Last week the Prime Minister, David Cameron said that “multiculturalism has failed“. This raises a number of questions:
- What does he mean by this?
- Is he right?
- What does this mean for Hindus?
- Does David Cameron expect Hindus, Jews, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Buddhists all to abandon their individual cultures and beliefs?
Understanding this is important, because similar statements have been made by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australia’s ex-prime minister John Howard, and Spanish ex-premier Jose Maria Aznar. First of all, I will look at this question: “what is multiculturalism?”.
What is multiculturalism?
Wikipedia makes it clear that multiculturalism can have several meanings:
Multiculturalism has a number of different meanings. At one level the term means the appreciation, acceptance or promotion of multiple cultures, applied to the demographic make-up of a specific place, usually at the organizational level, e.g. schools, businesses, neighborhoods, cities or nations. In this sense multiculturalism approximates to respect for diversity.
I think it is clear that the UK has always been multicultural in this sense. The above composite picture shows the Yorkshire Show, Scots Pipers, and Punters in Cambridge. All of these people have very different outlooks, ways of life, and views of the country. It seems very unlikely that David Cameron wants to integrate all of these into a mono-cultural society. The Wikipedia article also says:
In a political context the term has come to mean the advocacy of extending equitable status to distinct ethnic and religious groups without promoting any specific ethnic, religious, and/or cultural community values as central.
So is he saying that different religious and ethnic groups should not be treated equitably? Is he promoting some core community values? I think that his words make things a little clearer:
But these young men also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.
What he appears to be saying is that there are some core values, and communities should not oppose these. Also communities should not live separate lives from the mainstream. Later he concentrates on those opposing core values:
Some organisations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community are showered with public money despite doing little to combat extremism. As others have observed, this is like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement. So we should properly judge these organisations: do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separation? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask. Fail these tests and the presumption should be not to engage with organisations – so, no public money, no sharing of platforms with ministers at home.
What he seems to be saying is that certain core value should be upheld: the right to democracy, equality of all in law, and universal rights for people of all faiths. I agree with him on this point, though it does not seem to me to really be an issue of multiculturalism. It is a general issue of freedom where some people oppose it. It applies to areas like free speech (should people be allowed to speak against free speech), democracy (should an anti-democratic party be allowed to run for election and then end democracy), and rights (to what extent should we restrict the rites of those who will infringe the rights of others, for example imprisoning criminals). The generally accepted answer is that these groups should be limited where they infringe others rights,; so people should be allowed to speak against free speech (as it does not affect the rights of others), but a democratically elected party should not be able to remove democracy, and criminals who are likely to kill, injure, or steal from people can be locked up to protect the rights of others.
I think the example of a democratically elected party being prevented from removing democracy is the closest analogy. Protecting democracy by a constitution, so that one elected party cannot abolish it can be seen as an enhancement of democracy, even though it limits the powers of a democratically elected party. Similarly restricting cultural groups opposed to the rights of other cultures or beliefs should be seen as an enhancement to multiculturalism rather than its failure.
Upholding the Secular Freedoms
Interestingly the rights of freedom and democracy he is talking about are secular rights, they did not arise out of Christianity. For years Christian Britain had a feudal system, and those of other faiths were restricted by law (or at some times in history executed).
I don’t think that Hindus, Jews, most Christians, Buddhists or many other people would have any difficulty in recognising these secular rights. There are also Muslims who support these rights: many individual Muslims and some Muslim groups, such as the Ahmadiyya reject violence and subjigation of those of other faiths. They should be accepted the same as anyone of any other faith.
For those who believe that they should have the right to subjugate others, that they should have a superiour position in law, it should be made very clear that this is against our principles of secular freedoms, and will not be allowed. Any attempt to impose these ideas should be dealt with by the law. This should apply to all people, whatever their religion or background.
Integration or Separation
Though I agree with what David Cameron says about cultures and groups having to accept certain universal rights, I think that the meaning of this call for integration is less clear. Does he mean that cultural groups should forget and suppress their individuality and integrate into one culture? If he means that then I am against it. If, he means that each group should be able to openly celebrate their own festivals, hold events, and respect the right of others to do the same then that is fine.
Maybe he is talking about not forcibly keeping people away from other communities. I really think that he is unclear on this point, which is dangerous, it will be seen as support for extremist views by the right wing.
So has multiculturalism failed?
David Cameron’s main argument is that people should respect basic rights and freedoms of others, and that all should be equal under the law. This point is not related to multiculturalism as much as to universal rights and freedoms.
Certain groups are against these principles, but that does not mean that multiculturalism has failed any more than you could say a social club failed if one person refused to attend. Most Christians, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs and many others manage to live together respecting the rights of others to equal treatment. The fact that some groups don’t accept this doesn’t mean that the the basic concept of multiculturalism is wrong.
If David Cameron that the idea of having separate cultures or beliefs in society has failed, then he is certainly wrong – this has always been part of the UK society. I would say that multiculturalism is having respect for other ways of life and beliefs, while holding your own. This works.
We need to make sure that those who think that they should dominate and restrict other groups are not allowed to do so. This restriction, preventing them from subjugating others and illegal acts, is no more a failure of multiculturalism than constitutionally preventing parties from ending democracy is a failure of democracy!
How does this relate to Hinduism?
Hinduism is part of the UK’s multicultural society. I have already described how the tolerance between groups within Hinduism is a model for inter-religious respect. If Vishnava, Saiva, and others within Hinduism can hold their own views and respect others then this attitude can be exists between to other faiths in society.
David Cameron’s statement could be used by extremist right-wing groups to legitimise racial and religious prejudice. This could have an impact on Hindus as well as other minorities. We need to keep an eye on the dialogue, and make sure that “anti extremism” isn’t hijacked by right-wing parties and changed to an “anti other culture” movement.