Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism

Raphael Cohen-Almagor

I have been thinking and writing about religion and culture since the 1990s. However, I did not think about writing a book. I was more preoccupied with questions pertaining to media ethics and medical ethics. The turning point was 2011. Then, Prime Minister David Cameron went as far as saying that multiculturalism had failed and that it had fostered extremist ideology and radicalization among British Muslims. PM Cameron said that under the “doctrine of state multiculturalism,” different cultures have been encouraged to live separate lives, “apart from each other and apart from the mainstream,” and “We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.”

I thought that PM Cameron’s attack on multiculturalism was not only uncalled for but also inflammatory. Those words, uttered by the British prime minister, divided the British society more than it already was. Up until that point, I used to hear other attacks on multiculturalism, that it endangers democracy, and that it is bad for women and children, but to say that multiculturalism promotes extremism and terrorism was something that I did not expect. Then I decided it is about time to write a comprehensive book on the themes of liberalism, multiculturalism, and tolerance. The main thesis that I put forward is that it is possible to reconcile between liberalism and multiculturalism. To show this, while building on scholars who inspired me (including Kant, Mill, Rawls, Kymlicka and Habermas) I developed a theory of just, reasonable multiculturalism according to which it is possible to maintain liberal democracy and, at the same time, enjoy the beauty that the myriad of cultures and religions bring with them. The most difficult question relates to the extent of interference that the liberal state is legitimate to pursue when it is challenged by illiberal cultural practices within liberal society.

Not everything can be allowed in the name of culture. I outline the theoretical assumptions underlying a liberal response to threats posed by cultural or religious groups whose norms entail different measures of harm. In drawing the boundaries, the first part of the book details the theoretical framework of just, reasonable multiculturalism. I emphasize the concepts of justice, reasonableness, compromise, deliberative democracy and coercion. I examine the importance of cultural, ethnic, national, religious, and ideological norms and beliefs, and what part they play in requiring us to tolerate others out of respect. With the support of the theory, I formulate guidelines designed to prescribe boundaries to cultural practices and to safeguard the rights of individuals. Subsequently, I apply them to real life situations.

Just Reasonable, Multiculturalism balances group rights against individual rights. In delineating the limits of state intervention in minority groups’ affairs, I draw a distinction between physical harm and non-physical harm. The first category includes practices such as scarring, suttee, murder for family honour, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), female circumcision and male circumcision. The second category includes arranged and forced marriages, divorce and property rights, gender segregation, and denial of education to women and children. Placing necessary checks on groups that discriminate against vulnerable third parties, commonly women and children, the approach insists on the protection of basic human rights as well as on substantive exit rights for individuals if and when they wish to leave their cultural groups.

The final part of the book includes two country case studies, France and Israel. The discussion illustrates the power of security considerations in restricting claims for multiculturalism. The threat of violence and terrorism are used to justify in France the enforcement of a strict dress code, especially for Muslim women, and leads to the discrimination of the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel. It is argued that both practices are unjustified.

My research led me to distinguish between female circumcision and FGM. While FGM should not be tolerated by the liberal state as this practice amounts to torture, a symbolic minor scar on the major labia is arguably no more harmful than male circumcision. It cannot be considered as more mutilating the body.

The writing of the male circumcision chapter proved to be most complicated. In the spirit of compromise, I strove to find a solution that would promote the best interests of new-borns, avoid torture and respect tradition. Finding such a solution was not easy as Jewish law (halacha) objects to anaesthesia by injection and the traditional circumcisers (mohalim) are not qualified nor allowed to perform injections. Upon consultations with religious authorities of different denominations as well as with physicians, decision-makers and scholars, after some months of deliberations I was able to devise a proposal for humane male circumcision.

Sometimes, one carries research on one issue and stumbles on another important and related matter. Then the scholar needs to decide whether to diverge from the preliminary research plan and invest in deciphering the related issue. Such diversion is warranted if the unexpected, related matter is significant and it influences the original subject of research. Case in point was my research on denying education to Amish children. My research showed that it is very difficult for people who left the Amish community to fully integrate into the American society as the limited education that they received in the Amish community does not equip them with sufficient credentials to integrate into the larger American society on equal terms. My research also revealed a disturbing pattern of child abuse. The image of the Amish as a peaceful community that is protective of its youth was shaken. This phenomenon is much too serious and disturbing to be ignored. This finding added another justification for state intervention in the affairs of the Amish community so as to insist that their children should receive the same education as children of the wider American community.

My research also shows that the French understanding of liberalism is quite different than Anglo-Saxon liberalism. My research led me to believe that while the liberal motto of the French Revolution — liberté, égalité, fraternité — is still symbolically and politically important, its practical significance as it has been translated to policy implementation has been eroded. We have witnessed the emergence of a new trinity — indivisibilité, sécurité, laïcité — at the expense of the old one. This is evident when analysing the debates concerning cultural policies in France in the face of the Islamic garb, the burqa and the niqab, which are perceived as a challenge to the French national secular raison d’être and to the French Republic. Preserving and maintaining the Republic is far more important than freedom of culture and religion. I concluded that the French attitude to the Islamic garb, and the restrictions it imposes on women are neither just nor reasonable.

Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism by Raphael Cohen-Almagor

About The Author

Raphael Cohen-Almagor

Raphael Cohen-Almagor is the author of Confronting the Internet's Dark Side. Raphael Cohen-Almagor is Professor and Chair in Politics, and Founding Director of the Middle East Stud...

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