Multiculturalism


Kristy Bamu was murdered in London by his sister and her boyfriend after they’d accused him of practicing witchcraft. This has shined the spotlight onto a practice that’s been spreading across Africa in recent years. Albert Tucker, though, writing at the inevitable, is discomfited by this interest…

However, if we are to learn anything from this terrible case and better protect children, it is essential that we do not allow this debate to become solely focused on the belief in witchcraft, or a sense that this is an “alien” concept, but understand this for what it is: a horrific form of child abuse…

Actually, it’s both those things.

What is worrying is the tendency to view this abuse differently from other forms dealt with by social services, the police and schools. Although it feels instinctively uncomfortable, these cases do not require a “special” response…

Tucker goes on to mention other forms of child abuse that have shocked our society and if his point is that it isn’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to particular communities he is, of course, entirely right. Yet I’m not sure how you can deny that different forms require special responses; it seems a bit like claiming that as “Spanish”, “Denver”, “egg-white” and “tamagoyaki” are all forms of omelette they require the same ingredients and prep. (This also applies to people’s identical thoughts regarding “honour” violence.)  The violent fear of witchcraft is associated with particular communities; has specific influences at home and abroad and is openly expressed in peculiar forums. I have no first hand experience, o’ course, but I’m willing to bet that it can leave singular and identifiable effects on its victims. It is, then, a unique phenomenon that cries out for a special response. And so are other forms of abuse! In a society that contains so many different beliefs and practices, which influence people’s behaviour in such different ways, it’s sometimes going to be impossible to take a uniform approach to people and their actions. It’s ironic that some commentators are least fond of multiculturalism when it’s at its least avoidable.

The Guardian’s Peter Preston writes a hymn to multicultural London…

When I started writing regular columns for the Guardian four decades ago – scribbling on my kitchen table – Walworth, just down the road, was white, glum, working class. The only black people you tended to see were young men in old cars having their boots stopped and searched by the white, Carter Street Old Bill. Brixton, just off to the left, was still Windrush world, the West Indies come to rest. And Peckham, a few yards to the right, was where Del Boy Trotter grew up and tried to prosper.

Walworth today is black, not white: a bustle and buzz of hairdressing salons and curried-goat houses open all hours. The Elephant they’re digging up again has become little South America, stretching down the Old Kent Road in polyglot variety. Vauxhall welcomes Portuguese. Camberwell mixes Greeks, Turks, Chinese and more. Welcome to Norbury, and the subcontinent. And Peckham, the high street where geezers grizzle to camera, is one of London’s great amazements: West Africa, its tropical fish, its rainbow of vegetable stalls and smiles, plonked down where only eels and pies flourished. And its array of brand new churches, mosques, temples: fervent belief marching on as the C of E makes an excuse and slinks away.

I hope this doesn’t sound unkind but Preston seems to like the diversity of London because it makes for more interesting strolls down the road. He doesn’t stop to think about how social changes have affected people’s lives – he’s just pleased to note that there’s more to see. The clearest example is the thing about “fervent belief”. Yes, those spires and minarets and veils and turbans are more interesting to observe than besweatered Anglicans but would it be a good thing if humbler faiths were superseded by assertive ones? I don’t think so. What’s significant to me is not how bustling, buzzing and bombastic cities are but how comfortable life is for their people. Welworth might have seemed “grim” to Preston in the ‘70s but was it to its residents? Who knows. I guess those “white”, “working class” people were too busy scoffing eels to get jobs in the media. Still, I know that while everybody likes to see and meet new things and people I suspect that most of them also desire familiarity; community; security; homeliness. Preston, in contrast, sounds like a tourist.

While we’re on the subject, I can’t believe our cities haven’t gotten uglier. I’m not blaming multicultural inclusions for that, though. The biggest and ugliest changes to hit English cities are the hordes of chintzy fast food outlets, identikit coffee bars and insipid retail stores. A characterful part of my hometown was recently supplanted by a clutch of bland, bleached buildings bearing glassy-eyed employees of Topshop and Apple. Yes, I know I’m being a snob. Yes, I know some people like them. But – dear Lord – I can’t believe there’s anything more bleak than finding that a local shop has closed and bears a sign threatening “New Look – Coming Soon”.

