Bhikhu Parekh (2000) Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory.

Basingstoke: Macmillan Press/Palgrave. ISBN 0-333-60882-8

Dorota Kolodziejczyk

Bhikhu Parekh’s Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory sets out to design paths for multiculturalism understood both as political theory and a framework for political practice. The past decade abounded in works on multiculturalism and the challenge it poses for the concept of society and its self-understanding; on cultural diversity and intercultural relations (including the dynamics of hegemony and recalcitrance); on social cohesiveness and collective identity; on the integrity of culture and processes of hybridization; and, last but not least, on the traditions of political thought nurtured in academia and implied in the structures of authority that contemporary western democracies have developed. Parekh’s account of multiculturalism is located, then, on the highly contentious ground of debates within liberalism and presented from such perspectives as post-Marxism, postcolonialism, race theory and feminism, and from a wide range of disciplines: philosophy, political theory, cultural studies, cultural anthropology, and pedagogy.

Parekh’s book, set against the background of these current debates, is immediately distinguished by its coherence and lucidity. In the situation when so many critics bemoan the impossibility of arriving at a consistent language of analysis – not to mention a coherent perspective – in their efforts to embrace the complexity of multiculturalism, Bhikhu Parekh manages not only to maintain the focus and order of analysis, he also succeeds in reading multiculturalism from within the liberal tradition and against it at the same time. This paradoxical agenda is Parekh’s most consequential contribution to the multiculturalist debate. Where other attempts to spin the yarn of multiculturalism out of the tradition of liberalism, albeit in most cases salutary, would leave us with more unease about the assumptions concerning the respectability of cultures, shared supra-particularist values, the nature of human nature (as a primary context for stating the rights of individuals and groups), and the most unfortunate and necessary question of tolerance (of difference and diversity), Parekh’s analysis addresses these tender spots in the theory of multiculturalism, and, even if not quite resolving them, it proposes possible ways of handling them in practice.

The organization of Parekh’s book aims at bridging the theory and practice of multiculturalist politics, and this is why the author is careful to resist the temptation of distilling the gist of multiculturalism from the tradition of liberalism, finding in that tradition inspiration as much as inhibition for the development of multiculturalism. Indeed, through an engagement with liberalism Parekh wants to lead the theory of multiculturalism beyond the entanglements which the confinement of this theory within the premises of liberalism would inevitably bring. First, he notices the monoculturalist logic of one-doctrine bias:

Multiculturalism is about the proper terms of relationship between different cultural communities. The norms governing their respective claims, including the principles of justice, cannot be derived from one culture alone but through an open and equal dialogue between them. . . . By definition a multicultural society consists of several cultures or cultural communities with their own distinct systems of meaning and significance and views on man and the world. It cannot be therefore adequately theorized from within the conceptual framework of any particular political doctrine which, being embedded in, and structurally biased towards, a particular cultural perspective, cannot do justice to others. (13)

Just as multicultural society necessitates an institutionalization of intercultural dialogue, the theory of multiculturalism that Parekh wants to foster must be adequately of a dialogic character (14) — it is developed out of a dialogue with, roughly speaking, liberal and non-liberal traditions, and its task is to ‘[stress] the centrality of a dialogue between cultures and the ethical norms, principles and institutional structures presupposed and generated by it’ (14). While Parekh indeed manages in his theory to open up many possibilities for the dialogue between cultures, on the level of state institutions and more evasive domain of social attitudes, yet the dialogue takes place mainly within and across the tradition of liberalism. I will attempt, then, to answer in the conclusion of this review to what extent Parekh’s book is different from some other liberal accounts of multiculturalism, such as, for example, Gutmann’s 1994 collection, which set off to break grounds for the new theory and largely ended up with narcissistic contemplation of the theoretical spaciousness of liberalism.

Rethinking Multiculturalism is organized into three sections: the historical, theoretical, and practical, together forming an integrated survey of overlapping naturalist/culturalist, and monist/pluralist traditions developed within liberalism and determining the liberal thought. In fact, the borderline between the separate sections is not always clearly visible, and that’s perhaps how it should be, because the historical accounts necessarily structure and determine the theoretical part, and both are distinctly present in what Parekh calls the practical part. It is practical in the sense that the author discusses there specific cases where multiculturalist politics failed or proved its inefficiency (cases ranging from the problems of the legal recognition of cultural difference such as hijab or turban to a lengthy discussion of the ‘Rushdie affair’), but, on the whole, it is informed through and through by the theoretical framework that Parekh develops in the preceding sections.

