Multiculturalism on Trial


Multiculturalism, as a distinctive model for the management of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity, emerged in the West in the wake of the great migrations of the post-War period. Canada and Sweden were the first nations to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy in the 1970s. Subsequently, many European countries followed suit. The process of globalization brought about a good deal of exposure to ethnic and religious diversities as well as inter-cultural sensitivity, thanks to large-scale international migrations, modern information and communication technologies, and the intermingling of people from different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.

There came about a growing disenchantment with multiculturalism in the closing decade of the 20th century. The events that unfolded in the aftermath of 9/11, the Madrid train bombing in 2004, the terrorist attack on London in July 2005, the racial violence in Sydney in December 2005, and the rioting and vandalism on the streets of Paris in November 2005 engendered a good deal of discussion and debate about the future of multiethnic societies and about multiculturalism as a viable model of societal integration.

Ideally, multiculturalism entails a set of value-orientations, including equality, an ungrudging recognition and acceptance of ethnic and cultural diversity, sensitivity towards the beliefs and sentiments of others, and respect for human rights, including group-differentiated and community-specific rights. Unfortunately, these ideals and principles find only a partial reflection in the policies and functioning of Western countries. In most Western countries, immigration and cultural diversity have become sites of intense contestation. By and large, the immigrants are faced with widespread discrimination, lack of legal security, unclear citizenship status and institutionalized racism. During the past couple of decades, racist sentiments and violence against foreigners and immigrants, spearheaded by the neo-Nazis and other racist groups, have been on the rise in many Western countries. The growing popularity of racist, ultra right-wing political parties, such as the British National Party, Front Nationale in France and Vlaams Belang in Belgium, indicate that racist sentiments and xenophobia are getting strengthened.

The 2004 annual report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia points out that the record of most European countries in combating racism and xenophobia is at best mixed. The report reveals that the British police received nearly 53000 complaints of racist attacks on immigrants and foreigners in 2004, followed by Germany which received 6474 complaints. According to the report, ethnic and religious minorities, particularly the Gypsies and Muslims, face discrimination and exclusion in many different forms, from inadequate access to education and poor housing to ghettoization and meagre employment opportunities.

In many Western countries there is a glaring chasm between legal norms and ideals (such as equality, citizenship) and the reality of exclusion and discrimination experienced by certain sections of society. France, for example, swears by the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. In reality, French society is differentiated in terms of class, religion and ethnicity. Mainstream jobs and positions remain largely with the white, upper class, Christian majority. The suburbs, where most of the immigrants live, are characterized by poverty, high unemployment rate (over 30% as compared with the national average of 10%), and crime. The rioting by immigrant youths on the streets of Paris in November 2005, triggered by the accidental death by electrocution of two of their colleagues who were being chased by the police, provided a sad commentary on the hypocrisy and failure of the French system.

In Britain, legislation on discrimination on grounds of race was passed in the 1960s. However, racial discrimination and exclusion and the vilification of religious and ethnic minorities are still widely prevalent. There is an avowedly colour-blind allocation of housing, which in reality is discriminatory in respect of non-whites. Thousands of Anglican, Catholic and Jewish schools in Britain are funded by the state. About a quarter of all school pupils in the UK attend state-funded religious schools. It was only a few years ago that this privilege was extended to a few (five) Muslim schools and one Sikh school.

 The publication last September of the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (in which he is shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban), which were republished by newspapers in many European countries in early February, created a furore in Muslim countries. The Western media and some European governments have sought to justify the publication of these cartoons in the name of freedom of expression. This is a specious, hypocritical and myopic argument which can be faulted on at least three counts. First, to regard freedom of expression as an absolute right, regardless of its implications and consequences for the wider society, is absurd. No country allows complete freedom of expression. It is restricted by prohibitions against defamation, libel, blasphemy, obscenity, and judicial and parliamentary privilege. The European Convention on Human Rights, while recognizing that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, allows European nations to impose restrictions “in interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others.” Many Western countries have placed restrictions on freedom of expression through legislation. Thus, in Denmark (which has a state church) and the UK there is an anti-blasphemy law in respect of Christianity (which, ironically, does not apply to other religions). Seven European countries, including Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria, have laws (known as Auschwitzluge in the German-speaking countries) against the public denial and repudiation of the Holocaust, including the figure of six million Jewish victims.

Second, the right to freedom of expression needs to be tempered with social responsibility and sensitivity towards the beliefs and sentiments of others. An unbridled right to freedom of expression, especially in a multiethnic society, is fraught with socially disruptive consequences. The French president Jacques Chirac rightly condemned the cartons as a “manifest provocation”. Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary, called the publication of the cartoons unnecessary, insensitive, disrespectful and wrong. Third, in the present context, the controversy is likely to increase the alienation and disaffection of Muslims in the West, exacerbate inter-ethnic tensions, and lead to a further radicalization of Muslim youth. It may turn out to be a horrifying self-fulfilling prophecy relating to the clash of civilizations. It needs to be pointed out that while Muslims, whose sensitivities have been hurt by these cartoons, have a right to protest against this sacrilege in a peaceful and democratic manner, vandalism and violence in any form is absolutely unjustifiable.

The whole controversy, though unfortunate, raises highly significant issues, including limits to freedom of expression in multiethnic societies, the role and social responsibility of the media in the context of a globalizing world, and the role of the state and civil society.g

 (The writer is former head of the department of Sociology at University of Mumbai)

Go Back