Multiculturalism on the defensive

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Ever since the then Prime Minister David Cameron declared that “multiculturalism has failed” the concept has found itself on the back foot in Western political discourse. This has been a matter of dismay for many – I suspect most – Liberal Democrats, as multiculturalism is part of our DNA. This means not just tolerating but accepting difference, be it about ethnicity, religion, language, ability, sexuality or other forms of collective and personal identity.

Alas, with a few noble exceptions, political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have tapped into a seam of populist fear or resentment of The Other. This is not just a phenomenon of right-wing extremism, as represented by Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, France’s Marine Le Pen or Brexit’s Man in the Pub, Nigel Farage, all of whom have demonised Muslims and refugees. Listen to Donald Trump’s rambling speeches or read Boris Johnson’s journalism and you soon sense the undercurrent of prejudice and discrimination.

One of the reasons so many LibDems love the European Union is because the EU actively celebrates diversity. The Lisbon Treaty (the nearest to a Constitution that the EU has adopted) specifically declares that the Union respects cultural diversity and national identities. It would be nice to think that all member states treat this pledge equally seriously, and that those who don’t can be nudged back into line. Ideally, as a European Liberal Democrat I would moreover hope this could be a template for the rest of the world to follow.

However, I am enough of a realist to recognise that this is far from the case in 2020. Moreover, core European values, such as a respect for human rights and the Rule of Law, which were placed at the heart of post-War multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, no longer hold sway over much of the planet. Indeed, some totalitarian regimes argue that promoting these values is a form of neo-colonialism.

Multiculturalism is similarly in retreat. Paradoxically, really, when we think how globalised so much of life has become. But in country after country, governments and peoples are stepping back from their multicultural histories and present day realities. I shall cite just two glaring examples. First, China, which under Chairman Mao used to trumpets its “support” for national minorities, but has in fact systematically suppressed them. What has happened in Tibet and in Xinjiang (for a variety of Turkic minorities, not just the Uyghurs) has aptly been criticised as cultural genocide. Liberal Democrats are rightly outraged.

My second example is Turkey. For all its many faults, the Ottoman Empire was a remarkably multicultural entity, with culture-specific laws of personal status to take account of that. When Kemal Atatürk laid the foundations of the modern Turkish Republic, he championed the notion of one nation, one people, one language. Several minorities who had not left (most Greeks) or been killed or driven into exile (Armenians) had their identity effectively denied (the Kurds and Hatay’s Arabs).

At least Atatürk embraced the concept of secularism, which in principle gave a degree of acceptance to the personal nature of faith in a predominantly Muslim society. However, Receb Tayyip Erdoğan has put that process into reverse as he has consolidated his hold on power, to the delight of his more religious supporters. I am sure I was not alone in feeling sadness when the former Orthodox Cathedral and Mosque, Hagia Sophia, which had been a museum since 1934, a vibrant celebration of two great religions and Istanbul’s extraordinary heritage, was reconverted into a mosque last month.

For me, another candle to multiculturalism had been snuffed out. And I fear it will not be the last.

* Jonathan Fryer is Chair of the Federal International Relations Committee.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Pocock 6th Aug '20 - 12:48pm

    I would agree that multiculturalism decline is a bad thing but I would not pick the ottomans as a champion of it. That nice mosque picture is a stollen church and the holiest of holys of the people they conquered. They were enslavers in Africa and the Balkans and taxed minorities just for existing in “their” Borders. Their death throws killed millions of the minorities within their empire.

  • There are places in the world that are poly-ethnic. A map of SE Asia doesn’t give the real picture. Draw a big circle which takes in northern Thailand, northern Burma. NE India, southern China, Laos and Northern Vietnam, then you have a place which some anthropologists call the Zomia highland. This is an area ethnically diverse where the idea of a nation state does not fit.

  • Maurice Leeke 7th Aug '20 - 8:42am

    Surely, as Jonathan Fryer says, we should acknowledge and accept different languages rather than impose a common language as I think Joe Otten implies ?

  • Nasser Butt 7th Aug '20 - 10:13am

    David Pocock – I found your opening comment attacking the Ottomons on the basis of the photo rather meaningless as the accusations you put are rather unclever as this is true of British and any other Empire in the history of mankind. You also show lack of understanding of “tax” attributed to citizens in their borders. Prehaps Multiculturism is not for you.

  • richard underhill 7th Aug '20 - 11:04am

    Joe Otten 6th Aug ’20 – 5:21pm
    In the Ottoman Empire in Europe there were tax advantages for one religion over another which was intended to cause religious conversion and did. Muslims in the former Yugoslavia thus became an ethnic group. One claimed in her asylum claim that it was part of her identity to drink alcohol and wear mini-skirts, but that she was being persecuted by a religious leader who spoke against both those things.
    After Mussolini invaded Greece to expand Italy’s possessions, the Germans tried to help. driving straight through Croatia, but were shocked by the casual (undocumented) way that people were being thrown into the river. Downstream Serbs thought that the victims were their compatriots, which inflamed Serbian-Croatian relationships in a way that has lasted long term.
    This is not about skin colour (the same) or language (the same) but only about religious denominations (both nominally Christian, some Orthodox some Roman Catholic).

  • David Evans 7th Aug '20 - 11:14am

    Maurice – I don’t agree. Would you be happy to accept the consequence that people who have lived here for years, cannot converse with or even understand a policeman or medical staff in an emergency? A community needs a common means of communication and letting that go has adverse repercussions.

    If people want to talk a different language in their own homes, that is one thing, or even in their community (take the Welsh) but the language understood by the vast majority has to be the language that every citizen should be able to use. Ultimately that is imposed by necessity.

  • richard underhill 7th Aug '20 - 11:24am

    Joseph Bourke 6th Aug ’20 – 3:54pm
    Barack Obama was a (black) Kenyan politician who married an American (white) woman.
    ISBN 978 1 84767 094 6
    ISBN 978 1 84767 083 0
    The nationality of their son was later challenged by political opponents, one of whom is now US President and up for re-election in November 2020.
    Campaigners for his senatorial ambitions photographed him in monochrome film and printed leaflets used in Irish neighbourhoods. Hence the song “You can’t be more Irish than Barack Obama” which you may have heard (twice) on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1.

  • The United States 44th president was born on 4th August 1961 in Honolulu, two years after the territory was admitted to the union.

  • David Evans 8th Aug '20 - 2:42pm

    Richard Underhill, To make it clear of course it was Barack Obama Senior who was Kenyan, as Manfarang puts it the 44th US president (Barack Obama Junior) was born in Honolulu.

  • richard underhill 8th Aug '20 - 3:36pm

    David Evans 8th Aug ’20 – 2:42pm
    Yes, the father was born first. The son was more important.

  • richard underhill 8th Aug '20 - 3:40pm

    Manfarang 8th Aug ’20 – 1:31pm
    In Northern Ireland the 44th President used the language “People who look like me”

  • People who look like me

  • Nonconformistradical 9th Aug '20 - 8:20am

    David Evans at 7th Aug ’20 – 11:14am is right

  • Peter Hirst 13th Aug '20 - 4:56pm

    I prefer loving my neighbour to multiculturalism as a description. We need more strong leaders who can speak out against isolationism and bigotry. Climate change will eventually teach us that we must embrace everyone so let’s hope it’s in time.

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