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Multicultural Liberals and the Rushdie Affair: A Critique of Kymlicka, Taylor, and Walzer

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 September 2015


This article critically analyzes the work of Will Kymlicka, Charles Taylor, and Michael Walzer, three of the most important contemporary political philosophers writing on issues of multiculturalism. It uses the Rushdie affair, and each theorist's interpretation of it, as the basis for an immanent critique of “multicultural liberalism,” a theory defined by the dual commitment to cultural rights for minority groups and certain core liberal principles, defended in different ways by Kymlicka, Taylor, and Walzer. It is principally concerned with Kymlicka, whose work is one of the most influential attempts to respond to communitarian criticisms that “atomistic” liberalism is inhospitable to community and culture. The article argues that Kymlicka's defense of “multicultural citizenship” is deeply problematic from the perspective of the Rushdie affair. It then considers Taylor and Walzer similarly, as representatives of the communitarian strain of multicultural liberal argument, and likewise finds their positions unconvincing. The article concludes with the suggestion that the Rushdie affair points to a potentially unresolvable tension at the heart of all three attempts to defend multicultural liberalism.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1999

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I am especially grateful to Carole Pateman, who read and commented on successive drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank Anastasia Albanese–O'Neill for her patience and insight, Brian Walker and Andrew Lister for their challenging constructive criticism, and the following for their helpful suggestions: Victor Wolfenstein, the late Richard Ashcraft, Zephyr Lake Frank, Johnathan O'Neill, Catherine Sweet, the four anonymous referees of the manuscript, and the staff and editor at The Review of Politics.

1. Including South Africa, Thailand, and Venezuela.

2. For chronological overviews, see Appignanesi, Lisa and Maitland, Sara, eds., The Rushdie File (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; and Bedford, Carmel, Fiction, Fact and the Fatwa (International Centre Against Censorship, 1994)Google Scholar.

3. The Rights of Minority Cultures, ed. Kymlicka, Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 19 Google Scholar.

4. Ibid.

5. For an overview of the Rushdie Affair in Britain that illustrates the fundamental importance of the book banning issue, see reports from three conferences sponsored by the Commission for Racial Equality: Law, Blasphemy and the Multi–Faith Society; Free Speech; and Britain: A Plural Society (London: CRE, Elliot House, 1990)Google Scholar. For academic discussions of the controversy that stress its importance, see Parekh, Bhikhu, “The Rushdie Affair: Research Agenda for Political Philosophy,” Political Studies 38, no. 4 (1990): 695709 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jones, Peter, “Respecting Beliefs and Rebuking Rushdie,” British Journal of Political Science 20 (1990): 415–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Rushdie, Race, and Religion,” Political Studies 38, no. 4 (1990): 687–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and the essays responding to the controversy in Liberalism, Multiculturalism and Toleration, ed. Horton, John (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. There is a substantial literature on the Rushdie Affair, writ large, including: The Kiss of Judas: Affairs of a Brown Sahib, ed. Anees, Munawar A. (Kuala Lumpur: Quill Publishers, 1989)Google Scholar; The Salman Rushdie Controversy in Interreligious Perspective, ed. Cohn-Sherbok, Dan (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Easterman, Daniel, New Jerusalems: Reflections on Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Rushdie Affair (London: HarperCollins, 1992)Google Scholar; Pipes, Daniel, The Rushdie Affair (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Ruthven, Malise, A Satanic Affair (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990)Google Scholar; Webster, Richard, A Brief History of Blasphemy: Liberalism, Censorship, and ‘The Satanic Verses’ (Suffolk: The Orwell Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

6. Esp., Kymlicka, Will, Liberalism, Community, and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)Google Scholar; and Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

7. Taylor, Charles, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, ed. Gutmann, Amy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 2573 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8. Michael Walzer, “Comment,” in ibid., pp. 99–103.

9. Given its importance to the debate, Kymlicka, Taylor, and Walzer have all discussed the Rushdie affair, making its use as a test case for assessing their positions legitimate.

10. I am aware that this example is particularly American, and that multiculturalism is interpreted and argued about differently in different national contexts. This does not affect my schema, which is meant to draw a categorical distinction between those willing to defend cultural rights (“strong” multiculturalists) and those pursuing other ends, however defined. This is not to say that strong and weak multiculturalism are mutually exclusive terms; strong multiculturalists may also defend some weak multicultural positions (indeed, Kymlicka, Taylor, and Walzer all do). This points to the importance of the distinction, and the reason for my choice of terminology: strong multiculturalists can defend weak multiculturalism simultaneously, not vice versa.

