British commitments

Since the London bombs, the debate about multiculturalism and national identity has acquired a new urgency. One of Britain's leading thinkers in this field argues that becoming a citizen should involve not only rights and duties, but also a moral and emotional commitment to this country
September 24, 2005
Bhikhu Parekh's essay in the September 2005 issue of Prospect is based on a lecture he gave earlier this year at the International Labour Institute in Geneva. The full text of the lecture is below.

Almost all contemporary societies are multicultural in the sense that their members entertain different conceptions of the good life and assign different meanings and significance to human activities and relations. This cultural diversity is a product of several interrelated factors, such as ethnic and religious diversity, moral individualism, decline in the traditional moral consensus, globalisation and immigration. Since none of these is likely to disappear in the foreseeable future, cultural diversity is a more or less permanent feature of modern life. Every society needs to acknowledge this fundamental fact and find ways of accommodating its demands without losing its cohesiveness and unity. Different kinds of diversity raise different questions and require different responses. I shall concentrate on immigrants and explore what claims they and the receiving society may legitimately make on each other and how best these can be reconciled.

We need to avoid three mistakes that are commonly made in the discussion of the subject. First, since immigration is only one source of cultural diversity, we should not make the mistake of equating the two and imagining that society was culturally homogeneous before immigration began and could be made one by ending it. Secondly, since immigrants belong to different religious, ethnic and other groups, we should not racialise them either by thinking that they only differ racially or that they are all non-white. Thirdly, the diversity introduced by immigrants is not necessarily deeper or more extensive than that which already obtains in western societies. The latter include individuals and groups who take quite different views from the majority on such subjects as homosexuality, gay marriages, cohabitation, relations between parents and children, the place of religion in public life, family discipline, the capitalist economy, and respect for the law. In almost all these areas immigrants often share the views of the majority, and the moral and cultural divide between them and the rest of society is narrower and shallower than that separating its own members. We should not therefore "exoticise" immigrant cultures, and conclude that just because immigrants look different, speak differently and come from unfamiliar countries, their moral and cultural lives are or must also be quite different. This is not to deny that immigrant cultures often differ in important respects, but rather to say that these differences should not blind us to their commonalities and are not necessarily more intractable than those to be found in the receiving society.


An influential body of opinion, usually called assimilationism, argues that a society cannot be cohesive and stable unless its members share a common national culture, including a common system of meaning and significance, a shared conception of the good life at personal and collective levels, and a shared body of customs, practices, habits, attitudes and collective memories. In the absence of such a shared culture, it is agreed, they would disagree deeply about the meanings of different human activities and relations and would not be able to sustain a shared life. Some assimilationists give the argument an ontological basis, and maintain that human beings are so constituted that they find it extremely difficult even impossible to identify with those holding divergent views on moral and cultural matters. This is in their view a basic fact of human nature, an ineradicable human instinct which a society may disregard at its peril. So far as immigrants are concerned, the choice before them is stark and simple. If they want to be accepted as full and equal citizens, they should assimilate into the national culture and show exclusive and undivided loyalty to their country of settlement. Conversely, if they hold on to their culture, retain close ties with their country of origin, and in these and other ways remain different, they should not complain if the rest of society refuses to identify with them and treats them unequally. Neither choice is cost-free, and immigrants must decide for themselves which one is better for them.

The assimilationist approach makes important points. A society cannot be held together unless its members share some basic beliefs and values in common. If some of them saw no value in human life, thought that all who disagreed with them were evil and should be suppressed, did not see the point of reciprocity and fairness and insisted on living on their own terms, or if they denied obvious facts about the world and rejected the empirical and scientific mode of reasoning about it, no common life would be possible with them. Furthermore, as people live together they tend to influence each other, develop common habits, interests, tastes, values, etc., and grow similar to each other, often in a manner they do not recognise and even like. The assimilationist, however, goes wrong in asking for a greater degree and range of unity than is possible or necessary.

Human beings understand the world and their place in it in vastly different ways. Some are religious, others are not; the former in turn belong to different religious traditions; and there is no rational way to resolve these disagreements. This is equally true of their moral differences. While we can hope to agree on some values, especially those that are central to any form of organised life, we cannot do so on others, such as the best way to lead the good life, ideals of human excellence, the structure of the family, and legitimate forms of sexual self-expression. Not surprisingly, almost every modern society displays unresolved and irresoluble philosophical, cultural and moral differences. Since it has no cultural and moral consensus, it is not clear what immigrants are to be assimilated into, and what to do with the dissenting insiders. The assimilationist view bears no relation to contemporary reality and remains trapped in a dangerously naive nostalgia. Some assimilationists appreciate this, but insist on moulding immigrants into their view of their society's idealised culture in the hope that this would help create a consensus around which to reorganise the rest of society. This is disingenuous and doomed to failure because immigrants are rarely willing and too small in number to play the regenerative role assigned by the assimilationist.

