12/14/2011 02:31 EST | Updated 02/13/2012 05:12 EST

Getting Our Multiculturalism Right

Earlier this week, Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney made headlines when he announced that a person's face may no longer be covered while taking Canada's oath of citizenship. The new requirement, which most directly affects Muslim women who wear a niqab or burka, has stirred debate about the appropriate limits of multiculturalism in Canada.

In justifying the policy, Minister Kenney cited the need to ensure that each individual is in fact reciting the oath. But he also emphasized that showing one's face during this "quintessentially public act" has important symbolic implications, because it reflects Canadian values of equality and openness.

His announcement comes on the heels of the deeply troubling Shafia "honour killing" trial, about which National Post columnist Robert Fulford wrote last month that the Shafia girls "were likely the victims, not only of a crime, but of our perverse national habit: We emphasize multicultural propriety more than the welfare of individual human beings."

Minister Kenney has worked hard to strike the right balance between promoting Canadian diversity on the one hand, and identifying the shared requirements and responsibilities of all Canadians on the other.

Sometimes the boundaries are easy to draw. Multiculturalism cannot condone breaking the laws of Canada, which no cultural or religious tradition can excuse. Honour killing is murder. Female genital mutilation is assault. Perpetrators of these crimes must be punished to the full extent of the law. Multiculturalism cannot require us to be tolerant of intolerance. And fear of offending minorities or multicultural sensitivities, at the expense of a child's welfare, is unacceptable.

While criticism of multiculturalism is sometimes warranted, on balance it deserves praise. Jennifer Jackson Preece, author of Minority Rights, understands multiculturalism to mean "that political integration should not be equated with cultural homogenization but should instead seek to recognize the cultural distinctiveness of all members of society while ensuring that they also possess equal citizenship and protection from discrimination."

Jackson Preece's minority rights approach has as a central premise that multiculturalism can make societies more secure. This is because individuals who feel respected by the state may be less likely to undermine its authority and lash out with violence against the government or fellow citizens. It is therefore ironic that multiculturalism is often proposed as a contributing cause of homegrown terrorist radicalization. British writer Patrick West, for instance, notes that "the London suicide bombers of 7 July and the would-be bombers of 21 July 2005 were born and bred in Britain - and encouraged by the state to be different," demonstrating that multiculturalism "has the capacity to be not only divisive but decidedly lethal."

But multiculturalism differs from state to state, and lessons about British multiculturalism may not be entirely applicable to Canada. While both countries prima facie promote multiculturalism and share similar terrorism laws, high immigration rates, and military activities abroad, a curious anomaly remains. Controlling for the difference in population sizes, the rates of Islamist terrorist radicalization are far higher in Britain than in Canada. I believe that the disparity in these radicalization rates may be at least partly related to the differences in the two countries' multicultural policies.

Canadians enjoy a national identity that is bound up with support for multiculturalism, immigration and diversity. The British have not found an identity since the formerly unifying principle of "empire" was discredited and discarded. And according to a 2011 study by LSE Professor Alan Manning, while minorities in Britain appear supportive of multiculturalism, the white majority is not. In contrast, the Canadian people as a whole in 2006 selected multiculturalism as their second highest source of national pride (with democracy placing first).

Canadians are also generally more optimistic about their quality of life, and perceive reasonably good economic conditions and reasonably low rates of racial discrimination, which make the benefits of multiculturalism manifest to them. A 2007 survey, for example, found that Canadian Muslims were "the least likely Muslim minority in any Western country surveyed to express a sense that the bulk of their compatriots are hostile to Islam." All of this is important because according to a 2010 paper on radicalization by Rem Korteweg et al, perceptions of hostility and racism, as well as high levels of unemployment and lack of opportunities, can "reinforce the sensation of disenfranchisement and contribute to radicalization. Extremist Islamism offers these people new meaning."

These two factors -- that people buy into multiculturalism as part of their identity and that they see themselves as materially benefiting from multiculturalism -- appear to generate a sense of belonging and inclusion in the multicultural state, and help reduce radicalization among would-be terrorists. "For many," political psychologist Jerrold Post observes, "belonging to the terrorist group may be the first time they truly belonged, the first time they felt truly significant." When people feel that they are authentically part of the country, the common terrorist rhetoric of "us" versus "them" may have less salience.

New policies like the requirement to remove face coverings during the citizenship oath will continue to generate intense debate. But the fact that this controversy takes place within the context of the highly coveted Canadian citizenship ceremony is actually a good problem. A country's naturalization rate reflects whether immigrants feel a sense of belonging, and Canada's is among the highest in the world. We can take pride in the multiculturalism that has brought us to this point.

Sheryl Saperia is Director of Policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.