When I visited Canada in early 2007, my one-week trip coincided with a flurry of media stories about potential or actual cultural conflict, mainly involving Muslims (Hérouxville resolution, whether hijab-wearing footballers could play on school teams and so on). As the editor of a London-based current affairs monthly – Prospect magazine – which has published a fair amount about such conflicts in Britain, this made me feel on familiar territory. In fact, I was in Canada because the High Commission in London had kindly sent me to talk to people about the state of Canadian multiculturalism. The timing was good – people were talking about little else.

Before I visited, my impression was that, unlike Britain, the tight control Canada keeps over skills of eligible immigrants meant that the country’s loudly proclaimed commitment to multiculturalism had scarcely been tested. When most migrants are well educated and Westernized and speak the majority language, minor cultural differences are easy enough to accommodate.

As Britain struggles to establish a postethnic civic citizenship, there were, I thought, things we could learn from Canada’s “civic religion” – its Charter of Rights, probationary periods for “landed immigrants,” citizenship ceremonies. Indeed, some of these things are already being absorbed into the British system. There were rather fewer things, I believed, that Canada’s multiculturalism could teach us in Britain, especially as we in recent times have been worrying about the erosion of a common culture in the face of growing ethnic segregation and the rise of both Muslim extremism and the far right.

In any case, what I discovered, or think I discovered, is that Anglo-Canada is a radical outlier relative to western Europe not in the reality of attitudes or policies about multiculturalism but in its multicultural rhetoric. The debate over allowing shari‘a law in Ontario – and the final decision not to do so – may have marked the high-water mark of Canadian multiculturalism. And Britain, despite the new scepticism about multiculturalism in public debate, remains at least as multicultural as Canada. Faith-based schools, for example, are less controversial in Britain than they seem to be in Anglo-Canada. And, admittedly a small example, I discovered that the Somalian practice of chewing the mildly narcotic khat is banned in Canada but allowed in Britain.

The main difference between Britain and Canada lies not so much in multiculturalism but in very different attitudes to immigration. The majority of Britons have always been sceptical about immigration; the recent surge in immigration to Britain may have been good for the economy but it has not been popular. By contrast, immigration is built into Anglo-Canada’s political and economic self-image and is viewed positively by a much larger proportion of the population than in Britain.

What Britain and Anglo-Canada do have in common is a rather fuzzy sense of national identity, and a dominant ethnic group that for various historical reasons has been content not to make its dominance explicit. This has, at least until recently, made the laissez-faire, cultural relativist, pro-minority, anti–dominant-culture rhetoric of multiculturalism rather attractive to a large proportion of the political and intellectual elite in both countries. But both countries also have strong liberal political cultures – indeed part of the national identity in both countries is expressed through this political culture. When minority cultures threaten liberalism, the limits of multiculturalism become quickly evident.

This conflict between multiculturalism and liberalism – or, in the language of political science, between pluralism and liberalism – has been particularly evident in relation to Muslim minorities. Most of the Muslim minority in the U.K. comes from traditional societies with conservative social attitudes and a conservative reading of their religion. (Canada’s more selective migration policy means that its Muslim population is significantly more middle-class.)

Where does Quebec stand in all of this?

And what, if any, lessons might there be for Quebec’s debate about “reasonable accommodation” from the British experience, especially with its Muslim minority?

I spent only two days of my week in Canada in Quebec, and claim no great knowledge of its debates over immigration, multiculturalism and so on. My impression is that Quebec is somewhat closer to the European mainstream than Anglo-Canada in these matters. As a result of the 250-year struggle to survive despite La Conquête in 1759, francophone Quebecers have a much sharper national story than the Anglo-Canadians (or the British for that matter) – closer perhaps to France or Italy.

Quebecers are in many ways to be envied. They have, rather like the Scots within Britain, the “thicker” sense of identity and belonging that is typical of small nations but generally on the wane in the developed world. Like the Scots, they also belong to a larger geopolitical entity, which gives them access to the global stage. Quebecers enjoy the warmth generated by being an embattled linguistic minority and a clear sense of who they are – as descendants of the 10,000 original French settlers – while suffering, at least in their own space, few of the disadvantages of minority status.