Assimilationism is also open to other objections. It is simply not true that human beings prefer and identify only with those "of their own kind". If that were so, interethnic and interreligious friendships and marriages as well as reasonably successful multiethnic and multicultural societies such as Canada, Australia and even the US would be inexplicable. In fact, no two human beings are ever fully or substantially alike, not even spouses and parents and children. They share some beliefs, values, tastes and attitudes and differ in others, and learn over time not only to live with but even delight in their differences. Members of any society share different things in common with each other. At one level men and women, old and young, atheists and believers, rich and poor, academics and manual workers, belong to different "kinds"; at another level their similarities make them of the same "kind". Which of these commonalities and differences become significant bonds of social unity or hostility is not inherent in them but matter of choice, circumstances and contingency. Who belongs to "one's kind" is not given by nature but a personal and social construction.


Since the assimilationist demand is unjust, unrealistic and illiberal, many writers and political leaders propose integration as an alternative model. Prima facie it appears to be a perfectly sensible goal, for immigrants should not be excluded from or hover over the margins of society and should enjoy the same rights and carry the same objections as the rest. However when probed deeper, the idea of integration is not as innocent as it seems. It involves not only inclusion and equality but also a particular way of incorporating or integrating outsiders into the prevailing social structure that is either indistinguishable from or differs only in small degree from assimilation.

According to integrationists, integration involves three things. First, immigrants should commit themselves to their country of settlement and give it their undivided loyalty and allegiance. If they keep feeling nostalgic about their country of origin and retain close moral and emotional ties with it, their commitment to their country of settlement remains tenuous and largely instrumental in nature. Since they continue to think, and encourage others to thinks, that they have another home to which they can and might one day wish to return, they remain outsiders in their own and others' eyes.

Secondly, immigrants should participate in the common life of society and become its integral part. If they held themselves back or segregated themselves, and thus remain unintegrated, they would not only show a lack of commitment to it but would also fail to forge meaningful bonds with the rest of their fellow-citizens. The latter would see them as wanting to live in society without being a part of it, as their physical but not social and moral neighbours, and would understandably refuse to identify with them.

Thirdly, since society's institutions, values, practices and norms of behaviour form the basis of its unity and express its historically acquired identity, immigrants should respect and internalise them. If they took a purely instrumental view them and conformed to these for reasons of expediency and convenience, they would display a lack of sincere commitment to society and fail to inspire trust. In France the Commission of Nationality set up under the chairmanship of Marceau Lang in 1987 argued that integration involves "affirming the essential and indivisible values that found French society and determine its identity". In Germany, integration is taken to involve not "mere adjustment" to German society but "inner affirmation" of its values and "internalisation of common good". Muslims who refuse to embrace some of these values and seek to protect their children from their influence are accused of "acting against integration". Similar views are expressed in Britain where the language is less strident but its basic import is the same.

The integrationist approach defines integration in terms of loyalty, participation, and acculturation or adaptation. It rightly insists that immigrants should commit themselves to the society in which they have chosen to settle and show it basic loyalty. It is also right to insist that they should participate in the common life of society and avoid communal ghettoes in order to build up common bond with the rest of society and as an earnest of their willingness to become its full members. Both respect for the history and identity of society and their own ability to flourish in it require that they should also respect its institutions, values and norms of behaviour.

In spite of these and related insights, the integrationist approach suffers from several limitations, many of which it shares with assimilationism. Like the latter, it too sees integration as a one-way process. The onus to integrate is always on the immigrants, so is the blame for their failure to do so, and all the necessary adjustments and accommodations are to be made by them. This is a highly misleading account of the process of integration. The social and political structure of a society is the product of its history and reflects its current self-understanding. As new members arrive with their distinct histories and experiences, it cannot hope to remain the same. Some of its practices and attitudes might make no sense to or have an adverse effect on them, and need to be changed. Its collective self-understanding too needs to be redefined to take account of their presence.

A Muslim immigrant, for example, might want time off for the Friday prayer, and a Sikh child might be averse to going to school without his turban. Unless the wider society is prepared to reconsider and, when necessary, change the relevant practices, it makes it difficult for immigrants to integrate. Again, an immigrant might move out of the communal ghetto and into a while middle class suburb. But if the residents of that area move out, her effort at integration amounts to nothing. Or she might adopt the ways of life and thought of the wider society, but if she is dismissed as pushy, presumptuous, not knowing her place, integration not only brings her no benefits but consigns her to a cultural limbo that uproots her from her own community without giving her roots or even a reasonably secure foothold in another. Integration is frustrated as much by segregation as by rejection. It is a two-way process requiring both immigrants and the wider society to adjust to each other.

