Themes: Our Creativy Diversity
A new global ethics
A commitment to pluralism
Challenges of a media-rich world
recasting cultural policies
A Commitment to Cultural Pluralism
Bhikhu Parekh


All societies today are culturally heterogeneous in different degrees. Thanks to such forces as industrialisation, the easy mobility of goods and people, and the global reach of the multinational media, members of even the most traditional and isolated societies are daily exposed to new ways of life and thought. The influence on their language, aspirations, patterns of consumption, life-styles, self-understanding and innermost fears is often so subtle and systematic that they do not even notice it. A culturally homogeneous society whose members share and mechanically follow an identical body of beliefs and practices is today no more than an anthropological fiction.

In some societies cultural heterogeneity is not a result of contingent external influences but communally grounded. These societies include several more or less well-organised cultural communities, each held together by a distinct body of ideas concerning the best ways to organise significant social relations and lead individual and collective lives. Such societies are rightly called multicultural. While all societies today are culturally heterogeneous, not all of them are multicultural.

Cultures derive their authority from different sources, of which two are currently the most important. Some cultures are based on and derive their authority from religion, and demand respect deemed to be due to religion. Some others are ethnically based, and demand respect because they are bound up with the life and history of specific ethnic groups. In yet others ethnicity and religion are integrally connected and provide a complex source of legitimacy. This means that multicultural societies could be multi-ethnic or multireligious or both. Since ethnicity and religion are different in nature, multi-ethnically constituted multicultural societies raise different kinds of problems to those raised by multi-religiously constituted multicultural societies. However since they are both multicultural, albeit in their own different ways, some of the basic problems they raise are broadly similar in nature.

Multiculturality is not new to our age, for many premodern societies such as the Roman empire, medieval India and Europe, and the Ottoman empire included several different cultural communities and coped with the diversity in their own different ways. Four basic features, however, are unique to contemporary multicultural societies.

First, contemporary multiculturality is both wider and deeper. It is wider because cultural diversity covers a much larger area of human existence than before, and deeper because it is grounded in profound differences about the conceptions of the good life. Whatever their differences, most premodern societies were religious, and shared in common many of their important moral beliefs and social practices. This is not the case today.

Secondly, contemporary multiculturality is more defiant. In premodern societies minority communities generally accepted their subordinate status, and remained confined to the social and even the geographical spaces assigned them by the dominant groups. Thanks to the spread of liberal and democratic ideas, they today demand equal status, rights, power and opportunity to participate in and shape the collective life of the wider society. Although Turkey under the Ottoman empire had fairly large Christian and Jewish communities, and although it granted them far greater autonomy than is the case in any contemporary society, it was not and never saw itself as a multicultural society. It was basically a Muslim society which happened to have non-Muslim minorities. It followed Islamic ideals and was run by Muslims who alone enjoyed full rights of citizenship. Non-Muslims were dhimmis or protected minorities, enjoying extensive cultural autonomy but few political rights. Contemporary multicultural societies are different. Refusing to be ghettoised and be content with cultural autonomy, minority communities expect the wider society to accept them as equals and to recognise and reflect their presence in its major institutions and self-understanding.

Thirdly, contemporary multiculturality occurs in the context of the increasing economic and cultural globalisation. Globalisation is a paradoxical phenomenon. On the one hand, it leads to homogenisation of ideas, institutions, ideals, moral and social practices, and forms of life. On the other hand it also encourages heterogeneity. It encourages migrations of individuals and even whole communities, and diversifies every society. It arouses fears about the loss of society’s identity, provokes cultural resistance, and stimulates the rediscovery or invention of indigenous traditions to underpin and legitimise its sense of difference. Since a society is more likely to succeed in global competition if it has something distinctive to offer, globalisation also encourages it to devise new ways of defining and distinguishing itself. Contemporary multiculturality is thus embedded in an immensely complex dialectical process, and heavily bound up with global economic and political forces.

Finally, contemporary multiculturality occurs against the background of nearly three centuries of the culturally homogenising nation state. In almost all premodern societies the individual’s culture was deemed to be an integral part of his identity, in just the same ways as his body was. Cultural communities were therefore widely regarded as the bearers of rights and generally left free to follow their customs and practices. This was true of the Roman as well as the Ottoman and Habsburg empires.

