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The Accomodation of Multiculturalism and Nationalism


This text was previously posted as one of the pages in the 'divlib' section of the website 'Arguments and Facts'. It was reformatted as the present article on 2018-01-03.

This article summarizes an early article on multicultural nationalism, 'Nationalisme et multiculturalisme' [pan-3031] by Daniel Sabbagh, which appeared in 2004 in the French-language journal Critique Internationale . The summary will be made using my own, ad-hoc translations of selected segments of the article, together with some comments of my own.

Here is, to begin with, my translation of the abstract of the article.

In order to assess the arguments for the accomodation of nationalism and multiculturalism that have been advanced strategically by some actors, this article discusses the following two possibilities one after the other. The first possibility is to start from the distinction between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism and to decide in favor of the former kind, which the American and French models of citizenship are generally considered to realize with their respective methods for accomodating cultural heterogenity, although their methods are quite different.

The other possibility is to proceed to dissect the notion of "multiculturalism" and to demonstrate that the political claims that are usually advanced under this term either aim at promoting the integration of ethno-cultural minorities in the framework of the national institutions in the country where they take place, or else they shall be seen as competing, nationalist ambitions.

From this, the article observes that at present the national identity is the only thing that can create a feeling of common inclusion, which is the only thing that the antidiscriminatory project can rest on, and, more generally, the only thing that can promote social justice. The article concludes that as long as this is the case, proponents of 'multiculturalism' are well advised to abstain from denouncing the uniforming and oppressive character of nationalism, for strategic reasons at least.

The purpose of Sabbagh's article is to analyze the relationship between nationalism and multiculturalism. He does not state as a goal to show how these attitudes can be combined, or how the differences between them can be resolved, but his analysis can anyway contribute essential aspects of how that goal may be achieved if one so desires.

Sabbagh emphasizes first of all the need for clear definitions of the concepts involved. With respect to multiculturalism, he specifies only that for him it refers not merely to the actual presence of cultural diversity, but also to the positive appreciation and encouragement of that diversity on the political level.

With respect to nations and nationalism, he specifies first that he uses the term 'nation' to stand for a community of persons that are characterized by common cultural features, by a mutual recognition of this fact as well as anonymity in the participation in the nation, and finally by an aspiration of (political) autonomy for this community.

As described in the abstract, Sabbagh considers two alternative views of nationalism in succession. (We shall return later on to his view of 'nationalism' as a concept). He first addresses the classical model of 'civic' nationalism as realized in the United States and in France, and argues that neither of them is a clear-cut example of the principles of the 'civic' variety:

Finally, regardless of the difficulties for the American and French varieties of nationalism to live up to their universalist pretentions, one must realize that the classical and generally accepted distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism is in fact misleading. In both cases the state promotes actively the adoption of a common language and a common national culture.

Sabbagh then proceeds to address the case of multiculturalism, which he deconstructs in terms of four types of 'demands' that a group may make in the name of multiculturalism, namely: demands for assistance, demands for recognition and respect ('symbolic demands'), for exemptions, and for autonomy. Referring to actual cases of such demands, in particular in the province of Quebec, he proposes that

the majority of "multiculturalist" demands -- in particular those of the first two types, but also many of the third type -- serve to facilitate the integration of the immigrants in the large structures of the receiving society, rather than to renegotiate its terms of membership.

With respect to the remaining cases, where "multiculturalist" demands serve for secession or at least partial secession, he uses examples from Canada, Scotland, and Puerto Rico to argue that the conflict between the nationalism of the majority and the nationalism of the minority does not follow the idealized schema that distinguishes between 'civic' and 'ethnic' nationalism.

He proceeds to question that distinction in general:

What distinguishes the civic nations from the ethnic nations "is not so much the indifference with respect to language, culture or national identity, but the contents, the behavior and the (more or less) inclusive character of this national culture, as well as the modalities of integration in its context": in one word, "the admission conditions (in the community)". Since nationalism always has a cultural component, even in the liberal democracies, if one is going to assess its compatibility with "multiculturalism" one has to go beyond the analysis and consider, in detail and based on precise examples, the specific contents of the political revendications that are generally advanced under this extremely ambigous label.