The historical section of the book opens with a chapter on moral monism, in which Parekh traces the development of the monist tradition from rationalist monism of the Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle), through theological monism of Christianity (Augustine, Aquinas), to a regulative monism of classical liberalism (Locke, J.S. Mills). He traces in these traditions the main concerns of the monist perspective: the thesis of the universality of human nature, based on the assumption of its uniformity, and thus, within the same logic, on the preference of similarities over differences for the reason of the ontological and moral primacy of the former over the latter. Although Parekh is not quite explicit about it, this historical draft shows the tendency starting already in Aristotle and Plato to disjoin reason and morality from culture and, subsequently, to raise one’s cultural specificity to the universal status. Indeed, moving on to the beginnings of modern liberalism, Parekh notes not enough attention is given in the studies on the history of liberal thought to such factors as the formation of the nation-state, colonialism and the role of Christianity (33), the three factors that worked together as an engine of social and economic dynamics on which liberalism thrived. In this way the originary tendency to consider reason and morality as autonomous units still remains an important feature of the studies on liberal thought, Parekh states. Fortunately, liberalism has been contextualized already from so many perspectives (historical and literary studies, postcolonialism and colonial discourse analysis, to mention but a few) that perhaps there is no need to fear the persistence of such universalizing strains in liberalism, as these are challenged by a wide range of insights.

That is why, discussing the founding fathers of liberalism, Locke and J.S. Mill, Parekh routes their philosophy via teleology of progress ensuing in their writings. He points at the importance of the historiographic investment of the two liberals, however different they were, inseparable from the context of the burgeoning empire. The empire was for Mill a salutary form of political organization both for the rulers and the ruled. For the former, it fostered ‘national pride, self-confidence, sense of greatness, lofty sentiments and a high sense of moral purpose’. National grandiosity was to instill in the citizens the need for moral and intellectual perfection. For the latter, the empire held a parental care of the immature dominions and, literally, kick-started their history, ‘bring[ing] them to a take-off point from where they could be relied upon to continue their progress unaided’ (45). So, although Locke and Mill occupied different positions in relation to the concept of the individual and society, and the relationship between the two, they arrived at strikingly similar historiographic visions, unequivocally announcing the superiority of the western form of civilizational and political organization, and thus legitimating imperial expansion on the basis of liberal values they fostered. Summing up his survey of the monist tradition of liberalism, Parekh notes that liberal monism discarded the role and importance of cultures in structuring society as a polity, viewed differences as deviations, and assumed a natural domination of self-identity. As a result, western society was seen as the most mature and most developed social formation.

Pursuing further the historical perspective on diversity, Parekh surveys the forms of pluralism that were developed in response to liberal monism. Discussing such disparate writers as Vico, Montesquieu and Herder, the author wants to examine philosophical foundations underlying their respective interest in cultural diversity. The appreciation of diverse cultures that the three philosophers manifest in their writings often gets into conflict, as Parekh aptly shows, with their attempts at explanation or evaluation which ultimately turn out to be a disguised exercise in eurocentric self-assertion.

While Vico hailed the plethora of diverse social formations and cultures, his historiographic vision nevertheless provided grounds for the comparison of diversity otherwise incompatible, and allowed him to see Europe as a beacon of the blissful plenitude. As Parekh writes: ‘it possessed the only true religion, had long developed the capacity for rationality, cherished the values of universal brotherhood and independent inquiry’ (54), and the guiding principle of universal change (in the form of imperial instruction). Montesquieu, observes Parekh, shared Vico’s preoccupation with diversity, but his insights aimed to transgress the confines of intra-cultural perspective. He was primarily interested in social and political institutions of both European and non-European societies. Diversity raises questions about why societies and polities differ, what determines the differences, and how to handle these in terms of judgment and evaluation (56). Parekh stresses the fact that Montesquieu declined from passing on judgments, which he called normative questions, because these would fall beyond the logic of explanatory action — the effort to demonstrate the origins and causes of difference. However, Montesquieu’s pioneering multicultural perspective was cut short by his attempts to explain differences through what he called physical and moral causes, often overlapping, and rather nonchalantly attributed to climatic influences. Herder, in turn, the last of Parekh’s ‘pluralists’, rested his recognition of diversity on the organic view of culture. Human nature did not come prior to that, nor was it transcendental to culture; on the contrary, Herder saw it as a ‘pliant clay’ moulded by culture (67). Human nature, the environment, and common experience of the members of society together formed an organic whole, an inimitable and unique culture, which Herder developed into his concept of a Kulturnation — the Volk stemming from a common bearer, together with progenitors sharing the imaginary, expressed through the national language. As Parekh notes, for Herder language was more than a mere conveyor of communication – it expressed the very idea of the Volk, its spirit and imaginary. Parekh does not comment on Herder’s reliance on the metaphors of family and his genealogical understanding of culture. Herder’s understanding of the familial constitution of the national community is literally genetic — the nation should avoid being diluted (i.e. cross-bred with another culture), as it depends on its vitality for the purity of its heritage.[1]

In his conclusion to the chapter on the forms of pluralism, Parekh sees the source of insufficiency of the pluralist perspectives in their tendency to give difference an ontological status, to treat diversity as self-contained and self-sufficient, and, finally, to see cultures as static units, internally homogeneous and sedate. One would also add the discrepancy between the claims of the incompatibility of cultures, and thus an impossibility, or redundancy, of inter-cultural judgment, and the historiographic projects which, in case of the three philosophers mentioned above, allow for a comparison on the allegedly neutral grounds.