The modern state represented a very different view of social unity. It was born twins with and suffused by the spirit of liberal individualism, and was a distinctly liberal institution. Accordingly, it set about dismantling long-established communities, and reuniting the ‘emancipated’ individuals on the basis of a centralised structure of authority grounded in a shared political, and in many cases even a shared national culture. It recognised only the individuals as the bearers of rights, nationalised its citizens, insisted on equality (which it equated with uniformity), and represented a homogeneous legal space made up of identical political units regulated by identical institutions. All individuals had equal, that is, the same rights. And this was also true of the territorial units into which the state might be divided. If any of these units had different needs and required more or different rights, the demand was deemed to violate the principle of equality and either rejected or conceded most reluctantly. The modern state had a persistent tendency to become a nation state, which was not a novel nineteenth century phenomenon as some historians and political philosophers argue but inherent in the very self-understanding of the modern state. Since the state required cultural and social homogenisation as its necessary basis, it has for nearly three centuries sought to mould the wider society in that direction. Thanks to this, we have become so accustomed to equating unity with homogeneity and equality with uniformity that we feel morally and emotionally disorientated by a deep and defiant diversity.

Although the mode of securing social unity represented by the modern state had a great emancipatory potential and has much to be said for it, it is culturally specific, entails considerable moral and physical violence, and only makes sense in a society that is already or is willing to become culturally and socially homogenous. In highly diverse societies such as those obtaining in India, Eastern Europe and many parts of Africa and Latin America, it runs into all kinds of problems. Some communities or groups of people might refuse to see themselves as individuals or as individuals only, and press for communal or what are clumsily called collective rights. Again, since different communities might have different needs, they demand different rights, powers and opportunities. To rule these out in the name of a narrow definition of equality is not only to provoke resistance but also to deny them justice. Again, different communities have different customs and practices, and sometimes find it difficult to agree on a common body of laws concerning such culturally significant areas of life as marriage, divorce, adoption of children and inheritance of property. Karl Marx argued, no doubt with some exaggeration, that in a class-divided society the state cannot be economically impartial, and represents a subtle way of institutionalising and legitimising the rule of the dominant class. A similar danger exists in a culturally plural society, in which the allegedly neural state can easily become a vehicle of enshrining the domination of a specific cultural community.

In the light of our discussion, contemporary multicultural societies are historically unique and raise problems not faced, at least in their acute form, by their premodern counterparts. They need to find collectively acceptable and practicable ways of reconciling the demands of both unity and diversity. Contrary to what some postmoderninst and diasporic cosmopolites have argued, a society needs unity for several interrelated reasons. Unless it is united and cohesive, it cannot act as a single community able either to take and enforce collectively binding decisions or to regulate and resolve inescapable conflicts between its constituent communities. It also needs unity and cohesion to provide a focus for collective self-consciousness, to encourage a sense of common belonging and citizenship, and to foster a spirit of shared national identity, without all of which its members lack mutual trust and goodwill and the willingness to make sacrifices and accept compromises required by the pursuit of the common good.

While a society needs to ensure unity and cohesion, it cannot ignore the demands of diversity either for at least three important reasons. By definition diversity is an inescapable fact of life in a multicultural society, and attempts to dismantle it in the name of assimilation are either counterproductive or exact an unacceptable moral and political price. They provoke resistance, create insecurity, deepen intercultural suspicions, and threaten the very unity the assimilationist seeks. Furthermore, when a cultural community feels threatened, it panics and tends to become self-obsessed, suppress internal differences, avoid all but minimal contacts with other cultures, and to spawn a fundamentalist orthodoxy which fragments the wider society and undermines its cohesion and unity.

Secondly, since human beings are deeply shaped, though of course not determined, by their culture, the latter is at least partly constitutive of their identity. It both identifies them as a particular kind of individuals and with a particular community of people. To be a Sikh or an Arab or a Gypsy is to be a member of a specific cultural community and to feel bonded to its members by a shared way of life. One’s self-respect is therefore closely bound up with respect for what is an integral part of oneself including one’s culture. The basic respect that we owe our fellow-humans entails respect for their culture and cultural community.

