversity as lived experience and that of multiculturalism as a political process. I want to end this talk by returning to that distinction.

The real failure of multiculturalism as a political process, it seems to me, is its failure to understand what is valuable about diversity as lived experience.

When we say that we live in a diverse society, what we mean is that it is a messy world out there, full of clashes and conflicts. And that is all for the good, for it is out of such clashes and conflicts that cultural and political engagement emerges. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, by engaging in dialogue and debate and by putting different values, beliefs and lifestyles to the test.

But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is the very thing that many people fear. And that fear takes two forms. On the one hand, you have the nationalist sentiment: immigration is undermining the national fabric, eroding our sense of Britishness or Frenchness or Germanness. And on the other you have the multicultural argument: diversity is good, but it has to be policed to minimise the clashes and conflicts and frictions it brings in its wake.

To say that clashes and conflicts can be good does not mean, of course, that every clash and conflict is a good. Political conflicts are often useful because they repose social problems in a way that asks: ‘How can we change society to overcome that problem?’ We might disagree on the answer, but the debate itself is a useful one.

Multiculturalism, on the other hand, by reposing political problems in terms of culture or faith, transforms political conflicts into a form that makes them neither useful nor resolvable. Multicultural policies both constrain the kinds of clashes of opinion that could prove politically fruitful, and unleash the kinds of conflicts that are socially damaging. They transform political debates into cultural collisions and, by imprisoning individuals within their cultures and identities, make such collisions both inevitable and insoluble.

The lesson of Europe, it seems to me, is that if we want to preserve diversity as lived experience, we need also to challenge multiculturalism as a political process.


  1. Brilliant commentary, cuts through some things that many of us on the left AND right have been wrestling with. Money quote:

    “Perhaps the biggest indictment of multiculturalism is that it has transformed racism into another cultural identity.”

    But I’d modify it slightly:

    “Perhaps the biggest indictment of multiculturalism is that it has transformed racism into the core of cultural identity.”

    Once that’s true, any different racism can become the foundations of “another cultural identity” with no logical trouble. And has.

  2. wlindsaywheeler

    Half of your problem is that “multiculturalism” is an oxymoron in and of itself! Culture is the product of race. Multiculturalism denotes the presence of many races and those things collide. A multitude of race does not produce a unitary society.

    I mean the stupidity of all this is in pork. I want to eat pork. Muslims and Jews do not. How can you have “multiculturalism” when two groups, Europeans and Semites, have opposite ideas on pork. There is no middle ground. I mean this is hypersilly that the American government has to produce two sets of MRE’s.

    A society, like any other organism or machine operates on efficiency. A “multicultural society” if such a beast exists is nowhere near efficient or easy. People like things easy. Multiculturalism produces a plethora of exemptions, protections, different rules for the same situation, etc.

    I see here no mention of the Laws of Nature. Surely, Mr. Malik you, as an atheist, believe in evolution. So us humans have descended from Apes. Do apes have multiculturalism? Does multiculturalism exist in Nature? You take no account of the Natural Law. By the way, the Natural Law is “Birds of a feather flock together”. Is man above the Natural Law?

    And lastly, I see that your Wikipedia page presents your familiarity with communist groups. I see also in your long talk the history behind multiculturalism and its provenance in Marxist theory. Marxists want multiculturalism for the sake of destroying nations.

    I want no part of your multiculturalism.

    • seungmin282

      It’s okay, multiculturalism doesn’t want any part of you either. I hope you live a fulfilling life in your ideal society where evolution doesn’t exist, the free market solves itself, and there’s only one ‘race’, white as white can be.

      But please, do us all a favour and try to learn how to read properly. Or how to form a coherent opinion. You’re almost certainly more intelligent than a monkey (to whom in no way you are related), so you can do it. I believe in you!

  3. These are a fantastic couple of articles on multiculturalism. You write coherently and persuasively and I will use ideas and references from you in my own writings and talks.

    I particularly liked the criticism of ‘plural monoculturalism’ which strikes a chord with my own thinking and writings on the same. Effectively we’re talking about the’ intolerance of tolerance’ which is the way I’ve heard the same ideas being described before

  4. Ani J. Sharmin

    Excellent points.

    I love this part: “The problem with multiculturalism, I have suggested, is that in putting people in ethnic boxes it undermines diversity. I am critical of multiculturalism precisely because I want to defend diversity.”

    Thanks very much for writing.

  5. Dear seugmin282:
    I suppose your rather rude answer to Wlindsaywheeler’s comment is yet another fine example of how the defenders of multiculturalism work: differences and diversity expressed by others are only accepted as long as they do not go against your own views. And so if follows that anyone opposing your multicultural dogma is instantly portrayed as lacking knowledge and understanding and deserves to be insulted. I suppose, the supporters of multiculturalism rule sovereign over what differences can be accepted and which ones cannot. Totalitarian practices excused by a just cause like multiculturalism: does that ring a bell?

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