The following article originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune. James Goldston is executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
"The British multicultural model in crisis," the French newspaper Le Monde trumpeted last week. Many in Britain appeared to agree. Multiculturalism has gone too far, some observers said, leading to "voluntary apartheid" and "separate development" of Britain's increasingly numerous ethnic groups.
The July bombings in London have prompted a wave of criticism of the supposedly sinister role of multiculturalism in alienating—and rendering susceptible to terrorist violence—young male members of Britain's Muslim immigrant communities.
The outcry is leading some British politicians to call into question a commitment to racial tolerance which, with some lamentable exceptions, has distinguished Britain for decades from its European partners. Some of the suggestions they have made are sensible, like scrutinizing more carefully alleged foreign supporters of terrorism who request to enter. Others, however, are divisively counterproductive, such as a proposal that would allow the deportation for vaguely-defined criminal activity of non-citizens to countries where they would be at risk of torture.
Now, overt racial profiling of Asian-looking men by London's Metropolitan Police has begun to spark opposition among many British Muslims, whose support will be important to future counterterrorism efforts.
The notion that excessive tolerance toward ethnic minorities and immigrants has sown the seeds of terrorist violence would be laughable were it not so wrong. To be sure, a policy of "live and let live" may feed alienation when some communities enjoy markedly inferior opportunities for quality education and employment. Fostering enhanced integration of marginalized groups into British society should be a priority. But ending Britain's historic openness to others would be a grave mistake, and would do nothing to address the threat of terrorism.
Terrorism is not confined to countries that promote ethnic diversity; on the contrary, terrorists flourish in societies that suppress legitimate dissent and lack basic institutions of good governance. Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, for example, have witnessed terrorist violence on their soil in recent years.
If the impoverishment and alienation of immigrant youth constitute a security risk (as well as a humanitarian concern), this may reflect not too much multiculturalism, but rather not enough antidiscrimination measures.
Multicultural policies involve a laissez-faire tolerance of ethnic minorities and their cultural practices. By contrast, antidiscrimination policies require more affirmative state engagement to combat acts of violence and exclusion that invidiously target minorities.
For more than three decades, Britain has led Europe in the adoption of antidiscrimination legislation—and to good effect. Persons of color have gained significant status, representation and recognition in journalism, business, and the halls of government. But the persistent ghettoization of minority communities is evidence that more concerted efforts are required to combat prejudice, improve cross-cultural education, provide skills-based employment training and foster genuine economic promise. Loyalty to an adopted nation is instilled more effectively by equal opportunity than by citizenship oaths.
But racial tolerance is not a policy preference exclusive to Britain. A European Union directive mandates that all EU members prohibit and effectively redress discrimination on grounds of racial or ethnic origin. And since 2000, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, has been vigorously overseeing the transposition into national law of this equal treatment principle in all areas of economic and social life.
The lesson is clear: Don't use the very real threat of terrorism to justify shelving more than a quarter century of British achievement in the field of race relations. Combating terrorism is primarily a task for law enforcement and intelligence. To the extent that the roots of terrorism may be found in the disaffection of Muslim or other youth, what is needed is more state action in fostering equal opportunity—not less.
Britain's generally level-headed reason on questions of race make its current shift of course all the more troubling. Throughout much of the world, the British model of enlightened democratic government and liberal thought backed by an independent judiciary committed to the rule of law is rightly admired.
It would be a shame—for Britain and others—were this long-standing tradition to become yet another casualty of the misguided "war on terror."