In this context it is easy to see why multiculturalism has rather less appeal. Having established a special relationship with Anglo-Canada, francophone Quebec does not wish to be reduced to one part of the multicultural mosaic. As a modern liberal polity, Quebec has no problem with minority rights, but with its own stronger “minority” identity it rejects the cultural relativism implicit (if not real) in Anglo-Canada. There is a more overt dominant culture in Quebec, defined mainly by language and to a lesser extent religion. Ethnic pride is not considered passé in a way that it is, at least among the elites, in Anglo-Canada and Britain. Quebec’s liberalism precariously embraces ethnic nationalism – pride in one’s history and traditions – while rejecting “ethnicism” – a belief in the superiority of one’s ethnic group. (I first heard this useful distinction expressed in a conversation with none other than Gérard Bouchard.)

Quebec is less wedded to mass immigration than Anglo-Canada, and indeed has proportionately fewer immigrants. And because of its “thicker” sense of identity there is more sensitivity to difference in parts of Quebec (especially outside Montreal). Quebecers outside Montreal tend to make more demands of newcomers to adapt – in everyday practice if not in law – than much of Anglo-Canada does. It is less easy for immigrants to disappear into self-segregated zones in a small country like Quebec, with a strong sense of itself – which is not a bad thing from the point of view of social cohesion.

It seems to me perfectly reasonable for Quebec to want to hold on to its thicker sense of ethnic-national identity, but in an era of relatively high immigration (even in Quebec), that means making more explicit the terms on which newcomers can become members of the existing society. This is what we have not done sufficiently in Britain over the past few decades. We, along with most other European countries, are now belatedly grappling with our own “reasonable accommodations.”

Affirming national citizenship

Over the past 40 years, Britain has lost the ability to tell a clear story about itself, and that is reflected in the indistinct sense of citizenship that many recent immigrants have acquired. Part of that is the unavoidable, indeed welcome, trend of liberal modernity to undermine collective identities in favour of individual choice and freedom. But it is surely possible to have a strong sense of national citizenship in more liberal societies – indeed I would argue it is essential in the long term to prevent the balkanization of politics along racial and religious lines and to sustain generous welfare states.

Integration is, of course, a two-way process. The question is: how far does each side in this process move? Sometimes in discussions on the left about immigration, there is an assumption that the host country must radically adapt its way of life or reach out to meet newcomers halfway. This “equality of adaptation” idea is disproportionate, usually reflecting the ambivalence of the political left about national feeling and its recent focus on minority grievance. Equality of adaptation has never happened, but the rhetoric of equal adaptation is a source of great anxiety to ordinary citizens.

Of course the host culture must adapt – in Anglo-Canada, Quebec, Britain or anywhere – to the extent of treating new citizens with fairness and dignity. That means not only equal legal rights and political equality but some accommodation of individual and group difference – the provision of Muslim prayer rooms, for example, and the acceptance of religious holidays. And it is, of course, especially important that the state itself and key institutions like the police and the criminal justice system be strongly committed to the principle of equal citizenship. In the longer run, as different ethnic groups grow in size and importance, they willy nilly change the host society. But in the nature of things most of the adaptation will, initially, be on the side of the newcomers who have chosen to live in an already existing society with established norms and traditions. This does not mean assimilation. There is no need to abandon all ties to a country of origin or to fall in with every aspect of the way of life of the adopted country.

It is important that newcomers acknowledge that the host society is not just a random collection of individuals; they are joining a society which although hard to describe is real enough. It is also important that immigration be approached with more realism on both sides than is often the case in liberal discourse. It is hard being an immigrant, and it is also hard accepting immigration – there is inevitable disruption to the stability and continuity that solid communities are based on. Although formal political equality is easy enough to offer, “felt” equality takes time. If newcomers are led to expect instant “felt” equality, they will often be disappointed and their disenchantment is likely to be badly received by the host society. A negative tit-for-tat reaction can easily ensue.

A developed, liberal society like Quebec or Britain can and does sustain a huge variety of beliefs and lifestyles, all of which are compatible with an adequate sense of citizenship and social cohesion. We do not all have to like one another, agree with one another or live like one another for the glue to work. As the philosopher David Miller has written,

Liberal states do not require their citizens to believe liberal principles, since they tolerate communists, anarchists, fascists and so forth. What they require is that citizens should conform to liberal principles in practice and accept as legitimate policies that are pursued in the name of such principles, while they are left free to advocate alternative arrangements. The same must apply to immigrant groups, who can legitimately be required to abandon practices that liberalism condemns, such as the oppression of women, intolerance of other faiths and so on.1

Miller is right. Liberalism and pluralism (the belief that there can be many different conceptions of the good life within the same society) are normally close allies. But when they conflict, it is liberalism that must prevail. Or to put it another way, a liberal state has the right to outlaw things that challenge its core assumptions – such as the emergence of separate legal-political enclaves that would be implied, for example, in the acceptance of shari‘a law for Muslims in areas of high Muslim settlement.

