Multiculturalism or the political accommodation of minorities became a major demand in the last quarter of the twentieth century, filling some of the space that accommodation of the working classes occupied for a century or more earlier. It thus constitutes powerful, if diverse, intellectual challenges in several parts of the humanities and social sciences, with profound political ramifications. Nevertheless, by the early years of the twenty first century it was in theoretical and practical disarray over the accommodation of Muslims in the West.

The term ‘‘multiculturalism’’ emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in countries like Canada and Australia, and to a lesser extent in Britain and the United States. The policy focus was often initially on schooling and the children of Asian/ black/Hispanic post /neocolonial immigrants, and multiculturalism meant the extension of the school, both in terms of curriculum and as an institution, to include features such as ‘‘mother tongue’’ teaching, non Christian religions and holidays, halal food, Asian dress, and so on. From such a starting point, the perspective can develop to meeting such cultural requirements in other or even all social spheres and the empowering of marginalized groups. In Canada and Australia, however, the focus was much wider from the start and included, for example, constitutional and land issues and has been about the definition of the nation. This was partly because these countries had a continuous and recent history of ethnic communities created by migration, usually from different parts of Europe; and because there were unresolved legal questions to do with the entitlements and status of indigenous people in those countries; and, in the case of Canada, there was the further issue of the rise of a nationalist and secessionist movement in French speaking Quebec. Hence, the term ‘‘multiculturalism’’ in these countries came to mean, and now means throughout the English speaking world and beyond, the political accommodation by the state and/or a dominant group of all minority cultures defined first and foremost by reference to race or ethnicity, and, additionally but more controversially, by reference to other group defining characteristics such as nationality, aboriginality, or religion. The latter is more controversial not only because it extends the range of the groups that have to be accommodated, but also because it tends to make larger political claims and so tends to resist having these claims reduced to those of immigrants.

Hence, even today, in both theoretical and policy discourses, multiculturalism means different things in different places. In North America, for example, multiculturalism encompasses discrete groups with territorial claims, such as the Native Peoples and the Quebecois, even though these groups want to be treated as ‘‘nations’’ within a multinational state, rather than merely as ethnocultural groups in a mononational state (Kymlicka 1995). Indeed, in Europe, groups with such claims, like the Slovaks and the Scots, are thought of as nations, and multiculturalism has a more limited meaning, referring to a post immigration urban melange and the politics it gives rise to. While in North America, language based ethnicity is seen as the major political challenge, in Western Europe, the conjunction of the terms ‘‘immigration’’ and ‘‘culture’’ now nearly always invokes the large, newly settled Muslim populations. Sometimes, usually in America, political terms such as multiculturalism and ‘‘rainbow coalition’’ are meant to include all groups marked by ‘‘difference’’ and historic exclusion such as women and gays (Young 1990).

The latter meaning derives from the fact that the ethnic assertiveness associated with multiculturalism has been part of a wider political current of ‘‘identity politics’’ which first germinated in the 1960s and which transformed the idea of equality as sameness to equality as difference (Young 1990); or, in a related conceptualization, adding the concept of respect or ‘‘recognition’’ to the older concept of equality as the equal dignity of individuals (Taylor 1994). Black power and feminist and gay pride movements challenged the ideal of equality as assimilation and contended that a liberatory politics required allowing groups to assert their difference and to not have to conform to dominant cultural norms. Indeed, the attack on colorblind, culture neutral political concepts such as equality and citizenship, with the critique that ethnicity and culture cannot be confined to some so called private sphere but shape political and opportunity structures in all societies, is one of the most fundamental claims made by multi culturalism and the politics of difference. It is the theoretical basis for the conclusion that allegedly ‘‘neutral’’ liberal democracies are part of a hegemonic culture that systematically de ethnicizes or marginalizes minorities. Hence, the claim that minority cultures, norms, and symbols have as much right as their hegemonic counterparts to state provision and to be in the public space, to be recognized as groups and not just as culturally neutered individuals.

The African American search for dignity has contributed much to this politics which has shifted attention from socioeconomic disadvantage, arguably where their need is greatest. It has inadvertently promoted identities based on indigenous claims, language, religion, and sup pressed nationhood, none of which properly addresses the identity concerns of African Americans. Nathan Glazer has indeed argued that there is no prospect of multiculturalism in the US; the processes of assimilation are doing their work with non European immigrants, as they have done with their European predecessors (although Spanish has emerged as a major second language in parts of the US). Insofar as there is a group that will not melt in, it is African Americans; not because of cultural difference, but because American society lacks the determination to combat the racism and severe disadvantage to make it happen (Glazer 1997). In Glazer’s view, the rise of multiculturalism in the US is a reflection of the lack of will to overcome the black–white divide.

On this reading it is of no surprise that the multiculturalist debate in the US is primarily in the field of education and, uniquely, higher education, where passion has been expended on arguments about the curriculum in the humanities (‘‘the canon’’), punctilious avoidance of disrespect (‘‘political correctness’’), and anxiety about the ethnicization of student dorms (‘‘balkanization’’). Academic argument has, however, no less than popular feeling, been important in the formulation of multicultural ism, with the study of colonial societies and political theory at the forefront. The ideas of cultural difference and cultural group have historically been central to anthropology and other related disciplines focused on ‘‘primitive’’ and non European societies. The arrival in the metropolitan centers of peoples studied by scholars from these disciplines has made the latter experts on migrants and their cultural needs. They also enabled critics from previously colonized societies, often themselves immigrants to the ‘‘North,’’ to challenge the expert and other representations of the culturally subordinated. These intellectual developments have been as influenced by the collapse of Marxism as by postcolonial migrations. The failure of the economic ‘‘material base’’ explanations of the cultural ‘‘superstructure,’’ as the social sciences took what has been described as ‘‘the cultural turn,’’ shifting from the study of economic to cultural structures, has contributed to highlighting cultural identities and discursive analyses of cross cultural power relations (Said 1978).

