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This is a transcript of my Stephen Lissenburgh Memorial Lecture that I gave on 23 September at the National Institute for Economic and Social Research. It was entitled ‘What’s wrong with multiculturalism?’

It is inevitable that my starting point for this talk will be the refugee crisis that now engulfs Europe. For many, the crisis is a crisis because of the numbers coming to Europe. But large though they may be, the numbers are not unprecedented, either comparatively or historically. Debates about immigration are rarely about numbers as such. They are much more about who the migrants are, and about underlying anxieties of nation, community, identity and values.

‘We should not forget’, claimed Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, as Hungary put up new border fences, and introduced draconian new anti-immigration laws, ‘that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim.’ ‘Is it not worrying’, he asked, ‘that Europe’s Christian culture is already barely able to maintain its own set of Christian values?’

Orbán’s comments elicited much outrage. But his views are not that different from the dominant theme in most debates about immigration.   Throughout the twentieth century, virtually every wave of immigration, from Irish and Jews to Britain, to Italians and North Africans to France, to Catholics and Chinese to America, was met with the claim that the influx was too culturally distinct, too corrosive of social stability, too undermining of historic values.

In the first part of the twentieth century, hostility to immigration grew naturally out of the dominant racial politics of the time, out of the belief in racial superiority and inferiority. In the postwar years, there developed a more liberal, egalitarian, view of race and racial differences. Culture, rather than race, now became the principal medium through which to understand human differences.

In 1955 a British Colonial Office report expressed concern about immigration from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent in traditional racial terms. ‘A large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would’, it worried, ‘weaken… the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached’. A decade later the Tory shadow minister Reginald Maudling expressed a similar kind of concern, but differently. ‘The problem’, he observed in a 1968 parliamentary debate, ‘arises quite simply from the arrival in this country of many people of wholly alien cultures, habits and outlooks.’

The views express similar kinds of anxieties, but very differently. The Colonial office report was rooted in a sense of race and empire and whiteness that harked back to prewar ideas of racial difference. Maudling’s cultural fears looked forward to the anxieties of the next period.

Both the similarities and differences between the two views tell us much about how the question of immigration became reframed in the postwar years. Maudling was a Conservative, but a liberal on social issues. And his framing of the issue has become central to the immigration debate: the idea of immigrants as a problem of cultural difference.

It has ironically also become central to the idea of multiculturalism. One of the key points I want to make tonight is that though many on the left embrace multiculturalism as a good, and think of the defence of multiculturalism as a challenge to anti-immigrant hysteria, it is in fact rooted in the same kind of view of migrants and their differences. While critics of immigration think that the otherness of migrants is an argument to keep them out, multiculturalists, consciously or unconsciously, reify that otherness through public policy.

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But before I can discus that, I need first to unpack some of the myths – or, to be more generous, assumptions – upon which contemporary discussions about immigration and culture are constructed. The first is the idea that Europe used to homogenous, but has been made diverse by immigration. Both those hostile to immigration and those supportive of multiculturalism accept this claim. They only do so because of historical amnesia, and because we have come to adopt a highly selective standard for defining what it is to be diverse.

When we talk of European societies as historically homogenous, what we mean is that they used to be ethnically, or perhaps culturally, homogenous. But the world is diverse in many ways. Societies are cut through by differences, not only of ethnicity, but also of class, gender, faith, politics, and much else.

European societies of the past were not exactly conflict free. Many worry today of the clash between Islam and the West, and fear that Islamic values are incompatible with Western values. We assume that such classes and such fears new, the product of a Europe made diverse through mass immigration. But religious conflict was the norm in the old so-called homogenous Europe. And it may be hard to imagine now but Catholics were until relatively recently seen by many much as Muslims are now.

The English philosopher John Locke is generally seen as providing the philosophical foundations of liberalism. His Letter Concerning Toleration is a key text in the development of modern liberal ideas about freedom of expression and worship. But he refused to extend such tolerance to Catholics. They were a threat to English identity and security, he argued, because, in accepting the Pope as head of their church, they ‘deliver themselves up’, in Locke’s words, ‘to the protection and service of another prince’ – an argument echoed today by many critics of Muslim immigration to Europe. Until the nineteenth century Catholics in Britain were by law excluded from most public offices, and were denied the vote; they were barred from universities, from many professions, and from serving in the armed forces. Protestants were banned from converting to Catholicism, and Catholics banned from marrying Protestants.

Catholicism, the historian Leo Lucassen observes, was perceived as ‘representing an entirely different culture and worldview, and it was feared because of the faith’s global and expansive aspirations’. Vicious anti-Catholicism existed well into the twentieth century, and not just in Europe.  ‘It is the political character of the Roman Church’, wrote the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson,‘ that makes it incompatible with our institutions & unwelcome here.’

Jews were seen even more of a threat to European identity, values and ways of being, so much so that they became victims of the world’s greatest genocide. But the treatment of Jews as the ‘Other’ was not confined to Germany. It was a central theme in most European nations, from the Dreyfus affair in France to Britain’s first immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act, designed principally to stem the flow into the country of European Jews. Without an immigration law limiting the Jewish influx, the Prime Minister Arthur Balfour argued, British ‘nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we should desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come.’ Very similar, in other words to contemporary fears about Muslim immigration. The Conservative MP Major Sir William Eden Evans-Gordon came up with a quite extraordinary metaphor. ‘Ten grains of arsenic in a thousand loaves would be unnoticeable and perfectly harmless’, he told Parliament, ‘but the same amount put into one loaf would kill the whole family that partook of it.’

