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N. Tau: Peace and Security in Multicultural Societies

Address to Eurasia - Europe Conference on 
Peace and Security in Multicultural Societies at a Time of Global Crisis

Moscow, Russia - April 6-7, 2012

After World War II and European economic integration, migration processes have been developed extensively, and now one can talk about a multicultural society which exists practically across Europe.

We agree with Alar Kilp and Andres Saumets, who stressed in their work “Religion and Politics in Multicultural Europe,” that some degree of religious-cultural pluralism exists in all European societies, if the term 'pluralism’ is used descriptively rather than ideologically. Pluralism in a descriptive sense refers to racial, linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity in society. ‘Multiculturalism,’ according to the definition of Sasja Tempelman, refers to the ideological doctrine that recognizes cultural diversity as a permanent and valuable part of political societies.[1] Thus, one can talk about multiculturalism descriptively by referring to an existing cultural pluralism – a society consisting of different populations from different cultural traditions – or to an ideological worldview that normatively considers the latter to be positive and valuable.

In reality, differences between social groups can be tolerated to a certain degree. Multiculturalism promotes a policy which encourages minorities to maintain their own culture and for the majority to support that. Such a policy will benefit both the minority and the majority. However, multiculturalism should be considered a two-way process that demands positive commitments and compromises from both sides: the cultural majority and minorities. Cultural minorities are expected to be committed to the host society, to maintain positive sentiments regarding public culture, and to learn about the local language, history, and institutions. On the other hand, the larger society should express a certain level of commitment to the minority cultures and adapt its institutions to accommodate their identities and practices.[2] Consequently, in a multicultural society, cultural differences are recognized and supported in both public and private spheres. The alternative, an assimilation society, expects the minority groups to assimilate to the dominant culture and restricts the toleration of cultural differences to the private sphere.[3]

Culture, religion, and democracy are three different perspectives which promote multiculturalism in liberal society.


In a liberal society, the dominant social group finds it quite natural to consider their own culture to be unchangeable and homogeneous. Contrariwise, the social position of minorities, especially that of recent immigrants, encourages them to ponder the need to adapt their cultural traditions to the norms and values of the public culture. In other words, it is more natural for minorities to consider their culture to be capable of transformation and accommodation.

Often it goes unnoticed that the increasing social multiculturalization – which refers descriptively to the increase of cultural diversity in a society and normatively to policy measures that protect the rights of minority groups to maintain their cultural heritage – transforms both the majority and minority cultures. It is very probable that the extent of transformation differs for the majority and the minority cultures. Nevertheless, in reality some amount of transformation is inevitable for both. This does not mean, however, that the parties involved are willing to consider their own cultures to be capable of change and are willing to adapt or accommodate. From the perspective of the host society, the social advancement of non-national cultures may be considered a threat to the core national societal values, national identity, and social cohesion.[2] People in the majority culture of the nation perceive themselves as static, not needing to make any adaptations and changes. In contrast, they consider minority cultures capable of change and obligated to change. People from minority cultures may advance the same arguments regarding their own culture: they respond positively to the ideals of multiculturalism – tolerance, the right of minorities to maintain their cultural heritage, equal treatment in public and economic spheres, and collective expression.[2] They feel that the national culture is already relatively plural and capable of change, but their own culture needs protection because it is the foundation of their identity. Thus, both the majority culture and minority cultures may have strong preferences for their own culture. It is highly likely that neither of them would be naturally inclined to transform themselves and accommodate their own cultural traditions to the other. However, social stability and peaceful coexistence in a culturally plural society require some degree of cultural adaptation from both.


In a multicultural society where differences of religion overlap with ethnic or socioeconomic distinctions, the most important differences are often religious. Ethnic and language differences may be secondary to religious differences. People who belong to the same ethnic or religious group may interpret these differences differently in social and political spheres.

Three observations can be made about the scholarly analysis of various patterns of religion and multiculturalism. 

  • Scholarly analysis tends to favor secularism and the separation of religion from politics [4]. In reality, instead of absolute subordination of politics to religion, or absolute separation of religion from politics, the prevailing pattern of European societies is relative separation or a moderate form of separation of state and religion.
  • In analyzing the relationship between religion and non-religious spheres and identities such as economics, politics, class, and race, scholars should be careful not to overemphasize the ‘religious’ identities when these spheres and identities are enmeshed.[5] Furthermore, religious labels should not be used differently for the minorities than for the majority. For example, the label ‘Muslims’ often includes non-believing and non-practicing members of an ethno-cultural community, while the label ‘Christians’ is reserved exclusively for individuals with a religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Broad religious categories should be applied cautiously and uniformly.
  • Like ethnicity, nationality, race, or class, religion can also be the basis for either social solidarity or social divisions. However, unlike other manifestations of social conflict, instances of religious-related violence tend to damage the general image of religious politics and result in a normative bias against any religious group. As Tariq Modood has pointedly emphasized, scholars should avoid such biases against religious groups.[4]