11. Kymlicka, , Liberalism, Community, and Culture, pp. 4, 162 Google Scholar.

12. Ibid., p. 90. See chap. 5, “Taylor's Social Thesis,” pp. 74–99, and chap. 11, “Walzer and Minority Rights,” pp. 220–36.

13. Ibid., pp. 165–67. Rawls, of course, defines “primary goods” as “things that every rational man is presumed to want” in the original position ( Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971], p. 62)Google Scholar.

14. Ibid., p. 172.

15. Kymlicka, , Multicultural Citizenship, pp. 1026, 10Google Scholar. Of course, a country can be both multinational and polyethnic.

16. Ibid., pp. 26–31, 96–97. A “societal culture” is one which “provides its members with meaningful ways of life across the full range of human activities” (p. 76). Kymlicka discusses further the distinction between national minorities and immigrants, and what he sees as immigrants' desire for sociocultural integration in two lectures delivered in 1995, available as States, Nations and Cultures (Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1997)Google Scholar.

17. Ibid., p. 96.

18. Ibid., p. 38.

19. Ibid., p. 7, pp. 31–33. “Special representation rights” are “guaranteed seats for ethnic or national groups within the central institutions of the larger state” (p. 7).

20. Ibid., pp. 152, 80–82, 158. On the fundamental importance of individual autonomy for Kymlicka, see also pp. 75, 154–63; and his Two Models of Pluralism and Tolerance,” Analyse and Kritik 13 (1992): 3356 Google Scholar, where he specifically contrasts “liberal tolerance” with the Ottoman Muslim group–based form of tolerance known as the “millet system,” and criticizes Rawls's more recent work for retreating from a “comprehensive” liberal doctrine based on the value of individual autonomy.

21. Ibid., p. 6.

22. Ibid., pp. 31, 114–15, 114.

23. Ibid., pp. 7, 35–43.

24. Ibid., p. 43.

25. Kymlicka, “Two Models of Pluralism and Tolerance,” p. 39.

26. Modood, Tariq, “Kymlicka on British Muslims,” Analyse and Kritik 15 (1993): 87–91; 88, 8990 Google Scholar. This was followed by Kymlicka's, Reply to Modood,” pp. 9296 Google Scholar, and Modood's, Rejoinder,” pp. 9799 Google Scholar.

27. Akhtar, Shabbir, Be Careful with Muhammad! The Salman Rushdie Affair (London: Bellew Publishing, 1989)Google Scholar.

28. Ibid., pp. 49, 58.

29. Ibid., chap. 3, “The Liberal Inquisition,” pp. 37–63.

30. Ibid., p. 131.

31. Ibid., p. 114.

32. Sardar, Ziauddin and Davies, Merryl Wyn, Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair (London: Grey Seal Books, 1990)Google Scholar.

33. Ibid., p. 268.

34. Ibid., pp. 239, 3, 238–66.

35. Ahsan, M. M. and Kidwai, A. R., eds., Sacrilege versus Civility: Muslim Perspectives on the Satanic Verses Affair (Leicester, United Kingdom: The Islamic Foundation, revised and enlarged edition, 1993)Google Scholar. The terms most frequently used to describe The Satanic Verses in these pages are blasphemous, sacrilegious, offensive, insulting, abusive, hurtful, obscene, libelous, vilificatory, foul, and filthy.

36. For these arguments, see ibid., pp. 36, 38–40, 53–58, 147, 165–71, 176–78, 181, 186–88, 192, 194–98, 204–205, 207, 209, 210–28, 234–35, 238–42, 245, 261, 267–68, 274–76, 323, 327–33 (esp.), 335, 337, 348–49, 353–54, 360–61, 372, 382, 384, 386–87, 394–402.

37. Kymlicka, , “Reply to Modood,” pp. 9394 Google Scholar.

38. Parekh, , “The Rushdie Affair,” pp. 698701 Google Scholar; Modood, , “Kymlicka on British Muslims: A Rejoinder,” p. 97 Google Scholar.