Like the assimilationist who is intensely suspicious of differences, the integrationist is hostile to separation, and is sometimes equally extreme in his demands. A society is articulated at several levels, such as the political, the economic, the social, the moral and the cultural. Immigrants might integrate at some of these levels but not others. They might, for example, integrate economically and politically and play their full part as productive workers and active citizens, but might prefer to marry among themselves, confine their close friendships and social ties to their own community, or limit their cultural interests to their own traditions. Integrationists see such partial or limited integration as a sign of separateness, a refusal to integrate and become part of society. This is also broadly true of the idea of pluralist integration advocated by some multiculturalists. The latter respects and accommodates differences and allows immigrants to integrate in their own different ways. However, it too demands full integration, allows diversity only in the manner of integration, and remains uneasy with all forms of self-chosen separation.

In Britain and elsewhere Asian immigrants, for example, are frequently accused, not only by conservative but also by liberal politicians and media, of refusing to integrate because of their insufficiently impressive rate of interethnic marriages, tendency to socialise among themselves, and a rather limited interest in the mainstream cultural activities. Worried Conservative and even Labour governments have pursued policies intended to stop them from "importing" spouses from their country of origin on the ground that the practice reinforces their cultural identity and discourages integration. Integrationists also feel worried if immigrants retain a strong sense of commitment to their country of origin, reproduce its political controversies in their new environment, direct some of their philanthropic activities there, and so on. For them, all this indicates that immigrants are holding themselves back, not getting "fully" integrated.

Some integrationists do not share such an extreme and comprehensive view of integration. They appreciate that immigrants might wish to and indeed have a right to retain parts of their cultural identity, and that integration could and should be "thin", and limited mainly to society's "common institutions". While they are right, they face an obvious problem. Since integration of immigrants is seen as a vital national goal, and since it consists in making them an integral part of society, it is not clear how one can exempt some areas of life from the demands of integration and tolerate partially and loosely integrated immigrants. While some members of society might think that economic and political integration is enough, others might argue that society cannot be cohesive unless integration is extended to the moral, social and cultural areas of life as well and that allowing immigrants to integrate partially is to privilege them over other members of society. Since there is no conclusive way to resolve the debate, the "thin" view of integration appears ad hoc, arbitrary, even inconsistent. Even if we could reach an agreement on what areas of life are essential to integration, the partially and loosely integrated immigrants are bound to appear less committed to society. In the integrationist view, integration defines the quality of one's membership, and if it is partial and limited, so is the latter. Partially integrated immigrants are therefore always suspect, and viewed as legitimate targets of unequal or discriminatory treatment.

Like assimilation, integration is also vulnerable to subtle forms of racism. Since integration is the goal, one is led to ask what kinds of immigrants can be integrated with relative ease, are less likely to make inconvenient demands, and with whom the rest of society would find it easier to identify. The integrationist logic requires a society either to avoid "difficult" immigrants or to subject them to a harsher regime of control. In Europe and elsewhere, black, Muslim, and other inferiorised immigrants are seen as a problem in a way that others are not, and far more is often demanded of them. No one cares or even notices whether the American or even the Japanese immigrants to Europe marry only among themselves, lead socially and culturally self-contained lives or retain close ties with their countries of origin, but great anxiety is expressed in relation to the inferiorised or "less desirable" groups. Muslims are accused of inadequate loyalty if they fail to issue loud and unambiguous condemnations of Islamic terrorism in distant parts of the world, but no such demands are or were made of the Irish immigrants in relation to IRA terrorism, or of the American immigrants when the actions of the American government violate international law or border on state terrorism. Sometimes there are good reasons for such a differential treatment, but not always, and even when there are, the role of racism is not entirely absent. We need to guard against this tendency to apply different models of integration to and make unequal demands on different racial and ethnic groups, not only because it is unjust and racist but also because it breeds resentment among the inferiorised groups and hinders their integration.

The integrationist approach privileges unity and is deeply uncomfortable with separateness and distance. The latter is always on the defensive and in need of constant justification. The demand for integration, like that for assimilation, is insatiable. One can always ask why immigrants want to hold themselves back, why they cannot be like the rest, why many of them wish to marry among themselves, retain ties with their country of origin and maintain their culture if they are as sincerely committed to society as they claim to be. The totalist and intolerant logic of integration is readily exploited by those so inclined. And as for people of tolerant and liberal persuasion, they are always at a disadvantage, both because the onus of justifying limited integration is on them and because they are arguing in a language whose basic thrust is inhospitable to their liberal disposition.