Thirdly, cultural diversity enriches and vitalises collective life, and is desirable not only for minority communities but also for the society as a whole. It adds a valuable aesthetic dimension to society, widens the range of moral sympathy and imagination, and encourages critical self-reflection. Since no culture realises all that is valuable in human life, each needs others to correct its inescapable biases, to appreciate its specificity, to help it arrest its tendency to absolutise itself, and to deepen its appreciation of the nature and possibilities of human existence. Furthermore, every culture fosters specific traits of temperament, psychological and moral dispositions, a particular kind of imagination, and needs constructive interactions with others to revitalise, regenerate and enrich itself. In short cultural diversity, being a both a vital component of human freedom and well-being and a necessary condition of human progress, is a valuable social asset.

No multicultural society then can ignore the demands of either unity or diversity. Since different multicultural societies have different histories and traditions, contain different kinds and degrees of diversity, and face different internal and external problems, no single model of reconciling the two suits them all. Each must work out one that best meets its requirements and suits its circumstances. However, whatever its chosen model, it is unlikely to succeed unless it bears three general principles in mind. The principles obviously do not prescribe a particular model and are largely navigational devices designed to help a society make both realistic and right choices.


First, unity and diversity are equally important and neither should be secured at the expense of the other. If a multicultural society privileged unity and treated it as all-important, it would provoke resistance, violate an important human right, and forfeit the benefits of diversity. If it did the opposite, it would degenerate into a collection of mutely coexisting cultural ghettoes obsessed with their differences and unable to work together to pursue common goals, resolve their conflicts, and create a wider and richer identity.

Since both unity and diversity are important, each limits the other. We cannot therefore concentrate only on the limits of diversity as many writers on multiculturalism tend to do, and should pay equal attention to the limits of unity. If we took an excessively demanding view of unity and required that all members of society should share a common body of values and ideals, organise their inter-gender and parent-children relations in an identical manner, and in general share a comprehensive national culture, we would leave very little space for cultural diversity, and such space as is left would be fragile and insecure. Conversely, if we made a fetish of cultural differences, and placed them beyond criticism and interference, we would leave no secure and effective space for unity.

Secondly, strange as it may seem, the greater and deeper the diversity in a society, the greater the unity and cohesion it requires to hold itself together and nurture its diversity. A weakly held society feels nervous in the presence of differences, sees them as potential threats to its unity and survival, and lacks the confidence to welcome and live with them. Prima facie this seems odd, for a strong sense of unity can be inhospitable to diversity and even undermine it. We are thus confronted with a paradox. A multicultural society requires a strong sense of unity, yet the latter could weaken and even undermine its ability to accommodate diversity!

The paradox is only apparent and arises because unity is defined in two different ways in the two halves of the paradox. When we say that a multicultural society requires a strong sense of unity, we mean that its members should have a strong sense of mutual commitment and common belonging, that they trust each other enough to know that, despite all their differences, they wish to continue to live together and would do nothing to break up the society. When we say that strong unity can undermine diversity, we mean that if a multicultural society insisted on a uniform and comprehensive national culture as the basis of its unity, it would leave little space for diversity. If we can show, as indeed we can, that the multicultural society can foster a strong sense of unity (in the sense of a strong sense of mutual commitment and belonging) without requiring a shared comprehensive national culture, the paradox disappears. There is nothing surprising about this for it is a common experience in many walks of life. Members of a family not only tolerate but delight in their deep differences of temperament and interest because they are sufficiently committed to each other not to feel threatened by the differences. This is also true of friends, political parties and even large organisations.

A multicultural society then must find ways of developing a strong sense of mutual commitment and common belonging without insisting upon a shared comprehensive national culture and the concomitant uniformity of values, ideals and ways of organising significant social relations. In this respect a multiculturally constituted state radically differs from the long familiar nation state. The latter rested the unity of the state on the uniformity of culture. This alternative is closed to a multicultural society, which needs to derive its unity not from cultural uniformity but cultural diversity and which should not resent and fear cultural differences but turn them into sources of strength. Its unity is strong like that of the nation state, but it is derived differently and has a very different nature and texture.

