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Confused, Cameron? Don’t abandon multiculturalism just yet

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There's nothing particularly new in the British prime minister's 5 February claims that multiculturalism has failed. But there is something worrisome about his speech, and not only because other English-speaking countries are looking to Britain as they debate the merits of their own multiculturalism policies. View from Canada

In a speech at a security conference in Munich on 5 February, British conservative prime ministerDavid Cameron attacked the 'doctrine of state multiculturalism' in Britain. According to Cameron, that multiculturalism has failed to integrate immigrants, weakened national identity and directly contributed to the spread of radical islam. The problem is that Cameron is confused. His first official speech on terrorism shows that he equates multiculturalism with 'passive tolerance', encouragement for minorities to live apart and the weakening of social cohesion. Different cultures live separate lives; young muslim Britons are rootless and end up turning to radical islam and terrorism. He is confused also about the alternatives: in his speech Cameron calls for a more 'muscular liberalism' à la Tony Blair and George Bush, and a stronger national identity.

Calls are to strengthen the national identity - but whose identity?

Multiculturalism is not a weaker form of liberalism (as opposed to the muscular kind), or the lesser of several alternatives. In fact, we don't have any other alternatives. Either we make policy that will manage cultural difference and integrate new immigrants democratically, or we resort to coercion and/or exclusion, and reproduce the same problems that Cameron points to in his speech. Social alienation and ethnic segregation are very real issues: but their causes have much more to do with racism, state inaction, and economic factors than any failure of multiculturalism. Calls to strengthen the national identity are all well and good, but they beg the question: whose identity? Who will be excluded? As an historian looking back on the twentieth century, I cringe every time politicians talk about building the national identity.

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