In the next chapter, ‘Contemporary Liberal Responses to Diversity’, Parekh looks at three contemporary liberal philosophers: Rawls (A Theory of Justice, 1971) , Raz (The Morality of Freedom, 1986), and Kymlicka (Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, 1995), who, stressing different liberal principles, respond to the phenomenon of cultural diversity and foster possible ways of handling it on the level of the state, social structures, and moral grounds. The overall concern of this chapter is to examine whether contemporary liberal thought is able to face the challenge of multicultural society without resorting to its own hegemonizing mechanisms that Parekh traced down to the foundations of liberalism.

Parekh’s account of the three philosophers exposes their failure to appropriate liberalism critically for the needs of multiculturalism. And so, Rawls vacillates between his initial urge to provide a shared theory of a human person, developed into a comprehensive philosophical doctrine, and an ideologically neutral, practical set of tools which he calls a ‘workable basis of social cooperation for democratic liberal societies’ (82), which would surpass comprehensive doctrines dividing society into separate cultural units. Rawls’ theory fails, Parekh argues, to get past its metaphysical entanglements — liberalism becomes the depository of the ‘essentials of democratic society’ (87). Raz, in turn, concentrates on the teleological understanding of human life, which is driven, in short, by the pursuit of well-being (90). He defines western society as shaped and determined by the idea of personal autonomy (from the personal to interpersonal and institutional level). Although it is not a universal value, as it pertains specifically to western society as its constitutive force, it nevertheless occupies a central position in Raz’s theory and, ultimately, becomes a yardstick with which to measure any culture’s worth (understood as recognition of the right to personal autonomy). Parekh accentuates the inevitable ethnocentric bias of Raz’s theory, especially where he fosters a thesis that non-liberal cultures (here exemplified only by Asian immigrants to Great Britain, 93) in fact alienate their members who, not knowing the liberating force of autonomy, remain embedded in their cultures only out of ignorance. In his appreciation of cultural diversity, as Parekh rightly points out, Raz not only does not set perspectives for cultural interaction, but he sees the very fact of diversity as conditioned (a culture’s value depends on its ability to contribute to its individual members’ well-being, a concept in itself rather difficult to measure). Kymlicka is an interesting example of what Parekh labels a ‘liberal nationalist’ (101). He also rests his theory on the commitment to autonomy and considers it the basis of liberal political tradition, but, unlike Raz, he does not attribute the highest value to personal autonomy. Kymlicka’s definition of cultural community largely coincides with that of the nation; he indeed founds his theory of the minority rights on the concept of national units as the most complete cultural achievements, and thus he rejects the assimilationist approach as impinging on the principle of justice which demands that minorities and majority should enjoy equal rights and a share of autonomy. National majority and minority differ only in quantitative terms, not qualitative ones, which means that they operate within the same logic. According to the same principle of justice and the logic of social structures, national minorities have the most rights to cultural claims and other forms of pressure on the state, and, likewise, individual immigrants the least. Kymlicka explains this bizarre polarity in the following way: national minority remains a discrete cultural and social unit, and, since culture is defined via nation and community, it fares better than an individual immigrant who, by an act of immigration subscribes automatically to the new culture, which now becomes for him his ‘host’ culture and nation. Parekh notices that such a hierarchy of minority rights cannot be sufficiently justified on the basis of commitment to autonomy – it might as well run against this principle.

Parekh notes that, despite their many salutary, even groundbreaking propositions, none of the three liberals is able to elaborate a theory which would genuinely appreciate diversity as the value per se, not only the value of separate cultures. Also, the ‘other’ culture, recognized in its difference, must be run by liberal principles for the state to tolerate it, which means that difference cannot be contentious in relation to the state structures. As a result, diversity is severely limited in its political potential; indeed, it is reduced to ‘merely’ a cultural realm. Parekh feels uneasy about the background assumption of the theories he surveys: they all seem to take for granted the fact that the western society is homogeneously liberal. His implicit critique is, then, that despite the unquestioned willingness noticeable in the three authors to ‘reform’ liberalism so that it is more capable of handling a multicultural state, the major cause of their respective shortcomings is a tacit assertion of the hegemony of the majority (nation, tradition, culture, etc.).

