Sunday, August 14, 2005

What is multiculturalism?

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In the wake of the July 7th bombings, many have felt the need to question the role of multiculturalism in Britain. I perchanced across this Naomi Klein quote online that struck a chord with me:

"... the brand of multiculturalism practiced in Britain (and France, Germany, Canada ... ) has little to do with genuine equality. It is instead a Faustian bargain, struck between vote-seeking politicians and self-appointed community leaders, one that keeps ethnic minorities tucked away in state-funded peripheral ghettoes while the centers of public life remain largely unaffected by seismic shifts in the national ethnic makeup."

I don't agree that diversity in British communities simply comprises of ethnic minorities crowded into state funded council homes. I'd like to think we have more social mobility... with universal access to higher education and, in turn, a wide range of job opportunities. But, Klein's tone, in so far as she characterizes our sense of diversity in the UK as being romanticized, certainly resonates at a time when we have been attacked from within by young, British born Arab men, and many in the press, and in the blogosphere, have sought to attack the concept of multiculturalism.

In London, it is easy to romanticize the vast ethnicity and lack of overt divisiveness. It is, after all, one of the most apparent characteristics of the city. Traveling throughout Underground trains, historical landmarks, the busy high streets, and small roadways, you'll encounter people from every different corner of the globe, speaking different languages, and appearing to cohabitate peacefully. However, in my opinion, there is a difference between this vast ethnicity of London, and the widely held perception of its multicultural identity.

What is multiculturalism in an age where culture itself is receding into the periphery of our self-perceptions? Hasn't culture, as a consequence of our economically liberalized societies, fragmented into nothing more than transient, commercially driven phenomena? Has anyone watched one of those VH1 retrospectives recently? Where the "Pac Man" computer game defines the 80's and the O.J. Simpson trial defines the 90's, interspersed by a few notable Coca-Cola adverts, Britney Spears, and the Madonna "Sex" Book. Is it really our religiosity that defines and separates us in 2005?

Is multiculturalism simply a reference to the breadth of our ethnicity, or does it mean for us to have separate cultures and ways of life, thriving, delineated, and apart? Is it multicultural for two boys the same age, one Islamic, and the other Christian to both be Eminem fans, or support the same football team, or like the same clothes, and watch the same TV shows?

There is no question that the way in which communities have isolated themselves in London and other parts of the UK has contributed to the threat we are now faced with. But, I don't think that is an inherent of the multicultural society that many of us in London embrace and are proud of. In fact, those who attack multiculturalism seem to do so for its pretense of inclusivity... and yet in the aftermath of the bombings our impenetrable togetherness and unity has been the city and nation's greatest strength, characterized once again by a recent poll of UK Muslims in which they say Britain is becoming less racially intolerant and that, most impressively, 90% of UK Muslims feel proud to be British, and celebrate when our sporting individuals and teams are successful.

Yes, we have a value system which underpins our laws that must be universally adhered to. But, we should never seek to define ourselves, first and foremost in terms of a particular lifestyle, religion, or historical tradition. The common cause that will combat the small divisive extreme elements of our society is not nationhood, or citizenship, as some have suggested, but our togetherness, sharing this small island, interdependent, and free. It's that, on a fundamental level, we see each other not as what differentiates and separates us, but, instead, by what we all share and have in common.

It is easy to attack diversity at a time like this. It is harder to elaborate upon a vision of society that would be more peaceful for all of its inhabitants.



Eban said...

Great, well thought out post as always!

I think that what you are describing is a knee-jerk reaction that will hopefully calm down over time. People tend to look for quick fixes and answers at times like these. It happened after 9/11. Look at the mess that came after Madrid when the whole populace went coward.

There are a couple of points though.

I do agree with Tony Blair on the radical leaders like Bakri needing to be held accountable for their words. I think that many people confuse this with multiculturism when in fact this is more about rule of law and effects individual persons, not groups as a whole. It is people like Bakri that fuel the knee-jerk reactions as people tend to paint things with a wide brush rather than see the details, as you do.

The other point is not really related to your article, so forgive me. It has to do with the birthrate problem and how the population seems to be shifting in Europe as a whole due to the indigenous inhabitants not being able to sustain the population growth which is supplemented with immigrants.

I believe that is a true problem as cultures are in danger of being irreversably damaged. It is weird, if we speak out about changing the culture of the immigrants we are intolerant and ignorant. If the immigrants however come in and change our culture, that is a good and tolerable thing. I do believe that my American, the English, and the rest of the European cultures deserve the same protection while living side by side and moving forward with the immigrants. The peaceful immigrants that is.

Truth is, most Muslims that I have come into contact with seem to be great people and I get along with them. All except for one that I wrote about in my blog before. I think even more distrust comes from the fact that those same words could probably have been used to desribe the 7/7 bombers before that tragic date.

What a tough topic you bring up my freind.

Have a great day Graham!

Orikinla Osinachi. said...

