Democracy and Multiculturalism

R. Cohen-Almagor, Editor, Challenges to Democracy: Essays in Honour and Memory of Isaiah Berlin (London: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2000). Chapter 5

30 Pages Posted: 28 Jan 2014

See all articles by Will Kymlicka

Will Kymlicka

Queen's University

Raphael Cohen-Almagor

Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies; Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Middle East Study Centre; University of Hull

Date Written: July 26, 2000


One of the most pressing issues facing liberal democracies today is the politicisation of ethnocultural diversity. Minority cultures are demanding greater public recognition of their distinctive identities, and greater freedom and opportunity to retain and develop their distinctive cultural practices. In response to these demands, new and creative mechanisms are being adopted in many countries for accommodating these differences. This chapter discusses some of the issues raised by these demands, focusing in particular on the difficulties, which arise in North America and Israel when the minority seeking accommodation is illiberal.

Historically, liberal democracies have hoped that the protection of basic individual rights would be sufficient to accommodate ethnocultural minorities. And indeed the importance of individual civil and political rights in protecting minorities cannot be underestimated. Freedom of association, religion, speech, mobility, and political organisation enable individuals to form and maintain groups and associations, to adapt these groups to changing circumstances, and to promote their views and interests to the wider population.

However, it is increasingly accepted that these common rights of citizenship are not sufficient to accommodate all forms of ethnocultural diversity. In some cases, certain ‘collective’ or ‘group-differentiated’ rights are also required. And indeed there is a clear trend within liberal democracies toward the greater recognition of such group-differentiated rights. Yet this trend raises a number of important issues, both theoretical and practical. How are these group rights related to individual rights? What should we do if group rights come into conflict with individual rights? Can a liberal democracy allow minority groups to restrict the individual rights of their members, or should it insist that all groups uphold liberal principles? These are genuinely difficult questions. Ethnocultural relations are often full of complications, which defy simple categories or easy answers. However, we can make some progress if we draw some distinctions between different kinds of groups, and different kinds of ‘group rights’. In this essay we first make a distinction between two forms of cultural pluralism: multination states and polyethnic states, and then make a further distinction between internal restrictions and external protections. The concept of internal restrictions concerns the rights of a group against dissenting members of the same group; whereas the concept of external protections concerns the rights of a group against the society at large. We proceed by probing the nature of liberal tolerance and then delineate the limits of state intervention.

Keywords: culture, multiculturalism, liberalism, tolerance, diversity, pluralism

JEL Classification: J78, Z00

Suggested Citation

Kymlicka, Will and Cohen-Almagor, Raphael and Cohen-Almagor, Raphael, Democracy and Multiculturalism (July 26, 2000). R. Cohen-Almagor, Editor, Challenges to Democracy: Essays in Honour and Memory of Isaiah Berlin (London: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2000). Chapter 5, Available at SSRN:

Will Kymlicka

Queen's University ( email )

Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6

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Raphael Cohen-Almagor (Contact Author)

Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies ( email )

Box 117
Lund, SC Skane S221 00
+46 46 2227464 (Phone)

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Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars ( email )

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Middle East Study Centre ( email )

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University of Hull ( email )

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Hull, Great Britain HU6 7RX
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