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Public debate: Multiculturalism at its limits?

"Multiculturalism undermines the very opportunity that diversity offers: to enter into a dialogue about citizenship." In the fifth debate in Eurozine's series "Europe talks to Europe", Kenan Malik and Fero Sebej discussed an issue back at the top of the European political agenda.

Multiculturalism, up to now the default strategy in western Europe to manage cultural diversity, is increasingly under attack both from the anti-immigrant Right as well as the pro-Enlightenment Left. In the fifth debate in the series "Europe talks to Europe", held in Bratislava on 30 September, British writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik met Slovak journalist and politician Fero Sebej to discuss whether multiculturalism has reached its limits. The event was co-hosted by Eurozine, the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts and the journal Kritika & Kontext, in cooperation with the ERSTE Foundation.

A distinction needs to be made between multiculturalism as "lived experience" of diversity and multiculturalism as a political programme, began Malik. He defined multiculturalism as the "institutionalization of ethnic and cultural difference", or "policy predicted on the ethnic box to which one belongs". The opportunity to break out of these cultural and ethnic boxes and to enter into a dialogue about citizenship is precisely why diversity is to be welcomed, yet it is also the very thing that multiculturalism undermines. How did it end up this way?

The notion of multiculturalism is irrational, continued Malik: it posits a society in which cultures relate to one another externally, and where diversity ends at the edges of minority communities. Yet the idea that communities are internally homogenous is absurd. This is a fairly new development: being "black" in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s was a political rather than an ethnic-cultural identity. Back then there was no such thing as a "Muslim community", which is a creation of multicultural policies.

Slovak society is not multicultural but multi-ethnic, said Fero Sebej: in terms of cultural patterns, religious faith or attitudes towards authority, nothing separates the ethnic Hungarian minority from the Slovak majority. Still, racism does exist, above all towards the Roma. The Roma, he said, must be encouraged to believe that the Slovak state is their state; Slovaks need to treat the Roma as "one of us". Malik saw the problem being not so much that the Roma feel excluded from Slovak society, but that majority society sees them as a distinct group. Rather than giving them rights based on group affiliation, Roma should be treated as individual citizens.

The debate then moved to the question as to how far the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has thrown the multiculturalist approach into question. Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction to political corruption in Islamic nations, said Sebej: modernizing movements failed to provide their citizens with the fruits of modernity and instead developed into authoritarian-style regimes. The only place for resistance and opposition has been the mosque. Nevertheless, the decision to oppose modernity in the form of the West is a sign of weakness.

The fact that Islamic extremists cite the Koran in justification of their violent actions tells us nothing either about the Koran or about fundamentalists' real motivations, added Malik. Fundamentalism tends to be seen as a "traditional" form of religion when in fact it breaks with tradition. Literalist interpretations of the scriptures – here Malik was talking as much about Christian fundamentalism as its Islamic counterpart – is a result of the fragmentation of religion and its institutions' loss of authority. Meanwhile, global scandals like that over the Mohammed cartoons confers upon fundamentalists a spurious moral authority.

The dangers of free speech are exaggerated, he continued: the real threat is not Islamism, but the idea that it is morally wrong to give offence. The argument has become almost axiomatic that in a plural society we need a greater restraint of free speech in order to minimize friction and encourage respect. But it is because we live in plural society that we need the most robust defence of free speech possible. A ban on giving offence is wrong in principle: free speech becomes important only at the point at which it includes the right to express bigoted opinions. A ban is also wrong in practice: legislating against causing offence only forces hate speech underground. Racism and bigotry need to be out in the open in order to be confronted.

On the other hand, no law is necessary that would make threats to free speech illegal. Arguments in favour of "tolerating" the Swiss minaret ban are nonsense, according to Malik: if we stand up for freedom, we also stand up for the freedom of everybody, including the freedom of worship. Censorship always serves those in power, he reminded the audience, while it is the powerless that benefit from free speech.

Among the questions from the audience was one that referred to the recent Swedish election results, which saw the far-right Sweden Democrats enter parliament for the first time. The situation has brought to light the failure of "respectable" party politics to respond to xenophobic movements: they are either beyond the pale or incorporated – or both at once. Again, Malik located the crux of the problem in the discourse of multiculturalism itself, which turns racism into another form of diversity: the identity-oriented language of the far-Right is borrowed from multiculturalism. The Left is to blame for having developed a particularist approach, where certain values are seen to be more suitable for some than for others. We must regain the universalist aspirations of an Enlightenment-style public sphere, he concluded.

A full text based on the discussion will appear in Eurozine soon.

More on the series Europe talks to Europe, a collaboration with the ERSTE Foundation


Published 2010-10-01

Original in English
© Eurozine

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