Thirdly, in a multicultural society unity and diversity should be dialectically related such that unity is embedded in and nurtured by diversity, and diversity located within and regulated by unity. The standard liberal doctrine of the division of spheres according to which unity is required in the public realm and diversity confined to the private or civil realm does not work even in a monocultural society, and causes much positive damage in a multicultural society. Since cultural differences run deep and permeate all areas of life including the political, there is no transcultural public realm in which unity can be located. Furthermore the attempt to combine a monocultural public realm with a multicultural private realm tends to subvert the latter. In every society the public realm enjoys considerable dignity and prestige, which generally far outweigh those of the private realm. When one culture is not only publicly recognised but also embodied in political institutions and practices, it comes to be seen as the official culture of the community, an expression of its collective identity, and commands considerable state patronage, power and access to public resources. By contrast the excluded cultures come to be seen as marginal, peripheral, even deviant and inferior, only worth practising outside the public gaze of society and in the privacy of the family and communal associations. When the public realm prizes uniformity, diversity tends to be devalued throughout society.

Lacking prestige, power, resources and collective encouragement, minority cultures suffer from often unintended structural disadvantages and can only survive with the greatest of effort. Their members, especially the youth whose roots in their parental cultures are precarious and shallow, tend to feel nervous and take the easy path of uncritical assimilation. The older generation of immigrants have remarked that many of them used to feel deeply embarrassed when their parents spoke in their native language, dressed differently, or performed their traditional religious, wedding and other ceremonies in public, and that over time they suppressed public expressions of their identity and ended up losing their language and emasculating their culture. This sad phenomenon is still pervasive as many minority parents and their children testify. A couple of years ago when I was travelling from London to Hull, I was sitting opposite an elderly Pakistani couple and next to their adolescent daughter. When the crowded train pulled out of King’s Cross station, the parents began to talk in Urdu. The girl felt restless and nervous and began making strange signals to them. As they carried on their conversion for a few more minutes, she angrily leaned over the table and asked them to shut up. When the confused mother asked for an explanation, the girl shot back: ‘Just as you do not expose your private parts in public, you do not speak in that language in public.’ Though no one had presumably taught that to her, she knew that the public realm belonged to whites, that only their language, customs, bodily gestures and ways of talking were legitimate within it, and that ethnic identities were only fit to be confined to the private realm.

In a society in which one culture is dominant, tolerance alone is not enough to sustain diversity. Without necessarily endorsing all their values and practices, the multicultural society should find ways of welcoming and cherishing its minority cultures, embodying their presence in its self-definition, and reconstituting the public realm along multicultural lines. The multiculturally constituted public and private realms then sustain each other, and allow the spirit of cultural pluralism to move effortlessly into different areas of life and nurture the multicultural ethos in the society as a whole. When unity and diversity are integrated in this way, unity does not remain abstract and passive and diversity does not lead to fragmentation and isolation.

If a multicultural society is to reconcile the equally legitimate demands of unity and diversity, it must dialectically relate the two and avoid equating unity with uniformity. Can this be done and how? Historical experiences of multicultural societies suggest that the following five sets of measures have much to be said for them.


First, a multicultural society needs to give its constituent cultural communities a cultural and political stake in it, and win over their loyalty and gratitude. It cannot do so unless it treats them as its equal and valued members with the rest. It should not subject them to deliberate or unintended discrimination in employment, housing , education, promotion, appointment to public offices, etc., and should give them such help as they need to overcome disadvantages derived from cultural differences or from past acts of injustice and discrimination. It should also treat them with equal respect. If they are subjected to insulting stereotypes, made butts of offensive jokes and remarks or viewed with suspicion, they lack a sense of self-worth and self-esteem, feel demeaned, and remain outsiders. The demand for equal respect is central to the individual’s sense of dignity, and goes far beyond and is not adequately ensured by the conventional notions of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity.

A multicultural society should ensure that its cultural communities are able to preserve and transmit their cultural heritage including their languages, histories, and religions. This gives them a sense of security, generates good will and gratitude, gives them the confidence to interact with others in a relaxed manner, and helps create a plural collective culture. Some of their values and practices such as polygamy, forced marriages, sexism and female circumcision are obviously unacceptable, and the wider society should show why these are unacceptable and build up and enforce an appropriate consensus. However this is quite different from asking the minority communities to abandon their cultural identities as a condition of their acceptance. The identities are integral to their sense of who they are, nurture their self-respect and sense of community, and provide the resources on which they rely to find an appropriate niche in the wider society.

