multiculturalism cover

My big book – on the history of moral thought – will be published by Atlantic next spring. Before that comes a little book.  Multiculturalism and its Discontents is an extended essay that pulls together much of my thinking and writing over the years on the subject. It will be published by Seagull this summer (Amazon says June, though it is more likely to be August). And here is the introduction.

On 22 July 2011 Anders Behring Breivik planted a car bomb outside government buildings in the Regjeringskvartalet area of Oslo. The explosion killed eight people and injured more than 200. Two hours later Breivik, dressed in an all-black paramilitary uniform, launched an attack on a summer camp organized by the youth division of the Norwegian Labour Party on the nearby island of Utoya. For an hour and a half, he walked around the campsite, firing indiscriminately with machine guns, unzipping tents and gunning down people cowering inside. Sixty-nine people were killed in the homicidal rampage.

It was a viscerally shocking moment, the worst atrocity that Norway had suffered since the Second World War. Breivik’s aim was to launch not simply a physical assault but an existential one, too. In Breivik’s eyes the killings in Oslo and Utoya were the first shots in a war to defend Europe against multiculturalism. Shortly before the attacks Breivik had published online 1500-page manifesto entitled 2083: A European Declaration of Independence. 2083 refers to the 400th anniversary of the Battle of Vienna when the advance into Europe of the Ottoman Empire had been checked by the armies of the Habsburg Empire. Twenty-first century Europe, Breivik claimed, faced a similar threat and required a similar military response. ‘The individuals I have been accused of illegally executing’, he wrote, ‘are supporters of the anti-European hate ideology known as multiculturalism, an ideology that facilitates Islamisation and Islamic demographic warfare.’ They were ‘killed in self defence through a pre-emptive strike’ having ‘been found guilty and condemned to death.’

Few but the most psychopathic could have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. Yet the belief that multiculturalism is undermining Western civilization, that Muslim immigration is eroding the social and cultural fabric of European societies, transforming Europe into ‘Eurabia’, that politicians responsible for allowing this to happen are at best irresponsible, at worst traitors – all these notions now find a widespread hearing, and not just on the fringes of politics. Bruce Bawer is a distinguished American literary critic and poet. He was, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, outraged by Breivik’s attack, not simply because of the carnage, but because the carnage would ‘deal a heavy blow to an urgent cause’. Breivik’s rampage was ‘unspeakably evil’ and yet, claimed Bawer, he was in his manifesto expressing ‘a legitimate concern about genuine problems’. There is, wrote Bawer, ‘reason to be deeply concerned about all these things and to want to see them addressed forcefully by government leaders’.   The British writer and broadcaster Melanie Phillips is a former winner of Britain’s highest accolade for political journalism, the Orwell Prize, and a fellow-panelist of mine on BBC Radio 4’s weekly debate programme The Moral Maze. She, like Bawer, condemned the ‘horrible carnage’ at Utoya. She, too, insisted that ‘Multiculturalism and Islamic extremism raise entirely legitimate and very serious concerns about defending a culture from attack both from within and from without.’


Twenty years ago multiculturalism was widely seen as the answer to many of Europe’s social problems. We’re All Multiculturalists Now, as American sociologist Nathan Glazer, a former critic of pluralism, suggested in the title of a book. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics – these had come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook and as the foundation of modern liberal democracies.

And yet, the very moment that Glazer was declaring us all to be multiculturalists was also the moment that many stopped being so. Or, rather, it was the moment that doubts about multiculturalism began to haunt mainstream politics, particularly in Europe. Over the past decade, and particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, such doubts have grown and come to dominate the debate. Today multiculturalism is seen by growing numbers of people not as the solution to but as the cause of Europe’s myriad social ills.  That perception has led mainstream politicians, such Britain’s David Cameron, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to denounce the dangers of multiculturalism. It has provided fuel for the success of far-right parties and populist politicians across Europe from Geert Wilders in Holland to Marine Le Pen in France, from the True Finns to the UK Independence Party. And it greased the obscene, homicidal rampage of Anders Behring Breivik.

The reasons for this transformation in the perception of multiculturalism are complex, and at the heart of what I want to explore in this book. It is not just the perception of multiculturalism that has changed. The character of the critique of multiculturalism has transformed, too. As much of the debate surrounding the Breivik assault reveals, the contemporary critique of multiculturalism is often driven by crude notions – indeed myths – about Islam, Muslims, immigration, European history and Western values.

These changes pose a problem in writing a book such as this. I have been critical of multiculturalism from long before it was fashionable to be so. But my critique of multiculturalism is rooted in a completely different vision to that of most contemporary opponents.  I am hostile to multiculturalism not because I fear immigration, despise Muslims or want to reduce diversity but, on the contrary because I favour immigration, oppose the growing hatred of Muslims, and welcome diversity. There is a long and important tradition of leftwing and progressive critiques of multiculturalism and of the ideas that underlie it, a tradition that has largely been buried by the rightwing assault on multiculturalism in recent years. That assault has both reframed the debate about multiculturalism and made many on left reluctant to challenge it for fear of being associated with the likes of Bruce Bawer and Melanie Phillips, Geert Wlders and Marine Le Pen. This book is a critique of multiculturalism. It is also a critique of its critics.  At its heart is the insistence that the challenge to multiculturalism and the challenge to its rightwing critics are inseparable.