Notice that the distinction that Sabbagh makes is not one between civic and ethnic nationalism, but between (actually occurring) civic and ethnic nations. This is significant. It is true that for an immigrant that is entirely willing to assimilate the culture of the host country, it is its admission conditions that are of importance. But for an immigrant that strongly wishes to retain as much as possible of his (or her) original culture, on the other hand, it must always be preferable to choose the extreme 'civic' type of nation.

With respect to multiculturalism, Sabbagh continues as follows:

To conclude, and to proceed further in this enterprise of deconstructing multiculturalism, one would be tempted to suggest that paradoxically, in many cases, we see an increasing role for the celebration of diversity and the politization of those identities that are perceived to be associated with a specific culture, at the same time as we see a decrease of actual cultural heterogeneity. This bears witness to what Freud called the narcissism of small differences.

In reality, many of the political aspirations that are associated with multiculturalism refer less to culture as such, and more to the correction of injustices that have been done to dominated groups -- generally defined on ethno-racial grounds. It is exactly there that one finds the deepest relation between nationalism and the radical variety of multiculturalism.

In other words, Sabbagh suggests that the desire to correct historical injustices is the driving force, and that the increased appearance of identity-markers (such as etnically or religiously defined dress codes) is merely one method towards the desired goal.

This is in fact the reason why Sabbagh rejects both parts of the 'second alternative' that he refers to in his abstract, that is, ethnonationalism and cosmopolitanism. The argument is that the former will suppress multicultural diversity altogether, whereas the latter will allow the identity-markers to flourish but it will lack the motivation and the strength to correct the real problem, namely, the historical (and current?) unjustices. He expresses this as follows:

Because criticizing structural inequalities between social groups need not be sufficient for building a majority coalition that is willing to reduce them. In order to undertake this particular task, one has to adopt "the common language of the citizenry" and "use the resources of the common culture for identifying those principles from which one can enter the complaints of the group in question into a large context." Since the proponents of multiculturalism appeal implicitly to the sense of justice among the members of the majority, they weaken their cause when, at the same time, they appeal to the "oppressed" minorities to "reject the very part of their identity that makes them be part of the same community as the majority". This is exactly the position of the radical multiculturalists. The national identity is the only force that can generate an atmosphere of common participation, and this is what the antidiscriminatory project is based on and, more generally, what the promotion of social justice is based on. As long as this is the case, the proponents of "multiculturalism" would be well advised to abstain from denouncing the uniforming and oppressive character of nationalism, in their own interest and at least for strategic reasons.

This is how the article ends. It started with a reference to the question how one can accomodate nationalism and multiculturalism, the latter being defined as the positive appreciation of diversity on the political level. It proceeds by 'examining' two strategies for their accomodation, and ends with a proposal for how to achieve this accomodation in the best possible way for the minority groups within the nation. To be precise, the author concludes by disrecommending the second strategy, but along the way he also expresses his reservations about the first strategy. What he ends up with, it seems, is a version of the 'civic' kind of nation where there is, at the same time, a considerable sense of national identity, resulting in a feeling of inclusion among all groups within the nation.

By focusing on the perspective of the minority groups, Sabbagh does not address the question of what is the best accomodation strategy from the point of view of the majority (assuming there is a single clear majority in the nation in question), or what is the best strategy for the success of the nation as a whole. It may well be argued that the strategy he puts forward is the best one from these points as well, but this question is not addressed.

In summary, Sabbagh argues the necessity of a sense of national identity, resulting in a feeling of inclusion among all groups within the nation. He argues furthermore that this is particularly important for the minority groups. His arguments are similar to how Aleinikoff argues for the importance of what he calls allegiance, besides mutuality and permeability. (A summary of Aleinikoff's article is posted along the present note).

Whereas Aleinikoff introduces the term 'multicultural nationalism', Sabbagh stops short of using it. His purpose is to discuss the relation between multiculturalism and nationalism which he views as two different things. Notwithstanding, as the present website is dedicated to the same topic as these two authors have addressed, we choose 'multicultural nationalism' as the name for this topic, and use both these articles for defining what it is about.

References and links

pan-3031    Nationalisme et multiculturalisme.
Daniel Sabbagh i Critique internationale, 2004.

pan-2988    Essay: A Multicultural Nationalism?.
T. Aleinikoff i The American Prospect, 1998.

    Erik Sandewall



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