What are the ties that bind us?

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Multiculturalism breeds terrorism. That’s what British Prime Minister David Cameron said Feb. 5 in a high-profile speech in Germany, thereby opening up an absurd new chapter in the never-ending debate over how much to embrace, exalt and protect cultural differences in Britain and beyond.

Now I’m no fan of multiculturalism, which is essentially the belief that ethnic minorities should be encouraged to maintain their traditions. In Britain, that encouragement extends to state funding for ethnic organizations to ensure cultural continuity for the nation’s immigrants. The U.S. employs soft “multiculti” — mostly sloganeering about the glories of diversity.

Common sense tells us that too much emphasis on tribe, ethnicity or previous nationality can be at odds with the common purpose and cohesion of a nation with a large, diverse population. But suggesting that taxpayer support of the corner Bangladeshi knitting circle or a Muslim civil rights organization causes homegrown terrorism is a little like saying sex education creates rapists.


What’s interesting about Cameron’s speech, however, is not the hyperbole but the poor logic. His solution for dealing with the challenges of diversity, and his confusion about causes and effects, may only make matters worse.

In his speech, Cameron decried multiculturalism’s “hands-off tolerance” of some cultural behaviors — he used the example of forced marriages — that are antithetical to Western values. Instead, Britain needs to win the hearts and minds of newcomers with the ideals of personal liberty and individualism, combating multiculturalism-induced rootlessness that can cause some to find a home in political extremism.

Cameron gave his anti-multiculti prescription a name: “muscular liberalism” — a reference to the political philosophy that venerates personal liberty, not to American partisanship. “Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality,” Cameron said, would provide “a clear sense of national identity that is open to everyone,” especially to young Muslims who are caught between cultures.

The only problem is that the freedoms Cameron champions, worthy as they are, hardly constitute firm “roots.” Anglo American liberalism is essentially a collection of abstract ideas, and abstractions simply aren’t as effective as bloodlines and religious ritual when it comes to bringing people together as a nation.

The ideology of individual liberty, admits Nancy Rosenblum, a Harvard political scientist and an adherent of liberalism, can produce a “disaffected experience” because “ordinary men and women cannot recognize themselves in it.”

In other words, it may not be multiculturalism that breeds rootlessness, but liberalism itself.


A 2010 study on homegrown terrorism by researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina bears this out. The researchers found that losing one’s familial, traditional cultural identity was a more likely route to radicalization than maintaining those ties. Trying to adopt the values of the new, mainstream culture can sometimes create the kind of alienation that can lead to extremism. To fight the type of terrorism that Cameron fears, the study recommends community-building measures, like multiculturalism, to strengthen ethnic identity.

In reality, neither Cameron nor the multiculturalists have the answer for creating cohesion in modern, diverse, globalized states. Multiculturalists think ethnic cultural continuity will somehow mask the wrenching and sometimes dangerous break with the past that newcomers face. Cameron fantasizes that a reinvigorated, hard-sell approach will make abstract liberal ideals into a tie that binds as tightly as ancient tribal or religious bonds.

Here’s the dirty little secret of the Western world: Exalted political ideals notwithstanding, Western democracies have historically fallen back on whatever tribal, racial, ethnic or religious solidarity they can drum up to solidify their identities. France, for instance, had liberte, egalite and fraternite, but what mattered most was the ne plus ultra of ethnic Frenchness. In Britain and the U.S., national unity has been built as much on whiteness as any other factor.

The truth is, without relying on some form of old-fashioned tribalism — or perhaps the unifying effect of a war — we have no idea exactly how the rapidly diversifying nations of the West will cohere moving forward. The only thing we can know for certain is that both sides of the debate over multiculturalism are fooling themselves.