The Fate of Multiculturalism
Is multiculturalism a concept that we should encourage in today’s society? The rise of xenophobic and Islamophobic feelings in the past few years suggests to me that people see multiculturalism as a threat to the British values that underpin our community: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, and those without. No one was a stranger to the videos circulating on social media of people harassing strangers, telling them to ‘go back home’ following the Brexit referendum results; no one could ignore the Brits speaking out in support of the French Burqa ban, or the revived debate on whether to ban the apparently ‘terrifying’ and crime-ridden Notting Hill Carnival. It is interesting to see how, only a few years ago, inclusivity was something encouraged in society, and yet nowadays everything non-British is seen as suspect. Having parents who are immigrants has made me grateful for being raised in an environment where I was exposed to dual cultures, but it seems as if the majority of people in Britain at the moment see multiculturalism as a vice that is slowly diminishing our sense of British community, and that the solution is to change those who are not ‘British’ enough.
Multiculturalism can be defined as the existence of multiple cultural traditions within a single country. It was originally encouraged in order to promote and maintain the distinctiveness of multiple cultures, and prevent the forced cultural assimilation that many countries were previously involved in. Nevertheless, in 2011, David Cameron announced that state multiculturalism had failed to sufficiently promote social integration. He specifically spoke about how multiculturalism aided the rise in home-grown Islamic terrorism. Many young Muslims were unable to identify with either traditional Islam or Britain, because we had allowed for the weakening of our identity. According to Cameron, the British state has encouraged different cultures to isolate themselves from the mainstream. Therefore, people have been unable to find a vision of society that they would want to belong to. This is a common criticism of multiculturalism, with many thinking that it has created a divided British community, where different groups do not interact with each other and all sense of common identity is lost, replaced by a community of different languages and conflicting cultures.
Other critics of multiculturalism base their arguments around their nationalist sentiments. Many say that multiculturalism has eroded the culture of the nation state. This is because typically, poly-ethnic states are dominated by a single culture that seeks to incorporate or influence the smaller or weaker cultures. Ethnic immigrants are normally offered citizenship and social mobility in return for assimilation within a common culture. The typical immigrant in a nation-state will express loyalty to the political unit, whist also feeling solidarity with the ethnic community in which their family was born and socialised. But multiculturalism has allowed immigrants to reside in our nation without having to be loyal to our political unit. They are apparently no longer required to actively support fundamental British values.
Despite its critics, multiculturalism has promoted a fairer system where people can express who they are, and reflects the evolutions of our ever-changing world. It also protects minority communities of all types from racism. Multiculturalism has been blamed for many problems in the UK – such as changes to national identity, unemployment, and housing changes – which are actually consequences of the accelerated forms of globalisation and growing class inequality. Rejecting multiculturalism is rejecting the idea that difference and diversity are concepts that should be encouraged. There is more to being British than merely upholding British values: I see being British as having the freedom to express multiculturalism, the freedom to appreciate and get involved in global cultures whilst simultaneously knowing that I am in a country that appreciates my uniqueness and my individuality. Having a community of people from different countries and walks of life is why Britain is such a great place to live in. To think that multiculturalism has diminished our sense of British community is to forget that there are many people within this community who have benefited from living in a nation that accepts and respects their beliefs. Of course there is an issue about some ethnic minorities unable to tolerate open discussion on issues such as religion and beliefs. Ultimately, this will have to change if these communities want to live in a secular, liberal and multi-cultural environment.
Multiculturalism is not a threat to British values, it is essential to our sense of British community. Being British is no longer judged on the basis of how well you can assimilate into a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture; there is more to it now. We should be embracing cultural differences, not shying away from them. The sense of tolerance that Britain has always had is on the line, and I am worried we risk losing ourselves. People need to feel a sense of belonging in this country: if you are worried about issues such as terrorism, suppressing culture will have a reverse effect and drive people to discover their identity elsewhere. A diverse and multicultural community is a concept that underpins our sense of British community. A culturally homogeneous Britain is not Britain.
Timi Sotire is a first year student studying HSPS at Girton College with a strong interest on the issues of identity and intersectional feminism.