39. Webster, , A Brief History of Blasphemy, pp. 3840 Google Scholar.

40. Appignanesi, and Maitland, , The Rushdie File, p. viii Google Scholar. See also, Levy, Leonard W., Blasphemy: Verbal Offenses Against the Sacred from Moses to Salman Rushdie (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), esp. chap. 27Google Scholar, “The Rushdie Affair: Should All Religions Be Protected or None?” pp. 551–79; and Anees, The Kiss of Judas.

41. Modood, , “Rejoinder,” p. 98 Google Scholar.

42. Modood, , “Kymlicka on British Muslims,” p. 90 Google Scholar.

43. Parekh, , “The Rushdie Affair,” pp. 701702, 701Google Scholar.

44. Muslim commentators consistently rejected “equality before the law” if it meant abolishing the blasphemy law entirely. The UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs referred to this option as “equality in indignity” and dismissed it outright, while Akhtar called it “cold comfort,” leaving Muslims as unprotected as before. See Ahsan, and Kidwai, , Sacrilege versus Civility, pp. 349, 256Google Scholar.

45. I draw on the following: Chaplin, Jonathan, “How Much Cultural and Religious Pluralism can Liberalism Tolerate?” in Horton, , Liberalism, Multiculturalism and Toleration, pp. 3249 Google Scholar; Halbertal, Moshe, “Autonomy, Toleration, and Group Rights: A Response to Will Kymlicka,” in Toleration, ed. Heyd, David (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 106113 Google Scholar; Kukathas, Chandran, “Are There Any Cultural Rights?Political Theory 20, no. 1 (1992): 105139 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Cultural Rights Again: Rejoinder to Kymlicka,” Political Theory 20, no. 4 (1992): 674–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Cultural Toleration,” in Ethnicity and Group Rights, ed. Shapiro, Ian and Kymlicka, Will (New York: New York University Press, 1997), pp. 69104 Google Scholar, Multiculturalism as Fairness: Will Kymlicka's Multicultural Citizenship,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 5, no. 4 (1997): 406427 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lenihan, Don, “Liberalism and the Problem of Cultural Membership: A Critical Study of Kymlicka,” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 4, no. 2 (1991): 401419 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and in the same number, McDonald, Michael, “Should Communities Have Rights? Reflections on Liberal Individualism,” pp. 217–37Google Scholar; Levey, Geoffrey Brahm, “Equality, Autonomy, and Cultural Rights,” Political Theory 25, no. 2 (1997): 215–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Margalit, Avishai and Halbertal, Moshe, “Liberalism and the Right to Culture,” Social Research 61, no. 3 (1994): 491510 Google Scholar; Taylor, Charles, “Can Liberalism Be Communitarian?Critical Review 8, no. 2 (1994): 257–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tomasi, John, “Kymlicka, Liberalism, and Respect for Cultural Minorities,” Ethics 105 (1995): 580603 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Walker, Brian, “Plural Cultures, Contested Territories: A Critique of Kymlicka,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 30, no. 2 (1997): 211–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Williams, Melissa, “Group Inequality and the Public Culture of Justice,” in Group Rights, ed. Baker, Judith (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1994), pp. 3465 Google Scholar, and in the same volume, Green, Leslie, “Internal Minorities and Their Rights,” pp. 100117 Google Scholar.

46. Kymlicka, , Liberalism, Community, and Culture, pp. 168–69Google Scholar.

47. This is not to say, of course, that Muslims were unanimously in favor of banning the book. A small number of intellectuals, in particular, came to Rushdie's defense. (See For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defense of Free Speech [New York: George Braziller, 1994])Google Scholar. This is not surprising, since absolute agreement on free speech criteria does not exist in any culture, whereas broad consensus clearly does. If The Satanic Verses (a book written by a Muslim immigrant) is a sign of cultural hybridity and a reminder to those who would create a monolithic version of Islam, the overwhelmingly negative reaction by Muslims to the novel is a clear indication that we should be still more wary of the current postmodern academic tendency to dismiss attempts at pointing out broad patterns of cultural belief as oppressive exercises in essentialism. On this point, see Friedman, Jonathan, “Global Crises, the Struggle for Cultural Identity and Intellectual Porkbarrelling: Cosmopolitans versus Locals, Ethnics and Nationals in an Era of De–hegemonisation,” in Debating Cultural Hybridity, ed. Weber, Pnina and Modood, Tariq (London: Zed Books, 1997), pp. 7089 Google Scholar; and in the same volume, van der Veer, Peter, “‘The Enigma of Arrival’: Hybridity and Authenticity in the Global Space,” pp. 90–105, esp. pp. 102104 Google Scholar.

