British UKIP leader Nigel Farage leapt at the opportunity to blame multiculturalism for the murders at Charlie Hebdo. Though Prime Minister David Cameron was quick to rebuke Farage, many people have asserted that these atrocities, along with larger concerns about the integration of many Muslims in Europe, are related to multicultural policy. They are mistaken.
The last decade has seen a decline in multiculturalism in much of the world, at least in the terms of political rhetoric. Cameron himself called for a “more muscular liberalism” in a 2011 speech that decried the failure of state multiculturalism, an assertion echoed by French President Nicholas Sarkozy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed a couple of years later that multiculturalism had failed – a puzzling admission given that Germany has never made much effort to pursue multicultural policies. In a startling reversal, the Netherlands has retreated from multiculturalism following the murder of far right politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.
The problem is that most of the people who have declared that multiculturalism has failed do not understand what it is as an ideal for social and political integration and as a set of policies.
I spent winter break just outside of Calgary, Alberta after five years in the United States. I grew up in Canada under the influence of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declaration of Canada’s intention to adopt a multicultural policy. Canada was the first country to officially adopt multiculturalism, culminating in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act begins with the assertion that the government of Canada’s policy is to “recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage.”
As a child I was taught that Canada was a bilingual, multicultural country where people who speak different languages, have different religions and customs. People’s cultural backgrounds deserved respect, not mere tolerance, and diverse backgrounds enriched society. Teachers told me that multiculturalism distinguished us from our Southern neighborhoods who endorsed a melting pot. Multiculturalism did not separate Canadians into different groups, it modified Canadian identity into something more vibrant and fluid. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms provided a legal framework that guaranteed individual rights, strong measures for equal protection and benefit under the law, as well as language rights.
As a child I had a dim notion that the ideal and the reality of Canadian multiculturalism diverged. In my town in Northern British Columbia, some kids referred to Indian Sikhs with the derogatory slur “Pakis” and called East Asians “Chinks”. Some teachers marginalized and stigmatized children from the First Nations. Still, these were failures in meeting the moral ideal of a multicultural society, not a problem with the ideal itself. When I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, I read Canadian political philosophers such as Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka who developed the Canadian model as a compelling moral ideal for liberal democracy.
Even Canada has not been immune to the multicultural backlash. After nearly ten years under Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, some people in Canada have begun to try to move away from Trudeau’s vision of a multicultural society. In 2010, the Conservative government detained nearly 500 Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylumin Canada under unfounded rhetoric that many of them might be criminals or terrorists. In 2012, the federal government made a series of mean spirited changes to the Interim Federal Health (IFH) programto deny refugees access to health care. Last October’s murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau led to cries that Canada’s multiculturalism has fueled extremism and to calls for new legislation to fight terror. Recently, Canada’s conservative government shamefully toyed with the idea of granted priority to Syrian religious minoritieswhen accepting refugees for resettlement.
(A social experiment filmed in Hamilton, Ontario provides some hope that Harper and his ministers do not represent many Canadians. Shortly after the murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa, York University student Omar Albach filmed an actor harassing another student dressed in traditional Muslim clothing. Not only did the people in the street stand up for the student, one spectator punched the actor in the face.)
To see why this backlash is founded largely on misunderstanding, we need to explore the ideal of multiculturalism and how it has been implemented in countries like Canada. Official multiculturalism, like every nation building project, was partly an attempt to overcome official racism that characterized the treatment of ethnic groups in North America, Europe, and Australasia until about fifty years ago. As Will Kymlicka has pointed out, it was a human rights movement, grounded in an ideal of moral equality of all people. It never promoted cultural or moral relativism and never claimed to be at odds with strong individual rights and liberties – including freedoms of speech and expression. Nor was it thought to be incompatible with loyalty and belonging to a larger political community – rather, minorities groups who received recognition and respect were more likely to feel included as part of the nation.
Multicultural policies, including official recognition of diversity, support for language and cultural activity, inclusion in school curricula and the media, exemptions from some requirements that disadvantaged community members, and affirmative action, aimed at convincing both members of minority communities and the larger community that everybody belonged. Language that treats ethnic groups as somehow different from the mainstream population (whatever that may be) often serves to create marginalized, ethnic minorities. Language that treats them as part of the community promotes solidarity.
In Europe, policies like the French ban of the full-faced veil and the rhetoric that there is a clash between Islam and “European” values creates and exacerbates tensions that multicultural policies were designed to reduce. In Europe, it is not multiculturalism that has failed. Rather, the failure has been the lack of genuine multiculturalism where diverse people enjoy equal opportunities as larger of a larger community despite differences. It is not that groups have chosen not to integrate or to maintain values from their countries of origin; it is that countries have retained the trappings of racism and colonialism that defined them until the 1970s.
The recipe isn’t a retreat to the language of assimilation and the monocultural nationalism (something that has never been achieved). Instead, we need more vigorous multiculturalism.