Amulticivilizational United States will not be the United States; it will be the United Nations”, wrote one of the greatest theorists of civilizational conflict, Samuel P. Huntington. Even in 1996, Huntington managed to articulate the cultural fractures—and the deep ambivalence about the “other” —that would spread across the post-9/11 world.
As a mark of how definitive that shift has been, liberal Western countries that have usually allowed those “others” to live and thrive are now questioning their policies. On Saturday, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that state multiculturalism—like German “multikulti”—had failed, arguing what Britain needed to be able to stop the mushrooming of indigenous terrorists was a stronger national identity.
Cameron’s comments have met with an expected surge of liberal anger. Much of it, however, misses the distinction between liberalism and multiculturalism. The Western democratic ideal is based on notions of individual liberty. But the world of multiculturalism, says Christian Joppke, “is populated not by individuals…but by groups or ‘communities’ that are inert, homogenous, and mutually exclusive, such as gays, Latinos, or Muslims …”
The problem is compounded by multiculturalism’s accompanying rhetoric on “minority” (in some societies, this also turns into a dialectic of “oppression”). More often than not, this leads to demands that the minority group’s rights be placed above the majority society’s needs.
This would not in itself be of concern, until group identities start competing for allegiance with the broader national identity. In a multicultural state, where civilizational disparities coexist in close proximity, such competition could be truly corrosive to a nation’s unity. Cameron’s concern is that for some, religious identities have transcended “being British”. This has important connotations at a time when terrorism survives on passive support as much as active militancy.
To be sure, that a “liberal” state has been forced to define an identity based on liberal values for its citizens should be a measure of the civilizational challenge that the West is increasingly facing. But this was also the only pragmatic option left to Britain at a time when the separate lives of its different cultures did not always conform to the larger ideals of liberty and equal rights.
There are lessons for other countries here. Despite India’s vaunted “unity in diversity” model, national identity here is too often subordinated to petty local, ethnic, or other identities. Here, as in Britain and Germany, the continuing challenge is for the nation to be more than the sum of its parts.
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