European Multiculturalism: Longread Explainer

By Anu Jain

Multiculturalism refers to the political debate about how to understand and respond to cultural diversity in society. In sociology, the term “multicultural” is also used to describe the coexistence of diverse cultures including ethnic, religious, and cultural groups.

Within the context of Western liberal democratic societies, multiculturalism can be regarded as a “normative ideal”. It contrasts the “melting pot” metaphor (for a heterogeneous society becoming increasingly homogenised) and has instead been described as a “salad bowl” and as a “cultural mosaic”. This suggests that different cultures are brought together, but are able to keep their own distinct attributes.

In Europe, the debate surrounding multiculturalism questions whether it is an appropriate way of addressing diversity and the social integration of immigrants. In this case, it is a policy issue. The objective of multiculturalism is to allow and give the means for diverse groups to pursue their differences.

So, what are the key issues in this debate?


Advocates regard multiculturalism as a fairer system that allows people to express their individual cultures in a tolerant, accepting society. In the 1990s, the broad consensus was that multiculturalism allowed for a “balance between respect for diversity and a shared sense of national belonging”.

A. Multiculturalism “is about the proper terms of the relationship between different cultural communities, [and] the principles of justice [must come] through an open and equal dialogue between them”. - Bhikhu Parekh

From 1998-2000, Parekh served as the Chairman of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (often referred to as the ‘Parekh Report’). This report was the basis for much of the 21st century multiculturalism debate. In the report, Parekh argues that multiculturalism is good for everyone and society, and not just for minorities. He reasons that supporting cross-cultural discourse would help to create a common citizenship.

B. Multiculturalism is “the form of integration that has the best chance of succeeding in the post-911, post 77 world” - Tariq Modood, Founding Director for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship

Modood argues that multiculturalism should not be abandoned due to criticism following events such as the 77 London bombings and that Britain has become less racist over time. He refers to British Asian films such as ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ to demonstrate that Britain is in fact multicultural, although it is not perfect. Despite many achievements, the British Asian community continues to suffer from unacknowledged forms of racism - “cultural racism”. This form of racism focuses instead on language, religion, family structures, dress, and cuisine. Modood suggests that the problem has arisen because of an overly simplistic race relations model, imported from the US. This model is based on a black/white dualism, and is unable to represent the complex realities of contemporary multicultural societies in the west.

Identity, Belonging, and Diversity

A. “We’ve been too concerned about the identity of new arrivals and not enough about the identity of the country receiving them” - Nicolas Sarkozy

A loss of cultural identity of the majority/native population has been framed within the multiculturalism debate across Europe.

In 2011, Sarkozy declared multiculturalism a failure, echoing British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He was criticised by popular Muslim news websites who suggested that Sarkosy had used “stigmatising rhetoric” to go “hunting for votes on the far-right.”

B. “ The greatest failing of multiculturalism, is not that it has failed to create a sense of belonging among minorities, it is that it… has paid too little attention to how to sustain support among the white population.” - Alan Manning

Multiculturalism has often been perceived as creating a feeling of alienation amongst migrant groups. However, research by economist Alan Manning has found that this is overstated. This also holds true for the debate about identity and multiculturalism in Britain, as many minority groups do in fact think of themselves as British. Manning argues that making immigrants and different cultures feel welcome and respected will result in more minorities coming to feel a part of Britain.

However, he argues that multiculturalism has not paid sufficient attention to white natives, and has failed to support their identities and social values. As a result, they have come to feel neglected, and may therefore no longer feel that mainstream western culture is reflective of their own values. Populist political groups may draw on this feeling of neglect to create an “us” versus “them” divide between different segments of the population.

C. “Multiculturalism undermines much of what is valuable about diversity as lived experience.” - Kenan Malik

Some have argued that multiculturalism goes hand in hand with cultural diversity. Diversity occurs when people of different social and economic backgrounds, religions, and philosophies come together. Advocates of multiculturalism argue that individuals from these groups should be allowed to retain at least some attributes from their traditional cultural backgrounds. A diverse society should recognise and value cultural differences.

However, Malik dismisses this argument and suggests that multiculturalism has actually left many minorities feeling misrepresented. He argues that policies in support of multiculturalism have not empowered minority communities. Instead, they have treated such communities as homogenous groups and have ignored religious, class, and gender differences.


