Multiculturalism and Democracy

Multiculturalism and Democracy

A debate rages in Europe today on the role of multicultural policies in stimulating religiously motivated extremism, Islamism in particular. In this discussion, multiculturalism is generally understood as government support for the cultural and religious institutions of minority communities. The groups at its center are immigrants or their first- and second-generation descendants. Sustaining the language and cultures of the Scots and the Welsh in Britain or the Catalans and the Basques in Spain is not at issue, even when tensions between these indigenous groups and the majority population of their countries seriously threaten national cohesion. The issue is immigrants from Muslim countries, although other immigrant groups are frequently drawn into the controversy.

In fact, three distinct matters have become entangled: (1) religiously based cultural difference, (2) immigration, and (3) the response of a democracy to the threat posed by political extremism. These matters define new political fault lines and polarize Western European electorates.

Opponents of multiculturalism argue that the failure of many Muslim immigrants to integrate is the main factor for the rise of extremist movements. By indulging the accentuation of cultural difference, they argue, lax public policies produced a generation of disaffected Muslim youth who provide the main recruiting ground for foreign jihadists and local militants. Supporters of multiculturalism maintain that cultural differences enrich a host country and contribute to its vitality. They point to immigrant societies such as Canada and the United States as successful examples. They also argue that any attempt to deny immigrant communities the opportunity to sustain their own religious and cultural institutions violates their rights as members of a minority in a democratic society.

Conservatives are the most strident anti-multiculturalists. The National and International Security Policy Group of the Conservative Party of Britain recently published a report titled “National Cohesion,” which characterizes multiculturalism as government policy support of cultural difference “for its own sake.” It argues that Muslim schools and community groups that promote separatist agendas are primary agents of alienation and radicalization among British Muslim youth. Melanie Phillips, a columnist for the Daily Mail, stated this belief to an interviewer in even starker terms:

Multiculturalism has turned Britain’s values inside out—and the root cause of the problem is the deconstruction of Britain’s identity. For decades, the British elite has been consumed by loathing of its national identity and values which it decided were racist, authoritarian and generally disagreeable. Much of that was due to our old f...