MULTICULTURALISM ON TRIAL
Perils of the New Imperialism
Professor A. R. Momin
The closing decades of the 20th century witnessed the dawn of the multicultural era, characterised by the salience of cultural diversity and plurality, the coexistence of multiple ethnic and religious groups in most nation-states, and the universal acceptance of the principles of tolerance, peaceful coexistence in a democratic framework, and respect for human rights, including group rights. Multiculturalism has been closely intertwined with the process of globalisation. The great migrations of the post-War period, especially from Asia, Africa and Latin America to Europe and North America, brought about a significant alteration in the demographic and social composition of many Western countries.
The project of modernity assumed that, in the course of time, all ethnic differences and affiliations would be obliterated by the processes of modernisation and secularisation. This, however, did not happen. In fact, from the late 1970s there came about a universal and extraordinary resurgence of ethnic and religious consciousness across the world. Rapid and unprecedented technological advancements, especially in respect of travel, information and communication, have significantly contributed to this universal quest for identity.
Many among the protagonists of multiculturalism assumed that cultural processes have an autonomous reality and momentum of their own, unaffected by larger political currents and the changing international scenario. They fondly maintained that since multiculturalism had gained universal acceptance, it would continue to retain its over-riding importance in the years to come. Unfortunately, their hopes have been belied by the radical transformation of the global scenario following the September 11 attack on the United States.
The new imperialism, represented by the hegemonic designs and unilateralist interventionism of the US and its allies, poses a serious and unprecedented threat to peace, stability and democracy in large parts of the world as well as to the sovereignty and integrity of many countries in Asia and Africa. It has brought about an unfortunate polarisation in the global community. In addition, it has produced adverse consequences for multiculturalism.
The United States ardently believes that its values, institutions and way of life are not only superior to those of other societies but are also universally relevant and applicable. Francis Fukuyama, author of the myopic and much discredited ‘end of history’ thesis, argues that Western (read American) institutions are like the scientific method which, though discovered in the West, have universal applicability. The US also believes, like the colonialists of an earlier era, that it has the moral obligation to carry the torch of civilisation and enlightenment to the dark corners of Asia and Africa. Intoxicated by its victory in Iraq, the US feels no qualms about imposing its values and way of life on other people. This is reflected in a recent statement of the US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld to the effect that any attempt to reconstruct Iraq in the image of Iran will be ruthlessly suppressed. The statement clearly conveys that the destiny of post-Saddam Iraq will be determined, not by the Iraqi people, but in accordance with the goals, priorities and geo-political interests of the US. The US now admits that events in Iraq mark the first step in redrawing the political and strategic map of West Asia. The Bush administration believes that it has the resources to bully or bribe everybody into complying with its dictates.
A snap shot of the new imperialism that is currently in gestation in the corridors of power in the North is provided by Tony Blair’s foreign policy advisor Robert Cooper. The new imperialism, according to him, would allow well-governed Western nations to impose order and stability on the globe. He said, in a brutally frank manner: “We need to revert to rougher methods of an earlier era—force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the 19th century world”.
One of the frequently used terms in the contemporary political discourse is the international community. As with many other terms, there is a huge gap between the literal meaning and the political connotation of the term. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the term international community is actually a euphemism for the US and its allies and clients. This self-defined, spurious “international community” has little or no regard for the perceptions and feelings of the genuine international community. This fact was vividly reflected in the response of the US and its allies to the massive, unprecedented spate of anti-war protests spanning 600 cities across the world, including those in the US and Europe. These protests were brushed aside in a cavalier manner by George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
To some extent, the UN is representative of the international community. The US and its allies brazenly defied its mandate and authority by launching a unilateral offensive against Iraq. Unfortunately, the UN also succumbed to the pressure of the world’s lone super power. Germany, France and Russia, which initially opposed the war, unanimously backed the Security Council resolution 1483, which accorded de facto legitimisation to the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the Anglo-American forces.
Globalisation is a paradoxical phenomenon. On the one hand, it has brought about an enormous amount of homogenisation across the world in respect of economic and political institutions and processes, information and communications technology, entertainment and lifestyle. On the other, it has reinforced and intensified ethnic consciousness and cultural identity. The fact however remains that globalisation is essentially dominated by the Western corporate world, that it serves the economic and geopolitical interests of the North rather than the South, that it has become an instrument of Western control and domination over large parts of the world. It has imperiled the sovereignty and autonomy of quite a few countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America and undermined traditional cultures and ways of life in the Third World.
The history of civilisation reveals that attempts to subjugate and suppress people and forcibly assimilate them into the culture of the dominant groups are doomed to failure in the long run. Large numbers of people across the globe, including the Western world, view the hegemonic, expansionist policies of the US and its allies with resentment and indignation. They feel that the new imperialism casts an ominous shadow over democracy, peaceful coexistence, tolerance and human rights—values that are universally cherished and are enshrined in multiculturalism. One hopes that, in the near future, a massive upsurge of public opinion across the world will stem the tide of tyranny and totalitarianism that threatens to engulf our planet.g
Professor A. R. Momin teaches sociology at the University of Mumbai.