The prominence of political theory in multi culturalism is also to be partly understood in terms of the internal dynamic within the discipline. Rawls’s Theory of Justice (1971) is the founding text in the modern revival of normative Anglo American political theory. It promised a philosophically grounded, systematic answer to questions of distributive justice in societies, such as the contemporary United States, which were assumed to be characterized by a value pluralism. Subsequent debate, including Rawls’s reformulation of his own position, focused not on Rawls’s conclusions about distribution but his assumptions about rationality and value pluralism. The generation of political theorists following Rawls thus has come to define their questions more in terms of the nature of community and minority rights than in terms of distributive justice, no less than their social theory peers defined it in terms of difference and identity rather than class conflict, and in each case the intellectual framework lent itself to multiculturalism, even when the term itself was not favored. While for most political theorists academic liberalism has been the primary reference point, Bhikhu Parekh has offered a philosophical multicultural ism grounded in an analysis of human nature and culture and which elaborates the intrinsic value of diversity as more fundamental than the accommodation of minorities (Parekh 2000).

One of the most fundamental divisions amongst scholars concerns the validity of ‘‘cultural groups’’ as a point of reference for multiculturalism. The dominant view in sociocultural studies has become that groups always have internal differences, including hierarchies, gender inequality, and dissent, and culture is always fluid and subject to varied influences, mixtures, and change. To think otherwise is to ‘‘essentialize’’ groups such as blacks, Muslims, Asians, and so on. Political theorists, on the other hand, continue to think of cultural groups as socio political actors who may bear rights and have needs that should be institutionally accommodated. This approach challenges the view of culture as radically unstable and primarily expressive by putting moral communities at the center of a definition of ‘‘culture’’ (Parekh 2000). Empirical studies, however, suggest that both these views have some substance. For while many young people, from majority and minority backgrounds, do not wish to be defined by a singular ethnicity but wish to actively mix and share several heritages, there is simultaneously a development of distinct communities, usually ethnoreligious, and sometimes seeking corporate representation.

Multiculturalism has had a much less popular reception in mainland Europe. Its prospect has sometimes led to extreme nationalist par ties winning control of some towns and cities, a significant share of the national poll, and sometimes even a share in the national government, as in the case of the Freedom Party in Austria. Anti multiculturalism is, however, not confined to extremist parties, nor even to those of the right. In France, where intellectual objections to multiculturalism have been most developed, multiculturalism is opposed across the political spectrum, for it is thought to be incompatible with a conception of a ‘‘transcendent’’ or ‘‘universal’’ citizenship which demands that all ‘‘particular’’ identities, such as those of race, ethnicity, and gender, which promote part of the republic against the good of the whole, be confined to private life. The implosion of Yugoslavia, with its ‘‘ethnic cleansing,’’ marks the most extreme reaction to multinational state hood and plural societies, and the political status of historic minorities, including the Roma (Gypsies), is conflicted throughout the territories of the former Austro Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires. Many postcolonial states in Asia and Africa are experiencing ethnonationalist and secessionist movements and some, such as India, Malaysia, and Indonesia, are also struggling with non territorial multiculturalism.

Since ‘‘9/11’’ and its aftermath, it is Muslims that have become the focus of discourse about minorities in the West. This is partly an issue of security, but more generally is accompanied by a ‘‘multiculturalism is dead’’ rhetoric. This has led to, or reinforced, policy reversals in many countries, even pioneering ones such as the Netherlands, and is most marked by the fact that a new assimilationism is espoused not just on the political right, but also on the center left and by erstwhile supporters of multiculturalism. Muslims in Western Europe, it is argued, are disloyal to European states and prefer segregation and sociocultural separatism to integration; they are illiberal on a range of issues, most notably on the personal freedom of women and on homosexuality; and they are challenging the secular character of European political culture by thrusting religious identities and communal ism into the public space. The last charge marks the most serious theoretical reversal of multiculturalism as the non privatization of minority identities is one of the core ideas of multiculturalism (Modood 2005). Yet the emergence of Muslim political mobilization has led some multiculturalists to argue that religion is a feature of plural societies that is uniquely legitimate to confine to the private sphere. This prohibiting of Muslim identity in public space has so far been taken furthest in France, where in 2004 Parliament passed, with little debate but an overwhelming majority, a ban on the wearing of ‘‘ostentatious’’ religious symbols, primarily the hijab (headscarf), in public schools.


  1. Glazer, N. (1997) We Are All Multiculturalists Now. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Kymlicka, W. (1995) Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Modood, T. (2005) Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity, and Muslims in Britain. Minnesota and Edinburgh University Presses, Edinburgh.
  4. Parekh, B. (2000) Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory. Macmillan, London and Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  5. Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. Routledge, London.
  6. Taylor, C. (1994) Multiculturalism and ‘‘The Politics of Recognition.’’ In: Gutmann, A. (Ed.), Multiculturalism and ‘‘The Politics of Recognition.’’ Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  7. Young, I. M. (1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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