48. Kymlicka, , Multicultural Citizenship, chap. 8, esp. pp. 164–65Google Scholar.

49. Kymlicka, , Liberalism, Community, and Culture, pp. 170–71Google Scholar.

50. Kymlicka, , Multicultural Citizenship, pp. 9495 Google Scholar.

51. Consider the following: “Cases involving newly arriving immigrant groups are very different. In these cases, it is more legitimate to compel respect for liberal principles…. I do not think it is wrong for liberal states to insist that immigration entails accepting the legitimacy of state enforcement of liberal principles, so long as immigrants know this in advance, and none the less voluntarily choose to come” (Multicultural Citizenship, p. 170). This remark is repeated, almost verbatim, in Kymlicka, , “The Good, the Bad, and the Intolerable,” Dissent (Summer 1996): 2230, 29Google Scholar.

52. This conclusion is similar to Chandran Kukathas's in his “Multiculturalism as Fairness.”

53. On this theme, see Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg, “The Hidden Politics of Cultural Identification,” Political Theory 22, no. 1 (1994): 152–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54. Taylor, , “The Politics of Recognition,” p. 61 Google Scholar.

55. Ibid., pp. 62–63.

56. Ibid., p. 59.

57. Taylor, Charles, “The Rushdie Controversy,” Public Culture 2, no. 1 (1989): 118–22, 118 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58. Ibid., p. 120.

59. Ibid., p. 121. See also, “The Politics of Recognition,” p. 62.

60. Taylor, , “The Rushdie Controversy,” p. 121 Google Scholar.

61. See most recently Taylor's, A World Consensus on Human Rights?Dissent (Summer 1996): 1521 Google Scholar.

62. See esp., Understanding and Ethnocentricity,” Philosophical Papers 2: Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 116–34Google Scholar; and Explanation and Practical Reason,” Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 3460 Google Scholar. For a discussion of Taylor's cultural relativism that stresses its possibilities as a vehicle for inter-cultural critique, see Rosa, Hartmut, “Cultural Relativism and Social Criticism from a Taylorian Perspective,” Constellations 3, no. 1 (1996): 3960 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63. Taylor, , “Understanding and Ethnocentricity,” pp. 125–26Google Scholar; “The Politics of Recognition,” p. 67.

64. Walzer, Michael, “Comment,” in Multiculturalism, pp. 99103, 99Google Scholar.

65. Ibid., pp. 100–101. See also, Pluralism: A Political Perspective,” in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ed. Thernstrom, Stephen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 781–87Google Scholar. As Kymlicka argues, the fact that Walzer fails to clearly extend his logic to the case of Native Americans and other peoples subject to U.S. expansionism is more than a little curious. See Liberalism, Community, and Culture, n. 2, pp. 235–36; and Multicultural Citizenship, pp. 20–21.

66. Walzer, , “Comment,” p. 103 Google Scholar.

67. Walzer, , “Pluralism: A Political Perspective,” p. 784 Google Scholar.

68. In his most recent book, On Toleration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)Google Scholar, Walzer seems to recognize that his earlier characterization of the intentions of immigrants was inaccurate, at least to the extent it was meant to apply to recent non–Western immigrants. In his discussion of French multicultural issues, Walzer notes of these new groups (especially Muslims): “They have cultures of their own that they want to preserve and reproduce…. They want to be recognized as a group and to be allowed to act out their group identity in public…. The new immigrants, or many of them, seek some version of multiculturalism, though they are mostly not ready for the American version” (p. 40).

