Unravelling the multiculturalism debate

Few contemporary debates arouse as much visceral emotion even among those they do not directly affect as that over multiculturalism. And unlike arguments in some other areas, this is unavoidable, as this one touches on our identity and fundamental beliefs, which, though they may be informed by reason, are not primarily rational.

Nevertheless, a bit of careful thinking can help untangle the issues involved, and also avoid the tendency for debate to degenerate into a fight between mutually antagonistic communities that have little understanding or sympathy for each other, nor desire to achieve it.

It also shows us that fundamentally we do have a debate about values on our hands, and that this is a struggle that could (and probably will) end up changing our culture, and there will definitely be losers as well as winners. What is important is the less obvious point that the losers and winners overlap, as do the communities mentioned above, which exist along different axes, according to the question under discussion. As usual, the way to make progress and generate light rather than heat is to debate ideas, not attack people.

I see three principal fronts in the debate. The first is between integration and multiculturalism, between those who think that that immigrants should assimilate, and those who think that they should keep their own culture.

Unfortunately, we continue to get this discord-promoting dichotomic presentation of the question, despite the fact that it’s obviously a false dichotomy. A society which thinks of itself as liberal must encourage diversity; equally, social cohesion clearly requires both an agreement on core values and sympathy between people, which is impossible when they do not mix. (This latter point applies just as strongly to the question of class divisions, which I won’t touch on further here, but it may be fruitful to bear it in mind while reading on.)

The second front is between religions. In the UK, the two main contenders are Christianity and Islam, though one could argue that it’s Islam against the rest: although Christianity is still formally the state religion, few adherents still claim that it has the priority that that implies, in particular in civil life, whereas there are strident Islamic voices calling for its establishment and the introduction of sharia law. No other major religion in the UK is having similar demands made on its behalf. Both Christianity, despite its relative decline, and Islam, growing rapidly, are actively proselytising, and have influential public voices, and these are frequently opposed on a range of social and political issues. They are, at many points, irreconcilable in their present forms; however, the differences are not primarily religious, but historical: Islam is, simply put, rather more behind the times than Christianity. (Arguably, therefore, from a secularist point of view, a victory for Islam over Christianity would be a setback rather than a permanent disaster.)

The third front is that between religion and secularism. These two confront each other on many issues; here, the principal debate is whether religion should be central to society and, if so, whether it should be one particular religion or many.

The co-existence of the struggle between religions and that between religion and irreligion seems to be what makes this debate particularly interesting: Christians and Muslims have to decide when to disagree and when to make common cause against the infidel. In fact, this contradiction is mirrored in every believer whose religious beliefs do not subsume their social beliefs.

In any civilized debate, it’s important to find the areas of irreconcilability. Those between religions are relatively obvious, as they are the subject of frequent discussion between and within religions. Those between religion and secularism are obvious too, though I should note at this point that up to now I’ve conflated two positions under the heading of secularism, namely that which holds that religion is a matter for individuals, not for societies, and the more extreme position that religion is evil and should be eradicated. I’m not going to deal with this further, because this difference of views does not expand the range of desired outcomes to the multicultarism debate (although it is interesting to observe that those who would banish religion have a view more similar to those who would insist on a single religion than on secularists who insist on religious tolerance).

What then are the possible outcomes? First, there can be a state religion. In name, Christianity holds this position in the UK; in reality it is formally little privileged over any other, though its values are embedded in our culture, and hence social and legal systems (It is easy to forget the extent to which Christianity invisibly frames the entire debate simply because of this massive historical influence.) Secondly, religions can have legal status. Those who decry suggestions to introduce sharia law in certain areas of life are often unaware that Jewish courts have held sway in some areas for a long time, and if one believes religions have a social, as opposed to a merely individual, function, it’s hard to argue against believers electing to acknowledge the authority of religious courts in certain areas of law. Thirdly, religions can be limited to the individual conscience; this is more or less the current state of affairs in the UK.

Those who argue for multiculturalism argue for either the second or third outcome; those who argue against either for the first or third. I believe that only the first or third outcomes are tenable positions for a coherent society; the second leads to social fragmentation and an eventually irreconcilable tension between state and religion. Unfortunately, it’s the direction we’re heading in at the moment in the UK. The problem is that multiculturalism tries to reconcile the irreconcilable, by encouraging the growth of societies within a society. For a society to function as a whole, its members must share values and experiences; by allowing religious adherents to expand the sphere of their religions from the personal to the societal, multiple states-within-states are created, and the irreconcilability of religions which, when it is restricted to the personal level, can be bridged, builds insurmountable barriers between communities. A pluralistic society cannot be multicultural; minorities must assimilate, or form separate societies. In the UK, at least, the latter seems an unnecessarily disruptive course, and one which, in any case, the proponents of multiculturalism are not pursuing.

In short, to be part of British society as it is today, it seems reasonable to expect a command of English, respect for the rule of law, and for the principles of individual conscience and liberty. To disagree with this list implies either that you would be better off elsewhere, or that you want to change the country. For those who believe such a change would be for the worse, such a position is therefore a challenge.

7th July, 2009

Last updated 2009/07/07