• Sampurnaa Bora

How Relevant is Multiculturalism in a Populist World?

Today multiculturalism is no new phenomenon or something characteristic of a particular country or countries. Considering it to be most widely prevalent, it is imperative to deal with the most important challenge that nation’s states with multicultural societies are currently facing i.e task of making civic nationalism acceptable to all. Civic nationalism is essentially a form of nationalism that adheres to traditional liberal values of equality, tolerance, freedom and individual rights.

While approaching this challenge we are going to first deal with the various ideas of nationalism that have been forwarded by various philosophers and then we are going to deal with the sources of multiculturalism, the current events which pose a threat to multiculturalism. In the due course, we are going to make a continuous comparison of these real-life events with the literature of nationalism.

Ideas of Nationalism

Walker Corner: Corner has been particularly vocal about the distinction that exists between the nation and state. State in being a major political subdivision of the globe is readily defined and conceptualized in quantitative terms. But the nation is self-defined rather than other defined group. Despite this clear distinction, the interchangeable usage of the two terminologies has been detrimental to the study of nationalism according to Corner. Moreover, this confusion between terminologies has led to the identification of nationalism with the state rather than loyalty to the nation.

In dealing with the idea of nationalism, Corner says that it first appeared in literature in 1798. However, its absence from lexicon until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries suggests that its use was not extensive until much more recently. However early usage of the term conveyed the idea of identification to the nation rather than the state.

Nationalism’s subsequent association with the state received a strong impetus from a great body of literature occasioned by the growth of militant nationalism in Germany and Japan in the 1930s and early 1940s, as has been evident with the emergence of fascism and totalitarianism.

However, the most significant lesson of Corner derives from instances of Germany and Japan is that they exemplify the potential strength of those emotional ties to one's nation with which the multi-ethnic state must contend.

About ethnicity, Corner has claimed that employing ethnic group or ethnicity in relation to several types of identities clouds the relationship between nation and the ethnic group. He said that meaningful ethnic identity of positive nature remains limited to locale, region, clan or tribe. Thus members need not be conscious of belonging to an ethnic group. He subscribes to Baker, who says that a nation is a self-aware ethnic group. But until the members are themselves aware of the group’s uniqueness it is merely an ethnic group. Thus while an ethnic group must be defined, the nation must be self-defined.

Ellie Kedourie, on the other hand, regards nationalism as an extremely powerful if destructive force. Its appeal is explained by social breakdown occasioned by a collapse in the traditional values and the rise of a restless, secular, educated generation, ambitious for power but excluded from its proper state.

Ernest Gellner, views nationalism as a weak force, a product of transmission from agro -literate societies regulated by structure to industrial societies integrated by culture. This process is facilitated by mass education which allows for economic and social mobility. However, as these facilities do not spread evenly among all the sections of communities. Individuals in the communities industrialized lack the opportunities that those in already industrialized communities possess. The result of this can be either accumulation or lack of accumulation. If both communities share language and culture then assimilation is possible through standardization. However, if ethnicity is not shared then they are excluded from society. In this Gellner argues that nationalism occurs as the excluded ethnicity pushes for political sovereignty.

Further, Gellner says he believes nationalism strives for one culture or ethnicity under one roof or ‘state’. However, he argues that the worst-case scenario is when the ruler of a state is not a member of the ethnic majority within the boundaries of the state. In this case, nationalism will inevitably occur because members of the nation will want to strive for advancement by attempting to gain control of the state.

Tom Nairn, provides a materialistic explanation wherein he says that nationalism arises in the threatened and underdeveloped peripheral societies whose intelligentsia invite the people into history and then use and modernize their vernacular perception.

Sources of Multiculturalism

has been perhaps the strongest agent of inducing multiculturalism. For instance, we can say that Nigeria did not historically exist and there was no form of interaction between people of northern and southern before decolonization. Colonialism being initiated from northern Nigeria, the Igbos who belong to this region have experienced direct authoritative colonialism contrary to southern Nigeria, who were allowed to carry on their administrative apparatus.Decolonization

Due to this reason, it was the Igbos who dominated the bureaucracy and administrative apparatus leading to conflict with the Hosa Fulani and other tribes. Finally, it resulted in the execution of the President of Nigeria in 1966 through a coup in demand of a separate state and it was responded by a counter-coup. This event was characterised by massive bloodshed of Igbos, the ghettoization of the tribe and finally reduction of Nigeria from a federal to a unitary state.

Interestingly in 1966, the President of Nigeria belongs to the Igbo tribe who comprise a minority of the population by merely 18%. In this context, we can refer to what Gellner said about the emergence of nationalism with the occupation of power by a member of an ethnic minority.

