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Freedom & Diversity: A Liberal Pentagram for Living Together

Immigrant Nations

by Paul Scheffer, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters
Polity, 390 pp., $84.95; $29.95 (paper)


According to US Census Bureau projections, non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered by other ethnic groups in the United States in about 2042. As a chorus chanted at a Chicago cabaret: “In 2042, there’ll be more of us than of you.” If Turkey joins the European Union, then by 2030 one in every five residents of the EU could be Muslim. This diversity is most visible in cities such as London, Amsterdam, Toronto, and New York. Some 37 percent of New Yorkers are foreign-born; in Toronto, the figure is close to 50 percent. Three hundred languages are spoken in London. One in four newborns in Britain have at least one parent who was born overseas.*

Malala Yousufzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl from the Swat Valley who was shot by the Taliban in early October for advocating education for girls. She is now receiving medical care in Birmingham, England.

These are not just “immigrants.” Increasingly, they are people “with a migration background,” as the German government classifies them, or “postmigrants,” in Robert S. Leiken’s snappier phraseology. It has long been observed that the problems of conflicted identity, or cultural schizophrenia, can be most acute in the second or third generation. Cheap air travel, the Internet, satellite TV, and mobile phones bring the two homelands closer than they were for Irish or Italian migrants to the US a hundred years ago. Even more than Italian-Americans in the early twentieth century, today’s Turkish-Germans, Pakistani-Brits, Mexican-Americans, Cambodian-Canadians, and Chinese-Australians feel that they belong to two worlds.

These new Europeans, Canadians, Americans, or Australians cannot be characterized simply by one group identifier, be it culture, ethnicity, nationality (“the Turks”), religion (“the Muslims”), or a specially invented collective marker such as “Hispanic” or “Afro-Caribbean.” In Birmingham, England, for example, a city that is expected to have a nonwhite majority by 2024, the postmigrants are not just Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim, but also Punjabi or Mirpuri (from Mirpur in Azad Kashmir), Labour, Conservative, or Liberal Democrat voters, supporters of this or that soccer club, and, by no means least, Brummies—residents of the great city of Birmingham, with its distinctive accent and local patriotism. Around a million people in Britain now identify themselves as of “mixed” ethnicity. In many countries, more and more people are, as President Barack Obama once famously put it, “mutts like me.”

The multiculturalist literature, with its tendency to pigeonhole people by culture, often fails to acknowledge the sheer diversity of this increasingly mixed-up world. More than ever, that must include the diversity to be found inside a single human skin, mind, and heart.


“Multiculturalism” has become a term of wholly uncertain meaning. Does it refer to a social reality? A set of policies? A normative theory? An ideology? Last year, I served on a Council of Europe working group with members from eight other European countries. We found that the word meant something different, and usually confused, in every country.

Some, though not all, of the policies described as “multiculturalism” over the last thirty years have had deeply illiberal consequences. They have allowed the development of “parallel societies” or “subsidized isolation.” Self-appointed community leaders have used public funds to reinforce cultural norms that would be unacceptable in the wider society, especially in relation to women. This has come close to official endorsement of cultural and moral relativism. A perverse effect has been to disempower the voices of the more liberal, secular, and critical minority within such ethnically or culturally defined minorities.

If, therefore, you want to elaborate a version of multiculturalism that is genuinely compatible with liberalism, as some distinguished political theorists do, you have to spend pages hedging the term about with clarifications and qualifications. By the time you have finished doing that, the justification for a separate new “ism” has evaporated. Why not simply talk about the form of modern liberalism suited—meaning also, developed and adapted—to the conditions of a contemporary, multicultural society?

When understandings of liberalism were expanded to embrace equal liberty under law for people of all social classes, it was not thought necessary to speak of “multiclassism”; nor, when extended to those of all skin colors, “multicolorism”; nor again, when to those of all genders and sexualities, “multigenderism” or “multisexualitism.” Painful though this will be to those who have expended their academic careers on multiculturalism, the term should be consigned to the conceptual dustbin of history.

To say this it is not necessary to endorse any crude summary judgment on whether multiculturalism was, in the famously parodic terms of 1066 and All That, a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. One of the word’s crippling handicaps is precisely that it has included some very bad things (e.g., publicly subsidized, illiberal postmigrant community ghettos in Western European cities) and some quite good things (e.g., efforts to get neighbors better acquainted with one another’s cultures).

To be clear: it is the “ism” that should be a “wasm.” Although the adjective “multicultural” questionably gathers in one tag what are in reality multiple kinds of human difference—religion, ethnicity, language, nationality, color, etc.—it has become a generally understood shorthand for the mainly postmigrant diversity of these societies. There is no need to throw out the descriptive baby with the prescriptive bathwater.


