Responding to the rising threat of homegrown Islamic extremism, bloodily realized five summers ago, British prime minister David Cameron gave the following warning:
We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.
New York Magazine flags the broader message as, “multiculturalism has failed.” But to Cameron’s credit, the message is much more nuanced than that:
Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless, and the search for something to belong to and believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology. The response should be a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. A genuinely liberal country does much more. It believes in certain values and actively promotes them. If we are to defeat this threat, I believe it’s time to turn the page on the failed policies of the past … When a white person holds objectionable views – racism, for example – we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them.
When American conservatives speak of the “failure of multiculturalism,” the message is generally, as it was this past summer with the “Ground Zero mosque” fiasco, that certain foreign cultures are simply incompatible, in any iteration, with the American experiment. Cameron’s message is quite different. For one, he defines the problem differently. The problem isn’t the presence of Muslims, or cultural incompatibility in the abstract, but the failure of identified, specific communities to integrate. Cameron sees immigrant communities isolating themselves as islands within Britain, resisting integration, therefore leading to radicalization within communities, and resentment on all sides. His approach avoids the needless antagonism of the Republican formulation, and has an elegant, cooperative, and liberal solution: a stronger brand of “cultural federalism.”
Liberal nations may (and should) welcome newcomers, encourage their participation in the democracy, and embrace their contributions to the culture. But there is nothing illiberal with requiring that new cultures integrate with and accept the guiding precepts of the host nation. The difference is between a cultural autocracy, demanding absolute conformity and the abandonment of one’s ancient culture; a cultural confederacy, requiring simply loose allegiance to the host nation; and a culture federalism, under which newcomers should preserve their uniqueness, to enrich their new nation, but subscribe to the national “backbone” values, and take pride in their new role as Americans (or Britons), and the duties that that come with that label. Cultural autocracy is as alien to the liberal ideal as a patchwork cultural confederacy. Only respect for individual uniqueness, with allegiance to the overarching national norm of liberalism, can bring peace.