≡ Menu

Muscular liberalism or multiculturalism?


Last month, in a speech before the Munich Security Conference, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that multiculturalism had weakened Britain’s collective identity and helped to make young British Muslims vulnerable to extremist ideologies.  In response to these failings, he argued that European governments needed to build stronger national identities that rejected “passive tolerance” in favor of “a more active, muscular liberalism”:

A passively tolerant society says to its citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.  It stands neutral between different values. A genuinely liberal country does much more.  It believes in certain values and actively promotes them.  Freedom of speech.  Freedom of worship.  Democracy.  The rule of law.  Equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.  It says to its citizens: this is what defines us as a society.  To belong here is to believe in these things.  Each of us in our own countries must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defense of our liberty.

The speech generated something of a firestorm among the chattering classes in Europe and North America, particularly in light of similar recent comments by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, Nicholas Sarkozy.  Some saw Cameron’s speech as an attempt to align himself with his two most prominent European counterparts. Others viewed the speech as a rather clumsy effort to address a volatile domestic issue in an international setting—a setting in which, unfortunately, multiculturalism and Europe’s growing Muslim minority were associated none too vaguely with the need to address “security.”Predictably, the “left” reacted angrily to what it perceived as Cameron’s conflation of multiculturalism with extremism. And the “right” cheered him on for finally saying that multiculturalism was a failure.

In retrospect, it appears that neither side really understood what Cameron was trying to say, but in fairness, that may have been because Cameron’s speech was more about sound bites than substance.

No getting around multiculturalism

Most people in Britain see multiculturalism as a way for people of different backgrounds, cultures, and traditions to respect and appreciate one another within the context of a larger, unified British political identity. In this they perceive on the ground what many academics have been theorizing about for years: citizenship is being decoupled from membership in a particular cultural community.  David Cameron himself alluded to this reality in his speech when he identified the root source of unity in Britain as a commitment to liberal values rather than in some cultural notion of “Britishness.”  Modern social, legal, and technological conditions mean that immigrants and migrants no longer feel obligated to immerse themselves totally in the preexisting social and cultural environments of their new homes, certainly not to the extent that would have been expected a generation or two ago.  Most British people see a more multicultural Britain as a better place for everyone, including, not insignificantly, “natives” like the Scots and the Welsh who can now demand respect for unique aspects of their culture within a more self-consciously diverse Great Britain.

Seyla Benhabib has written extensively on the emergence of a citizenship of residency that allows for multiple and often overlapping ties to locality, region, and transnational institutions.  To this I would add commitments to diasporic or universal religious identities, which in the case of Catholics might be encompassed by transnational institutions, but for many Muslims could be seen as completely separate from any institutional or geo-political structures. A number of political, legal, economic, and social changes since World War II have made this disaggregation of citizenship possible.

Primary among these changes has been the emergence of cosmopolitan legal norms linked to the expansion of international human rights.  As individuals are seen as bearers of certain fundamental rights regardless of the territories in which they find themselves, the notion of state sovereignty has weakened and, consequently, the ties of citizenship to particular cultures and territories have withered as well.  As these changes progress, an awkwardness about the meaning of citizenship and membership has developed in places like Europe and the United States as these societies reckon with the status of individuals in their midst who once would have been seen as members of peripheral cultures that were perhaps suitable for assimilation, not accommodation.

What do these changes signal for our understanding of citizenship and membership in societies like Britain as we move forward?  The numbers of global migrants may have dipped a bit due to the decline in the global economy, but most observers see this as temporary.  Furthermore, economic factors are just one of the many reasons that spur migrations, and the changes wrought by previous migratory movements are now a permanent part of the political and social landscape of nations around the world.

Muscular liberalism yes, as well as a respectful pluralism

Unless there is some other coherent idea for engaging the new realities of multiple and overlapping identities, any failures of multiculturalism will not be addressed by abandoning the concept.  A more robust commitment to democratic values is a start. But it is those very values and critical questions about how they should be defined that force a deeper recognition of and respect for difference within a democratic nation-state.  What does religious freedom mean when the conversation moves beyond Protestants, Catholics, and Jews?  Can pluralism flourish in places like the Britain and the United States if it means that some citizens will choose lifestyles that encompass practices many other citizens will find illiberal?  Lines separating the acceptable and unacceptable will no doubt have to be drawn, but separating real threats to liberal democracy from fear of a cultural or racialized “other” is not always so easy.  Rep. Peter King’s hearings on Muslim “extremism” offer one troubling example of where the confusion might lead.

Looking ahead, it seems very likely that new, transnational forms of identity are destined to emerge that will allow citizens to share various types of geographic, political, and social space while still remaining connected to other identities—such as religion and ethnicity, including the robust transnational identities and communities fostered by Islam and Catholicism—that transcend territory.

Vincent Rougeau is Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame.  He teaches and writes in the area of law and religion, with an emphasis on Catholic social teaching, and is the author of Christians in the American Empire: Faith and Citizenship in the New World Order (Oxford, 2008).

Comments on this entry are closed.