In the next section, Parekh continues with the questions posed by cultural diversity. His aim is to elaborate a ‘coherent theory of moral and cultural diversity’, which would be able to avoid the traps of naturalism and culturalism ‘feeding off each other’s exaggerations’ (114). He opts for a balanced approach whose primary goal will be to secure the space for dialogue and contact for diverse, but often closed-off cultures. In Chapter 4, ‘Conceptualizing Human Beings’, Parekh picks up his ideas through dense references across disparate philosophical traditions, exposing their tendency to gravitate towards monism and grant the concept of diversity an ontological value. He sees the potential for dialogue and, ultimately, inter-cultural consensus in the very fact of cultural embeddedness. It forces us to universalize our own cultural values (which is not a tendency Parekh would condemn straight away; rather, he acknowledges the universality of the universalizing drive within cultures), but, at the same time, the only way to mitigate such supremacist tendencies is to enter into an intercultural dialogue with a view to launching a shared, cross-cultural understanding of human nature. Therefore, Parekh does not shun the very idea of the conceptualization of human nature, once it is achieved through a process of negotiation crowned with a consensus:

It is then possible to arrive at a body of moral values which deserve the respect of all human beings. I have mentioned recognition of human worth and dignity, promotion of human well-being or of fundamental human interests, and equality. . . We should therefore identify those that are within the reach of all [societies], central to any form of good life, and for which we can give compelling reasons. We should consolidate global consensus around them and allow their inner momentum to generate a movement towards an increasingly higher level of consensus. (133)

Again, the overall purpose of such deliberation is its political viability. Parekh makes an important suggestion here: such negotiation of the inalienable values should not be confined to local contexts such as the nation-state. In fact, he envisages the cross-cultural dialogue as an all-encompassing, global debate translatable into political programs on the macro- and micro-scale. At this point Parekh’s argument develops in an interesting but also precarious manner. After emphasizing the need for cross-cultural dialogue, he moves on, as if to prove the necessity of such dialogue, to discussing examples which failed to recognize the above necessity. He starts with the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which, although worked out by a forum of the UN member countries, is clearly liberal in its spirit and design, and thus cannot claim universal validity (14). Parekh proceeds: ‘The rights are addressed to the state which alone is deemed to have the obligation to respect and realize them’ (134). While he is probably right in criticizing the Declaration for its statist view of human rights and its inability to bridge the general understanding of human rights with their local variations (if such bridging is possible in the first place), his refusal to see the Declaration in its historical context suspends his critique in the universalistic void. Three years after World War II human rights were seen as threatened mainly by the state, hence the responsibility the Declaration charted the state with. Parekh’s other point, that the values promoted by the Declaration need a specific institutional support worked out largely by the liberal state, then itself culturally specific, seems to be equally unconvincing — Parekh runs here the risk of ascribing the democratic spirit and form of governance solely to western society,[2]  although this is not his purpose by any means.

In the same section Parekh discusses a different approach to the liberal values of western society, inscribed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, giving an example of the so-called Asian values. This is a salutary analysis of cultural difference manifested on the level of the state, society, and, thus, of a different perception of human worth (which, in this respect, comes down to the value of individuality). However, bringing the case of China and Vietnam rejecting the concern with human values as ‘bourgeois, western and incompatible with their traditional values and vision of good life’ (139), Parekh almost manages to convince the reader that such gross discrepancies between states are justified on cultural basis — thankfully, on the next page we are relieved to read that Parekh interprets such statements as cover-ups for the communist state-regime. Parekh rightly shows how easily multiculturalism can be manipulated to serve the interests of authoritarian regimes justifying their violations of collective and individual rights via cultural relativism, although his presentation of relativism as natural and commonsensical may be a bit too persuasive, obliterating the ideological investments behind it.

Parekh advocates moral diversity (manifested here as a different perception of the human being and the worth he/she represents by the fact of being human but also by the fact of being an individual) where it grows out of the cultural specificity of a given state/social unit. This chapter has not managed to clarify how international organizations such as the UN should perform the politics of securing the rights they are designed to secure on the premise of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and, at the same time, respect the right to moral diversity, which includes the right to a different perception of a human being and its place and role in society. We still do not know whether the postulate of developing a supra-national legal/political body for handling the most urgent conflicts stemming out of cultural difference is at all feasible, and whether, in the end, any institutionally generalized pattern will not have to give way to locally adjusted improvised actions: ‘we have nothing else to rely upon save the kind of cross-cultural interrogation referred to earlier, the moral weight of enlightened world opinion backed up by global economic pressure, and, in rare cases humanitarian organization’ (141). In result, the reader is left with a feeling of dissatisfaction with the broad perspective that slides over complexities and advocates an adoption of some global benevolence.