How, then, if not by referring to “multiculturalism,” should we summarize the challenges posed and opportunities offered by the increasingly multicultural character of these societies? On the principle that one should not use complicated terms when simpler ones will do, I suggest “combining freedom and diversity.” This does not mean that freedom and diversity are first-order values of comparable worth, like peace and justice. Increasing diversity can certainly enhance freedom. Where there is no choice, there is no freedom. The more choices between different ways of life we have readily available, on our big city doorstep, the greater the effective freedom we may be said to have.

But in practice, growing diversity can also be a challenge to existing freedoms—and to the social practices and shared understandings that historically have sustained those freedoms. From Robert Putnam’s influential work on the erosion of social trust to the violent controversy around the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, from ethnic minority slums to Arizona’s illiberal immigration law, anyone with eyes to see must recognize that we are far from a condition of rainbow nation bliss.

When I say “combining freedom and diversity,” I refer mainly to diversity as a reality. So the phrase might be parsed at greater length as “how to defend and enhance the freedoms of an open society in conditions of growing diversity.” This requires close attention to the details of policy on education, housing, the labor market, welfare, culture, political representation, and so on. The local level is as important as the regional, national, and—in Europe—supranational ones. What works for Pakistanis in Bradford may not work for Turks in Berlin or Berbers in Rotterdam, let alone for Mexicans in Los Angeles or Cambodians in Toronto.

Nor is this only a task for public policy. It is the personal responsibility of every one of us who lives in such a society. The character of everyday interactions, at school, at work, on the street, in the café, will affect the attitudes of migrants and postmigrants at least as much as any high policy. Small slights alienate, small courtesies integrate.


A conspectus of “what is to be done” would therefore fill an encylopedia. Here I can only sketch certain qualities that should run through and inform both public policy and personal conduct. I propose a pentagram of liberal virtues: inclusion, clarity, consistency, firmness, and liberality. Theoretically, these may be understood as expressions of the attempt by Isaiah Berlin and others to blend liberalism and pluralism. Practically, they draw lessons from a half-century of trial and error. Needless to say, these five liberal pluralist virtues are effective only in combination, hence the image of a pentagram.


At some high level of unworldly abstraction it may be possible to argue that restricting immigration into rich, free countries is illiberal. In real life, limiting immigration is the precondition for maintaining a liberal society. (Let everyone enter Switzerland who would wish to, and see what happens next.) What liberalism does require, however, is that everyone who has arrived in a given legal-political space—be it a single state, the territory of the EU, or the larger Europe of the Council of Europe—should have their human rights respected, even if those people are there briefly and illegally. It further requires that those who live there legally, for longer periods, should be entitled to that fuller “equal respect and concern” that Ronald Dworkin prescribes as the duty of the liberal state to all its citizens.

Over the last half-century, many Western European countries have fallen down on both steps of this two-step argument. They have let in very large numbers of people, through a combination of deliberately generous, chaotically unmanaged, and simply illegal immigration. Countries like Norway, with no modern experience of large-scale immigration, have experienced an inflow approaching the record proportions of immigration to the United States before World War I. Until recently, however, most European states have done far too little to integrate the new or not-so-new arrivals and their children—that is, to enable them to feel at home, as fully participating members of the societies in which they live.

In a famous article entitled “The Multicultural Drama,” published in 2000, the Dutch political writer Paul Scheffer criticized the Netherlands’ policy of “liberal admission and limited integration.” By “liberal” he presumably meant “generous,” but in truth, as he himself argues in his excellent book Immigrant Nations, this combination was not liberal at all. In Germany, for example, by 1994 more than seven million inhabitants out of a total of 80 million were officially listed as “foreigners.” They included Turks who had lived in Cologne or West Berlin for thirty years.

Most Western European countries, including Germany, have now moved toward granting citizenship to long-term residents, but Germany’s revised citizenship law continues to demand that they renounce any other citizenship. This is increasingly unrealistic, and arguably unreasonable, in a world where ever more postmigrants have two closely connected homelands. As one woman in the British city of Bradford put it: “Pakistan is our country. Britain is our country too.”

The mere granting of citizenship is only the beginning of inclusion. These days, many Western European countries have introduced citizenship tests and ceremonies. The questions in those national knowledge tests may have a somewhat random quality, and might be failed by people whose families have lived in the country for generations. (To some amusement in Britain, even Prime Minister David Cameron could not immediately tell the American talk show host David Letterman what “Magna Carta” means in English, and who composed “Rule, Britannia.”) The ceremonies may be perfunctory, or teeter on the verge of self-parody (tea, sandwiches, and a pianist playing “Land of Hope and Glory,” while the rain patters down on the roof of an English village hall). Nonetheless, the new citizens I have spoken to found these ceremonies moving, or at least “nice.”

  1. *

    This essay draws upon my 2008 Isaiah Berlin Lecture at Wolfson College, Oxford; my 2011 Tony Judt Memorial Lecture at New York University; participation in a Council of Europe working group chaired by Joschka Fischer, which reported in 2011 under the title Living Together: Combining Diversity and Freedom in 21st Century Europe (PDF file); and my concluding address at a June 2012 conference in Oslo organized by the Fritt Ord Foundation and The New York Review

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