The Dilemma of Multiculturalism

Many people have suddenly become very hesitant about using the term “multicultural society.” Or they hesitate to use it approvingly, as a desirable ideal that social reality should at least approximate.

July’s terrorist attacks in London demonstrated both the strength and the weakness of the concept. London is certainly a multicultural metropolis. An indiscriminate attack such as a bomb in the Underground will necessarily hit people of many cultural backgrounds and beliefs.

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Sitting, or more likely standing, in the “tube” (as London’s Underground is affectionately known), one never ceases to be amazed at the ease with which Jewish mothers and Muslim men, West Indian youngsters and South Asian businessmen, and many others endure the same stressful conditions and try to lighten its impact by being civil to one another. The terror attacks demonstrated not only how particular people helped each other, but also how the whole city, with all the ingredients of its human mixture, displayed a common spirit of resilience.

This is the positive side of a multicultural society. Careful observers have always noted that it is strictly confined to the public sphere, to life in those parts of the city that are shared by all. It does not extend in quite the same way to people’s homes, let alone to their ways of life in the private sphere.

This is one reason why London has experienced the other, darker side of the multicultural society: the veneer of multiculturalism is thin. It does not take much to turn people of one group against those of others with whom they had apparently lived in peace.

We know this because it lies at the core of the murderous environment that gripped the Balkans in the 1990’s. For decades (and in some cases much longer), Serbs and Croats, – indeed, Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim “Yugoslavs” – had lived together as neighbors. Few thought it possible that they would turn against each other in a bloodletting of such brutal enormity that it is very unlikely that Bosnia-Herzegovina can ever become a successful multicultural society. Yet it happened, and in a different way it is happening now in Britain.

It is important to recognize that we are not talking about the return of age-old hostilities. Ethnic and cultural conflicts today, often in the form of terrorism, are not the eruption of a supposedly extinct volcano. They are, on the contrary, a specifically modern phenomenon.

For the terrorists themselves, such conflicts are one consequence of the unsettling effects of modernization. Beneath the veneer of integration into a multicultural environment, many people – especially young men with an immigrant background – are lost in the world of contradictions around them. Their seamless, all-embracing world of tradition is gone, but they are not yet confident citizens of the modern, individualistic world. The question is not primarily one of employment, or even poverty, but of marginalization and alienation, of the lack of a sense of belonging.

It is in such circumstances that the key feature of terrorism comes into play: the preaching of hate by often self-appointed leaders. They are not necessarily religious leaders; in the Balkans and elsewhere, they are nationalists who preach the superiority of one nationality over others. But to call these hate-mongers “preachers” is fitting nonetheless, because they invariably appeal to higher values to sanctify criminal acts.

The mobilization of criminal energies by such preachers of hate is itself a modern phenomenon. It is a far cry even from such doubtful claims as the self-determination of peoples defined as ethnic communities. Hate preachers use highly modern methods to enhance their personal power and to create havoc around them.

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But countering them does not involve warfare, or even a rhetorically looser “war on terror.” Of course, part of the answer is to identify the relatively small number of people who are prepared to use their lives to destroy the lives of others without distinction or purpose. But the more important issue is to identify the preachers of hate and stop their murderous incitement. This is why it is so important to capture and prosecute Radovan Karadzic, who spurred on the homicidal rage of so many Bosnian Serbs. And this is why militant Islamist preachers must be stopped.

Beyond this carefully targeted – and, in principle, limited – task, there remains the need to strengthen the sphere of common values and cooperation in societies that will, after all, remain multicultural. This will be difficult, and it must not be approached naively. Differences will not – and need not – go away; but ensuring that all citizens can rely on each other requires us to find a way to extend and bolster the civic trust that we see in the public sphere.