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Europe was rent not just by religious and cultural but by political conflict too. From the English civil war to the Spanish civil war, from the German Peasants’ rebellion to the Paris commune, European societies were deeply divided. Conflicts between communists and conservatives, liberals and socialists, monarchists and liberals became the hallmark of European societies. Of course, we don’t think of these conflicts as expressions of a diverse society. Why not? Only because we have a restricted view of what diversity entails.

But even within that restricted notion of diversity, our historical picture of European societies is mistaken. We look back upon European societies and imagine that they were racially and ethnically homogenous. But that is not how Europeans of the time looked upon their societies. In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the working class and the rural poor were seen by many as racial distinct.

Here, for instance, is French Christian socialist Phillipe Buchez in a speech in 1857:

Consider a population like ours, placed in the most favourable circumstances; possessed of a powerful civilisation; amongst the highest ranking nations in science, the arts and industry. Our task now, I maintain, is to find out how it can happen that within a population such as ours, races may form – not merely one but several races – so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.

The ‘races’ that caused Buchez such anxiety were not immigrants from Africa or Asia but the rural poor in France. One only has to read the novels of Émile Zola or the works of Count Arthur Gobineau, one of the leading racial scientists of his day, to recognize how widespread was this sentiment. The social and intellectual elite in France, far from viewing their nation as homogenous, regarded most of their fellow Frenchmen not as ‘one of us’, but as racial alien, and so inferior that they stood below the ‘most inferior savage races’ and were ‘beyond cure’.

In Victorian England, too, the elite viewed the working class and the rural poor as the racial Other. A vignette of working-class life in Bethnal Green that appeared in an 1864 edition of The Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the era, was typical of Victorian middle-class attitudes. ‘The Bethnal Green poor’, the article explained, were ‘a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact.’ Much the same was true, the it suggested, of ‘the great mass of the agricultural poor’. ‘Distinctions and separations, like those of English classes’, the article concluded, ‘which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship… offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.’

Modern Bethnal Green is no longer home to warehousemen or costermongers, but lies at the heart of the Bangladeshi community in East London. Today’s ‘Bethnal Green poor’ are often seen as culturally and racially distinct. But only those on the fringes of politics would compare the distinctiveness of Bangladeshis to that of slaves. The sense of apartness was far greater in Victorian England than it is contemporary Britain. And that’s because in reality the social and cultural differences between a Victorian gentleman or factory owner, on the one hand, and a farmhand or a machinist, on the other, were much greater than those between a white resident and one of Bangladeshi origin living in Bethnal Green today.

However much they may view each other as different, a 16-year-old teenager of Bangladeshi origin living in Bethnal Green, or a 16-year-old of Algerian origin living in Marseilles, or a 16-year-old of Turkish origin living in Berlin, probably wears much the same clothes, listens to much the same music, watches much the same TV shows, follows the same football club as a 16-year-old white teenager in that same city. The shopping mall and the sports field, the TV and the iPod, have all served to bind differences and create a set of experiences and cultural practices that is more common than at any time in the past.

(c) Grace Gardner; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Whether or not contemporary Europe is really more plural than it was in the nineteenth century is a matter for debate. What is unquestionable is that today’s Europeans perceive their world as more diverse. The real question we need to ask ourselves is not ‘Why are European societies so diverse?’ but ‘Why is it that Europeans perceive their societies to be so diverse?’

There are many reasons that underlie this new perception. One of the most important is the way that the understanding of what constitutes significant social divisions, or makes for a diverse society, has transformed.

A century and half ago, social differences were cast largely in terms of nation, race and class. Class, in particular, was the frame within which social interactions were understood. It may be difficult to conceive of now, but even racial differences were seen then, as the speech from Philippe Buchez or the Saturday Review article suggests, in terms of class or social distinctions. The ‘Other’, for nineteenth century thinkers, came not from over the border but inhabited the dark spaces within.

Over the past few decades, the centrality of ‘class’ has eroded in European politics, both as a political category and as a marker of social identity. At the same time ‘culture’ has become increasingly important as the medium through which people perceive social differences.

The shift from ‘class’ to ‘culture’ is part of a much wider set of changes. The broad ideological divides that had characterized politics for much of the past two hundred years have been all but erased. The old distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ has become less meaningful. The working class has lost much of its economic and political power. The weakening of labour organizations, the decline of collectivist ideologies, the expansion of the market into almost every nook and cranny of social life, the fading of institutions, from trade unions to the Church, that traditionally helped socialize individuals – all have helped create a more socially, fragmented society.

Partly as a result of such social atomization, people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become defined increasingly not in political terms, but rather in terms of ethnicity, culture or faith. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’.

The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity. It is against this background that Europeans have come to view their nations as particularly, even impossibly, diverse.

All of which takes us to the question of multiculturalism. Diversity and multiculturalism are often taken to be synonymous. They are not. That’s another of the myths or assumptions that I want to question. To conflate diversity and multiculturalism is to accept the narrow vision of diversity that I have challenged.

