"THE MAJORITY OF BRITONS support multiculturalism, but the government still panders to a prejudiced minority." These words by the respected journalist Gary Younge indicate a widespread use of the word multiculturalism – that is the acceptance of diverse religious and racial cultures in our society as being of equal value to the population as a whole. In this sense it is 'racism' and hatred of religious groups that are deplored. Certainly all humanists should accept diversity and respect the worth of each individual.

'Multiculturalism' is also used more specifically to refer to the rights of minorities fully to express their culture in relation to society as a whole. This is a more knotty concept and the debate about it has been vigorous especially in the US. In the American book Multiculturalism: Humanist Perspectives edited by Robert B. Tapp (Prometheus Books) there is an attempted definition:

...multiculturalism is a cover term for the attempt to organize or conceptualise a Black (and/or other) community under the rubric of a distinct culture: separate schools, curricula, holidays, histories, self-esteem – resulting from the idea that the Black community is conceptualized as something other – but especially as lesser – by the majority of the population.

There has been a robust debate, especially in US academe, about the teaching of the white liberal canon of the dominant culture. And indeed, dominant cultures can be oppressive. At international level there has been a debate about whether International Human Rights are a culturally specific Western concept, not appropriate for everyone. Can there be conflict between a culture and the universality of the human condition?

In Britain the argument has been especially about schools: is it justified to create separate faith schools (which may largely, though not entirely, coincide with racial differences)? Muslims for instance, argue that in the mainstream schools pupils lose some of their connection with their culture – they do not learn Urdu or Arabic, they are not taught Muslim history and religion. It might be argued that all schools which once taught Latin, might now teach Urdu, bringing intellectual discipline and linguistic richness to many pupils, not just Muslims. How far should the mainstream schools go in accommodating the dress and customs of different religious and racial groups? (Marilyn Mason, p. 17, has argued that some accommodation in RE might help all groups.)

The argument over assimilation versus separation is at the heart of the matter. There must be a compromise between the right to retain cultural and religious traditions and the need to participate in society as a whole. One of the reasons why immigrants and their offspring are likely to want to retain links with their original culture is globalization. Whatever the Asian, African, West Indian diaspora the links with home remain: there can be regular travel by plane, there can be transfer of funds to the original (poorer) community, there can be marriage with members of the community of origin.

How far should such groups be expected to assimilate into the society of which they have become a part? Surely rights on dress codes should not be a major issue; the right to leave work or school to pray – perhaps, especially if there is mainstream prayer for everyone else – might be considered. Should we go so far as separate personal laws? With Muslim marriage rights for example being different. Separate personal laws are divisive in India and, as Aida Touma-Sliman points out (p.32) can be divisive in Israel.

What happens when the beliefs of one minority conflict with another minority – for instance the Muslim attitude to homosexuals? A Muslim leader in the Netherlands unfavourably compared the politician Pym Fortuyn with a pig because he was gay. Fortuyn (p. 30) was a maverick leader of the right, who wanted to curb immigration and to increase assimilation of those already in the country. He, like the rather nastier Le Pen (see p. 21), captured (in one case posthumously) the xenophobic, right wing vote.

Multiculturalism is then a complex concept. It can be tyrannic if it forces individuals into a mould. Did the TV administrator who said that television must be made to appeal to the Asian teenager in Leicester not realise that this imagined youth might one day be a Professor of Shakespearean Studies, bringing perhaps particular depth to his studies from his background. Islamophobia – like homophobia – can be a means of stifling criticism. And, indeed, the stifling of criticism of religion can be an effect of multiculturalism. The demand for laws of hate crime can come from groups perceiving themselves under threat. But is it right to punish opinion rather than action? (Thought crime, Orwell called it.) What about the right to blaspheme? (Arnold Wesker, p. 12)

Iftkhar Ahmad, from the London School of Islamics, has written: "The day we are all the same, we will all be dead." Humanists will agree with that – though wonder what is the demand underlying it. Humanists will want people to think for themselves – not to be dominated by their culture and community, even if it is the dominant culture. We want the richness and diversity that a multicultural society can bring: but we do not want religious or cultural pressure to become a threat to freedom.