By Ian Kumekawa
Earlier this month at a security summit in Munich, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that multiculturalism has failed in the UK. “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism,” Cameron said, “we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives…apart from the mainstream…We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”
Cameron, however, was not speaking in the abstract. He addressed himself to an issue that his conservative government along with its allies in this country has identified as key: Britain’s perceived role as a relative safe haven for Islamic extremists and terrorists. Indeed, the speech explicitly focused on bringing Muslims dislocated from the national sentiment back into the mainstream British fold by several means: first, through programs meant to foster shared values; second, through major cuts in government support for Islamic groups that do not fully embrace what David Cameron presumes to be universally shared British values (e.g., democracy and gender equality); and finally, through aggressive opposition to extremist tendencies in Muslim communities, such as banning “preachers of hate” and preventing lecturers hostile to core Western values from speaking in publicly funded institutions.
Certainly, few would deny that Britain must take steps to curb the activities of terror cells operating within its borders. According to a recent report from MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, over 2,000 people in Britain, most of them Muslim, are likely currently involved in terror cells. Likewise, one would be hard pressed to find many virulently opposed to the concept of better integrating immigrant communities.
Yet very little of Cameron’s speech struck a tone that could be construed as either productive or sensitive. Though he spoke of Britain’s failure to “provide a vision of society to which…[those of different cultures] feel they want to belong,” he focused more on limiting the most visible signs of extremism than on dealing with the more systemic, fundamental barriers to integration.
In the words of Trevor Phillips, chair of the UK’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission, “the place most people integrate is in the workplace. If people can’t get jobs, you can’t expect them to integrate.” If Britain is serious about reducing divisions, it needs to focus on helping minority and immigrant communities, not limiting them by restricting their rights. That commitment must also be reflected in the language of the prime minister’s speeches. It seems irresponsible to remind the world about Muslim “preachers of hate,” while not mentioning facts representative of immigrants’ conditions in Britain, like for instance, that 25% of Pakistani men in Britain are taxi drivers and 75% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are unemployed.
Why did Cameron so quickly pass over the foundational socioeconomic barriers to integration? Why did he focus on the relatively few extremist “preachers of hate?” One explanation lies in the recent poll conducted by the Financial Times which found that “more than 6 out of 10 Britons believe immigration to the UK is spoiling the quality of life.” Was David Cameron pandering to an increasingly xenophobic electorate?
He was, after all, standing right next to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who made similar statements last October about the utter failure of multiculturalism in her own country as waves of ethno-nationalism swept over the continent. Cameron’s remarks also coincided with a prominent rally of the two-year-old English Defense League, a far-right street protest movement with ties to the fascist British Nationalist Party.
It seems fairly clear that Cameron, like Merkel and even French president Nicolas Sarkozy before him, is seeking to channel the social anxieties of a troubled populace into fear and hostility towards an even more vulnerable social group. Such fear mongering will inhibit the very integration and national cohesion that Mr. Cameron professes to desire. By singling out a group already hit hard by the economic recession and by generations of structural inequity, Cameron and his rhetoric have served a divisive rather than cohesive purpose.
It is doubtful that a great many Britons, or Americans for that matter, take great offense to many of Cameron’s enumerated values like workplace equality and human rights. These are, indeed, popular and good civic goals. But when Cameron uses sweeping generalizations like “our values” or “our collective identity,” it is difficult to assume that he is speaking for all Britons. It seems, instead, that he is speaking for a fairly specific majority—a majority that he implicitly defines negatively through race and social standing.
There’s something wrong with that, especially when the next words have to do with shared vision and collective identity.
By attempting to close the book on multiculturalism and by calling for a “more muscular liberalism,” Mr. Cameron is cherry picking his most favorite values that exist within the pantheon of Western liberalism. After all, multiculturalism itself has remarkably deep roots in liberal philosophy. It celebrates individual liberties and avoids the unfortunate coercion that goes along with molding all citizens into a social cast taken from the privileged majority. That is the beauty of multiculturalism: it generates a national community based not on ethnicity or nationalism, but instead on shared constitutional patriotism—a belief in the systems and institutions that run the country.
But in the midst of hardship and rising xenophobia, people across Europe and the world are forgetting this. In the words of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, writing after Angela Merkel’s speech last October, “That we are experiencing a relapse into this ethnic understanding of our liberal constitution is bad enough. It doesn’t make things any better that today leitkultur [guiding national culture] is defined not by…culture but by religion.”
Clearly, something must be done about extremism, but to eliminate multiculturalism would be to renege on some of the core values that lie at the heart of Western democracies. It would be, for a Britain so worried about preserving its homegrown liberal values, more than a little counterproductive.