In the opening sentence of the next chapter, ‘Understanding Culture’, Parekh writes: ‘Human beings seek to make sense of themselves and the world and ask questions about the meaning and significance of human life, activities and relationships’ (142). It is here that he defines the primary role of culture as a system of ‘meaning and significance’, historically created and collective in its scope (143). In this chapter the author provides a capacious understanding of culture and its meaning, function and importance for the protagonists of the previous chapter, human beings. Parekh is careful to avoid the narrativization of culture — he understands culture as an intricate network of both historically accumulated and random elements and not a linear or even development. It is not for the first time in his book that Parekh manifests affinity with Raymond Williams’ definition of culture as a whole way of life (‘culture encompasses more or less the whole of human life’, 143), and rightly locates the most fundamental articulation of culture in language. Culture understood as a complex system never fully complete, or closed, encompasses morality (145), which is an important claim for the cause of multiculturalism. Parekh does not want so much to find an innovative understanding of culture — his definitions are located within the well-known realm of cultural anthropology, sociology, or philosophy. His aim is rather to win some of the statements commonly made in studies on culture from various disciplines for ‘culturally sensitive’ political theory. His main interest is, then, how to combine, or reconcile, the liberal demand for equal respect for diverse cultures, with a genuine promotion of diversity. He refers back to the liberal tradition (J.S. Mill), which advocated diversity on the grounds that it enlarged the options for human uniqueness and diversity. Modified by contemporary liberals, this tradition still perceives diversity contractually: the value of a given culture increases together with its ability to offer more possibilities of choice. It means that cultures of value are those between which there is a possibility of a specific trade. Referring to a Romantic tradition (Herder, Schiller), Parekh claims that their championing of the cause of cultural diversity on aesthetic grounds — ‘it creates a rich, varied and aesthetically pleasing and stimulating world’ (166) — cannot provide a sufficient base for a contemporary multicultural society. He writes: ‘Aesthetic considerations are a matter of taste, and it is not easy to convince those who prefer a uniform moral and social world. Cultures, furthermore, are not merely objects of aesthetic contemplation. They are moral systems and we need to show that their diversity is not only aesthetically but also morally justified’ (166). Parekh does not mention one important aspect of this argument — aestheticizing diversity may become a convenient strategy of obliterating political claims a given culture makes and relegating diversity away from the realm of politics to the realm of aesthetically pleasing, politically innocent, folklore.[3]

My overall impression is that Parekh understands culture almost excessively in moral terms. He claims that an individual has the right to criticize its culture in order to remove its blemishes (160); that different cultures correct and complement each other (167) so cultural diversity can be seen as a way to recognize the variety of possibilities to lead a good life; and, finally, that the mechanisms used for evaluating and respecting a culture are enhanced by the confrontation with another culture. Multiculturalism, then, has got a direct moral value, both per se, and as a means of stimulating our judgment of other cultures. While it is difficult to disagree with Parekh’s line of argument, the vital questions of how conflicts between cultures arise and how to prevent them remain unanswered. Parekh again seems to put too much faith in the enlightening nature of cultural interaction; he assumes that our judgments of other cultures will be naturally rational and respectful. Although such an approach is of an immense moral validity, the doubt underlying the whole argument remains — does tolerance need to be justified, do we have to prove moral validity of cultures in order to recognize cultural diversity?

In chapter 6, ‘Reconstituting the Modern State’, Parekh’s main interest is in rethinking the theory of the state so that it makes space for multiculturalism. The author does not in fact ask here how the state can accommodate diversity; rather, what is the philosophical, and thus cultural, context of the contemporary state, called by Parekh ‘the dominant theory or model of the state’ (179). Bringing together the requirements of the modern state (183): a distinct territory; a set of constitutional principles; equal rights for citizens; the concept of citizenship as a unitary, unmediated, homogeneous relationship between the individual and the state; reliance on a single and united people (a collective of individual citizens), he emphasizes the most important features of the state, which are its secular foundation, content-empty system of governance, and transparency of its structures, all leading to what he terms ‘an unprecedented regime of personal liberties and rights’ (183). Thus, the state creates a space for collective civic action and identity, as well as for personal autonomy. However, the necessary conditions of the state’s existence and functioning, such as a single and unified people bound to the state with the demand of loyalty, become at the same time its limitations. Citizenship is by definition a content-empty category, placing the value of an individual above any specific identities: ethnic, religious, or other communal ones. On the other hand, citizenship inscribes individuals into a collectivity of anonymous participants in the shared abstract whole. While this invites politics as an interaction between equals, the opposite effect — that of discouraging activity for an abstract, anonymous construct is equally possible. The state ceases to be a forum for political debate between citizens and is associated with a depersonalized, mechanistic bureaucracy.