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Part of the problem in discussing multiculturalism is that the term has come to acquire a variety of meanings, which makes it highly slippery. For a start, the term ‘multicultural’ has come to define both a society that is particularly diverse, usually as a result of immigration, and the policies necessary to manage such a society. It has come to embody, in other words, both a description of society and a prescription for managing it. Multiculturalism is both the problem and the answer – a highly invidious conflation.

Another way of putting this is that multiculturalism come to define both the lived experience of diversity and a political process the aim of which is to manage that diversity. The trouble is, the political process often undermines what is good about the lived experience.

The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish.  It’s 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 have been put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It’s 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.

When we talk about diversity, what we mean is that the world is a messy place, full of clashes and conflicts. That is all for the good, for such clashes and conflicts are the stuff of political and cultural engagement. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgments upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create a more universal language of citizenship.

But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is precisely what many people fear. That fear takes two forms. On the one hand you have the nativist sentiment: the fear immigration is undermining the national fabric, eroding our sense of Britishness or Frenchness or Germannness, turning our cities into little Lahores or mini-Kingstons. And on the other you have the multicultural argument: that diversity is good, but it has to be policed to minimise the clashes and conflicts and frictions that diversity brings in its wake.

To understand better this point about multiculturalism as a means of managing diversity, and the problems that it has created, let us look at how multicultural policies developed. Another of the myths that need challenging is the belief that European nations have become multicultural because minorities wished to assert their differences. The question of the cultural difference of immigrants has certainly preoccupied the political elites. It is not a question, however, that, until recently, has particularly engaged immigrants themselves.

The arrival in Britain in the late 1940s and the 1950s of large numbers of immigrants from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean, led, as we have already seen, to considerable unease within the political about the impact of such immigration upon national identity and cultural values. The migrants certainly brought with them a host of traditions and habits and cultural mores from their homelands, of which they were often very proud. But they were rarely concerned with preserving cultural differences, nor thought of it as a political issue. What inspired them was the struggle not for cultural identity but for political equality. And they recognized that at the heart of that struggle was the creation of a commonality of values, hopes and aspirations between migrants and indigenous Britons, not an articulation of unbridgeable differences.

The struggle for political and equality – the struggle against racism and unequal treatment – politicised a new generation of black and Asian activists and came to an explosive climax in the riots that tore through Britain’s inner cities in the late Seventies and early Eighties. The authorities recognized that unless minority communities were given a political stake in the system, their frustrations could threaten the stability of British cities. It was against this background that the policies of multiculturalism emerged. The state, at both national and local levels, pioneered a new strategy of drawing black and Asian communities into the mainstream political process.


At the heart of the strategy was a redefinition of both ‘racism’ and ‘equality’. Racism now meant, not simply the denial of equal rights, but the denial of the right to be different. And equality was defined not as possessing the same rights as everyone else, despite differences of race, ethnicity, culture or faith, but as possessing different rights, because of them.

In 2000, the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, chaired by the political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh, published its report that famously concluded that Britain was a ‘community of comunities’ in which equality ‘must be defined in a culturally sensitive way and applied in a discriminating but not discriminatory manner’. The Parekh report has come to be seen as defining the essence of multiculturalism. But the arguments at its heart had emerged out of the response, two decades earlier, to the inner city riots.

To see the consequences of this approach, consider the case of Birmingham. In 1985, the Handsworth area of the city 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, in Lozells, next door to Handsworth. This time the fighting was not between youth and police but between blacks and Asians. An almost certainly untrue rumour that a Jamaican schoolgirl 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 the Birmingham Council after the original riots. In response to those riots, Birmingham 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.

The 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? The council effectively divided up the city into discrete communities, bundled up all members of minority groups into one of those communities, decided which organizations should act as gatekeepers and mouthpieces for each community, defined the aspirations and needs of all within a particular community according to the demands of those organizations, and excluded all those outside those defined communities from the multicultural process.

As one academic study of Birmingham’s policies observed,

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.

The council’s policies not only bound people more closely bound to particular identities, but also led them to fear and resent those of different identities, because they had become competitors for power and influence. An individual’s identity had to be affirmed as distinctive and different from the identities of other groups.  Being Bangladeshi in Birmingham also meant being not-Irish, not-Sikh and not-African Caribbean. The consequence was the creation of what Amartya Sen has termed ‘plural monoculturalism’ – policy driven by the myth that society is made up of distinct, uniform cultures that dance around each other. The result in Birmingham was to entrench divisions between black and Asian communities to such an extent that it sparked inter-communal rioting.

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The irony in all this is that the starting point of multicultural policies is the acceptance of societies as diverse. Yet, there is often also an unstated assumption that such diversity ends at the edges of minority communities. Much multicultural policies treat minority communities as if they were homogeneous wholes; they imagine that there is a Muslim community, a Sikh community, an African-Caribbean community. Multicultural policies seek 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.

Such policies have not merely responded to the needs of communities; they have also helped create those communities. Communities are always fuzzy and fluid, constantly being created, transformed, dissolved, remade. What much public policy – especially multicultural policy – seemingly fails to recognize is the complexity, elasticity and sheer contrariness of ‘identity’. Identities emerge out of people’s relationships with each other – not merely personal but social relationships too – and such relationships are always mutating.