Before we can discuss the claims both of multiculturalists and of their critics we need first to unpack what we mean by ‘multiculturalism’. Part of the problem in discussions about multiculturalism is that the term has, in recent years, come to possess two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is what I call the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity.

The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and celebrate.  It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different.  It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

The conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious.  On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity.

The aim of Multiculturalism and its Discontents is to celebrate diversity while opposing multiculturalism. The book begins with a brief discussion of the historical and philosophical roots of multiculturalism, and of the philosophical debates surrounding it. It looks then at the political roots and social consequences of multicultural policy. Finally, I examine the contemporary critique of multiculturalism, to show much of it not simply to be wrong but also dangerous. The message of this book is that both multiculturalism and much of the discontent with it needs to be challenged.


  1. Tom

    Hi Kenan, I share the aim of opposing both multiculturalism and its right-wing critics. However there is, I would argue, another distinction that needs to be made alongside the one between political policies and social reality: this is the distinction between the policies and the way that those policies are justified i.e. the way those policies are integrated into a broader political ideology.

    For example: radical equality policies, such as affirmative action in the US or positive action here in Britain, can be justified in a more political way in terms of social equality and social justice. However, they can also be justified in terms of making society – or rather, privileged social occupations – more diverse. An interesting question for left-wing/progressive critics is should the critique of multiculturalism and policies carried out under the name of diversity include a critique of equality policies such as affirmative action? Any thoughts?

      • Tom

        Presumably because it seeks nothing more than an equitable share of privileged social positions – and therefore is simply adjusting the colour/gender etc of inequality?

        It strikes me that this is basically right, but that there is a danger of then reducing non-class inequality to class inequality – and then only recognising the latter (in a distributive sense – i.e. the more substantive inequalities that cannot be shifted through formal equality/ same treatment). This seems to be where Walter Benn Michaels ends up anyway.

        I think there needs to be a theory that can explain the relationship between class and non-class inequality that avoids Marxist reductionism and multicultural particularity – not sure that’s around at the moment.

        P.S. Have you written much on Marxism and its critique of capitalism – and what you think of it and its relationship with liberalism? Would be interested to know. Cheers.

  2. Dear Kenan, I am following your blog for some time and I am really very impressed with your work and contribution and clarity to public debate. I am helping to build up a PhD program in Thailand on Multiculturalismin Asia and to start a debate on ethnic and religious diversity and especially ethnic minority rights in Southeast Asia. While mc has been debated a lotin Europe,albeit negatively, the debate is just starting here. It is a time when intellectuals and civil society here question the assimilation paradigm. On the other hand, migrants are really treated badly and no real rights are given to minorities. In Burma today, ethnic and religious chauvinism, turmoil and racism prevails. Hate-campaigns all over the place, anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka, India and Burma.

    I d be keen to start a discussion with you as I agree with much you say about mc and its critics. But I also feel that we need some instruments to protect communities and permit self-government.

    In May,I am visiting EHESS in Paris and in August I start teaching in Copenhagen. Hopefully we would meet somewhere sometimes. Meanwhile, I will wait for your book.

    Kind regards,

    • Alexander, many thanks for this. I would be delighted to start a discussion. Email me, or get in touch when you are in Europe. All I would say about the Rohingya in Burma is that a large part of the problem seems to me to be a signal failure, most notably by Aung San Suu Kyi, to stand against bigotry and for equal rights, citizenship and treatment.

  3. Michael Fugate

    This seems to be the major issue – treating people as a group based on race, ethnic, political, religious, etc. criteria rather than as individuals. Nobody can or should speak for a whole community based on one of the criteria above. Not all African Americans were born in the US, vote for democrats, and are Christian and letting economically liberal, but socially conservative preachers speak for the whole community leads to misrepresentations. One of the commenters on the previous post is convinced that all Muslims want to live under Sharia – but which Sharia. One can be sure that in European countries where some Islamists have lobbied for local Sharia communities not all Muslims want to live within those jurisdictions and under those conditions.

    • Thanks. Unfortunately, questions about availability on Kindle are decided by the publishers, so I’m afraid I don’t know. I will push for it, though.

  4. I look forward to reading it. You end your Prospect article on Sen ‘I share too his fears about identity politics and the consequences of cultural pluralism.’ I thought you were of the impression that mass immigration would cause no problems if only it weren’t for multicultural policies?
    Also: you mention Jared Taylor briefly in Strange Fruit. Did you read his book White Identity? I’d love to hear your thoughts of it.

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