Also, as Parekh writes: ‘Since the state presupposes and seeks to secure homogeneity, it has a tendency to become a nation’ (184). In this sense, the nation-state seems to be an obvious end-product of the state theory, or, in a reverse order, its primary reference. Parekh notes that all major theories of the state — liberal, communitarian and nationalist– are based on the assumption of the state’s homogeneity, and differ only as to the degree of homogeneity they claim as necessary for the state’s functioning. However, as Parekh argues in his subsequent discussion of multi-ethnic and multinational states such as Canada and India, the modern state, despite its explicit liberal orientation, makes most sense in a homogeneous environment, and such an environment will be increasingly lacking. Through his recommendation to loosen the ties between territory, sovereignty and culture, Parekh in fact advocates a difficult yet necessary move to disassociate the state from the nation as an underlying assumption of the state’s content. What he opts for, then, is the state conceived of as a decentralized federation of cultural, ethnic, and possibly national communities, liberated from the concept of a single people (realized not necessarily as the civic society but as a dominant nation), bound together by shared political and legal bonds (194), exercising locally dispersed power. Such a pluralistically reconstituted state, Parekh propounds, can provide an appropriate political framework for its diverse communities and cultures.

The next chapter deals with the problem of political structure ideal for multicultural society. The conflicting grounds of the state — the demand for keeping up diversity and fostering a sense of unity and common belonging among the citizens (196) — directly concerns multicultural society. Parekh discusses in this chapter several forms of political integration, starting from the assimilationist model, though the proceduralist (Nozick, Oakeshott, Kukathas, 199), civic assimilationist (Rawls, Habermas, 200), to the millet model. He discards the two most radical ones, the first and the last, as either hindering diversity altogether and potentially granting too much power to the state, or, reversely, ignoring the demand of state unity, thus giving the state no justification. He admits a remarkable degree of recognition of diversity in the proceduralist and civic assimilationist model, criticizing both for their inability to notice and resolve the problem of dialectical (thus often conflictual) interplay between diverse cultures within the state (206). Designing the political structure of a multicultural society, Parekh again stresses the necessity of constitutionally secured set of basic rights and such functioning of a system of justice which would enable those who need to overcome disadvantages derived from cultural differences or past acts of injustice (211) to benefit from what he calls the ‘equalizing measures’ (211). He argues that such measures should not be perceived as a manifestation of good will on the part of the state, but, rather, as a necessary responsibility of the state for what must be considered a part of its historical inheritance. Considering a possibility of a commonly shared culture in a multicultural society, Parekh once again stresses the fact that such an ‘interculturally created and multiculturally constituted’ (221) culture must be both complex (internally dialectic and dynamic), and unforeseeable at least to some degree. This kind of culture is dangerous in the sense that it cannot be easily confined into separate cultural affinities; it is inevitably hybridizing and growing on its own increasing complexity. However, drawing this line of development for multicultural interaction and togetherness within the framework of the state, Parekh seems to yet again work along the line of division between pluralism and monism. He does make a salutary claim that diversity should pervade both private and public spheres in order to make a ‘wider society’ (238) at all possible, but he makes the potential conflict somehow too easy to remedy. While the examples of cuisine, music, literature etc. Parekh gives are all welcome but unproblematic (Parekh seems to think that cultures merge only spontaneously, somehow outside, for example, the demands of the market), when it comes to the issue of national identity within the multicultural state, the idea of shared common belonging across cultural divisions becomes too intricate to be exhausted satisfactorily in the examples Parekh provides. Especially the case of ‘Israel’s commitment to respect Arab cultural identity, uphold their personal laws, fund their schools’ (236) in the current political situation seems to be strenuously optimistic. Another example that begs further questions is the case of the Baltic Republics defining their national identity in terms of ‘the indigenous or the numerically dominant community’ (2332-233), excluding in this way the Russians. While an exclusionary model of national definition is by all means short-sighted politically, the case of the Baltic Republics (or indeed the case of most countries undergoing the liberation process after a colonial period) is specific in the sense that they needed a strong form of national assertion in order to convince their citizens about the importance of an independent state in the first place, and foster a unique national identity which would surpass the so-far dominant Soviet form of collectivity, dominated by the Russian language.