Citizenship and Common Belonging

I argued above that assimilation and even integration represent deeply problematic ways of conceptualising the relations between immigrants and the receiving society. Those such as Habermas and Rawls who appreciate this argue that the language of equal citizenship provides a better alternative. As they understand it, a political community is a voluntary association of free and equal citizens hold together by agreed principles of justice or constitutional arrangement as embodied in the structure of public authority and a regime of rights and obligations. So long as immigrants accept these principles of justice or constitutional arrangement and enjoy the rights and discharge the obligations of equal citizenship, nothing more needs to be required of them.

While there is something is to be said for such a thin view of citizenship and the ease with which it avoids the ideologically loaded language of integration and assimilation, it is inadequate in crucial respects. Members of a political community share common interests and bonds, and make claims and entertain expectations of each other that they do not in relation to outsiders. Their relations with each other are bounded and mediated by their membership of a single community. Citizenship therefore is not just a matter of rights and obligations but also involves identifying with the political community, seeing it as one's own, accepting responsibility for it and promoting its well-being. It thus has a holistic dimension which an individualistic view of citizenship cannot adequately explain. In the context of the democratic welfare state, citizenship also involves some concern for others, an obligation to ensure that they enjoy the basic condition of a minimally decent life, and a willingness to share one's resources with those in need. A political community further does not exist merely in the present. It is a product of the countless small and large sacrifices of past generations, and has a future in which its current members have a vital stake. Being a citizen of it involves linking up with its past and future and seeing oneself as part of an on going historical community. For these and other reasons a political community requires a common sense of belonging, a shared collective identity, a degree of mutual commitment and attachment, to underpin and nourish the practice of equal and active citizenship.

Rather than ask how immigrants can be assimilated or integrated, we should ask how they can become equal citizens and be bound to the rest by the ties of common belonging. This is our general objective, and all else is derived from it. It obviously requires some form of integration in the sense that immigrants should not be excluded or marginalized, and it also requires some degree of assimilation in the sense that they should share certain basic beliefs and values. However integration and assimilation are the means not the end, and their nature, forms, degrees and limits should be decided by their ability to serve their overall objective in the context of the constantly changing relations between immigrants and the wider society. Common belonging is a two-way process. Immigrants cannot belong to a society unless it is prepared to welcome them, and conversely it cannot make them its own unless they wish to belong to it with all that this entails. Common belonging requires a broad consensus on what is expected of each party, and can only be achieved if both discharge their respective obligations. I shall first discuss the obligations of immigrants, and then those of the wider society.

Immigrants arrive of their own free choice and wish to belong to their country of settlement. A society is not a chance collection of people who happen to live together and are only contingently related to each other. It represents an intricate and complex way of life built up through their struggles and sacrifices over several generations. Since their identities, lives and personal histories are closely bound up with it, they rightly feel possessive and protective about their society. They want to be reassured that immigrants value their membership of it, and understand and respect its way of life. Even the ordinary clubs and associations insist on rules of membership, and rightly expect their successful new applicants to join it in good faith, observe its norms, and do nothing to undermine and subvert it. This is even more so in the case of political societies, which have long-established historical identities and which their members regard as their home. Its membership requires not tacit or even explicit consent as Locke and others had argued but something quite different.

The society in which immigrants have come to settle is a deeply cherished home to its members and deserves to be treated with appropriate respect and sensitivity. It is also their own and their children's future home, and calls for a moral and emotional commitment. Immigrants should therefore identify themselves with it, make it their own, and accept the responsibilities and obligations that this entails. This does not mean that they should severe their ties with their country of origin, no more than a marriage requires the spouses to disown or distance themselves from their parental ties. Such a demand is unfair, impossible to meet, and unnecessary. What can be demanded of immigrants is that they should see their country of settlement as their home, whatever others homes they might also happen to have. It should mean something to them, have an intrinsic value and not just be a place to make money or escape persecution, and they should give reasonable evidence of their commitment to it. Such a commitment establishes their good faith, qualifies them for full membership, and entitles them to make such demands on the rest of society as their process of settlement requires.

No society can expect to remain the same when it admits new members, especially when their number is fairly large. Every society as a matter of fact constantly redefines and reconstitutes itself in response to the emergence of new generations of young men and women who bring with them new ideas, sensibilities, aspirations, forms of self-understanding and modes of behaviour. Immigrants present it with a similar challenge, compounded by the fact that they arrive as fully formed adults with only a limited room for malleability. They may therefore legitimately ask for changes in the practices and institutions of the wider society if they can show that these bear unduly heavily on them, make demands they cannot meet, are deeply biased, not as self-evident as the society assumes, and so on. Their demands carry moral weight and are likely to receive a favourable response if they have made a commitment to society and value their membership of it.