Respect for the minority community’s right to preserve and transmit its culture can take several forms. Minority communities may be allowed to run their internal affairs themselves so long as they are not internally oppressive. They should also be free to set up their own cultural, educational and other institutions, organise literary, artistic, sports and other events and to institute museums and academies, with such state help as they need and which they may justifiably ask for. Cultural differences should also be taken into account in the formulation and enforcement of public policies and laws. Some minority children might prefer to wear headscarves to school or decline to participate in certain sports and eat certain kinds of food; some minority women might not wish to abandon their traditional dress when working in hospitals, shops and other public places; and some men might ask for facilities for prayer at work or a time-off for communal prayers or a day-off on their religious holidays. Unless these and other demands are patently unreasonable or excessive costly to meet, they should be conceded with good grace. In response to considerable minority pressure as well as out of a better appreciation of minority needs, many West European countries have abandoned their earlier rigid policies and taken commendable steps in this direction.

If a cultural community is territorially concentrated, its autonomy might require that it should enjoy rights and powers not available to other communities. When the Meach Lake agreement in Canada acknowledged Quebec as a ‘distinct society’ and gave it powers not available to other provinces, when the constitution of Malaysia granted Borneo a ‘special status’, or when India conferred special powers and privileges on some North Eastern states and on Kashmir, the countries concerned showed considerable political wisdom. In terms of the standard theory of the state advocated by western legal and political philosophers, these countries were open to the charge of violating the principle of equality. However the authors of these provisions rightly concluded that formal equality sometimes led to substantive inequality and violated the principle of justice, and that even justice, though a very important political value, needed to be reconciled with such other political values as stability, civil order, promotion of diversity, and giving citizens a cultural stake in the wider society.

Citizens build up a sense of mutual commitment and common belonging in the course of working and acting together. It is therefore vital that political institutions should provide ample opportunities for them to do so. Political parties should encourage intercultural co-operation and draw their support, membership and representation from all ethnic and religious communities. The civil service, the judiciary, the legislature, the executive and other institutions should also encourage minority presence. Although ideally this should be done on merit, there is a strong case for affirmative action. The latter shows that the wider society values minority presence and contribution. It helps remove intergenerationally accumulated disadvantages, ensures equality of opportunity, and facilitates social integration. It also brings the various communities together, fosters habits of co-operation and better understanding, and enables them to shape public policies in the light of their cultural requirements. This is amply demonstrated by the experience of India and the U.S.A. where the policy of affirmative action has been practised for decades. The increasing rejection of it in the U.S.A. in recent years is already beginning to lead to racial segregation in occupation and higher education and augurs ill for its future.

Second, relations between communities are shaped by a number of factors, of which material interests, political power, and historical memories are the most important. If a community is materially disadvantaged both absolutely and relatively and is made to bear the disproportionate burden of modernisation and inevitable technological changes, it feels unjustly treated and has little stake in the society. Material disadvantages also affect its life chances, ways of thought, access to education and self-respect. The disadvantaged group therefore gets excluded from the mainstream society and leads a life of its own on the margins of society. If it happens to be distinct cultural community, the sense of exclusion and injustice is compounded, and generates a deep sense of resentment, alienation, and hostility to the wider society. It has no commitment to the society and does not feel that it belongs to it. Since the group is marginal to and does not interact on a regular and equal basis with the mainstream society, the latter too feels the same way about it. It is therefore vitally important to ensure that no group in a multicultural society is systematically disadvantaged and that the fruits of prosperity are equitably shared.

Access to political power is important both because it is the basis of a group’s sense of worth and effectiveness and because it affects its economic and other prospects. The right to vote is obviously important, which is why in most societies, other things being equal, the deprived or minority communities are generally the most enthusiastic supporters of democracy. The vote, however, is of limited value because the opportunity to exercise it only occurs once every four or five years and because minorities are often outvoted by a united majority. It therefore needs to be backed up by other ways of giving them access to power.

Decentralisation of authority and functions helps, as was wisely done, under the Spanish constitution of 1978 after years of brutal centralisation under General Franco. All conflicts do not then escalate to the central government for resolution and become sources of struggle between the dominant and minority communities. Decentralisation also provides multiple units of power and widens minority access to it. And it allows different regions to work out their own appropriate forms of multicultural co-operation and enrich the national experience. As we saw earlier, political parties need to broaden and diversify their support and actively recruit minority communities. Major institutions of the state need to do the same. It also sometimes helps to give minority communities a special consultative role in matters affecting their vital cultural interests and, in exceptional circumstances, the power of veto. The Dutch system of pillarisation, the French Council of Region, the Swedish system of consulting minorities, and the Israeli and Indian commitment not to change minority customs without their explicit consent are all good examples of this.