I’d like to attach a few provisos to this one. First, I wasn’t personally hurt by Diane Abbott’s strange comments so there’s no need to remove your tiny violins. Second, I’m under no illusions that in criticising her I’m boldly standing up against or for anything – the vast majority of an imposing body of opinion that her tweeting has provoked is hostile and the fact that I’ve seen people standing up for her is a measure of the eccentric circles I happen to move in. Third, I accept that the media’s response has been unpleasantly shrill. In fact, I’m not sure anybody saying anything – except, perhaps, the Queen musing the loveliness of Hitler – could deserve it.

With all that dispensed with, they were nasty comments, and not just because of her use of the term “white people”. (Now being said to be a comment on 19th Century colonialism. Goodness – if I hinted darkly at the nefariousness of Asians could I say it was a reference to Genghis Khan?) What’s more interestingly offensive about the tweet is that her claim that “white people love playing divide and rule” was in response to a black journalist’s questioning of the soundness of the notion of a “black community” and the value of the “community leaders” who purport to or are said to represent it. I don’t know a lot about race or racial politics but the claim that people who’ve been said to be the “voice” of black Britons have done little but humiliate themselves seems evidently true, and the point about the dangers of communalistic politics is, at the very least, a serious one. Abbott – one of those “leaders” herself – responded to these thoughtful points by essentially implying that the journalist should pipe down as she was doing the white man’s conspiratorial, pernicious work. That, to me, smacks of paternalistic fearmongering – the evasion of tough questions via the introduction of gratuitous and unhealthy suspicion. This goes some way towards affirming the original concern about the presumptuousness of “community leaders” – as well as ensuring that if people say her dissident perspective is being quashed I’m inclined to reach for a little violin.

By the way, there’s nothing – nothing – more painful than watching people on Facebook debate the meaning of racism. Alex DeLarge had it easy in comparison.

Richard Dawkins always says – and I agree with him – that it’s nonsense to speak of a “Christian” child, a “Muslim” child, a “Zoroastrian” child and so on. The young ‘uns haven’t accepted the faiths for themselves – they’ve had them forced upon them. (Oh, and, yes, before you ask, that’d be true of “atheist” children as well.) Kids are nigh-on bound to take after their parents and unless their influences are dramatically harmful that’s not something we should make our business. Still, that doesn’t mean we should affirm this sad reality.

That’s what I thought on reading this Telegraph article…

Muslim baby adopted because of fear of honour killing

Muslim baby? The term is repugnant in itself. Call me a cynic but I doubt a one-year-old has concluded, after much thought and personal reflection, that Allah is the one true God and that Muhammad was his prophet. Heck, I doubt that she’ll have reached the “Mama”, “Papa” stage.

The unease I felt on reading those two little words was nothing to how creeped out I was upon reading the Court judgement the article links to. It discusses the poor child’s foster parents – both observant Muslims – who display…

…[a] high degree of empathy, sympathy, insight and maturity” required to meet Q’s “particular needs for stability, for safety, for her cultural, ethnic and religious identity to be enhanced and maintained”…

Now, I make no judgement of the foster parents, but what a criterion to judge them by! “Cultural” and “religious” identities? She’s a baby for goodness’ sake. She doesn’t have them. The extent to which the state views British citizens not as, well – citizens but members of ethnic and religious demographics is becoming more and more disturbing.

The case itself is hugely depressing. An unmarried Muslim woman started a relationship with a married Muslim man; fell pregnant and, in fear, gave the child up for adoption. The judge ruled – and the Appeal Court judges have maintained – that her and her lovers’ families posed such a threat to the existence of the infant that she shouldn’t be exposed to them. It’s horrible that such views exist in our society and creepy that it’s just accepted as a fact of life. If we can conclude from somebody’s opinions that they’d pose a threat to anyone – never mind a bairn – we should have been and should be able to conclude that they’re unworthy of admittance to the nation.

