The discourse of multiculturalism, often regarded as characteristically American, has in recent years steadily gained ground in Europe. This can be seen as a belated response to the often striking transformation of the metropolitan Lebenswelt by the inflow of millions from Asia, Africa, the Antilles and the Middle East. Decades of friction between majorities and minorities in the streets, on the labour market, in public housing, over access to welfare and in schools have thrown up fractured ethno-landscapes all across the continent. At a time when the orthodoxies of the market have all but eliminated any alternatives from the political field, both admirers and detractors of multiculturalism insist on the increasing centrality of a new axis of group differentiation and the problems that it poses to inherited conceptions of national identity. The presence of large immigrant communities in the EU, often dating from the twilight era of colonialism, acquires a more pregnant significance—it is often felt—in an era of globalization, as the main vectors of economic development, geopolitics and mass culture all seem to point to a featureless horizon beyond the nation-state. Immigrants from the non-European world appear to introduce an extra element of uncertainty into this transition, perhaps threatening to derail the train to Euroland altogether.

In Rethinking Multiculturalism the eminently establishment figure of Bhikhu Parekh—Vice-Chancellor of Baroda University, Deputy Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality in the UK, and peer in the British House of Lords—attempts to relate such European issues to North American and Indian experiences. His aim is to propose a comprehensive normative framework for addressing ethno-religious and racial conflicts in liberal democracies. The practical objective of securing a peaceful and inclusive civic life overrides any temptation on Parekh’s part to dwell at length on incommensurable values. His construction of multiculturalism eschews any deep theory of culture, using the term to refer simply to communal modes of being in the world that generate complex but manageable problems of inter-group communication and cohabitation. The communal cultures he discusses usually emerge out of a fusion of ethnicity and religion. Loyalty to the way of life they prescribe is represented not as an adhesion to transcendental imperatives, but rather as the expression of an irreplaceable quotidian experience.

But if such cultures are rich in themselves, they are also multistranded, like pieces of rope, and by weaving together certain strands from each, a durable and colourful fabric of society can be made. Since cultures of this sort tend to be most palpable when they exclude outsiders, it might be objected that multiculturalism—however good for keeping the peace—is unlikely to be quite so good for the integrity of the cultures themselves. But Parekh is confident that an open-minded dialogue between majorities and minorities will not only preserve, but refine the ethno-religious traditions of each. Conceding that too much mixing might dilute what is valuable in any particular culture, he insists that doctrinaire universalism and its opposite, chauvinistic culturalism are worse. By way of demonstration, he takes the reader on a flat-footed tour through the gallery of Great Philosophers—from Plato to Rawls—stopping here and there to explain to what degree a given thinker failed to grasp the mellow verities of the middle ground, either because he leaned too far in the direction of universalistic monism, or alternately too far in the direction of relativism.

Ostensibly, Parekh’s book sets out to offer a critique of contemporary liberals who fail to recognize the impossibility of public neutrality between different conceptions of the good life, according surreptitious priority to their own values of autonomy, human rights and distributive justice. Granting without difficulty a minimum of universal prohibitions—against slavery, torture, and the like—he contends that liberals illegitimately expand the empire of rights in ways that often violate the customary norms of traditional communities. This looks like the stuff of a sharp philosophical conflict, but when Parekh elaborates on it, the upshot is little that really departs from actually existing Anglo-American liberalism. Indeed he maintains that, at least in Western countries, a public commitment to liberal values must be accepted since a thorough-going neutrality between liberal and non-liberal conceptions of legitimacy is impossible. This turns out to be more than just a matter of expediency: for all practical purposes Parekh appears to believe—though he does not say so—that liberal values are closest to what we all know to be universally valid.

His principal objection to mainstream liberalism is simply that it does not have a theory of cultural groups and the rights that they can legitimately claim. But the criteria he suggests for recognition of such groups prove to be a confused medley of the conservative, the sentimental and the completely evasive, embracing traditional communities, social pariahs, or just those who contribute something valuable to society: Orthodox Jews, Untouchables, African Americans, and any legitimate claimant to special status. Unwilling to yield to ‘postmodern’ conceptions of fluid and hybridized identities, Parekh seeks to be both firm and flexible here, distinguishing between multiculturalism proper—that is, relations between ‘communal’ cultures—and mere subcultural diversity. Although he introduces other criteria to allow for affirmative action, his theory of group entitlements is heavily biased towards more traditional cultures. The same list is visible in his treatment of current inter-cultural controversies. Most of the cases he discusses involve divisions between European national majorities and Muslim, Hindu or Sikh minorities over public symbolism and the allocation of public resources. The issues on which he focuses are scarves, turbans, funerals and funding of religious schools. On these he sides with immigrant communities, while at the same time explaining that Western societies can legitimately accord priority to their own traditional institutions, creeds and symbols. By extension, Parekh expresses muted approval for the Israeli Law of Return as a culture-preserving measure.

When it comes to ethno-religious practices or rules governing the position of women, Parekh has little hesitation in appealing to universal moral norms; and though he rhetorically sides with protesters against Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, maintaining that the Indian government was right to ban the novel, he ends by concluding that it would probably be sensible to abolish blasphemy laws altogether. The sum of his recommendations could, in effect, be accepted by virtually any right-thinking upholder of Westminster values. Billed as a critical reconsideration of liberal premisses, the objective of Rethinking Multiculturalism could be more accurately described as the de-Westernization of liberalism—a stealth liberalism capable of integrating variously devout immigrants into un­evenly secular European societies. Reform of too-extreme dogmas or customs, of course, he believes essential, to bring the culture of traditional religious communities into line with the requirements of the modern world. The end result would, in a best-case scenario, be a continent in which all could take a modest pride in their ethnic or religious patrimonies, untainted by aggressive fanaticism or corrosive cynicism.

Multiculturalism, so understood, is an unobjectionable extension of contemporary liberalism, for which Parekh—who makes no claims as a radical—cannot be faulted. It is quite another matter for the Left to make this outlook its own. A glance at the differing situations in Europe and America is enough to make this plain. In both, the idea of multiculturalism appeals to a certain sensibility on the Left, as a higher form of anti-racism that meshes with the culturalist common sense of the time: that the order of human things is a cultural artefact and therefore that the fundamental conflicts within it are fought over representation, identity and lifestyle. One corollary is that a good society can be established without any coercive redistribution of property. Another is that religion is neither obscurantist nor an opiate, but rather a form of identity and a way of life—just like class, nation or sexual preference. In Europe, it is the latter deduction that is politically most salient, as the critical stance of the Enlightenment towards religion has been widely jettisoned. It is now standard for religious protectionism of one kind or another to be dressed up as anti-racism. A paradigm case is the denunciation of any criticism of Judaism or Zionism as anti-Semitic, or of Islam as arabophobic. Religious faiths may, in fact, offer defensive identities for vulnerable immigrant communities. But the same creeds can be weapons of vicious repression in their homelands—and that there can be links between the two the followers of Khomeini or Kahane amply demonstrate.