It seems also, in conjunction with this recognition, that Walzer, like Kymlicka, is willing to make some allowance for cultural rights for these groups, but only in quite limited cases. While head scarves for French schoolgirls are acceptable (as long as the girls are uncoerced by their parents into wearing them) clitoridectomy (or female genital mutilation) of young African girls is forbidden under all circumstances. At the same time, however, Walzer believes the “subordination of women—manifest in seclusion, bodily concealment, or actual mutilation—is not aimed solely at the enforcement of patriarchal property rights. It also has to do with cultural or religious reproduction” (p. 64). Therefore, “traditionalists” will argue that toleration in multicultural societies requires tolerating different communities' social practices, i.e., that toleration implies a right to communal reproduction. But, Walzer contends: “This right, if it exists, comes into conflict with the rights of individual citizens—which were once confined to men and were therefore not so dangerous, but are now extended to women. It seems inevitable that individual rights will win out in the long run…. Communal reproduction will then be less certain or, at least, it will be realized through processes that yield less uniform results. Traditionalists will have to learn a toleration of their own—for different versions of their own culture or religion” (p. 65). What Walzer fails to mention is the specific character of these new versions of old cultures—they will be liberal or, to use Kymlicka's terms, they will have become “liberalized.” This poses a serious problem for Walzer, given his understanding of justice, as I argue below. The question I am posing is not whether Walzer personally finds particular cultural practices repugnant, but the extent to which his theory of justice provides adequate grounds for criticizing them.

69. Walzer, Michael, “The Sins of Salman,” The New Republic, 10 April 1989, pp. 1315, 14Google Scholar.

70. Ibid.

71. Walzer, Michael, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (Oxford: Martin Robinson, 1983), pp. 314, 313Google Scholar.

72. Ibid., p. 314.

73. Ibid.

74. Ibid., p. 312.

75. Ibid., pp. 26, 315.

76. Ibid., p. 247.

77. Barry, Brian, “Spherical Justice and Global Injustice,” in Pluralism, justice, and Equality, ed. Miller, David and Walzer, Michael (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 6780 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

78. This conclusion is not altered by Walzer's numerous attempts to defend the viability of social criticism from within the framework set forth in Spheres of Justice (see esp., Interpretation and Social Criticism [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987]Google Scholar; The Company of Critics [New York: Basic Books, 1988]Google Scholar; Objectivity and Social Meaning,” in The Quality of Life, ed. Nussbaum, Martha and Sen, Amartya [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993], pp. 165–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thick and Thin [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994])Google Scholar. Responding to heavy criticism, Walzer has attempted to show how (a) social criticism is most effective when it is internal, or intra–community and (b) a “thin moral minimum,” or set of precepts actually shared across cultures, can provide a universal standard of justice. This only goes a small way toward extricating Walzer from the consequences of his conventionalism. As far as (a) is concerned, the role of the social critic for Walzer is to demonstrate how his/her society fails to live up to its “true” values. This means the “real” social consensus inevitably defines the horizon of legitimate dissent, with predictably conservative results. Moreover, the mere existence of a small number of internal social critics in an “illiberal” culture, the moral justness of which Walzer has already accepted, is of little consequence. If the relevant culture in question is not committed to the liberal version of individual autonomy, why should it listen to its internal social critics? Walzer has not provided a convincing response to this question. As concerns (b), I have shown above how a reading of the Muslim literature on the Rushdie affair makes clear that the lack of a “thin” consensus was not the cause of the controversy. Muslims accepted free speech, as an abstract principle, but disagreed completely with Western liberals on its interpretation. What the Rushdie controversy makes evident is that “thin” consensus on abstract principles means little in the absence of “thick” cultural agreement about the meaning of those principles in practice. Absent this “thick” agreement, Walzer is led, ineluctably, back to his original conventionalist position. In short, in cases like the Rushdie affair where cultures actually conflict, Walzer is poorly positioned to take a critical stance on the debate, and his denial of minority cultural rights claims can only seem morally unjust on the basis of his own prior arguments.

79. Walzer, , Spheres of Justice, pp. 3163, 39Google Scholar.

80. The link between liberal autonomy and moral perfectionism is convincingly drawn in Fitzmaurice, Deborah, “Autonomy as a Good: Liberalism, Autonomy, and Toleration,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 1, no. 1 (1993): 116 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Some of the difficulties inherent in attempting to derive a neutral theory of toleration from a commitment to liberal autonomy are suggested by Glen Newey in his discussion of the affair, Rushdie, “ Fatwa and Fiction: Censorship and Toleration,” in Horton, , Liberalism, Multiculturalism and Toleration, pp. 178192 Google Scholar. For an excellent critical discussion of Millian liberalism that stresses its cultural particularity and hostility toward nonliberal ways of life, see Parekh, Bhikhu, “Decolonizing Liberalism,” in The End of ‘Isms’: Reflections on the Fate of Ideological Politics after Communism's Collapse, ed. Shtromas, Alexsandras (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), pp. 85103 Google Scholar.