Irrespective of the level of secularization in society, some form of religion is usually still involved in political processes. Religion remains an effective political tool due to two major reasons. First, the interpretation of religion is subject to innovation and change, which allows it to be accommodated to almost any political, social, or private need. Any scholar of religion also knows that religious traditions transform and change; it is the presumption that religions are ultimate and unchangeable that often makes them useful in stirring up conflicts between social groups. Secondly, even if some religious traditions have largely lost their supra-mundane and transcendent emphasis, religion still remains qualitatively different from secular ideologies. As Gerd Baumann has pointedly observed, because religion “can be made to sound as if it determines objective and unchangeable differences between people,” it can be effectively used for the more relative, such as political and economic purposes.[6]


Free to use all available rights and opportunities to protect themselves and stand up for their values and interests, the host society may hope that the naturalization of foreigners will result in minorities accommodating to the social culture. This expectation has a solid historical basis, but it is usually accomplished only after several generations. The whole process of integration has been grounded in minority individuals seeking citizenship and not on the construction of a multicultural social order which protects the cultural, ethnic, or religious rights of minority communities. Perhaps after half a century, there will be an abundance of those who have adopted the language, norms, and values of the dominant culture, but in the meantime, an increasing number of integrated and upwardly mobile individuals and their public presence in society may generate social tensions. Typically, liberal democracies have protected their common social norms and common language by repressing ethnic and cultural diversity and minority nationalisms.[2] At times, the protection enjoyed by a dominant culture has also been extended to recognition of some minority cultures, but these are generally national minority, not immigrant communities. If national minorities have a well-developed sense of a distinct national identity, the recent policies of Western democracies seeks to ensure their loyalty through accepting, not attacking, their identity.[9]

For a state to be culturally neutral requires a near impossibility: the absence of social antagonisms. Even if a state is perceived to be culturally neutral, this neutrality is manifested in the regulation of intolerance between social groups. In Western countries, the traditional and larger religious communities have typically been afforded rights and privileges that are not available to smaller and non-traditional religious groups. Yet there is increasing religious pluralism in post-industrial societies because of globalization. Consequently, addressing religious pluralism cannot be ignored.[6] Just as increasing ethnic diversity raises concerns for the traditionally dominant ethnic majorities, the growing religious diversity raises not only theological but also social and political concerns for the traditionally dominant religious communities.

Politically, an increasingly multicultural society raises questions about the fundamental nature of the polity and social identity. Historically, social identity has always been defined in contrast to internal or external ‘others.’ Since Western European societies are no longer haunted by the dead scepter of communism, ‘others’ are now more often defined on a cultural and religious basis rather than an ideological basis. In post-communist societies, the ‘other’ is still predominately those who were the elite under communist rule.

Thus, there are several multicultural issues that may raise concerns for social majorities. Yet there is no essential controversy between democracy and religious-cultural pluralism. In contrast to totalitarian or authoritarian forms of government, democracy is characterized by social and political pluralism. Concomitantly, neither religious nor cultural pluralism contradicts with democracy. Vice versa, religious pluralism can encourage political pluralism and social tolerance. If the state legislates behavior that is unacceptable for a specific religious community, this will test the limits of what religious people find tolerable in society.[7]

The other essential questions regarding the relationship between democracy and multiculturalism concern the compatibility of values (Do democracy and multiculturalism promote the same kind of values?) and forms of democracy (Does the answer to the previous question depend on the type of democracy?) Equality, toleration, and autonomy are the values usually related to liberal democracy. The pertinent question is whether multiculturalist policies better correspond to the values of liberal democracy than the integrationalist ones?[8]

Lastly, how much multiculturalism is good for democracy? The more the better, would be the normative answer. Too much multiculturalism, however, has its own deficiencies. Increasing cultural pluralism is an opportunity for a “more vibrant civil society and political culture,” yet, too strong minority bonds that accompany multicultural societies may undermine social cohesion, stability, and governance.[9] The conflict-potential of strong intra-social bonds increases substantially if the boundaries between religion and ethnicity overlap.[6] The latter is exemplified by the ethno-religious wars that followed the disintegration of Communist Yugoslavia.

These are some problems in peacebuilding activities in multicultural societies. Conferences and forums can lead to dialogue that will help resolve these theoretical and practical dilemmas.


1. Tempelman, Sasja. “Constructions of Cultural Identity: Multiculturalism and Exclusion.” Political Studies, 1/1999, pp. 17–31.

2. Kymlicka, Will. "Nation-Building and Minority Rights: Comparing West and East.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 2/2000, pp. 185-188.

3. Hellyer, H.A. “Muslims and Multiculturalism in the European Union.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 3/2006, p. 332.

4. Modood, Tariq. “Anti-Essentialism, Multiculturalism, and the ‘Recognition’ of Religious Groups.” In Citizenship in Diverse Societies. Will Kymlicka, Wayne Norman (eds.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 175–195.

5. Eck, Diana L. “Prospects for Pluralism: Voice and Vision in the Study of Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 4/2007, pp. 743–776.

6. Baumann, Gerd. Multicultural Riddle: Rethinking National, Ethnic and Religious Identities. London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 21-55.

7. Berger, Peter L. “Religion and the West.” The National Interest, 80/2005, pp. 112– 119.

8. Levey, Geoffrey Brahm. “Secularism and Religion in a Multicultural Age.” Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship. Geoffrey Brahm Levey, Tariq Modood (eds.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 1–24.

9. Banchoff, Thomas. “Introduction.” Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism. Thomas Banchoff (ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 3–16.