The author of a study of contemporary opposition to multiculturalism argues that racial supremacy is masquerading as the critique of culture…

Most opposition to multiculturalism today is not grounded in a well-founded critique of prescriptive multiculturalism such as has existed in – patchy – multicultural policy. It is, rather, an attack on what some have described as the lived multiculture that has come to shape the experience of many, if not most, Europeans, whatever their cultural background.

To some extent this is actually true. There are exceptions – and I’ve tried to keep my analysis of both phenomena separate – but a lot of people who believe themselves to be too liberal and tolerant and nice to cast aspersions at a faith or ethnic group, or criticise liberal policies of migration or freedom of association will take careful aim at them, then wheel around and fire their abuse at a strawman named “multiculturalism”. This is silly. Right or wrong, people should say what they mean.

The facile reduction of the political struggles that produced multiculturalism – an imperfect and flawed response to racism – to the straw man of cultural relativism has facilitated the powerful idea, at the core of anti-multiculturalism, that objecting to an-other’s culture is wholly different to a rejection on “racial” grounds. Culture is rhetorically separated from the individuals who practice it, while paradoxically made to stand for everything they are. Care is always taken by the “Eurabianists” to separate between Muslims and “Islamism”, for example. Yet the slippage from generalised cultural critique to the targeting of particular populations associated with unpalatable cultural practices is easy. The effect is to make these practices intrinsic to groups such as Muslims, whom this essentialization and resultant marginalization racializes. Nevertheless, the avoidance – or indeed the outright rejection – of discredited race thinking, expunged from the public discourse of even the most outspoken opponents of multiculturalism, immigration and Islam in Europe, creates a neat separation between sensible resistance to multicultural excess and the irrational racism of a bygone era.

Again, I’ll agree that some people attack the ill-defined phenomenon of “Islamism” when they’re really addressing broad theological and cultural trends. It feels easier to “oppose” a nefarious political movement that some pleasant individual’s sincere beliefs. But, nonetheless, it’s silly. Say what you mean.

The trouble with this column is that it assumes – and, yes, it really does assume; there’s no argument to bolster these points – that if such people were more honest about what and who concerns them they’d be mistaken; comparable to – if not exactly the same as – the age-old racists. This implication is asserted with terms like “essentialization” – something, one infers, that’s common to both racists and today’s cultural critics. But the question is how much someone “essentialis[es]” people by a physical or ideological feature and how much it is, in fact, an essential part of them – a determining factor in their behaviour that seems, for present purposes, inextricable. Observation only becomes “essentialization” when the analysis of that determinism and that inextricability becomes irrational. Judgements based on people’s skin are held to be irrational because a person’s pigmentation isn’t influential. A person’s religious belief, and their allegiance to a cultural heritage, can be a significant factor. You can’t, in other words, essentialise judgements of group characteristics as, er, essentialisingsome do; others don’t.

David Cameron speaks in praise of multiculturalism (yes, really)…

I think faith schools are very often good schools. Why? Because the organisation that’s backing them – the church or the mosque or the synagogue – is part of the community. And it brings a sense of community and the backing of an institution to a school. The church was providing good schools long before the state got involved, and we should respect the fact that it’s not just the state that can provide education but other bodies, too.

I’ll agree on both the latter points but, still, this is a pitiful defence of the continuation of faith schools. The Prime Minister was answering the charge, of Richard Dawkins, that such schools “implicitly label [the children] with the faith of their parents” and his answer boils down to, “I know. Isn’t it great!”

I think this admiration for “community” is rooted in the times where people had distinct local communities. It made sense for people to be bound together in their areas because they’d feel more invested in their environment. Nowadays, though, ideas of “community” are based more on ethnic and religious commonalities (and the extent to which this is often accompanied by geographic commonalities is nothing to rejoice). The values these can entail are far less rationally based, and far more divisive and deterministic; more inclined to provoke conflict than fraternity.

