Over the past few years, much ink has spilled regarding the failures of multiculturalism in Canada. Whether it be the reasonable accommodation of Sikhs to wear ceremonial daggers under strict guidelines or the ability for Muslim students to wear the hijab during soccer games, the national conversation regarding the ability for immigrants to integrate into Canada is vociferous, particularly if those immigrants happen to be Muslim. Many concerns of these critics were voiced by British Prime Minister David Cameron, during a much publicized speech delivered to the Munich Security Conference over a month ago.
The Problems of Multiculturalism
Linking the root of British Islamist extremism to state multicultural policies, Mr. Cameron asserted that these policies not only failed to provide a common vision of society but also tolerated the segregation of communities behaving in ways that run counter to Western values. Outlining the importance of having shared values to form the basis of a national identity, Cameron argues that multiculturalism undermines this national identity, so much so that Muslims are not aware of their duties or responsibilities that come with being British. A more effective replacement to this passive state policy is to actively promote liberal values that would look like ensuring all immigrants speak the language of their new home and ensuring that people are educated in elements of a common culture and curriculum.
Practical Implications of Shared National Identity
Mr. Cameron’s concerns and remedies are certainly not new; the same concerns have been repeatedly expressed. What is absent in his account of multiculturalism is a reflection of a modern nation without some form of multicultural policies. Take Sri Lanka, the country of my birth. Upon gaining independence in 1948, the initial priority for successive Sri Lankan governments was to enact very similar policies to what Mr. Cameron espouses: namely the promotion of one common Sri Lankan identity within both the Sinhala and Tamil populations. The Sinhala Only Language Act for instance was designed to ensure that all members of the population can speak one language. During the 1970’s, state organs strived to ensure that minority populations adapted to the traditions and customs the majority Sinhalese population. While these nationalist policies were eventually reversed, these policies exacerbated the existing misunderstandings and tensions between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities. These tensions eventually led to the rise of the brutal Tamil Tigers terrorist group and a 25 year old civil war that only recently ended.
Whether it be the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Chechen rebels in Russia, or the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian demonstrators in the Middle East: all these groups are, in their own unique way, demanding liberation from a ‘common national identity’ that excludes those falling outside the identity from both the public square and view. Young Muslims turn away from British identity, not because of a lack of attraction to British identity, but because those articulating the ‘common British identity’ are commonly spouting xenophobic and racist virulence. In fact I would argue the more existential threat to British national identity are not Muslim extremists – who will never be English in the first place – but rather are British nationals who harass and marginalize all those not born in Mother England. Take a bow, English Defence League.
Contrary to Mr. Camerons opinion, state multicultural policies are not efforts to segregate communities or to build a society full of cultural differences but no unifying ideal. Multiculturalism is as Charles Taylor calls ‘a politics of recognition’: asking the state to not only tolerate the presence of diverse cultures, but to positively engage these cultures in an honest but respectful dialogue that informs all citizens - regardless of origin – of their duties and responsibilities to their country and their neighour.