Parekh concludes the chapter by championing the necessity of a shared national unity of a multicultural society, free of exclusivity and dynamics thanks to its plural collective culture (238). This success is additionally dependent on the clear articulation of equality, which includes the equality of rights, opportunity, and self-esteem, but also of difference (240), and on the logic of intercultural evaluation. Analyzing specific examples of the dilemmas arising in the process of intercultural dialogue (e.g. the problem of evaluating female circumcision or the hijab case, polygamy, arranged marriages, 264 onwards), Parekh makes a strong point for contextualizing the evaluative statements, especially if issued by an official body.

In the next chapter, ‘The Logic of Cultural Evaluation’, Parekh responds to the challenge of practical application of his earlier investigations into the politico-philosophical aspects of multiculturalism and analyses some of the most paramount and problematic cases of cultural conflict. These are, specifically, the cases when values of a given community offend the values of the majority, such as the female circumcision, the kosher and halal tradition of animal slaughter, polygamy and arranged marriages. He does not seem to ponder too much over the pressing question of what is merely a cultural, however deep, difference, and what can be classified as a criminal case. The focus is again on the possibilities of dialogue and consensus, both between cultural communities, minority and majority ones, and between an individual and his/her community. However gratifying such reading is, the dilemma of how to translate cultural difference into the language of the law, state administration, and, more broadly, the dynamics of the public discourse, still remains beyond the reach of the book’s theoretical grasp. It seems that multiculturalism has to waver between particular case studies, forming alliances with diverse political and philosophical traditions, and with even more diverse and contingent events in society at large.

This becomes even more acutely clear in the next chapter, ‘Politics, Religion, and Free Speech’, in which Parekh offers an in-depth reading of the ‘Rushdie affair’, considering not only the grounds (or the lack of them) for the fatwah and the potential offensiveness of The Satanic Verses, but also the complex multicultural ambiance of the whole issue. A literary critic, or just a reader of Rushdie’s works, will wonder about certain comments in Parekh’s critical approach to Rushdie’s novel, e.g. in what terms Shame is an ‘inferior’ work (295), or why magic realism can become a dangerous literary technique under the pen of writers who privilege their own free play of imagination to a ‘sensitive exploration of the relevant area of human experience’ (295), a task Parekh seems to ascribe to a novelist. This is the background for Rushdie’s irreverence and disrespect of religion — he narcissistically blends fact and fiction to elevate the (ethically) hybrid state of a migrant being, an epitome of the post-communal, ultimately liberated self. On the one hand Parekh mercilessly but probably rightly so ironizes Rushdie’s efforts to defend his good intentions in contrasting the sacred and the profane sphere of the Mahound dream sequence; on the other hand, Parekh criticizes Rushdie not so much for his sometimes unconvincing excuses (the implied author, or the narrative voice of the novel is quite explicit about the intentions), but precisely for his alleged disrespect for a culturally embedded, communal identity grounded in religion. If Parekh followed this line of thinking a bit further, he could perhaps claim that The Satanic Verses is a novel deriding deep difference. After all, the outcry for freedom of speech and a postulate of confining religion to the private sphere can be read as Rushdie’s contribution to pan-westernization, a form of contemporary, post-universalist crypto-universalism (even though the two postulates are, in the long run, mutually contradictory). Fortunately, Parekh does not get that far and concentrates instead on the reactions of the offended Muslim communities in Britain. Thus, although his reading of the novel may seem somewhat crudely literal and biased, his analysis of the debate around the affair is indeed interesting. Parekh is right to note that the whole debate had no common ground, that the two sides (because, despite many nuances, the debate was clearly split into ‘pro’ and ‘against’ voices) spoke completely different languages.[4] The way in which Parekh represents indignant British Muslims implies that it was not so much the content of the novel (which was rejected by most Muslims a priori), but its favorable reception by the ‘majority’ readership that outraged the Muslim communities who felt even more marginalized (310). Without judging who held the right stance, Parekh manages to contextualize indignation outside the patronizing narrative of western liberalism and Islamic submissiveness to religious constraints, which, incidentally speaking, Rushdie consequently followed.

It is not a coincidence that the discussion of the ‘Rushdie affair’ closes the ‘practical’ section of Parekh’s book. This case highlights one of the most urgent and unresolved problems of a multicultural society and, by extension, of multiculturalism, most of all the compatibility of languages of inter-cultural debate (or a lack thereof). This is why Parekh leaves his story of multiculturalism (because it is indeed a story, led out from the very beginnings of human thought on culture) at the crossroads of political theories and philosophies, and this is where he is content to leave it. Multiculturalism cannot (yet) achieve a theoretical coherence, nor does it aim to achieve one; no single doctrine can encompass the phenomenon of multiculturalism, and thanks to that it is always alert to nuanced and often interchangeable mechanisms of cultural hegemony and intimidation. However, if this is all so fine, how come that multiculturalism as a politics of rendering and handling cultural difference within society is still incapable of preventing race riots in the streets, or, at least, some extremely subtle ‘othering’ mechanisms within western societies priding themselves on the long tradition of enlightened liberalism? It seems that as far as the debate goes on within the language of political theory, it is always possible to reach a consensus between even distant commitments, such as, say, socialism and conservatism. Parekh rightly observes that western societies have a remarkable potential for openness and tolerance, not only because they are relatively stable politically, but because they are founded on diverse political traditions. This is not to say that Parekh sees the western society as multicultural par excellence; quite the reverse, by recognizing this potential he also implies possible threats, the most ominous of which seems to be the self-gratifying idealization of western-European political developments.