Ethnic and religious conflicts thrive on memories of real or imagined past acts of injustice. The more bitter the memories, the more intractable the conflicts, and the more difficult it becomes to restore normal relations between the communities involved. It is therefore vitally important in a multicultural society to resolve conflicts in a just and humane manner and prevent a future accumulation of painful memories. As for the inherited memories of the past, every society, especially a multicultural society, needs to find ways of pacifying the tormented consciousness, of its erstwhile victims, making the past bearable for all, and paving the way for intercommunal reconciliation. The appropriately called Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is an excellent example of this. The Commission does not seek truth to punish the guilty, and it does not seek reconciliation through genuine but empty expressions of good-will. It establishes and publicises the truth of past misdeeds, requires their perpetrators to admit their guilt and express regrets, and uses the occasion to secure reconciliation between them and their victims or survivors. Although President Clinton’s recent willingness to apologise to Native Americans is a comparatively limited gesture, it does represent yet another way of healing past wounds in a multicultural society.

Third, in a multicultural society the institutions of the state play a vital role in fostering a sense of common belonging. They cut across and transcend cultural differences, deeply affect the interests of all their citizens, and give focus to the collective life. Since the real or perceived danger of cultural bias and partisanship haunts all areas of life, in a multicultural society, the impartiality of the state is of even greater importance here than in culturally homogeneous societies. If the different communities cannot be sure of securing justice from the state, they are left with no alternative but to take the law into their own hands, and cannot be blamed for doing so. While authority inheres in the office and is ultimately derived from the country’s constitution, legitimacy is derived from people’s confidence and willing support. Unlike authority, legitimacy therefore has to be won daily by ensuring that those in authority exercise it impartially and fairly. The state loses its legitimacy when its institutions act in a partial and biased manner, supporting one group but not another, coming down heavily on the minor peccadilloes of one group but conniving at the major misdeeds of another. In the modern state, four institutions, namely the civil service, the police, the army, and the courts lie at its heart. They constitute what Hegel rightly called the universal class, that is, a class embodying, exercising and living up to the norms inherent in the universality of the state. It is therefore essential that these institutions are manned by individuals of merit and integrity, that their exercise of authority is regulated by clearly defined procedures, that their actions be above suspicion, and that their acts of partiality are subjected to severest censure and punishment. When we talk of state-building, we mean that these institutions should assiduously cultivate an appropriate professional ethos and be firmly insulated against all forms of partisan ethnic, religious and cultural pressure. It is difficult to think of any multicultural society many of whose problems and tragedies are not caused by the blatant partisanship of the institutions of the state.

Fourth, since differences are a daily experience and deeply inscribed in every formal and informal encounter in a multicultural society, its smooth running and survival require that its members should acquire the requisite psychological and moral resources. They should not feel threatened by differences and should positively respect and even cherish them. They cannot do so unless they appreciate that differences are not pathological deviations from unchallengable norms but perfectly normal and legitimate, and that, for reasons mentioned earlier, they contribute to human freedom, rationality and well-being and constitute a collective asset. And members of a society cannot take such a view of difference without taking an open and critical attitude to their own identity. It is only when they acknowledge that their ways of life and thought do not represent the last word in human wisdom, that these have their own biases and limitations, and that they greatly benefit from sympathetic interactions with and indeed from the mere presence of others that they see the need to respect and love differences.

Thanks to the centuries-old binary mode of thought highlighted by Jacques Derrida, and to its reinforcement by three centuries of colonialism and the homogenising nation state, many in the West and even elsewhere have great difficulty appreciating the value of difference. For them one is either modern or premodern, liberal or illiberal, rational or superstitious, progressive or reactionary, and ways of thought and life falling within the first of these categories are worthy and the rest misguided. Since difference is pathologised and perceived as a threat to their identity, they feel that their identity is best preserved not merely by avoiding all contact with the deviant but by declaring a war on it. In this exclusive view of identity, one who is different from us is not only an ‘other’ but a hostile other, an enemy.