Consider ‘Muslim’ identity. Today there is much talk of the ‘Muslim community’, of its views, its needs, its aspirations. But the ‘Muslim community’ is a recently-constructed concept. Until the late 1980s, few Muslim immigrants to Britain – indeed to anywhere in Western Europe – thought of themselves as belonging to any such thing as a ‘Muslim community’.

The first generation of postwar Muslim immigrants to Britain, who came almost entirely from the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s and 1960s, were certainly religious. Yet, faith was not a means through which they understood themselves. They have thought of themselves as Punjabis or Bengalis or Sylhettis but rarely as ‘Muslims’. This first generation was pious in its faith, but wore it lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab, let alone a burqa or niqab. Most visited the mosque only occasionally, when the ‘Friday feeling’ took them. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all-encompassing philosophy. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.

The second generation of Britons with a Muslim background – my generation – was primarily secular. I was of a generation that was even less likely than the first to think of itself as ‘Muslim’. Nor did those of Hindu or Sikh background think of themselves primarily as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’. Religious organizations were barely visible within minority communities. The organizations that bound together migrant communities were primarily secular, often political; the Asian Youth Movements, for instance, or the Indian Workers Association.

It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s, that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated and ‘Westernised’ than the first generation, is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its ‘difference’.

The reasons for this shift are complex. Partly they lie in a tangled set of social, political and economic changes over the past half century to which I have already alluded – changes that include the collapse of the left, the demise of class politics, the rise of identity politics, the narrowing of the political sphere, the erosion of more universalist visions of social change. Partly they lie in international developments, from the Iranian revolution of 1979 to the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, that played an important role in fostering a more heightened sense of Muslim identity in Europe.

And partly they lie also in the development of public policy in European nations. Many of the wider social and political changes helped pave the way for multicultural policies. At the same time, such policies, in constructing a new kind of relationship between the state and minority communities, helped create a more fragmented society and to narrow people’s sense of self-identity.

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Identities are not natural categories. They are created through social interaction. But as multicultural categories received official sanction, so certain identities came to appear in a sense fixed. In channeling financial resources and political power through ethnically-based organizations, the state has came to provide a new reality to certain ethnic identities that were denied to others, to fix the boundaries of certain communities, to deem certain ways of being ‘authentic’.

Multicultural policies seek to create a bridge between the state and minority communities primarily by looking to particular organizations and ‘community leaders’ to bridge the gap. Rather than appealing to Muslims, or other minorities, as citizens, politicians tend to see them as people whose primarily loyalty is to their faith or ethnic community, people who can be politically engaged only by others of that faith or community. They in effect subcontract out their political responsibilities to so-called community leaders.

Such leaders are, however, rarely representative of their communities. No single organization or set of community leaders could represent the ‘white’ community. Some whites are conservative, some are liberal, a few might be communists or neo-fascists. Some are religious, others militantly secular. And most whites would not see their interests as specifically ‘white’. A white Christian probably has more in common with a black Christian than with a white atheist. A white socialist would think more like a Bangladeshi socialist than like a white conservative. And so on. Why should we imagine that Muslims or Sikhs or African Caribbeans are any different? Therein lies the fundamental flaw of multiculturalism as a political process. In defining a ‘community’, multicultural policies tend to ignore internal conflicts and differences within those communities. As a Birmingham council report has observed about its own policies,

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 views of the whole community and resulted in simplistic approaches toward tackling community needs.

The power of ‘community leaders’ derives not from a democratic mandate but from their relationship to the state. Such leaders are rarely representative of any community but are often embodiments of popular myths about particular communities. They are often religious, conservative, even reactionary – because that is how minority leaders are often perceived by the political elite.

To take a non-British example, consider the controversy over the Danish cartoons. Abu Laban, the notorious al-Qaeda supporting cleric who organized the protests against the cartoons, had little support among Danish Muslims. Out of a population of 180,000 Danish Muslims, fewer than a thousand attended Friday prayers organized by Laban’s Islamic Society of Denmark. Yet Laban had the ear of prominent politicians because his reactionary views led him to be seen as a true representative of the Muslim community.

Nasser Khader is a Danish MP, Muslim but secular, and hostile to the campaign against the cartoons. He tells of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. Seidenfaden claimed that ‘the cartoons insulted all Muslims’. ‘I am not insulted’, Khader replied. ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’, was Seidenfaden’s response.

‘You’re not a real Muslim.’ Why? Because to be proper Muslim is, from such a perspective, to be reactionary, to find the Danish cartoons offensive. Anyone who isn’t reactionary or offended is by definition not a proper Muslim. The irony is that the multiculturalist claim perpetuates here racist stereotypes of Muslims as reactionary and of Islamic values as incompatible with Western liberalism. Leftwing ‘anti-racism’ meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry.

There is another irony too. If multicultural policies rest on myths about particular communities, the implementation of such policies have helped make those myth more real. Within the multicultural framework, adopting particular identities, those recognized by the state, provides individuals with greater access to power and resources. Inevitably, therefore, people have begun to adopt such identities and to organize themselves around them. They have done so not just because those identities provide 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.