Immigrants express their commitment to society in several ways. They should cherish its integrity and well-being, respect its structure of authority and laws, and in general discharge their obligations as citizens. In principle no more and no less can be demanded of them than of their fellow-citizens. To demand more is to place a greater burden on them, to demand less is patronising and condescending, and both alike are discriminatory. Although immigrants might find it politically prudent to be more explicit than the rest in their professions of loyalty and patriotic sentiments, this should not be a moral or even a political requirement.

Immigrants also affirm their commitment to society by participating in its common life, discharging their share of collective responsibility, being productive workers, not misusing the available welfare provisions, and so on. Participation in common life does not mean that they may not live or marry among themselves, carve out communal cultural spaces of their own, or lead partially segregated lives. Marriages, cultural life, etc. are matters of individual choice and cannot be subjected to legal coercion and social pressure. They belong to the personal sphere of life and do not affect the shared collective life. And since their fellow-citizens are free to live their social and cultural lives as they please, denying that freedom to immigrants involves unequal treatment. As long as they participate in the collective life of society and discharge their obligations as citizens, their personal and social lives are their own business.

Immigrants need to acquire the cultural competence that is required to help them navigate their way through the society's way of life. This involves learning its language, understanding and observing its rules of civility and norms of behaviour, and familiarising themselves with its traditions, history, moral sensibilities and habits of thought. As they respect its values and norms of behaviour, they are likely over time to internalise them and make them part of their social and even perhaps personal identity, especially if they see their point. And even when they do not see their point, they should generally respect and observe them in their social relations, for broadly the same reasons that women visitors to Muslim countries cover their heads without necessarily endorsing the practice. One may not, for example, see the point of wearing black at a funeral, opening the door for a female companion or holding it open for the next person, keeping the front garden tidy, or standing up for the national anthem. However these practices matter to others, are part of the society's culture, and constitute good manners or what the eighteenth century writers called small morals. There is nothing insincere, hypocritical or self-alienating about observing them without approving of them, for it shows respect for society and its way of life and facilitates good relations with its members. Being new, immigrants are unlikely to master fully the complex cultural grammar of a society. But unless they make a sincere effort to acquire a modicum of cultural competence, they show lack of respect for society and create serious difficulties for themselves. Their commitment to society is likely to be questioned. They would be unable to communicate their aspirations and frustrations, to understand why others sometimes respond to these with incomprehension and even hostility, and to build up the pool of mutual understanding and trust that is necessary to press their legitimate demands with some chance of success. They also remain at the mercy of their more articulate "spokesmen" and "brokers" with their own political and cultural agenda.

Just as immigrants need to commit themselves to the receiving society and express it in ways indicated earlier, society too must make a commitment to them and express it in appropriate ways. Immigrants are new to it, and liable to much misunderstanding and negative stereotyping. They need time to acquire the necessary cultural competence, and in the meantime they lack a clear and coherent voice. Being outsiders, they are often resented by certain sections of society and made to feel unwelcome. They are also likely to be discriminated against in significant areas of life. They suffer from various kinds of disadvantages resulting from poverty, lack of language, the trauma of transition, the confusion and worry about how to adjust to the new society, anxieties about their children, mismatch between their aspirations and the reality of their new life, and so on. The wider society needs to ease their transition, and help them feel and become its full and legitimate members. This requires action at several levels.

First, discrimination against immigrants in all areas of life, especially those such as employment, education and housing that affect their life chances, should be declared unlawful and subjected to appropriate sanctions. Discrimination implies unequal treatment, and conveys to its victims that they are not accepted by the rest of society as its equal members. It also builds up anger and frustration, and can over time generate a profound sense of alienation and marginality. When the state does nothing about it, it intensifies the sense of inequality and sends out the message that it too regards them as an inferior class of citizens. Discrimination can take several forms. It can be blatant or subtle, direct or indirect as when it is built into the procedures and rules of an organisation, and might be practised by individuals or institutions. It can also be formal or informal, as when shop assistants overcharge immigrants or fellow-passengers make abusive remarks and change seats. And it might be practised in some or all major areas of life. It is particularly hurtful when it is practised by the institutions of the state, such as the police, the immigration officers, the courts and the civil servants. The state is expected to treat its citizens equally, is the authoritative spokesman of society, and its actions guide public opinion. When its institutions engage in discriminatory behaviour, they not only reduce their victims to second class citizens but leave them no redress. A discriminatory state imposes equal obligations but denies equal rights, and forfeits its legitimacy in the eyes of those it treats unequally.