As a Nigerian with cosmopolitan traits and have been engaged in multicultural relationships, I can comment on the topic.

Most of the Africans and Arabs in the UK were opportunists who fled or left their undeveloped and poor countries for greener pastures in the Western World. And they did not come to the UK, because they love the English people. And most of their relationships and marrriages to the bona fide British citizens were in their desperation for the Green Card and other mandatory documents for their "marriage of convenience" with the British. Because, if you research the anti-social and criminal characteristics of these legal and illegal immigrants, you would be convinced that they don't love their hosts. They only pretend to love you in order to gain what they cannot do without as your guests, because they are at the mercies of the bona fide citizens.

Personally, I can relate with the subject since I know thousands of Nigerians thronging the Visa Sections of the British High Commission and other European embassies cheating, lying, bribing, impersonating and stealing in their desperation to procure your Visas to flee from the poverty in Nigeria.

Therefore, you must review and overhaul your immigration laws and other procedures for naturalization and citizenship to save the future of your great civilization from multicultural corruptions and pollutions.

May God help to separate the goats from the sheep.

If you don't get rid of your enemies, your enemies will get rid of you.

All the Muslims in the UK should not be trusted, because they are living according to their Islamic Laws and they regard their religion first above British Laws.

NYgirl said...

While I do agree with the nessacity to be inclusive & open, I must confess that the concerns articulated by Eban & Orikilina do weight heavily on my mind also.

There does need to be assimilation through the knowledge of the language of the country (I don't now if this is a problem in Britian. It is one in the US), as well as it's history.

In America we are finding that less & less of our history is being taught in favor of a multicultural education curriculum which teaches about anything but America, except the bad things.

Graham said...

Well I have to be honest and say that I do not think we must distrust all UK Muslims. At times like this, when we are grappling as a society with vast sociological issues like the causes of Islamic terrorism, we are particularly susceptible to vast generalizations that aren't in actual fact reflective of reality. The way Muslims generally feel in the UK, and the extent to which they pridefully associate themselves with our country is explicitly detailed in the poll I referenced in my post. I think while the actions of a very small minority give us cause to analyze multiculturalism, so should the attitudes and positive contribution of the larger majority.

Immigration into the UK is such a contentious issue predominantly because we are such a small island with such a large population. We are very densely populated and that puts a particular strain on housing, transportation, and access to public services. One of the things we need to confront in the UK is the long term development of a society which is around 1/20 or less the size of the United States, with about 1/5 the size of its population... most of whom are centered around the south east.

The importance for culture and tradition to remain as fundamental parts of our national character is absolutely paramount, in the US and UK, but, I don't think the major threat to this is immigrant communities practising their own brand of culture and tradition. In fact, those cultures are just as threatened by what in actuality has caused our tradition, history, and social conventions to recede... our liberal, explosive, commercially driven economy. Culture is constantly redefined by modernity, and modernity is currently defined by iconclastic brand names, the media, and our rapid technological progress. I'm not saying it is neccesarily a bad thing... self determination, and consumerism is a facet of our free societies. The role of traditional culture in continental Europe is usually retained by quite pervasive protectionist measures, protecting agriculture, and restricting and crafting building and developments, amongst many other things.

Thanks for all your thoughts everybody :)

Alice: In Wonderland or Not said...

I certainly can't address British concerns. I don't feel in the US at least not where I grew up that our history was neglected in order to give us a broader view of world culture, we had both. I do think that overall the Muslims that I know from the US are actually very wealthy people and statistically in Europe the young Muslim men are not necessarily of the same economic class as the general population often leading in and of itself to problems. It is easy to be led when one is economically struggling.
Culture is not necessarily redefined. A person, just due to the sheer overload it would cause otherwise, does end up choosing, that is the way of it. In this case it is not just culture but the socioeconomic situation of many of these young Muslims. It doesn’t matter how nice everyone feels about living on a little island it is not going to be the answer.

Graham said...

I agree to an extent, in terms of the economic causes. Young, unemployed Arab men are certainly ripe and susceptible to exploitation by ideologists and extremists. This is certainly true in white communities also, with the prominence of the British National Party and other far right groups in some of the nation's poorest communities.

But, just to be clear, it wasn't my point to argue a potential remedy for confronting and defeating terrorism... so far as it was an exploration of the way in which being violently attacked from within has made the UK begin to dramatically re-assess its self perceptions as a successful multicultural society.

And, I think the means by which we make those types of judgments are flawed. I do believe that the traditional cultural influences are receding... I don't understand how this can be disputed? But, more importantly, what unites us in the UK is so explicitly shared by the majority of British people, as identified in the poll I referenced. In the aftermath of an attack which in Madrid caused such anger and vitriol, I am very proud by the way we have remained united.

FYI, if you're interested, for my views on confronting terrorism I'd recommend checking out: Why did the terrorists atack?

Islamic terrorism is not simply a consequence of socioeconomics IMO.

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