Majorities, Minorities and Multiculturalism

Majorities, Minorities and Multiculturalism

Tariq Modood

It may surprise some that multiculturalism is supportive of the idea that liberal democratic states may promote a national culture (within liberal limits and respecting other group identities) and doing so can benefit the society or polity as a whole. The multiculturalist point of departure from liberal or other universalisms is the argument that the liberal state is not culturally neutral – all EU 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.

If so, that means that the majority culture already has recognition of some sort – that is what is meant by saying the liberal state is not neutral. Multiculturalism is about extending this valued condition to minorities. Appeals to majority cultural heritage cannot be described as illegitimate per se.  Rather, 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.

Liberal constraints on nationalism may be enough to ensure non-discrimination and non-coercive assimilation, but multiculturalism goes beyond that to emphasise respect for post-immigration ethnoracial, ethnocultural and ethnoreligious group identities. This is an opportunity for critically reforming a national identity. Minorities will contest dominant narratives which exclude them or fail to respect them and their contribution, but they do not compete with the majority in a zero-sum game. The process should be seen as a kind of egalitarian levelling up, not a form of dispossession. While multicultural nationalism recognizes the legitimacy of the recognition of majority culture, it denies that the majority have the right to deny the accommodation of minorities simply because it runs counter to majority culture or majority preferences but does not breach any liberal democratic rights. The majority and the minorities should stand in a dialogical relationship, in a two-way or multi-way adaptation, in which both the majority and the minorities may seek to have aspects of their core (albeit evolving) cultural identities preserved; neither has a unilateral right to impose this exclusively upon the other in a way that the other identity is not allowed to co-exist.

‘Rethinking the national story’ was the most important – yet the most misunderstood – message of the report of the Commission on Multi-Ethnic Britain (CMEB, 2000), the most fulsome multiculturalist public policy document in Europe. 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.

The Commission wanted to paint neither the past nor the present in rosy, pastel colours. It recognised conflict and contestation of narratives as ever-present, but nevertheless insisted that through dialogue and egalitarian commitment a vibrant, new Britishness at ease with itself beckoned. We had to rethink what it means to be British, to remake our sense of country so it was inclusive of all fellow-citizens. 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 the secularists and the Christians could see Muslims were part of the new, evolving Britishness.

That perspective has been partly displaced by community cohesion and post-9/11 agendas but the idea that an emphasis on citizenship or Britishness is a substitute for multiculturalism is quite misleading. Indeed, it is often overlooked that the theorists of multiculturalism have regarded citizenship as a foundational concept, and explicitly developed multiculturalism as a mode of integration, albeit of course a difference-respecting integration, not assimilation or individualistic integration. Moreover, they have tended to emphasise not just minoritiy identities per se but the inclusion of minority identities in the national identity. This is also how the Canadian and Australian governments have understood multiculturalism and it has been the dominant interpretation in Britain too.

Let me illustrate what I mean by majority-minority relations within what we might call multicultural nationalism. The Church of England clearly is an institutionalised feature of England’s and Britain’s historical identity. This is reflected in symbolic and substantive aspects of the constitution. Given the rapidity of changes that are affecting British national identity, and the way in which religion, sometimes in a divisive way, is making a political reappearance, it would be wise not to discard lightly this historic aspect of British identity, which continues to be of importance to many even when few attend Church of England services. Yet, in my advocacy of a multiculturalized Britain I would like to see the Church of England share these constitutional privileges—which should perhaps be extended—with other faiths.

However, multiculturalism here does not mean crude “parity”. My expectation is that even in the context of an explicit multifaithism the Church of England would enjoy a rightful precedence in the religious representation in the House of Lords and in the coronation of the monarch, and this would not be just a crude majoritarianism but be based on its historical contribution. To this must be added the multiculturalist condition, namely the Church’s potential to play a leading role in the evolution of a multiculturalist national identity, state and society. Both the historical and the multiculturalist contributions to national identity have a presumptive quality, and usually they will qualify each other. Yet, where they are complementary the case for “establishment” is enhanced and most of all where there is simultaneously a process of inclusion of non-Anglican faith communities and humanists.

That is the multiculturalist way forward rather than a pretence of state neutrality. The principle can be expressed as one of positive inclusion, not of colour-blind, faith-blind etc formal equality. A further illustration is about religious instruction (not merely religious education) and worship in the common school. We should not, for example, ask schools to cease Christian RI or worship or celebrating Christmas because of the presence of Muslims or Hindus; rather, we should extend the celebrations to include, for example, Eid and Diwali. Such separate classes and faith-specific worship needs to be balanced with an approach that brings all the children together and into dialogue; indeed, without that it would be potentially divisive of the school and of society. But where that is in place, voluntary pursuit of one’s own faith or philosophical tradition completes the multiculturalist approach to the place of religion in such schools. If the majority comes to the view that it no longer has a religion or does not want its religion(s) taught in common schools, fair enough. But that does not give it the right to veto the religious induction into minority faiths at school – if any minority wants to it. Just as Christians do not have any dietary requirements at school does not give them the right to prevent the provision of kosher, halal or vegetarian options for pupils.

These two examples also illustrate an important point about the national culture. The general liberal and civic nationalist approach is to say that diversity requires a ‘thinning’ of the national culture so that minorities may feel included and do not feel that a thick majoritarian culture is imposed on them. Yet my two examples are not a thinning of national culture or of religion in state schools, they are a pluralistic thickening. The multiculturalism in my examples adds to the national culture by not disestablishing the national church but bringing other faiths into relationship with it; by not taking religion out of schools but ensuring that commonality and diversity are both accommodated. In general, a multicultural society requires more state action to not just respect the diversity but to bring it together in a common sense of national belonging and that in many instances means adding to a sense of national culture not hollowing it out. This usually, as the CMEB recognised, requires us to think differently about the country and so may require an appropriate public narrative about the kind of country we now are.


Tariq Modood, FBA, FAcSS, is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy and Founding Director, University of Bristol Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2019.