In part, multiculturalism is the product of a complex set of social, political, and economic changes that have transformed the ways in which people understand social attachments and perceive social differences. At the same time, multicultural policies have helped embed certain identities, define certain communities and entrench a particular way of understanding social differences. The concept of ‘multiculturalism’ has, I have suggested, come to embody both a description of a society and a prescription for the policies necessary to manage such a society. The irony is that as a prescription multiculturalism  has made more real the description to which it was supposedly a response.

Rothko Red, Blue over Black

To look at these issues from a different perspective, I want briefly to explore the issues of social difference and identity in France. French assimilationism is generally regarded as the polar opposite of multiculturalism. Unlike the rest of Europe, French politicians insist, France treats every individual as a citizen rather than as a member of a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group. In reality, however, France is as socially divided as Britain, and in a strikingly similar way.

Questions surrounding French social policy, and the country’s social divisions, came sharply into focus in January, when Islamist gunmen shot dead 12 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and four Jews in a kosher supermarket. French politicians had long held multicultural policies responsible for nurturing homegrown jihadists in the United Kingdom. Now they had to answer for why such terrorists had been nurtured in assimilationist France, too.

There are, it is often claimed, some 5 million Muslims in France, making it the largest Muslim community. In fact, those of North African origin in France, who have been lumped into this group, have never constituted a single community, still less a religious one. Immigrants from North Africa have been broadly secular and indeed often hostile to religion.

A growing number have, in recent years, become attracted to Islam. But even today only 40 percent identify themselves as observant Muslims, and only 25 percent attend Friday prayers. Those of North African origin in France are also often described as ‘immigrants’. In fact, the majority are second-generation French citizens, born in France and as French as any voter for the Front National. The use of the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘immigrant’ as labels for French citizens of North African origin is not, however, accidental. It is part of the process whereby the state casts such citizens as the Other – as not really part of the French nation.

As in Britain, first generation postwar immigrants to France faced considerable racism. As in Britain, the second generation was far less willing than their parents had been to accept social discrimination, unemployment and police brutality. They organized, largely through secular movements, and took to the streets, often in violent protest. The riots that swept through French cities in the autumn of 2005 exposed the fractures in French society as clearly as had those that had engulfed British cities two decades earlier.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, the French authorities took a relatively laid-back stance on multiculturalism, generally tolerating cultural and religious differences at a time when few within minority communities expressed their identities in cultural or religious terms. François Mitterrand even coined the slogan, ‘droit à la differénce’.

As tensions within North African communities became more open, and as the Front National emerged as a political force, so the ‘authorities adopted a more hardline assimilationist approach. The problems of North African communities were presented in terms of their ‘difference’. The 2005 riots, and the disaffection they expressed, became presented less as a response to racism than as an expression of a growing threat to France – that of Islam. Islam became symbolic of the anxieties about values and identity that now beset France.

A much-discussed 2013 poll conducted by Ipsos and the Centre for Political Studies Sciences Po (Cevipof) found that 50 per cent of the population believed ‘the decline of France’, both economic and cultural, to be ‘inevitable’. Fewer than third thought that democracy worked well, while 62 per cent considered ‘most politicians’ to be ‘corrupt’. The report described a ‘fractured France’, divided into tribal groups, alientated from mainstream politics, distrustful of their leaders, and resentful of Muslims. The main sentiment driving French society, the report concluded was ‘fear’.

In Britain, multicultural policies were both an acknowledgement of a more fractured society and helped create a society more fractured. In France, policies of assimilation have, paradoxically, had the same result. Faced with a distrustful and disengaged public, politicians have attempted to reassert the notion of a common French identity. But unable to define clearly the ideas and values that characterize the nation, they have done so primarily by creating hostility against symbols of ‘alienness’, the most visible of which is Islam.

In principle, the French authorities rejected the multiculturalist approach that Britain had adopted. In practice, however, they treated North African migrants and their descendents, in a very ‘multicultural’ way – as a single community, and primarily as a ‘Muslim’ community. Just like British multiculturalism, French assimilationist policies tend to expunge the diversity of minority communities, particularly Muslim communities, treating them instead as homogenous wholes, and as defined primarily by reactionary attitudes.

Mondrian composition in red yellow and blue

I suggested earlier that there are two distinct meanings of multiculturalism that are often conflated: the lived experience of diversity, on the one hand, and the policies used to manage diversity, on the other. One can similarly distinguish between two meanings of assimilationism. On the one hand, it embodies the idea that one should treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. On the other, it is also a means of creating a common identity by institutionalizing the differences of groups that are deemed not to belong, and in particular turning Islam into the ‘Other’ against which French national identity is defined.

If I were to construct an ideal policy, it would be to marry multiculturalism, in the sense of the celebration of the lived experience of diversity, with assimilationism, in the sense of the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. In practice European nations have adopted the very opposite set of policies. Different countries have institutionalised either multiculturalism, in the sense of policies to place minorities in boxes, or assimilationism, in the sense of a common identity created by institutionalizing the differences of groups deemed not to belong.

To move beyond both multiculturalism and assimilationism requires us to rediscover a progressive sense of universal values, a perspective that European liberals and the left have abandoned in two distinct ways. On the one hand, there is a section of the left that has embraced relativism and multiculturalism, that argues that the very notion of universal values is in some sense racist. On the other there are those, exemplified by a figure like Bernard-Henry Lévy, who insist on upholding traditional Enlightenment values but who do so in a tribal fashion that presumes a ‘clash of civilizations’, a view of certain social groups as the Other. Challenging both is a necessary first step in taking us beyond both multiculturalism and assimilationism.

