Amidst the turbulence of war and violence marking today’s world, culture has turned into the great mask behind which hides a racist agenda at home and an expansionist policy abroad.
In the name of culture, Bush’s wars turn into a noble mission to bring democracy to the culturally hostile Middle East, while Blair’s draconian crackdown on civil liberties becomes a necessary defence of “our British values” against cultural and religious aggression.
The same dichotomy has dominated Western political discourse since the Enlightenment era, fuelled by the climate of European military and economic expansion.
The dichotomy between ‘we’ and ‘they’, ‘we’ the Europeans, or Westerners, who are imbued with the light of reason and spirit of progress, and ‘they’ who still dwell in the darkness of superstition and cultural stagnation.
This colonialist rightwing discourse is on the ascendancy once more in Europe, such that the Chirac government could unashamedly recast the bleak decades of French colonisation of Africa and the Arab Maghreb as a ‘civilising mission’ in the history syllabus taught in French schools.
Instead of driving European governments to forge more open relations with their socially deprived and institutionally marginalised religious and ethnic minorities and to review their policies of illegitimate military expansionism, September 11 has turned into a pretext for clinging to a right wing aggressive agenda at home and an arrogant foreign interventionism.
In this climate, multiculturalism has been painted as Europe’s scourge and the root of its ills. As one writer put it, “the time for sophistry is over…. our country must assert its values”.
Europe’s minorities are in other words the cause of all its social, political and economic deficiencies. The remedy lies in suffocating them through stringent legislations and ruthless practices, from stop- and- search and surveillance, to control orders and shoot- and- kill police tactics.
The intensely rich and complex Islamic culture, which had fostered some of the most cosmopolitan and open societies in history, in Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba, or Istanbul, has found itself reduced to a narrow set of vulgar stereotypes.
They and their faith have been reduced to a security problem to be dealt with exclusively by the intelligence services. However much Europe’s Muslims attempt to prove their allegiance to the nation-state, they remain in the eyes of its strategists a fifth column and a threat to homeland security.
Critics of multiculturalism should bear the following point in mind. Whether we like it or not, Europe is a multicultural continent. To turn the clock back and return to a closed notion of national identity based on uniformity is simply not an option.
Countries like France, still struggling to reverse this powerful trend in the name of ‘laicitĕ’ and ‘les valeurs de la Rěpublique’, find themselves in a deeper crisis than any other European country.
Suddenly, these critics seem to have stumbled on the magic cure for our troubles in the form of the French principle of integration, in reality a euphemism for cultural and social assimilation. But a look at Paris’s banlieux, with their ghettos, rising levels of social deprivation, unemployment and crime would be enough to condemn this model of integration, rather than recommend it for emulation. To this fact testify the recent riots across France’s suburbs.
That Europe incorporates in its midst a multitude of cultures is undeniable. But cultural pluralism does not simply refer to the phenomenon of cultural diversity.
It points to the existence of many which are equal in the public arena. The presence of a multitude of communities in itself is not enough. The important thing is whether they are treated as equals by the state.
This is plainly not the case in Europe where ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poor housing, some of which unfit for human habitation, to suffer health problems, lag behind in education and experience unemployment than their white counterparts.
In many European countries such as France, Muslims, the largest of the continent’s religious minorities, remain unrepresented in any political institution, forced to exist outside the public sphere altogether. Culture and ethnicity are now the basis of stratification. Religious and ethnic minorities are Europe’s new underclass.
September 11 has turned into a pretext for clinging to a right wing aggressive agenda at home and an arrogant foreign interventionism.
The issue of the Muslim minority’s integration has recently been the subject of a public debate characterised with much tension and reductionism. It would be difficult to find fault with the notion of integration if it meant greater openness on the part of the Muslim minority to its cultural environment, or the need to acquire the necessary linguistic tools to make such communication possible.
But the openness of cultures and ways of life is a mutual, not a one sided affair. It places a greater responsibility on the majority culture, being more dominant in terms of power and its structures, to reach out to its surrounding cultural minorities.
Last year, a You GovPoll for the Commission of Racial Equality in Britain revealed that 83% of white Britons have no friends who are practising Muslims and that 94% say that they do not have any friends from outside their white communities.
The vast presence of grossly inaccurate stereotypes of Muslims is further proof that the majority is living in isolation from other minority groups and needs to integrate better within today’s racially and culturally diverse European society.
Denouncing multiculturalism has become a gate to reviving the tradition of cultural essentialism, with its belief in the superiority of European culture and myths of the white man’s burden and his civilising mission.
In many European countries such as France, Muslims, the largest of the continent’s religious minorities, remain unrepresented in any political institution, forced to exist outside the public sphere altogether.
In this context, the intensely rich and complex Islamic culture, which had fostered some of the most cosmopolitan and open societies in history, in Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba, or Istanbul, has found itself reduced to a narrow set of vulgar stereotypes.
These range from the subordination of women and arranged marriage to fanaticism and religious despotism. Such arguments bespeak much ignorance and prejudice.
Above all, they overlook the fact that all cultures are subject to different modes of interpretation, and that no culture is homogenous or absolute. To reduce the Islamic culture to these phenomena is akin to identifying ‘Britishness’ with Victorian military expansion and the British massacres of natives in Kenya, Sudan, and Malawi, or seeing Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and the burning of the corpses of so- called enemy combatants as representative of American culture.
Some liberals are particularly fond of the following question: How, they ask, is it possible to be tolerant with the intolerant? But with the recent assaults on civil liberties and the drive to police the public sphere and encroach into the private realm of the citizen in Europe and the US, this inherently flawed question has been reversed.
What we need to be asking is: to what extent are those who preach liberalism really liberal? How far are those who purport to be tolerant really tolerant? Can we still claim to live in an open society?
First Published in Aljazeera, Tuesday 10 January 2006