Illusive Mind

The Unquestionable should be questioned

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The End of Multiculturalism?


The London bombings have provoked some commentators to contemplate the death of multiculturalism. That the generosity and respect extended to the polyglot of cultures in the UK has resulted in the safe-haven of extremists who were allowed to preach their radical views and carry out these horrid acts of terrorism.

In Time to set some limits, Pamela Bone writes:

It was not supposed to be like this. The idea was that tolerance and liberalism towards migrants would in turn make migrants tolerant and good citizens. Instead, Britain became a haven for terrorists. Did the bomb blasts in the London Underground mark the death of multiculturalism?

In A betrayal of trust, Tony Parkinson writes:

The compact under multiculturalism is that each community within a society must have the freedom to sustain its own identity, traditions and culture. But there is a quid pro quo and that involves universal acceptance of a broad system of shared values.

Hence, multiculturalism, in this country and elsewhere, is at a moment of truth. The drift from melting-pot altruism into salad-bowl separatism has morphed into something more sinister: the existence within Western cultures of a hostile religious sect that renounces absolutely the principles on which our societies are structured.

So just what is multiculturalism and is it under threat by radical Moslems?

Multiculturalism is one way of dealing with the cultures of immigrants into a state. It is in contrast to ‘monoculturalism’ which demands all immigrants to assimilate, to integrate and make their way of life the pre-existing culture of the nation as identified by its government.

Multiculturalism instead is the view that it is permissible that cultures of immigrants and others should be preserved. This can be done in a variety of ways such as language schools, ethnic housing and administrative policies of the government such as providing government documentation in languages relative to the various communities.

A third view is the “Melting Pot”, whereby a heterogeneous society does not preserve or place importance on any one culture over another resulting in the mixing and assimilation of all cultures resulting in a society without distinctive sub-cultures unlike the ‘salad-bowl’ of multiculturalism.

So if preserving the ‘cultural mosaic’ means respecting a mosque’s or a church’s or a school’s ability to instill hatred and extremism into its followers, it may be too high a price to pay, right?

I think before you can reasonably answer that question you have to pinpoint exactly what you mean when you are talking about culture.

In ‘Culture’ from Keywords Raymond Williams, academic, novelist and critic, writes:

Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. This is so partly because of its intricate historical development, in several European languages, but mainly because it has not come to be used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible (emphasis added) systems of thought.

Williams goes on to chart the etymological development of the word and its varying means from anthropological to literary discourse.

Perhaps the way in which the term is used to denote ‘muticulturalism’ can best be elucidated by the famous anthropologist, Clifford Geertz:

Culture is "an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life"

We are talking about the customs, patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought that are socially transmitted by a people. Culture may be something which is hardest to identify in isolation but is readily visible when framed in opposition to an alternate culture.

More ambiguity is apparent when we look at the how this polysemous word is used to describe and define such a wide range of supposedly discrete groups. Be it the culture of a specific ethnic group, Greek culture, or a of a group of people with a specific attitude gun culture or ideology counter-culture or hobby/ interest cyber-culture. Socially transmitted patterns can occur on very macrocosmic and very microcosmic scales, as such any attempt to clearly define a culture is going to result in some generalisation and stereotyping.

So herein lies the problem when describing the culture of the terrorists of ‘September Eleven’ of the ‘London Bombings’. We can describe a culture of terrorism which might include direct action protesters of various and even opposing persuasions, called ‘freedom-fighters’ by their supporters. We can describe a culture of radicalism and extremism which would include the fanatics on the fringes of many religious and secular hate groups. We can describe a culture of Islamic extremists which describes only those radicals taught that killing and terrorizing ‘the enemy’ is the way of Allah. Or we can describe Islamic extremism as simply of sub-culture of Islam where it germinates and lump all those peoples together under one label.

As you can see it is very precarious to call something a “cultural problem”. The Australian Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs has recently been spotlighted for its own cultural problems, cited as having a “cowboy culture”, a “cover-up culture”, a “hard-line culture” and a “cold-hearted culture”.

When talking about multiculturalism in Australia are we talking about preserving the mosaic of these kinds of cultures? No, of course not, it is about allowing people who have immigrated here to preserve some of their national identity by not forcing them to loose their language and their customs. The extent to which we accept foreign customs has always been limited by the laws of the host country, with an ideal of allowing that much freedom that does not encroach on other’s freedom.

So when commentators suggest that preachers inciting children to violence and suicide is a threat to multiculturalism they are making a grave error. Violent extremism of any kind is a threat to the safety of a country’s citizens, and whilst we can describe this as a kind of culture to do so risks lumping this ideology in with the ethnic culture of Islam and Arabs which has been a commonality between the Bali, London and September Eleven terrorists.

There is room in Liberal Democracies for the existence of groups that “renounces absolutely the principles on which our societies are structured.” The freedom to criticize our core values is one of our core values. There is room for a hatred for government policies which take a people to a war that they disagree with. This is room for religious customs that ask for the devotion of their followers.

What there is no room for in any free society is an extremism that violates that freedom, the freedom of a majority or minority. This applies to members of the KKK that lynch black people, to Timothy McVeigh followers who believe killing innocent people is an acceptable way to protest against the authority of a government. This applies to suicide bombers who think killing people is god’s mission.

We have every right to be intolerant of these socially transmitted patterns and should do what is within our power to root them out. To describe this as a cultural problem of Islam is to forget the history of the fringes of all religious groups. And it is to simply pick a more easily identifiable category to target our attentions.

Religion and ethnic culture is a great way to protect extremists views by hiding them behind a banner of religious freedom and cultural respect, but this demands our insight to listen to the moderates who distinguish between respectable religious beliefs and vile distortions of Islam masquerading as the word of Allah.

So by all means close down the mosques or churches or schools that teach and incite extremism, but it is only our intolerance and short-sightedness that will threaten the end of multiculturalism.



Post a Comment

<< Home