What links the fences at the edges of Europe with the fractures within is the loss of vision, the grip of fear. Multiculturalism and assimilationism are different policy responses to the same problem: the fracturing of society. So are the fences.

European nations have in recent years undergone a crisis of identity as both traditional values, and trust in the institutions in which those values were invested, have become eroded. Unable to define clearly the ideas and values that characterize the nation, or characterize Europe, still less able to win people to those ideas and values, politicians and intellectuals have taken the step either of abandoning the project or of building fences against symbols of ‘alienness’. It’s time we tore down the fences, not just at the edges of Europe, but within European societies too.


The images are, from top down, ‘Onement VI’ by Barnett Newman; ‘320 Dots’ by Jessica Snow; ‘Fault’ by Alexander de Moscoso; ‘Black is the colour of my true love’s heart‘ by Grace Gardner; ‘INOS 3″ by Tim Grosvenor; Hélio Oiticica, Untitled; ‘Black Break’ by Sam Gilliam; Brdget Riley, ‘Loss’;  Mark Rothko, ‘Red and blue over black’; Piet Mondrian, ‘Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue’.


  1. I agree that multi-culturalism has made matters worse.

    But two quibbles:

    “Vibrant” – word used only by rich, Ivory Tower liberals, high on caffeine.

    “Diverse” – confused, falling apart

    “Cosmopolitan” – i.e. doomed. No one is going to die for cosmopolitan diversity. The barbarians always win over the liberal cosmopolitans.

    In 1940, Britain was a stuffy, narrow, sexually repressed place with unenlightened views about race and diversity and old-fashioned patriotic and imperialist outlooks. That’s why it survived, that’s why it’s still here, that’s why fascism lost.

    • I worry when Tony Buck has only ‘two quibbles’ with an essay of mine…

      As for victory in the Second World War, I don’t suppose the Soviet Union, America and the soldiers of the British Empire had anything to do with it? And when it comes to ‘unenlightened views about race and diversity and old-fashioned patriotic and imperialist outlooks’, I seem to recall that Adolf Hitler had a few of those too.

      • In 1945, two Soviet generals asked Hitler’s military chief of staff – Gerd von Rundstedt – what had been, in his opinion, the crucial battle of the war just ended. He replied: “The battle of Britain; that was the one on which everything turned.”

        Even later, it was the Brits who prevented Hitler from invading the USSR in April (and winning), forcing him to postpone invasion to the ill-fated day June 22 (first day the evenings begin to draw in AND the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia) – and losing.

        Regarding “unenlightened” – the worst British jingo or imperialist was glorious sunlight compared to the Nazis; there are degrees of Unenlightenment. Hitler began as a naive right-wing politician; but as evil (and his youthful satanist initiation) took him over, he became a religious figure, a false messiah, his nihilism cloaked by nationalist sentiment. He died in 1945 seeking to destroy Germany and the German people.

        Without naive British imperialist, unenlightened nationalism, Hitler would have won – so, choose your poison.

        The trouble with cosy “enlightened” opinions, is that they are just that – opinions. Few, if any, will die for them. They breed spinelessness and relativism – recipes for paralysis. A Leftist International Brigade fought Franco – after decades of PC-liberalism, there is no International Brigade fighting ISIS.

        • The fact that the Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust does not mean that one has to be an apologist for British racism or imperialism. In fact it would be quite irrational to oppose racism and imperialism when it comes to Germany but not when it comes to Britain – thought that does not stop some from attempting to do just that.

          As for your sneer about those with enlightened ideas not willing to die for them, it’s perhaps not surprising, given your views, that you ignore all those who have given their lives in anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggles. Left-wing Kurdish forces are today pushing IS back. I don’t notice any British boots on the ground.

  2. damon

    Last week on his Sunday evening radio programme on BBC London, Dotun Adebayo talked of the 50th anniversary of his arriving in England from Nigeria as a young boy. On the show he was discussing Britishness with other black people, and he made the admission that he still didn’t feel like he was really British. Which I was surprised to hear, as he seems so British. He’s even got an MBE.
    Every week on his show, they talk about race and all the problems black people face in this society.
    I listen, but I often find it sad. I’m white and the people talking seem to regard that there are barriers between people of different races. Here are clips to several of his recent shows.

    • Human beings are egotists, preferring themselves to others and their own tribes to others.

      To overcome this is difficult and brave, not the easy, self-evident thing that liberals and multi-culturalists imagine. In fact, Only Islam and Christianity have ever achieved it.

      White liberals tend to hate and despise their own tribe, hence their enthusiasm for diversity. But obviously, they are merely reverse-racists, not the good people they imagine themselves to be.

  3. “If I were to construct an ideal policy, it would be to marry multiculturalism, in the sense of the celebration of the lived experience of diversity, with assimilationism, in the sense of the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. In practice European nations have adopted the very opposite set of policies”

    Brilliant article. I have long failed to evidence any reaction other than “Huh?” when talking about the difference between descriptive and normative multiculturalism.

