Multiculturalism in the Nordic countries

The term multiculturalism is treacherously ambiguous. Sometimes it refers to the mere fact of cultural diversity, but usually it means a degree of respect and political recognition of cultural difference within a polity, in other words a kind of ideological stance.

2019.02.11 | Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Continuum: assimilationism to multiculturalism?

At one end of an imagined continuum, one may posit a society which insists that there is but one national culture, language, religion and way of life, and that all citizens or permanent residents should be loyal to it – that is, an extreme version of French republicanism or assimilationism.

At the other end, one may think of a society whose leaders insist that each culture has its values, its morality, its religious beliefs, its family structure and so on, and that nobody has the right to interfere with them – that is, an extreme form of multiculturalism. No liberal society subscribes a hundred per cent to either view. There are thus varying degrees of multiculturalism.

The dilemma of cultural pluralism faced by all Western societies (and quite a few non-Western ones) is this: On the one hand, a society needs a minimum of shared values, and its inhabitants must have something in common, for it to cohere at all. On the other hand, it is generally acknowledged that these societies have oppressed cultural minorities in the past (Jews, Sami etc.), that religious freedom is a constitutional right, and that retaining and nurturing a cultural identity is a human right, even if it happens to be different from that of the majority. The dilemma consists in finding a balance between these two contradictory principles.

Until the 1980s, questions of employment and ethnic discrimination were the chief issues discussed in Nordic politics and public spheres. Since then, a marked culturalisation of the debate has taken place, and increasingly, controversies have dealt with issues such as the role of Islam in a liberal Western society, the liberation of women, arranged (and enforced) marriage, female circumcision (aka gender mutilation) and so-called radicalisation or increased support for militant Islamist movements such as Daesh/ISIS or al-Qaeda.

Hijab debate

One recurrent issue in the 2000s has concerned, as elsewhere in Western Europe, the hijab or headscarf used by an increasing number of Muslim immigrant women. The question raised was whether the hijab was an instrument of patriarchal oppression or a voluntary marker of identity. No matter which answer one might be partial to, the rise of the hijab in Western Europe, including the Nordic countries, indicates that full assimilation of minorities is unlikely, and that models of the nation which incorporate enduring cultural differences are necessary. Other controversies concern gender equality, which is seen as a non-negotiable value by many people in the Nordices, whereas complementarity between men and women is common in many immigrant groups. Similarly, norms and principles pertaining to the socialisation of children vary between societies, and in central European countries, there have been widespread concerns about the ostensible tendency of the Nordic state to place children in foster families if the parents fail to conform to the strict societal norms.

Private and public sphere debate  

Often, policymakers and experts argue that cultural diversity in the domestic sphere is acceptable, while equality (and, by implication perhaps, similarity) is necessary in the public sphere. However, the boundary between private and public is difficult to draw unequivocally, as witnessed in debates over arranged marriages and domestic violence. Moreover, it is sometimes said that multiculturalist tolerance ends where transgressions of human rights begin. Recent experiences nonetheless show that different human rights may contradict each other, so that the right to belong to a community may conflict with the right to belong to greater society. Group rights have also been discussed in this context; however, all the Nordic countries have declined offering rights to groups. Rights to cultural difference are accorded to individuals, who are given the option to choose, at least in theory.

Generally, Denmark has chosen a more assimilationist policy since the turn of the millennium than the other Scandinavian countries, insisting on the full loyalty of its inhabitants. Sweden, by contrast, has concentrated its efforts on matters of employment and education, leaving minorities the possibility, or burden, of retaining their cultural traditions if feasible. Possibly because of the cultural obsession with equality, often meaning gender equality, many of the Nordic debates about ethnic minorities concern women’s place in society, and in particular the position of Muslim women, even if less than half of the people belonging to ethnic minorities are in fact Muslims.

Research by Canadian scholars has indicated that Scandinavian policies are not very multiculturalist in the sense of tolerating deep and wide cultural diversity, but have concentrated on promoting equality instead.

Further reading:

  • Grete Brochmann, ed., The Multicultural Challenge (Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2003)
  • Keith Banting and Will Kymlicka, eds., Multiculturalism and the Welfare State: Recognition and Redistribution in Contemporary Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • Synnøve Bendixsen, Mary Bente Bringslid and Halvard Vike, eds., Egalitarianism in Scandinavia: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (London: Palgrave, 2018)