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Multicultural Nationalism

Does multicultural nationalism represent the political idea and tendency most likely to offer a feasible alternative rallying point to monocultural nationalism?

lead Bristol, 2014. Flickr/ Evgeni. Some rights reserved.Tariq Modood, Bhikhu Parekh, Nasar Meer and Varun Uberoi and other scholars associated with the University of Bristol’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship represent a distinctive and important school of multicultural political thought. Thanks go to Sage Journal ‘Ethnicities’ for giving us three months’ access to this background account of the ‘Bristol school of multiculturalism’ by Geoffrey Brahm Levey, which situates the Bristol school in the British context in which it arose, outlines its distinctive approach and principles and critically assesses its positions on liberalism and national identity. Levey explains how the school challenges the liberal biases of much of the corpus of multicultural political thinking and the nostrums of British and other western democracies regarding the status of the majority culture as well as of cultural minorities.

There is a lot of nationalism about today. So, Rosemary Bechler is doing us an important service in raising the question of monocultural nationalism in the openDemocracy debate about the rise of the hard right in liberal democracies.

Yet, what is often described as ‘a new nationalism’ arguably looks like the old nationalism. What is emerging as genuinely new are the identity-based nationalisms of the centre-left, sometimes called ‘liberal nationalism’ or ‘progressive patriotism’. I want to tell you about one such progressive view, what I call multicultural nationalism.

To get there, not only do I need to get you to think of nationalism in a new way but also multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism

You may think that multiculturalism is about persons valuing their personal diversity, having multiple identities – like Londoner, young, woman, with parents who are Indian and Scottish – and mixing freely with others who are equally mixed and who together produce ever changing further mixes. On this view group identities – forcing you to choose one over all others, e.g., having to be a good Indian girl or being Scottish but not British – can be stifling. And the worst kind are those that demand a singular loyalty to the nation.

On this view of multiculturalism, we should think of ourselves as citizens of the world and we should be free to live and work and travel to wherever we want to and so our policy goal should be to eliminate national borders. That is one version of multiculturalism. Let’s call it cosmopolitanism. It’s not the version of multiculturalism that I hold. 

Multiculturalism, as I understand it, is the idea that equality in the context of ‘difference’ cannot be achieved by individual rights or equality as sameness but has to be extended to include the positive inclusion of marginalised groups marked by race and their own sense of ethnocultural identities. It is not opposed to integration but emphasizes the importance of  respecting diverse identities. It should be understood as a mode of integration, just as assimilation is another mode of integration.

No state, including liberal democracies, is culturally neutral – all states support a certain language(s), a religious calendar in respect of national holidays, the teaching of religion(s) in schools and/or the funding of faith schools, certain arts, sports and leisure activities and so on. Naturally enough this language, religion, arts, sport and so on will be that of the majority population. For multiculturalism, it is a matter of extending this valued condition – of creating a society based on one’s cultural identity ­– to include minorities; minimally, the predominance that the cultural majority enjoys in the shaping of the national culture, symbols and institutions should not be exercised in a non-minority accommodating way. The distinctive goal of what we might call ‘multicultural nationalism’ is to allow people to hold, adapt, hyphenate, fuse and create identities important to them in the context of their being not just unique individuals but members of socio-cultural, ethnoracial and ethnoreligious groups, as well as national co-citizens.

So, note that I have now brought in two things that were missing from cosmopolitanism: firstly, the idea of a group identity, of belonging to an ethnoracial or ethnocultural or ethnoreligious group, of not just being a free-floating individual, mixing and matching elements of other people’s cultures. I have introduced the idea of having some rooted identity of your own, an identity that has to be shared because it is part of a group heritage or group membership, and which matters to people and which they want to pass on to the next generation and see it survive and flourish into the future.

Secondly, I have brought in the idea of national co-citizens: people who share a country, people who belong here and who care about their country. That country is not just another place on the map or workplace opportunity: it is where they belong, it is their country. So, on the version of multiculturalism I am now presenting, people can have group identities and they have attachments to specific countries – they are not just citizens of the world.

But of course that country – Britain – may not allow all its citizens to feel British, to be accepted as British; some may be treated as foreigners, or the wrong colour, second-class citizens. Multiculturalism is about changing that – it is, amongst other things, about ‘Rethinking the national story’. This was the most important – yet the most misunderstood – message of the report of the Commission on Multi-Ethnic Britain in 2000; chaired by Lord Professor Bhikhu Parekh. It argued that the post-immigration challenge was not simply eliminating racial discrimination or alleviating racial disadvantage, important as these were to an equality strategy. Rather, the deeper challenge was to find inspiring visions of Britain – which showed us where we were coming from and where we were going, how history had brought us together and what we could make of our shared future.

No one should be rejected as culturally alien and not sufficiently British because of their ethnicity or religion but rather we had to reimagine Britain so that, for example, Muslims could see that Islam was part of Britain; and equally importantly, so that non-Muslims, especially secularists and Christians could see Muslims were part of the new, evolving Britishness.

Given that majoritarian nationalism seems to be the dominant politics in so many parts of the world today (in Russia, China, India, many Muslim-majority countries as well as the USA and across Europe) we have to come up with a better nationalism. I suggest that multicultural nationalism unites the concerns of some of those currently sympathetic to majoritarian nationalism and those who are pro-diversity and minority accommodationist in the way that liberalism (with its emphasis on individualism and national majorities) nor cosmopolitanism (with its disavowal of national belonging and championing of global open borders) does not. Multicultural nationalism therefore represents the political idea and tendency most likely to offer a feasible alternative rallying point to monocultural nationalism.

About the author

Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy and Director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and a Fellow of the British Academy. His latest books include Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea and as co-editor The Problem of Religious Diversity: European Challenges, Asian Approaches.

Read On

For the full version of this argument, see: Remaking the Nation: Immigration, integration and mutilcutural nationalism

Also radio discussion, Does multiculturalism pose a threat to national identity?

See also Geoffrey Brahm Levey on The Bristol school of multiculturalism.


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