Multicultural society requires a totally different view of identity and difference. Identity should not be seen as homogeneous and unchanging, for it then fears and cannot tolerate difference. It should be open and self-critical, not solid and sealed but tentative and sensitive to the differences within itself. When it is at ease with its own internal differences, it feels at ease with those outside it, and sees the two as part a single continuum. Such an attitude calls for deep cultural changes in the way we define our various identities. For reasons stated earlier multicultural society marks a new epoch in history and requires not only an appropriate set of policies and institutions but also new attitudes and virtues and indeed a profound cultural and psychological transformation. Although this vast task is beyond the resources of single society, each can take small steps in that direction and contribute to the creation of a new culture.

Multicultual education is one such step. Every society sustains and reproduces itself through its system of education, and the multicultural society is no exception. Even as the nation state consolidated itself by initiating its future citizens into a national culture by means of suitably written history books, literary texts, etc., a multicultural society cannot flourish without a well-conceived multicultural education. The purpose of such education is not to stuff the pupil’s mind with a body of superficial information about different cultures and histories, nor to undermine her confidence in her own, but to help her develop both an open and self-critical identity and a deep respect and love for differences. It should get her to appreciate and enter into the spirit of the vastly different ways of thought and life that mankind has thrown up over the centuries, to see the uniqueness and strengths as well as the limitations of her own, and to remain open to creative and constructive encounters with others. Such a goal obviously cannot be achieved unless books on history, social and religious studies, civics and geography are written in the appropriate spirit. Although they still leave much to be desired, experiments in this area in such countries as Canada, Australia and parts of the U.S.A. are all steps in the right direction.

Fifth, in order to cultivate a common sense of belonging among its diverse communities and to help them identify with each other and the wider society, the multicultural society should so define its identity that it does not exclude and delegitimise any of them. Disputes about national identity are ultimately about who belongs to the community and who does not, who is a legitimate and valued part of it and who is not. When Malaysians debate whether their country is Malay Malaysia as the bulk of the majority insists, or Malaysian Malaysia, as the rest and especially the minorities do, they are debating the importance to be given to the Malay community. ‘Malay Malaysia’ makes Malays the sole legitimate owners of the country, and treats Chinese, Indians and others as second class citizens, no doubt entitled to full legal protection but not to participate as equals in the determination of the country’s identity. Disputes between the advocates of Arab Sudan versus African Sudan, Christian Lebanon versus Muslim Lebanon, Algerian Algeria versus Arabic-Muslim Algeria, white and Christian Britain versus multi-ethnic Britain, and Hindu India versus Indian India have a similar thrust. In each case one party offers an exclusive and the other an inclusive definition of national identity. The exclusive definition, which is generally favoured by the dominant group, alienates minorities and even some sections of the dominant group and discourages a common sense of belonging. A group of people cannot feel part of a society if its very self-definition denies them political and moral legitimacy.

The national identity of a society is embodied in and nurtured by not only its self-understanding but also such emotional symbols of collective self-expression as the national anthem, the flag, national ceremonies, political rituals, and monuments to dead heroes. The symbols mobilise political emotions, draw people together in common acts of self-identification, generate and affirm the consciousness of a collective ‘we’, and play a vital part in building up a strong sense of mutual commitment and belonging. It is therefore important that they should, whenever appropriate, affirm the multicultural character of the society and grant suitable public recognition to its constituent communities. Prince Charles expressed this well when he said that he would, as a monarch, like to be the ‘Defender of Faith’ (meaning all major British religions) rather than of ‘the faith’ (Anglican Christianity) as is currently the case. The same multicultural spirit was at work when the public ceremony at the Commonwealth Remembrance Day in Britain was revised to include multifaith worship, when the newly independent state of India adopted a flag including the green colour of Islam, and when the Canadian flag included the maple leaf; both a culturally neutral and nationally representative symbol of its identity. Although trivial at one level, such gestures play an important part in sustaining a society’s multicultural ethos and aspirations.

If a multicultural society were to move in the direction I have suggested, it would be able to cultivate a strong sense of common belonging without requiring a comprehensive national culture. It would cherish both unity and diversity. And its unity would grow out of and be constantly nurtured by its diversity, just as its diversity would be located in and protected and regulated by a shared framework of unity. Its unity would not be formal, abstract, and devoid of energy, but would posses great moral, political and cultural depth. And its diversity would not be passive, mute and ghettoised but expansive, interactive and capable of creating a rich and plural collective culture. Such a multicultural society is united but not unified, displays unity without uniformity, both shares a common sense of belonging and accommodates a wide range of diversity, and provides as much order as it needs to act effectively. It shares a common collective culture reflected alike in its political, civic, personal and other areas of life. However unlike the homogeneous, overbearing, and passively received culture of the nationalist imagination, its culture is plural, open, constantly refashioned, and one in which its constituent communities find their reflections and with which they can enthusiastically identify.


