Republicanism, Multiculturalism and Liberalism

Article excerpt


RIVA KASTORYANO'S ARTICLE ON THE French veil debate is an excellent introduction to the topic. It provides an incisive summary of the historical background for this debate and of the ways in which questions of secularism, citizenship, immigration and globalization intersect in the French context.

There is no magic solution to the dilemmas that liberal democratic societies face when it comes to reconciling shared citizenship on the one hand and respect for cultural diversity on the other. The trajectories that Western societies have pursued have differed; their normative underpinnings are often quite opposed; yet in the end, each faces fundamental dilemmas that cannot be swept aside.

Thus the United States, at an earlier point in its history, adopted the solution of the melting pot, but with its Anglo-Saxon white Protestant core dominating down to the post-World War II period. More recently, the U.S. has had to come to terms with the reality of race and its historical exclusion of blacks from public life. It has also come to acknowledge the existence of a multitude of distinctive ethnic identities within its citizenry, and to redefine itself, in practice if not in theory, along multicultural lines. But there is a strong streak of patriotism that unifies American society and that trumps particularistic identities, especially in periods of crisis. September 11, 2001, and its aftermath have helped to hammer this home.

Canada since 1971 has embarked on a policy of official multiculturalism, followed in this respect by Australia. At one level, Canadian multiculturalism was a reflection of the deeper cleavages that characterize Canada as a multinational state. Quebec, and more recently Aboriginal peoples, are uncomfortable with a one-nation definition of the country. Even as Canada was redefining itself as officially bilingual at the federal level, it also came to acknowledge the existence of a multitude of cultural communities within its borders. As critics see it, however, Canadian multiculturalism should more accurately be described as serial monoculturalism, since there is relatively little crossover or contact among the various cultural communities. Nor is official multiculturalism, with its celebration of diversity, any guarantee that the conflicts of the larger world will not spill over our borders. The bombing of an Air India plane by Canadian-based supporters of an independent Khalistan back in 1985 and the firebombing of a Jewish school library in Montreal in the spring of 2004 in reaction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are clear evidence of this.

Britain, for its part, has sought to follow the path of promoting amicable race relations even while seeking to integrate people of South Asian and West Indian origins into British society. However, the Rushdie affair of the late 1980s was a harbinger of problems to come. The conflict between the core values of Islam, especially for its orthodox believers, and the core values of Western society (such as freedom of speech and of the written word), did not allow for compromise.

There is a clear distinction between a self-definition as British Muslims, which is fully compatible with British citizenship, and a self-definition as Muslims in Britain, which is how some of the more radical exponents of Islam described themselves in the aftermath of 9/11. If the larger world of the faithful is the only one that really matters, where does that leave the possibility of integration into, or shared sentiment with, other members of the host society?

This brings me to France and the debate over the veil. There is clearly a tension, as Kastoryano's article helps to show, between the republican principle of secularism or laïcité and the multicultural principle of diversity. At one level, there is something illiberal about the French law banning conspicuous religious symbols, be they hijabs, kippas or crosses, from public schools. …