Extreme Multiculturalism: The Root of Evil?

By Sayomi Ariyawansa | 24 Oct 14

A fear of homegrown terrorism has put national identity in focus again.

Kevin Donnelly is the founder of Education Standards Institute, an organisation which favours an education system based on a commitment to Christian beliefs and values. He was selected by Education Minister Christopher Pyne to review the Australian national curriculum. In the wake of the increased fears of disenfranchised Australian youths joining Islamic terrorist movements such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Kevin Donnelly wrote an article lamenting the influx of cultural relativism into the classroom. According to Donnelly, this “postmodern, deconstructed belief that it is impossible to discriminate and to argue that some cultural practices are unacceptable” is a contributing factor to why a “radicalised few … born and who have grown up here … place allegiance to foreign, terrorist ideologies before a commitment to being Australian.”

 “We are now a multicultural nation where people who are not of

Anglo-Celtic descent can nonetheless celebrate their own unique identities.”

So – how does one teach what it means to be Australian? How can we take steps to prevent the “radicalised few” from being lured into the fold of the Islamic State?


Donnelly recalls schooldays filled with saluting the Australian flag and singing God Save the Queen, and notes that the tides have now turned. Where we were once nationalistic and pro-British, we are now a multicultural nation where people who are not of Anglo-Celtic descent can nonetheless celebrate their own unique identities. Consequently, Donnelly argues, successive governments spent millions resourcing schools to celebrate diversity and difference with the result that saluting the flag is now jingoistic, and British settlement is now described as invasion.

All this has led Donnelly to conclude that we must jettison “extreme” multiculturalism which (apparently) champions the view that all cultures are equal, and embraces tolerance and respect – to the point where it is impossible to discriminate between cultures and argue that some beliefs or practices are un-Australian.

Donnelly then observes:

“[f]orcing child brides to marry, female circumcision, refusing to accept the division between church and state and believing that anyone not of your religion or faith doesn’t deserve to live are cultural practices that Australians reject.”

These spectres of “diversity” according to Donnelly fail the pub or barbeque test, the test of the “ordinary” Australian.

Although Donnelly closes with the benign comment that celebrating cultural diversity and difference is only feasible “when there is a willingness to commit to and protect the values and beliefs that underpin and sustain tolerance and accepting others” (a sentiment few, including the most fervent proponents of a multicultural community, would argue against) his article is riddled with fallacies.


The concept of “extreme” multiculturalism is odd. Donnelly conceptualises it as a worldview which maintains that all cultures are equal.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that “multiculturalism” refers to a body of thought about how to address cultural and religious diversity, and that while mere tolerance of group differences falls short, recognition and accommodation of group differences are required.

Taken to its extreme, multiculturalism is not about the equality of cultures. Rather, it is about the recognition and accommodation of other cultures. There is no prohibition against critiquing a particular cultural practice, or having a particular opinion about its value to society. Instead, multiculturalism is a concept that encourages thought and appreciation for the variances between different groups of people.

Importantly, it also encourages us to consider the barriers which different groups may face, particularly if they are not representative of the “dominant” or majority group.

Tolerance is, to an extent, a necessary corollary of multiculturalism. This is perhaps why Donnelly mixed up the concept of multiculturalism with cultural relativism, but the two are not interchangeable ideas.

Cultural relativism, in the context of human rights, it is the assertion that human values vary depending on different cultural perspectives. It is a concept which is often used to deny or challenge the universality of human rights.

“Multiculturalism exists within the universal human rights framework,

and this tempers and shapes how we recognise and accommodate group differences within our community.”

Multiculturalism, as noted above, is about the recognition and accommodation of group differences, but says nothing about the inherent value of particular group differences. Moreover, multiculturalism fits squarely within the universal human rights framework that a cultural relativist would argue should not exist in the first place. Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, for example:

“In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.”

Critically, multiculturalism does not exist in a vacuum. Multiculturalism exists within the universal human rights framework, and this tempers and shapes how we recognise and accommodate group differences within our community.

Multiculturalism is not a basis for the proposition that all cultures are equal to the extent, for example, that we cannot reject female circumcision as Donnelly suggests. Child marriage and female circumcision, as well as refusing to accept the division between church and state, and believing that anyone not of your religion or faith doesn’t deserve to live are not merely cultural practices that Australians reject – they are contrary to basic human rights.

They are not examples of “diversity”. It is not the case that advocates of multiculturalism must also tolerate breaches of human rights.


As a migrant, perhaps I am quick to defend multiculturalism in the face of comments disparaging its value or distorting the concept altogether. However, issues surrounding the idea of social cohesion and integration often place too much importance on the nebulous concept of culture while ignoring other considerations.

Like many others who are migrants or children of migrants, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be part of “Team Australia.” As someone who is university educated, who pays taxes and who, according to many well-meaning Australians over the years speak “good English”, I’m sure I’d get the pat on the head for being a good little migrant success story.

But these measures of integration don’t stem purely or even predominantly from being “Australian” or being “Sri Lankan” or being not quite both at the same time. These measures of my integration are a consequence of many factors, from socio-economic to familial, and to a great extent because my parents and I were welcomed to this country so warmly to begin with.

National identity is a spurious concept when it comes to the lure of terrorism to those “radicalised few”. We must guard against opportunistic attempts by cultural warriors to return to the good old days of singing God Save the Queen. In reality, it is meaningless to blame concepts like multiculturalism, as Kevin Donnelly does, as a “contributing factor” to explain why a few Australians choose to fight as jihadists abroad. A person’s identity and their personal choices are never informed by concepts of culture alone – nor is multiculturalism a singular force in society to the exclusion of other barriers to social cohesion. We cannot be trapped into ignoring other factors which are essential to achieving the normative measures of integration into Australian society.

Using the increased terrorist threat as an opportunity to tear down the value of multiculturalism in Australia, as Donnelly has done, is misguided at best. At worst, it creates further social division, uncertainty and discord in our community. We must not allow the concept of multiculturalism to be co-opted by those who mislead us about what it means. We must guard against any attempt to prevent us from embracing, critiquing and engaging with diversity and difference, both cultural and otherwise.

Sayomi Ariyawansa is a Melbourne lawyer. She has volunteered with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, interned in the New York Office of Human Rights First and previously worked for the Victorian Department of Justice. She is currently on the committee for the Global Ideas Forum.