Muslims in the West

When people assert that cultural pluralism and liberalism can conflict, the allusion is usually to Muslim minorities in the West. The Muslim minority in Britain of 1.5 to 2 million people is itself a highly varied group, but roughly two thirds of British Muslims come from, or have parents who came from, either Pakistan or Bangladesh (often from the rural parts of those countries), and it is among this group that the “classical” problems of integration and social and economic failure are most starkly posed. Between mainstream Britain and much of the Pakistani/Bangladeshi minority there is a big divide in terms of wealth, education and cultural traditionalism. Moreover, integration is often complicated by the ability of modern communications (radio, television, internet) to enable immigrants to retain strong, permanent links with their country of origin and remain linguistically embedded in that world. Integration as measured by intermarriage and residential segregation is significantly lower among Muslims than among other big minorities in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Thanks in part to the embattled global situation of Islam and recent British foreign policy, the question of divided loyalties is also raised more starkly for Muslims than it is for most other immigrant groups. Since Canada did not participate in the Iraq war, foreign policy is not such a big issue in Quebec – although it could become one if Canada’s troops continue to play a high-profile role in Afghanistan.

Some commentators argue that there is a special problem with integrating pious Muslims in all Western countries because of the very nature of Islam: the absence of a distinction between political and religious life; the traditionalism of the religion based on a literal reading of an unquestionable single text; and the fact that it is a proselytising, universalist religion that once dominated the world – and in the eyes of some Muslims should do so again.

It is probably true that there are more pious Muslims in Britain who are indifferent to – or even hostile to – the society around them than can be found in any other big minority. According to a BBC/ICM poll of December 2002, 26 per cent of Muslims felt not very or not at all loyal towards Britain. And various polls have found between 7 and 15 per cent of British Muslims saying that the 9/11 attacks were justified. Whether there is a “special” problem with Islam or whether it is the usual problems of integration expressed in more acute form than with other big minorities is, for these purposes, an academic question. But as Ted Cantle’s report into the 2001 race riots in northern England made clear, there does seem to be an especially acute problem of social distance and “parallel lives” between the white working class and the Asian, mainly Muslim, minority in parts of northern England.

Notwithstanding these problems there have been notable advances in the political standing of British Muslims since 1997: Muslim political representation has increased and Muslim preferences have prevailed with the government on such things as faith-based schools and religious hatred legislation (although the legislation was defeated in Parliament). These advances are seldom acknowledged by the main Islamic organizations. They continue to focus relentlessly on “Islamophobia” and appear to place most of the blame for the relative socioeconomic failure of the Muslim minority at the door of white society, even though other minorities – the Indian and Chinese for example – do markedly better than whites in educational outcomes.

There may be a wider problem here of accommodating more religiously defined groups into the sometimes aggressive secularism of modern Britain – something that might be less of an issue in Quebec. As Tariq Modood of the University of Bristol has written,

While majority cultures are not homogeneous, there is indeed a growing mainstream that cuts across ethnicity and has an inclusive dynamic. This mainstream is individualistic, consumerist, materialist, and hedonistic, and is shaped by a globalising political economy, the media, and commercialised popular culture. This allows it to be pluralistic in terms of accommodating niche markets and lifestyle choices … What it cannot accommodate so easily are minorities who as groups reject or are rejected by significant parts of this individualistically diverse mainstream.2

The Danish cartoon controversy of 2005–6 raised very sharply this question of how far pious Muslims can expect to impose their religious prohibitions on a society dominated by the assumptions of liberal securalism. In my view Muslims will have to learn to turn a blind eye to material that mocks or satirizes their faith, just as pious Christians have had to. Suspending the normal rules of free expression on behalf of the Muslim minority (in fact suspending the rules for a minority within the minority) would be a clear example of disproportionate adaptation. It would risk contributing to majority resentment of all Muslims, and also fail to challenge Western Muslims with the necessity of accepting Western liberal rules, at least in the public domain.


1 David Miller, Immigration, Nations and Citizenship, paper presented at a conference sponsored by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), University of Cambridge, July 5–6, 2004.

2 Tariq Modood, Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain (Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press, 2005).