  4. Danny

    I challenged Kenan after the seminar on several issues, including his historical revisionism, using historical acts/quotes without quoting the context and applying modern moral standards to ancient times. I also pointed out that his response to a question on cultures & communities separating & segregating was unsatisfactory and it was wrong not to acknowledge the human need to congregate & seek out others of similar culture/ethnicity/religion. I was surprised by his reaction, he avoided my questions and went down the familiar escape route of what is culture?, what are British values? I was apparently the only non-sycophant in the room. I tried to engage Kenan again in conversation with other left-wing enthusiasts. However, he went into a long monologue and then disappeared when I challenged his assertion that “immigration is not an issue”. I was not impressed and could only conclude that he is intolerant, quite rude and possessing an uncompromising dislike of the British.

    • Ah, yes, I remember our chat after the meeting, though I remember a very different conversation to the one you describe. I cannot recall any challenge to my ‘historical revisionism’ (I don’t even know what my historical revisionism consists of), but I do remember you spending considerable time explaining to me how immigrants undermine British culture and British values. So, yes I did ask you (more than once) to define what you meant by ‘British culture’ and ‘British values’, which you seemed unable or unwilling to do. I can’t remember, however, having anything other than a civil conversation. It’s true, I didn’t give you the answers that you wanted – but that’s not being rude or avoiding the questions, it’s simply disagreement. As for my ‘uncompromising dislike of the British’ – perhaps you can point me to anything I have written or said that suggests that? I am always open to debate, whether at meetings or on Pandaemonium. But debate becomes a bit pointless if you cannot distinguish between disagreement and rudeness, or think that my refusal to accept your argument constitutes ‘intolerance’, or imagine that interrogating the idea of ‘British values’ amounts to a dislike of the British.

  5. This post is so good that I have followed you on twitter. One question, you say that there are some who hold an enlightenment view and expect there must be some sort of clash of civilizations. I suppose I do see that at least some members of some ethnic groups (say extremist islamists) almost certainly will clash with western values. Which is not to say that Islam is a doctrine that necessitates this, nor that all muslims will be so inclined towards such a clash, but some value systems really are more opposed to enlightenment values, and if those values are held tightly it does seem like a clash (even if be a minor one) is in some sense inevitable.

  6. damon

    Can I offer a link to the Vanessa Feltz radio programme on BBC London from today 30th September?

    The discussion was about David Cameron’s visit to Jamaica and the call for Britain to make repperations to the country for slavery. For two hours the conversation went back and forth. You can hear the passion is several of the Black British callers. They are really really unhappy about the state of things in modern Britain (and the US) for black people living in those countries.

    It’s a three hour programme and they started on the subject after the news at the beginning of the second hour. For me it’s an example of the mostly unspoken about faultlines that still run through Britain.

    • I’m horrified – not merely really unhappy – about the state of modern Britain, and I’m white. Whites from the underclass are even more horrified by today’s Britain. Everyone’s in this club, regardless of race, colour and creed !.

      It is, of course, absurd to expect other people to be anglically good-natured, when one isn’t angelically good-natured oneself, as very few people of any race are.

      C.G. Jung pointed out that the great disease of modern times is expecting other people to be better than one is oneself.

      Yes, the fault lines are multiple, racially, class-wise and in terms of outlooks and economic interests. The slightest shock will bring the entire fractured society down – as I heard an elderly Anglican lady prophesy in 2010: “There are desperate days ahead for this nation.”

  7. Kenan since reading this awesome article a few days ago I have read through your 21 introductory articles. That I read so many so fast should show make obvious that I find your work to be very well done and incredibly interesting. However, I think that you have at times presented a caricatured portrait of Sam Harris’s views. Not as harshly as some have, you admit he is a liberal while some make the silly claim he is a neo-con. Yet in one or two of your articles you treat his thought experiments as though he actually intends them to be treated as policy. Many of them are illustrations of the dangers of treating martyrdom and paradise as an actual set of beliefs that are acted on, and many of the conclusions he comes to are in line with almost all consequentialist moral philosophers. You also quote him “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.” and sort of imply that what he is saying is dangerous or that he endorses the far right, but in actuality all he is doing there is bemoaning the absurd failure of progressive leftists to admit that there is a link between islamic doctrine and the problems of islam, and expressing worry that the right are doing it. From what I’ve read of you, you would agree with this sentiment. I also think one of your critiques of his ethics is misguided you write: “wellbeing is defined simply by the existence of certain neural states, or by the presence of particular hormones or neurotransmitters, or because of certain evolutionary dispositions, then the notion of wellbeing is arbitrary. If such a definition is not to be arbitrary, then it can only be because the neural state, or the hormonal or neurotransmitter level, or the evolutionary disposition, correlates with a notion of wellbeing or of the good, which has been arrived at independently. ” Yet, I hardly believe you, as neurobiologically aware as you are, can subscribe to the view that it is arbitrary. The notion of the good came after, and could only come after, the evolution of pleasurable states of the brain. Nor is wellbeing in terms of conscious pleasure and avoiding suffering to be found only among humans, it will have analogous states in other non-human animals. Moreover at least the rudiments of these states have already been found in homologous regions of the brain in different species. Given a complete neuroscience one would not have to use a”notion of wellbeing which has been arrived at independently” because we could deduce which states of the brain would cause or correlate with happiness. That is because we would understand these states as algorithms and this would not require any human saying “this feels good”.

