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Dear Friend of KLICE,

We are pleased to present the first new monthly KLICE Comment.

This month Jonathan Chaplin writes on multiculturalism, the theme of his major new report published by Theos entitled Multiculturalism: a Christian Retrieval. The report will be profiled at a public event at the LSE on Thursday 20th October.


'Multiculturalism' is an idea whose time has gone. Or, at least, that's what you would conclude from listening to many influential opinion formers in recent years.

While commenting on violent Islamist extremism in Europe during a speech to the Munich Security conference in February 2011, David Cameron took the opportunity to venture this claim about 'state multiculturalism': 'under [this] doctrine...we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We've failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We've even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.'

In saying this, Mr. Cameron was merely swimming with the stream of public opinion in the UK (and in much of Europe). Once a default official policy stance in several countries, 'multiculturalism' is now routinely questioned, even derided, and from people located at every point on the political spectrum. Distinguished Anglican former Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, for example, has voiced strong objections to the 'multi-faith relativism' implied in 'multiculturalism'. But pointed criticisms are also emerging from those from the political centre or centre-left, locations once most hospitable to multicultural aspirations. Following the 7/7 atrocities in 2005, Trevor Phillips, a Black Briton and chair of the (then) Commission for Racial Equality, warned that Britain was in danger of 'sleepwalking into segregation'. Even Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - highly-regarded spokesperson of the oldest ethnic and religious minority in the UK - lamented in 2009 that multiculturalism 'has run its course, and it is time to move on. It was a fine idea in its time. It gave dignity to difference. But there has been a price to pay. It has led not to integration but to segregation'.

Yet when we examine the 'multiculturalism causes segregation' charge more closely, we quickly become aware of the need for more careful distinctions than are operative in most public debates. The term 'multiculturalism' means widely differing thing to different people, so that generalised dismissals (or endorsements) of it are bound to be unhelpful. Some of those meanings - 'multi-faithism', 'cultural relativism', or 'identity politics', for example - are deeply problematic. There is evidence that all of these play into social segregation.

But there is another sense of the term which refers to the longstanding, and in many ways laudable, policy goal of according equal respect and fair treatment to those ethnic or religious minorities whose public identities have been and still are at serious at risk of discrimination or marginalisation by the majority culture. There is a perfectly defensible principle of 'multicultural justice' which needs to be retrieved from disfavour and confidently reasserted in public policy. Such a principle can claim support from key commitments of Christian political thought. At the same time, multicultural justice is only one implication of justice and must be balanced against other, equally compelling ones, such as protecting individual rights (especially those of women and children), or distributive justice, or against the shared obligations of citizenship.

Held in such a careful balance, multicultural justice is something to be championed, not repudiated. And Christians above all - who profess membership of a global, multicultural community - should be in the lead in doing so. The time has come for a positive Christian retrieval of multiculturalism, and the debate can't start too soon.

Jonathan Chaplin

Director, Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE)

Author of Multiculturalism: A Christian Retrieval (Theos, 2011), downloadable from the Theos website (where this article also appears in the 'Comment and Debate' section).

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