Cutting the fog: Multiculturalism, religion and the common good

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By Sara Silvestri

The death of “multiculturalism” has been proclaimed repeatedly recently, the idea pronounced with a big “M” as if we were talking of something tangible around which there is consensus.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was the latest of many politicians to assert this in February. But his much-reported discourse in Germany offered nothing new about multiculturalism, European Islam, radicalization, or about British and European governments’ understandings of these issues. And his message does not seem to have diverged much from how Britain’s previous Labour government addressed the issue or what is being said in France and in Germany. In fact, while France never pursued the ‘multicultural’ model but rather the “assimilationist” one, the tone of its lament is similar. Germany never had an official model, but its ‘crisis discourse’ about multiculturalism is very similar to those in Britain and France. And for all the attention his speech received, Mr. Cameron did not propose fresh solutions to the multicultural riddle.

Multiculturalism is a human construction. The notion is associated with the liberal tradition and specific policy choices developed by countries like Canada, Great Britain, and the Netherlands as responses to national minorities or immigration. In 21st century Europe, multiculturalism takes on renewed meaning with three main components: a political theory, a policy practice, and a social reality. The possible understandings of the “fact” of multiculturalism are shaped primarily by the national histories, political cultures and social imaginaries of each country. International crises and events (from economic migration, to forced displacement due to natural disasters or civil wars; from debates around religious symbols to debates about freedom of expression bordering blasphemy), EU laws and policies, and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights each add supranational layers of meaning to the understanding of multiculturalism.

As an attempt to protect people and to apply justice in diverse societies, multiculturalism entails a continuous tension between universal individual rights and group rights, providing security and guaranteeing equal and fair treatment to all inhabitants of Europe, whether citizens or immigrants. In today’s Europe, pluralism engages a number of political and societal actors beyond state institutions, including citizens, long and short term immigrants, civil society, religious groups, and political parties and ideological groups. What many people do not seem to recognize is that religious-ethnic-cultural pluralism is no longer exogenous to European countries but is already part of their essence. The need for a collective answer and effort has become evident, and talking about multiculturalism requires reflecting not only on the meaning and modalities of “integration” of migrants and minorities into mainstream society, but considering the dynamics among and between minority and migrant groups.

What has clearly emerged from recent speeches and ensuing public national debates on multiculturalism is a sense of confusion, malaise and often contradictory messages. Policy makers and the general public alike appear to be in the midst of a thick fog that prevents them from understanding and tackling the challenges of individual and collective security within increasing religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity. And so we look for easy answers presented as simple choices — e.g., moderate vs. radical Islam, multiculturalism vs. assimilation, secularism vs. religious fundamentalism, etc. Yet such simplistic naming and categorizing further divides people and provokes animosities.

There is a path out of the fog of multicultural confusion. It passes through the appreciation of the nuances of identities, of the subjective and collective meanings of religion, the abandoning of dogmatisms (religious and secular), and a pragmatic approach focused on what we can do together as human beings. In an interconnected world facing complex global challenges, we must nourish an ethos of mutual responsibility towards the common good. This concept resonates with values espoused by the main religions of the world and that are present in Europe, including Islam, which place considerable emphasis on ideas of social justice, solidarity, charity, and collective identity. From this perspective emerges a more positive and multicultural-friendly aspect of religion, rather than its intransigent, exclusivist, or violent face, which is often condemned for being incompatible with western and democratic secular values.

Professor Sara Silvestri is research associate at Cambridge University and a lecturer in religion and international politics at City University, UK. This article is part of the series “Religion, Politics & the Public Space” in collaboration with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and its Global Experts project ( The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nation Alliance of Civilizations or of the institutions to which the authors are affiliated.



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