Multicultural societies the world over are characterised by tension, anxiety, instability, disorder and even violence. Since they are a relatively new phenomenon, history offers us only limited guidance on the best ways of dealing with the problems confronting them. UNESCO therefore has a vital role to play both as a clearing-house of existing ideas and a catalyst of new ones. I suggest that it should devise a comprehensive programme involving the following.

First, a number of interesting constitutional, cultural, educational and other experiments are under way in different parts of the world, each representing a specific society’s attempt to cope with its cultural conflicts and to build a successful society. Some of these experiments have proved successful whereas others have run into difficulties. They are little known outside the society concerned and the small world of specialists . It would be most valuable to highlight and disseminate these experiments and their lessons. UNESCO should identify specific areas and publish works on each, outlining what policies different countries are pursuing with what results. The areas could include inner-city ethnic relations, schemes for adequate minority representation in political and other institutions, forms of devolution of power, ways of defining national identity, and programmes of citizenship education.

Second, since multicultural education is vital to the success of multicultural societies, the UNESCO should set up departments or at least chairs of multicultural studies in different parts of the world. Working in close co-operation with local institutions, they should be expected to explore appropriate systems of multicultural education for their areas and help devise programmes of multicultural teacher training. They could also set up groups of educationists drawn from neighbouring countries to prepare objective text-books in such politically sensitive subjects as history, geography and social studies with a view to encouraging their adoption in the countries involved. The departments should also be expected to prepare well-argued research papers on controversial issues with a view to providing correct information and an objective assessment of the arguments on each side. Such papers could diffuse misunderstanding, ignorance and falsehood, and help improve the quality of public debate.

Third, conflicts in multicultural societies can often be anticipated and, if tackled in time, resolved. When conflicts are at an initial stage, the UNESCO could consider setting up forums within the country or between the countries involved with a view to bringing together intellectuals, journalists, leading statesman, and others in a position to influence public opinion. The forums, chaired by outsiders if necessary, would provide much-needed spaces where spokesmen of different bodies of opinion could interact, debate their differences, acquire a better appreciation of each other’s position, and use their collective moral authority to calm passions and guide public opinion. It would be a good idea to build up an international team of neutral individuals commanding general respect and skilled in conflict resolution. UNESCO is ideally placed to play such a proactive role.

Fourth, there are several aspects of multicultural society on which a global consensus needs to be built up. Many societies feel threatened by cultural plurality, and we need to show them why they are wrong to do so. UNESCO could therefore produce an easily accessible body of literature showing why the widespread desire for a culturally homogeneous society is neither practicable nor desirable. This is best done not by abstract theoretical arguments but by concrete examples drawn from different countries, showing how cultural diversity enriched them not only aesthetically and morally but also materially.

Multicultural societies would also benefit greatly from clear guidance on such vital issues as a realistic charter of minority cultural rights, the role and limits of religion in public life, multiculturally designed museums judiciously displaying and relating the cultural achievements of different civilisations and national groups, laws on hate speech, the code of conduct for the media when handling multicultural issues, and ways of identifying and combating racial and cultural discrimination. UNESCO should produce well-considered documents, offering clear guidance on these and related issues and illustrating by concrete examples how general principles and policies can be applied in specific cases. In these and other ways it could become a widely trusted and intellectually respected international think-tank leading the struggle for a badly needed new cultural order.

Bhikhu Parekh is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Hull. He was Deputy Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality in the United Kingdom, 1985-90; Vice-Chancellor, University of Baroda, India, 1981-84; Visiting Professor at several North American Universities, including Harvard. He is the author of several acclaimed books in political philosophy and on India. His Gandhi was published by Oxford University Press in 1997, and his Rethinking Multiculturalism will be published in 1998.

"A commitment to pluralism"
Ria Lavrijsen
Livio Sansone
Bhikhu Parekh
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) A new global ethics
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) A commitment to pluralism
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) Challenges of a media-rich world
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) Recasting cultural policies
General introduction
our creative diversity