A. The Rushdie affair “marked the moment when Muslim immigrants with diverse national origins merged into a single, distinctive category.” - Rita Chin, Author of ‘The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History’

The “Rushdie affair” refers to the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel ‘The Satanic Verses.’ Many Muslims accused Rushdie of blasphemy as the novel was in part inspired by the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In 1989 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa (a ruling in Islamic law) ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie, and numerous attempts were made to fulfil this.

Chin discusses the concerns of European leaders about the so-called “illiberal”nature of Muslim culture and their consequent rejection of multiculturalism. Terrorist attacks including 911 only intensified this view as it meant that Islam was seen as not only culturally incompatible but also as a security threat to the west.

There has been widespread discussion about the willingness of Muslims to integrate into European society and its values. A key debate is whether Muslims are committed to the core European values: freedom, tolerance, democracy, sexual equality, and secularism. For example, the headscarf may be regarded as a symbol of patriarchal oppression on both the right and left sides of the spectrum. However, this fails to acknowledge that for some, it may be a demonstration of self-empowerment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also questioned the relationship between multiculturalism and Islam in western European society. In an annual press conference earlier this month, he reflected on the failure of multiculturalism: “[Those who] act thoughtlessly, insulting the rights and feelings of religious people, should always remember there will be an inevitable backlash.” Putin’s comments come following the beheading of French school teacher Samuel Paty in Paris in October. Paty was targeted after showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson on free speech.

B. “Decades after the Holocaust, shocking and mounting levels of antisemitism continue to plague the EU, Jewish people have a right to live freely, without hate and without fear for their safety.” - Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA)

The resurgence of anti-semitism has also been tied to the multiculturalism debate. In 2019, 90% of European Jews responding to a survey on Jewish anti-semitism opinion felt that anti-semitism in their country was growing. Waves of immigration have made western Europe increasingly diverse. However, with this growing diversity, hate crimes may also be on the rise.


There is a growing debate about the level of immigration and the consequences for western society. Across Europe, immigrants are blamed for many issues: crime, disease, unemployment, lack of public funding, and threats to liberal culture. Some feel threatened by the changes in their communities due to increased immigration. Often these fears may be reflected in politics: the emergence of right-wing populist parties, Brexit, and anti-immigration policies in the US are just some examples of this.

A. Multiculturalism has devolved from “an answer to Europe’s social problems” to a bleak reality of “fragmented societies, alienated minorities, and resentful citizenries.” - Kenan Malik

Malik discusses the changing perceptions of multiculturalism as a policy in Europe. He argues that it has “fueled the success of far-right parties and populist politicians across Europe.” Cultural differences between immigrants and native Europeans may be at the root of this. Recent refugees from Islamic countries may come from countries with more conservative views on homosexuality and women’s rights and may therefore not integrate with secular European societies.

B. “The contradictions of multiculturalism… encourage a ‘common enemy’ form of minority identity while repressing even moderate expressions of majority identity.” - Eric Kaufmann

Kaufmann argues that multiculturalism encourages minority communities to celebrate a politicised version of their identity. Meanwhile, the white majority is urged to be more cosmopolitan, thus suppressing their expression of identity.

This is not only true in Europe, and was also relevant in the 2016 US Election. The 2016 American National Election Study found that white identity, hostility to political correctness, and the belief that whites are targets of discrimination were some of the strongest predictors of support for Trump in statistical models. Kaufmann argues that multiculturalism is responsible for this. He suggests that the desire to slow immigration comes from an expression of majority cultural self-interest. Supporters of populist groups may wish to conserve the country they grew up in and therefore be opposed to change. Minority groups may be seen as a threat to this point of view.


“Multiculturalism has failed” has become a common refrain in academic, social, and political discourse since the turn of the century. Many have questioned its effectiveness and ultimately, the modern consensus seems to be that it has been a disaster.

Yet the roots of multiculturalism (the coexistence of diverse cultures) may still be an ideal for many. Perhaps a new, more inclusive race relations model is needed to truly represent contemporary Europe.

This page was last edited on Monday, 28 Dec 2020 at 14:38 UTC