While the law can tackle formal and institutional discrimination fairly effectively by declaring it unlawful and devising an appropriate machinery of enforcement, its reach does not extend to informal discrimination. It cannot compel a passenger not to leave her seat or mumble abuses when an immigrant of a different colour sits next to her, or require a bank clerk not to keep him waiting for an unduly long period of time. Although these actions are individually trivial and little more than sources of minor irritation, cumulatively they can create a regime of humiliation, wear down their victims, and build up powerful feelings of rage and hatred. There is no simple and foolproof way to deal with them. Heads of the organisations involved can be pressured to lay down standards of good behaviour enforced by appropriate disciplinary procedures. Immigrant and other public-spirited civic organisations can expose these practices and use their consumer power to set them right. Since these practices spring from and derive their legitimacy from the general social ethos, church leaders, government ministers, public figures, and the media have a vital role to play in reforming the society's moral culture.

Secondly, immigrants suffer from several material, social, cultural, political and other disadvantages which impede their settlement. Tackling them calls for a comprehensive and well-worked out public policy. Immigrants need help with learning the language of the country, and this may require special classes at times and places convenient to them. Their children, especially if they arrive as adolescents, might need remedial classes and some form of transitional bilingual education. Immigrants tend to live together partly because of discrimination and partly for reasons of physical security, emotional sustenance, good business, pursuit of common cultural and religious practices, and so on. Such residential concentration, or what are pejoratively called ghettoes, has its economic and cultural logic, and should be accepted. It not only does not stand in the way of integration but can even facilitate it, because personally and socially secure individuals are often more likely to have the confidence to reach out to the wider society and experiment with its ways of life and thought.

Residential concentration is worrying when it is involuntary, confines immigrants to their own community, schools, economy, etc., and rules out all but minimal contacts with the rest of society. It then creates parallel societies with little in common except mutual indifference, incomprehension and even perhaps hatred. There is no easy way to deal with such situations. As the experience of many multicultural societies demonstrates, immigrants tend to move out of ethnically concentrated areas when they feel physically secure, acquire cultural self-confidence, improve their economic prospects, and feel sure that they will not face rejection. All this obviously depends quite heavily on government policy and the general social climate. If for some reason residential concentration persists, ways need to be found to encourage ethnic mixing in a manner that avoids conflict and promotes common interests. Housing estates could encourage ethnically mixed tenants; schools could draw their pupils from different ethnic groups; when this is not possible, ethnically concentrated schools could explore ways of involving their pupils in common curricular and extra-curricular projects with those of mixed schools; and so on.

Since the economy plays a vital role in the integration of immigrants, we need to devise well-targeted and group-sensitive policies to liberate them from the cumulative cycle of disadvantages. Removing discrimination in employment and promotion is obviously most important, and requires an effective enforcement machinery with powers of investigation, legal aid to the victims, determined action by heads of organisations, and a programme of positive action to identify and redress the disproportionate absence of relevant groups. The run-down areas where immigrants are often concentrated need to be regenerated, and require a greater allocation of public resources and tax and other incentives to attract local and national business. Helping immigrants acquire valuable skills, improving the educational performance of their children, help with the start up capital, loans at lower rates of interest, advice on how to start and build up new businesses, etc. are also valuable tools of public policy. Monitoring admissions into academically good schools and institutions of higher education is also necessary, as sometimes these institutions wittingly or unwittingly discriminate against immigrants, block their upward mobility, and hinder integration among the elite.

Sometimes these and other group-sensitive policies are criticised on the grounds that they practise reverse discrimination, intensify ethnic consciousness, and militate against a common sense of belonging. Although the criticism has a point, the dangers it highlights are often exaggerated and can be guarded against. The kinds of policies I have suggested often represent a programme of positive action rather than positive discrimination with its fixed targets and quotas. They are intended to remove obstacles to equal and fair competition and tackle disadvantages, not to give arbitrary and unfair preference to immigrants. They apply not just to immigrants but to all who suffer from severe disadvantages. And if in some cases immigrants receive greater attention and help, this is only because their disadvantages are greater and compounded by discrimination.

The argument that ethnically orientated policies intensify ethnic-consciousness and work against a shared sense of community is largely misconceived. A colour-blind approach makes sense only when those involved are blind to colour and in no way influenced by it. When ethnic or colour consciousness shapes their behaviour and is a source of discrimination and disadvantage, it cannot be tackled by ignoring it. One needs to acknowledge its existence, identify its targets, remove their disadvantages, help them acquire equal competitive capacity, ease their integration into society, and create over time a genuinely colour-blind society that is so relaxed about ethnic differences as to take no notice of them. Ethnically orientated policies perpetuate ethnic consciousness if they are open-ended, homogenise ethnic communities, prefer them over the rest, set up rigid quotas, and ignore wider social and economic inequalities. They have the opposite effect and become a means of integration when they are part of a general egalitarian policy, concentrate on clearly defined groups, and justify their differential treatment on grounds of fairness, special needs, and social cohesion.