Gellner’s views about the emergence of nationalism either through assimilation by standardization and exclusion can be witnessed in another post-colonial state of India. In our country mass education in being one of the means of standardization has induced nationalism by recounting the history of particularly Northern India and specifically ignoring the historical narrative of the northeastern part of the country.

Globalisation, as had been said Kunwon Song has tended to accelerate ethnic conflict on economic and cultural fronts on top of pre-existent perennial hatred. This has happened as ethnic groups are no longer able to retain their homogeneity and stability due to either wars, extensive movement through internal displacement, urbanization, modernization and increasing inter-ethnic marriages. One such instance can be seen in the conflict between African individuals and Chinese nationalities. The growing presence of Chinese nationalities in this region due to increased Chinese investment can be seen as inducing such conflicts.

Here, the reality contradicts with what Baker and Corner have said about the nation being confined with one ethnic group. However, what we need to see is whether the structure of the nation will be shaped according to what Corner has said or will it incline with the progressive narrative of globalisation. Inclining with the later there has to be a way to bring citizens out of immigrants.

Contemporary Threats to Multiculturalism

The rise of populism worldwide is the most significant threat to multiculturalism, and it has been aided and abetted by both technology and the issue of citizenship.

In writing about the growth of populism Kenneth Roth in a Human Rights Watch Report has stated that today rights are perceived as an obstacle to defending the nation from perceived threats and evils which are often migration and terrorism. He wrote how, migrants, minorities, refugees end up being targeted with the propagation of such perceived threats. Populism has given a thrust to xenophobia, nativism, Islamophobia and racism. All these have been taking place to such a great extent that populists believe that if majorities want to restrict the rights of minorities, refugees and migrants it is fair to do so.

The similar report informed migration is at the top of a list perceived threats in the US and UK where concerns about economic opportunity, cultural identity and terrorism intersect. A fact contradicting what Nairn said about the prevalence of nationalism only in underdeveloped and peripheral societies.

Similarly about issues on citizenship we can refer to what Arjun Appadurai has termed as the coming of ‘statizen’. He says that today national citizenship is no longer sufficient to ensure one's membership to a political community. What we need today is statizen: one whose membership to a country has been granted by a state-certified document and all his/her rights flow from that document. This he says is the best way to ensure state obedient citizens who are needed to ensure populist ideas. He further talks about the usage of democratic means for installation anti-democratic right-wing regimes as has been prevalent with the rise of leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro.

Lastly, with coming up of technologies such as deep fake, it can be used to impact any political dialogue by making it exclusive, inclusive or scuttling it altogether. Deep fakes replace the original actor in an entire video clip with a new one. The replacement is perfect to the extent that the ratio of the size of the face to the body looks realistic throughout the video and all the movements that the actor makes seem real. In this capacity it can impact how we perceive ‘us’ and ‘other’ in the discourse on nationalism.


The growing threat to multiculturalism is an important issue for two reasons. First, because there’s no way we can do away with it, this is the norm in the current world. Moreover, diversity is prevalent to some extent in every other ethnicity. There does not exist any ethnicity with complete homogeneity. Secondly, even if we seek to establish homogeneity its approach is going to be extremely exclusive and will be soaked in violence because there are high chances of the establishment of the hierarchy in this process. Whereby it will almost inevitably result in suppression of one group by another.

In my opinion, our approach shouldn't be towards the achievement of homogeneity but mutual coexistence with both equity and equality. For there are going to be groups which aren’t yet prepared to join the rat race. However, we must remember that it is the element of power which is going to be destructive towards both the approaches be it homogeneity or mutual coexistence. Because there would be an inevitable tendency to impose one's culture, language, ethnicity in the mission of establishment of both the phenomenon. Even in the approach towards mutual coexistence, one must ensure that the needs of any group do not go unnoticed or subdued.

Lastly, the situation needs to be immediately redressed most importantly in liberal democratic countries because situations which threaten multiculturalism starkly contradict with liberal democratic values making the situation further complicated. Threats to multiculturalism have been ever-present in our world, however now it’s presence in liberal democratic societies which has made the situation much more complicated. And this is the reason why phenomena such as populism are being much talked about now. References

  • https://www.e-ir.info/2013/10/22/has-globalization-exacerbated-ethnic-conflicts/

  • https://thewire.in/tech/deepfake-videos-machine-learning-politics-porn

  • https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2017/country-chapters/dangerous-rise-of-populism

  • https://thewire.in/rights/goodbye-citizenship-hello-statizenship

  • https://nationalismstudies.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/ernest-gellner-2/amp/

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

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