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.