Thirdly, like those of the other members of society, a good deal of an immigrant's life is lived at the local level. It is here that they regularly interact with their fellow citizens as neighbours, fellow employees, shoppers, spectators at sports events, and so on. They generalise these experiences to cover unseen millions, and form an image of the wider society and their place in it. All national integration is forged out of civic integration, and all patriotism has local roots. It is therefore vital to build up inter-ethnic bonds at the local level through neighbourhood associations, sports clubs, trade unions, local branches of national political parties, charitable associations, chambers of commerce and interfaith networks. These associations bring together different communities in the pursuit of common interests, and develop mutual understanding, habits of cooperation and trust. Civic authorities too can do much to foster a strong sense of civic identity that transcends ethic differences and sustains the larger sense of national identity. They can do so by ensuring immigrants adequate representation in their major institutions, allocating to them a fair share of public resources, involving them in common projects, sponsoring ethnic events, encouraging inter-ethnic cultural, literary and other festivals, and by so designing public spaces that they attract different groups and reflect and normalise diversity.

Fourthly, educational institutions, especially the schools, play a crucial role in creating a common sense of belonging. They should prepare their pupils for a life in a multicultural society by sensitising them to the reality of differences, helping them deal with these with understanding and confidence, and cultivating such vitally necessary multicultural skills and virtues as sympathetic imagination, tolerance, openness to other ways of life and thought, curiosity and mutual respect. They should promote intercultural literacy, foster better understanding between different cultural groups, and help them acquire a shared pool of ideas and values. While they should obviously teach and assign a central role to the history, culture, traditions, etc. of the wider society, they also need to teach the history and culture of immigrants, explaining where they or their parents' parents came from, why, and their experiences of migration and settlement.

Although multicultural education is primarily directed at the second and subsequent generations, it also has a profound and often unnoticed effect on the first generation of immigrants. It avoids generational rupture with all its disastrous consequences, reassures the parents that they will not lose their children to an "alien" culture, and removes their suspicion of schools. Part of the reason why the first generation of immigrants sometimes resist participation in the common life of society and deliberately keep their distance from it has to do with their understandable desire to provide an alternative cultural environment to their children, and counter the assimilationist ethos of the school. When that anxiety is allayed by a programme of multicultural education, an important reason for their segregation is removed. This should also reduce the demand for separate ethnic and religious schools that sometimes stand in the way of a common sense of belonging. And if for some reason such schools do exist, they should be required to teach a common curriculum, promote intercultural understanding, draw their staff and students from different communities. Indeed when the state explicitly commits itself to multicultural education in state schools, it acquires the moral right to demand it in minority schools as well.

Fourthly, as I argued earlier, a common sense of belonging is easier when both the majority and minority communities feel at ease with themselves and each other. If the minorities feel threatened, besieged, fearful of cultural extinction, they turn inward, become defensive, and tend to avoid all but the minimum contact with the rest of society. This is equally true of the majority. If it feels that it is no longer in charge of its future and that its way of life is subject to relentless erosion, it becomes defensive and intolerant and either closes its doors to immigration, which is generally not possible, or falls prey to the unrealistic and self-defeating project of assimilation or total integration.

A sensible response to this has to be at several levels. The country's immigration and asylum policy should be fair, transparent, coherent, publicly debated and consensually grounded. The government needs to explain to its citizens why it has a moral and legal obligations to admit desperate refugees and why it is both moral and in the country's interest to give them all the help they need to settle down. It should similarly explain why it needs immigrants, how many, to do what and what benefits they bring, and follow this up with independently audited periodic reports and well-designed policies. It needs to distinguish between legitimate anxieties about immigrants and their racist rejection, and allay the former while combating the latter. If legitimate anxieties and fears remain unaddressed, and are not even allowed to be expressed in the name of political correctness, frustration builds up and takes nasty forms. Those involved feel alienated from and turn against the political system that has no space for their views, and opt for racist and rightwing political parties. The distinction between legitimate fears on the one hand and blatant racism and xenophobia on the other is not easy to draw, especially as the latter often disguises itself in the former's respectable rhetoric. However not to draw it at all or to confuse the two is to create serious problems. If the public policy on immigration and asylum were to be transparent, based on the clearly stated economic needs and moral obligations of the country, and commanded the support of major political parties and leaders of public opinion, it should be relatively easy to identify racists and xenophobes and expose their falsehoods. Since the battle against them is never conclusively won, statesmanship consists in skilfully isolating them and challenging their changing rhetoric and tactics.

