7 Key Principles of Multiculturalism

Making multiculturalism work is not easy. Here are the seven key principles of how to do it.

1. Create a sense of belonging

Migrants need to feel not just tolerated, but part of their host country. When they feel alienated, it is only a matter of time until they start feeling hostile towards the ‘native’ population. Sooner or later, they will then start to distance themselves from the mainstream, forming their own ethnic communities and staying within them. This does not happen if they are welcome in their host country, if they get a feeling of belonging.

2. Define nationalism in civic, not ethnic terms

A country that wants to embrace diversity needs to stay away from defining themselves in ethnic terms in the sense of “Germans are those with a common ancestry, everybody else, like people whose grandparents were polish, can’t be German”. If you look at a statement like this, it is just not possible for migrants to develop a sense of belonging. They simply can’t change their ancestry, meaning that they will never become German (or whatever country it is they are migrating to). The alternative is a civic definition of nationality. Within this idea, people of different backgrounds form a group of equals based on common citizenship. German is, whoever has German citizenship. See how this opens up  the possibility for a migrant to ‘become’ German?

3. Think common law, not common culture

Immigrants shouldn’t be expected to forfeit their cultural traditions, but they can, and should, be expected to follow the host countries law, basic institutions, and, in the case of western Societies, fundamental liberal principles. Migrants should be able to follow their country’s traditions, as long as they do not violate the principles of individual freedom, equality, and tolerance. But yes, in some cases this can mean that they have to forget about their own countries traditions. An example for this is arranged marriage. While we should tolerate the idea of arranged marriage as a cultural tradition, we should keep institutions in place that prevent forced marriage. If the bride-to-be disagrees with the marriage, then this does not adhere to the principles of freedom and equality, and the law should prevent the marriage from happening.

4. Treat all people equally

Anti-discrimination laws need to be put in place, ensuring that if someone’s identity is not tolerated (e.g. through discrimination in hiring processes), then he or she is able to fight for an equal treatment on a legal basis. But why is equality so important? We can see it, for example, in the Turkish community in Germany. When they came to Germany for the first time, they weren’t treated as equals, instead they were clearly seen as foreigners. Ultimately,  they felt alienated, making them look for an alternative identity. They found it within their own subculture, with a focus on Islam. The religion became a form of protest, and a different form of belonging, namely one towards the global ‘Muslim’ community. This is also what explains why some people are willing to die in wars in faraway places: they fight for their collective Muslim identity.

5. Educate citizens

Another important principle is to educate citizens in terms of common institutions, such as the system of governance etc., in the local culture, as well as the local language without imposing the local way of doing things on them. People naturally reject things that are forced upon them, particularly if involves forgetting about their own background. Free  classes should be available to migrants, they shouldn’t be enforced. Of course this goes hand in hand with government campaigns, as well as collaboration with the mass media. However, one should not forget that education also involves educating the ‘native’ citizens in regards to the migrants’ culture, in order to improve cross-cultural understanding.

6. See immigration as an opportunity to redefine national identity

Many people see immigration as a threat to the country’s “way of doing things”, or to the conservative values of the country. But what does ‘national culture’ really mean? Countries are so diverse, that it hardly makes sense to say that a Catholic farmer living in a rural area would has much in common with a free-spirited novelist living in the city, even in terms of values. Even without immigrants, there is much diversity within a country. So why not embrace the diversity of the immigrants? Culture is constantly changing, and immigration is a perfect opportunity to make positive contributions to the development of the national identity.

7. Adapt power structures to reflect diversity

Now, this is the step which is the most controversial, and most difficult to achieve. It is commonly people with conservative values, predominantly lower-middle class, who feel threatened by immigration, because it is them who have the most fear of loosing their jobs, and who feel threatened by a ‘different’ culture. However, if we renegotiate power to reflect diversity, suddenly those in power become threatened. It is only logical that those who are in power want to stay in power. So when migrants become a threat to them… well… then they are most likely to end the whole idea of immigration. Where immigration has been a good thing, they will find a way to frame it as a problem.

And yet, this step is a crucial one. If migrants are to be treated as equals, then they should also have equal access to positions in power. If that is not the case, and it is obvious that most migrants are in the lower income regions, they will naturally feel disadvantaged. Again, they will feel like outsiders, and again, this leads to hostility.


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