    • Jason, Thanks for this, and for your kind comments (and my apologies for a slow response, but I have been away and I am only just catching up on blog comments). I don’t want to turn this into a thread about Sam Harris, but let me respond briefly to a couple of points you raise.

      You also quote him “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.” and sort of imply that what he is saying is dangerous or that he endorses the far right, but in actuality all he is doing there is bemoaning the absurd failure of progressive leftists to admit that there is a link between islamic doctrine and the problems of islam, and expressing worry that the right are doing it.

      Many, myself included, have indeed challenged the failures of much of the left in its attitude to Islamism. But I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that fascists speak ‘sensibly’, still less the ‘most sensibly’, about Islam. In what way do fascists speak sensibly? When they conflate Islam and Islamism? When they call for an end to Muslim immigration? When they protest about the building of mosques? When they demand the banning of the Qur’an? When they call for discriminatory policies against Muslims?

      Far from saying anything ‘sensible’ about Islam, fascists are responsible for promoting hate-filled bigotry. How else can one read the line ‘The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists’ except by concluding that the writer endorses fascist views of Islam? That is not just ‘dangerous’ but, in my eyes, immoral.

      The notion of the good came after, and could only come after, the evolution of pleasurable states of the brain. Nor is wellbeing in terms of conscious pleasure and avoiding suffering to be found only among humans, it will have analogous states in other non-human animals. Moreover at least the rudiments of these states have already been found in homologous regions of the brain in different species. Given a complete neuroscience one would not have to use a “notion of wellbeing which has been arrived at independently” because we could deduce which states of the brain would cause or correlate with happiness. That is because we would understand these states as algorithms and this would not require any human saying “this feels good”.

      You are making huge leaps here, and conflating notions of the ‘good’, the ‘pleasurable’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘happiness’. These are not congruent terms at all. I may find heroin pleasurable, but is it a good? Keeping a slave to do all my work might make me happy, but is it a good? The slave would, of course, would find his state deeply painful. But on what basis should his pain count for more than my pleasure? Is it, to slightly distort Mill, better to be Socrates unhappy than a fool happy? And so on.

      These issues have, of course, been long debated by utilitarians and consequentialists, and many solutions proposed to such conundrums. I have never found any of these solutions satisfactory, which is one of the reasons that I am not a utilitarian or consequentialist. But Sam Harris seems not to bother with this literature at all, indeed celebrating in The Moral Landscape the fact that he has read little moral philosophy because he finds it ‘boring’. That may be, but then I would suggest that he should not blindly walk into such debates.

      Suppose ‘a complete neuroscience’ is able to specify the state of my brain when I am slouching in bed all day rather than going to work. And suppose I find that pleasurable. Would that state of the brain then define that which is ‘good’? And if so should we take slouching in bed to be a good? Or suppose we are able to specify the state of both my brain and that of a fundamentalist Muslim cleric when reading The Satanic Verses. In what way would that tell us whether free speech is a good?

      Neuroscience cannot determine values because one cannot scientifically assess what is right and wrong without already having constructed a moral framework within which to evaluate the empirical data. Or, as Thomas Huxley put it in Evolution and Ethics, science ‘may teach how the good and the evil tendencies may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.’

  8. The son of a woman with whom my sister works in the city of Baltimore was executed by a gang because he witnessed a crime. The woman is from the neighborhood, dark skinned, does skilled manual work. She earns better than minimum wage and has some benefits, but she’s still at an economic level that could be described as struggling, which is why she was stuck living in a dangerous neighborhood.

    A few weeks later, as I think the entire world knows, there were riots in the city. In the wake of the riots I heard calls for gangs to police “their own” neighborhoods. This was covered in a way I percieved as glowing in mainstream newspapers. I’m pretty sure I saw an article in The New York Times about this, because that’s where I have a subscription, although I can’t find it at the moment. (Right now I’m on a small laptop whose screen I can barely see.) Knowing people who feel themselves to be the prey of these very gangs I felt an incredible amount of disgust with educated people who are left of center, my own cohort, whose views of social forces are such that they could actually think this is a good idea.

    Until a year ago, I lived in Baltimore. The disconnect between what I saw in the media and what I knew from first hand is astounding. Much of this is because the middle class and wealthy people who work in the media only recognize certain voices as being legitimately representative of those neighborhoods. In a comment thread online, I was actually told to not listen to people I know who live there but to read certain “black” websites.

    I mentioned to a journalist with whom I had recently corresponded on another topic that if he wanted to go to Baltimore he could stay with my sister and she could introduce him to people who lived in some rough neighborhoods, a variety of people, not just the ones who are said to represent the neighborhood. He never responded. I don’t think anyone wants to know.

    The calls to let people police their own neighborhoods reminded me of some of what you have written about which individuals are percieved as representative of the community.

    Slightly off topic from what you’ve written, but ever since the riots, I’ve been feeling like I’ve been living in a pre-modern world in which I only know what I’ve seen first hand or what people I know have told me they’ve seen. The modern media has lost my trust sufficiently that I don’t know how much they write I can believe. I know that it h

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