Finally, as I argued earlier, societies are not held together by common interest and justice alone. If they were, the sacrifices that their members make for each other including share their resources and give up their lives in wars and national emergencies would be inexplicable. They need emotional bonding, that is, a sense of concern for and attachment to their community and to each other. That in turn springs from a common sense of belonging, from their recognition of each other as members of a single community. And that requires a broadly shared sense of national identity, that is, a sense of who they are, what binds them together, and what makes them members of this community rather than some other. The identity of a society has a cognitive as well as an emotional dimension, and is embodied in its self-understanding, history, values, constitutional principles, political institutions, etc. as well as its symbols and images, such as the national anthem, the national flag, national ceremonies, and monuments to the dead heroes.

The struggle over the definition of national identity is ultimately about the ownership of the country, about who does and does not belong to it and whose interests and claims should be accorded priority. Not surprisingly, national identity becomes a site of contestation between those who wish to widen the traditional view of it and those who either want to hold on to it or make it more exclusive. This is not something that can be officially decided by the agencies of the state or settled once and for all. The struggle to redefine national identity is often informal, unplanned, diffuse, conducted on several terrains and in different idioms, and likely to become particularly pronounced on nationally significant occasions. Such results as it achieves are registered in the appropriately revised vocabulary of public discourse, and sustained by the suitably redefined forms of national self-understanding.

Two British examples explain what I have in mind. Britain has long seen itself as a white society. Although black presence in it goes back to the Romans and was significant during the Elizabethan and Victorian periods, it never formed part of national self-definition. Thanks to the pressure of Afro-Caribbeans and white liberals during the past three decades, the dominant definition of Britishness has been considerably deracialised, and one no longer has to be white or Christian to be accepted as British. The country's history is also being increasingly read in multiracial terms, and the historical role and contributions of ethnic minorities are researched and widely recognised. The fact that some ethnic minority members now occupy high positions in public life and represent the country at home and abroad has given a new momentum to this process.

The other example relates to the national flag. In the mid-1980s, racist groups flaunted it at their meetings and sought to make it an exclusive symbol of white Britain. Not surprisingly, the ethnic minorities found it difficult to relate to it, and some even felt threatened by it. Over time many of them began to reclaim it by displaying it on ethnic and multi-ethnic occasions. This became particularly evident at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and was reinforced at the Athens Olympics four years later, when the medal-winning black athletes did the lap of honour draped in the Union Jack. Their action had a double meaning, which was not lost on the British public. They were saying that they belonged to Britain and were proud to do so. They were also saying that Britain belonged to them, that they were not marginal to it but its equal citizens, and that its flag and national anthem were as much theirs as anyone else's and symbolised their presence as well.

National identity is about how the nation is represented in the imagination of its people. Since literature and the arts are the paradigmatic vehicles of representation, they play a vital role in articulating even constructing national identity and giving it a cultural and emotional depth. Not surprisingly, literature, especially the novel, and the visual arts played an important part in the creation of the modern nation state. They highlighted the commonalities between its distant and diverse members, subverted inherited stereotypes, rendered different places, groups, generations and historical times mutually intelligible, and wove them into a single temporal and spatial narrative. When immigrants arrive, their experiences too need to be rendered intelligible to the rest of society and incorporated in a suitably retold national story. A British example, again, will illustrate how this tends to happen.

Thanks to the articulations of its great literary and artistic figures, Britain often evokes images of serene southern counties, manicured landscape, church bells, quiet Sundays, dreaming spires, emotional self-discipline, art of understatement, reserved gentlemen in their bowler hats and rolled up umbrellas, and so on. As a result of the work of ethnic minority and other writers, artists, musicians, etc., and some of the imaginative programmes on the television, Britain now also evokes images of mosques and temples, elderly gentlemen walking with their children to the Friday prayers in response to the call of the muezzin, Diwali celebrations in public squares, noisy multi-ethnic streets of big cities, spicy food, saris and steel bands, as well as many hybrid images reflecting intercultural experimentation. British identity is increasingly being expressed in a plurality of images, and is capacious and heterogeneous enough to allow all its communities and regions to find their representation in it. This makes it easier for them to take ownership of it and build common emotional bonds among themselves.


I explored above some of the important ways in which a common sense of belonging can be fostered in multicultural societies. I concentrated on immigrants and showed how the diversity they bring need not pose intractable problems. Other forms of diversity can be similarly accommodated. Multicultural societies are not easy to manage, and there is no saying what external and internal factors might destabilise them. They are, however, here to say and form part of our historical predicament. Given good will on all sides, they can also become sources of great richness and vitality. If we mismanage or try to mould them according to some naïve and nostalgic vision of a culturally homogeneous and tension-free society, they can easily become a nightmare. But we can make a reasonable success of them if we accept cultural diversity as an ineliminable and valuable part of human life and devise imaginative ways of forging social unity out of it.