Indeed, Parekh’s concluding thoughts can serve as a springboard for considering how nationally-biased the allegedly open liberal democracy in today’s western Europe is and what the effects of cultural heterogeneity are if some multicultural states seem to perceive their heterogeneity as a ‘problem’. Further on, why is this liberal and open Europe increasingly afraid of opening onto its central and eastern ‘others’? Obviously, to expect that, no matter how detailed and broad Parekh’s examination of multiculturalism, it will resolve the above dilemmas, would be equally ungrounded as to expect of a literary critic to provide a prescription for a masterpiece in literature. Still, just as cultural heterogeneity, despite frequent resentments, will increasingly become a demographic fact , so multiculturalism has to become an integral part of contemporary political theory. On the level of lived political practice, it has to refocus from pondering the irresolvable conceptual problems (the notorious one being that of how to secure freedom of speech within society while at the same time preventing what Fish called ‘hate speech’) to diving into the local and immediate conflicts and crises.

Hence, although Parekh seems to be quite influenced by Charles Taylor’s essay on multiculturalism , he nevertheless makes a step forward and criticizes Taylor’s understanding or advocacy of the need for social recognition: ‘He seems to think that the dominant group can be rationally persuaded to change its views of them [the minority groups] by intellectual argument and moral appeal. This is to misunderstand the dynamics of the process of recognition’ (342 — 343). Again, such recognition can only form part of the overall process of disassembling the historically rooted and often administratively reinforced structures of domination within the contemporary liberal states — Parekh concludes with a statement that no cultural recognition will be successful without a ‘just share of economic and political power’ (343).

Parekh’s book runs several risks stemming out of its very structure and founding assumptions. First, although it strives to show that multiculturalism has a much wider range of political options available than liberalism, it largely develops multiculturalism out of liberalism, even though the author notes and comments on some possible shortcomings of the multiculturalist debate within the liberal tradition. Second, in practical terms it does not move beyond Taylor’s famous characterization of multiculturalism’s strategies as ‘ad hoccery‘. Despite the insightful and targeted discussions of the most typical and urgent examples of cultural conflict in multicultural societies of the western world, Parekh’s propositions may be helpful in handling conflicts, but they do not reveal much about the nature of cultural difference. The author assumes a straightforward relation between an individual and his/her culture/community: one is culturally embedded and can either identify with one’s cultural (read also: collective) identity or rebel against it. Such an assumption is perhaps safe, as it prevents the author from plunging into the muddy waters of identity politics, thus immobilizing some of Taylor’s consideration and, more notably, some of the responses to his essay in Gutmann’s collection. On the other hand, this founding assumption of Parekh’s book leaves behind a number of very interesting and urgent problems connected with the diasporization of culture, dispersal of culturally defined communities, increasing evasiveness of difference, and, finally, with culture’s hybrid and protean nature.


1 One would expect, though, a little more gloss on the historical context of the precariousness of Herder’s propositions, which were quite a powerful inspiration for German nationalism.

2 The tendency to perceive such concepts as the nation, democracy, liberalism and citizenship as belonging solely to western political tradition, and thus to view their occurrences in non-western countries as derivations of the European norm, has been criticized from diverse theoretical positions by, among others, Arif Dirlik, Partha Chatterjee, and Aijaz Ahmad.

3 In his collection of essays The Location of Culture, Homi K. Bhabha elaborates on the performative nature of difference and the ontological status of cultural diversity, warning against such non-dialogical confinements of cultural difference within the celebratory multiculturalism.

4 For a similar thesis see Stanley Fish, ‘Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Are Intellectuals Afraid of Hate Speech?’.


Bhabha, H. K. (1993) The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Fish, S. (1997) ‘Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Are Intellectuals Afraid of Hate Speech?’, Critical Inquiry, 23/4: 379-95.

Gutmann, A. (ed.) (1994) Multiculturalism. Princeton, New York: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, C. (1994) ‘The Politics of recognition’ in Gutmann A. (ed.) Multiculturalism.

Dorota Kolodziejczyk is Lecturer in English at the University of Wroclaw, Poland.