Multiculturalism Essay

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The term multiculturalism” emerged in the 1960s in Anglophone countries. The policy focus was often initially on schooling and the children of Asian/black/Hispanic post/neo-colonial 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 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. Hence, even today, both in theoretical and policy discourses, multiculturalism means different things in different places. 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 invoke the large, newly-settled Muslim populations. Central to multiculturalism and the politics of difference is the rejection of the idea that political concepts such as equality and citizenship can be color-blind and culture-neutral, and the contention that ethnicity and culture cannot be confined to some so-called private sphere but shape political and opportunity structures in all societies. It is the basis for the conclusion that allegedly neutral” liberal democracies have hegemonic cultures that systematically de-ethnicize or marginalize 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.

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 socio-cultural 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 centre of a definition of culture.” 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 ethno-religious, and sometimes seeking corporate representation.

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 and is marked by the fact that a new assimilationism is espoused not just on the political right but also on the centre-left and by erstwhile supporters of multiculturalism. Muslims in western Europe it is argued are disloyal to European states, prefer segregation and socio-cultural 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 communalism 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. Yet the emergence of Muslim political mobilization has led some multi-culturalists 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. Modood, T. (2005) Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity, and Muslims in Britain. Minnesota and Edinburgh University Presses, Edinburgh.
  2. Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. Routledge, London.

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