By endorsing this “sense of community” Cameron is affirming a perception of British society as one that’s formed of independent blocs; something that’s antithetical to the idea of individuals forging their own identities and, indeed, of a collective forming mutual allegiances. It’s the kind of thing, it seems to me, that defies and perverts the values of liberalism, conversatism and socialism alike.

Which values, if any, matter to societies? Nowadays we talk of our ideals like the airiest of evangelicals might speak of their’s – the ones who’ve been to Greenbelt but never read the darn Bible. Hartosh Singh Bal writes on one of them, pluralism, at 3QuarksDaily, and considers the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

…from an Indian context, it is because Islam and Christianity cherish different values that it is possible to argue for the mockery of Christian religious figures and argue against the same freedom when exercised against Islamic religious figures.

This is not meant to even remotely justify the response to the cartoons or the satire. It is only to suggest that there are certain ideals which will be in contradiction. A tolerant plural society and an absolute freedom of expression cannot be simultaneously achieved. Even more problematically, the European way of thinking fails to understand the need to make distinctions based on differing group values that lie at the heart of any diverse society. To make rules that impose the same constraints and allow the same freedoms for various religious groups is to avoid facing up to the fact they are different to begin with.

Bal is correct that freedom of expression is hard to align with a pluralistic society. Religious and cultural sensitivities are often so acute that if they’re offended – as is nigh-on inevitable where people are allowed to question and even mock whatever values they desire – there’s likely to be conflict. Bal’s assumption, though, is that this means the freedom of expression must be compromised so we can sustain pluralism.

Well, I guess this makes sense in India, where pluralism has been a fact of life for centuries and freedom of expression is a relatively new development. For much of Europe, though, the freedom of expression has developed over many centuries and it’s pluralism that – to the extent that it exists now, at least – is a new phenomenon. Why should we prioritise the latter value, the virtues of which have yet to be established, over one that’s helped give rise to much of what’s great about our world – all the products of the freedom to adopt and question beliefs, tastes and practices? The answer, of course, is that we shouldn’t, and besides there is another model of pluralism that allows people to live according to their sensibilities insofar as they allow their fellow man to live according to their own.

Still, even if we accept the conflict of ideals we can’t deny that it often leads to conflicts of, wellweapons. But, again, is this a reason to compromise ideals of free expression or pluralism? Well, I don’t see why the peaceful and tolerant should be obliged to change their ways to accomodate the violent and authoritarian. Here’s the thing: if this meeting of ideals is a cause for violence or compromise to the irrational and doctrinaire it’s hardly a virtue. Thus, pluralism is a value worth defending only when people within it are prepared to live by their own sensibilities without contesting someone else’s freedom to do the same. If this is impossible it shouldn’t be advanced.

Still, in establishing the limits of pluralism we’re forced to recognise the limits of liberalism. Free expression has been prized because, for one thing, it supposedly allows different viewpoints to conflict but then arrive at mutually satisfying conclusions. Admitting that you’re forced to defend it from ideas, by excluding some ideas, thus admits its ineffectiveness. I guess societies can’t be founded on theory alone.

Noam Chomsky analyses the state of the U.S. (he’s not enthusiastic) and then turns his jaded eye to Europe and the “rampant” racism therein…

In Germany, Thilo Sarrazin’s lament that immigrants are destroying the country was a runaway best-seller, while Chancellor Angela Merkel, though condemning the book, declared that multiculturalism had “utterly failed”: the Turks imported to do the dirty work in Germany are failing to become blond and blue-eyed, true Aryans.

This vexes me for two reasons. Firstly because we have to break the mental link between Germans and the Nazis. That Fawlty Towers episode aired 35 years ago, people. I sighed when tedious commentators spoke of David Cameron criticising multiculturalism “in Munich, of all places” but I feel more like screaming when a guy as thoughtful as Noam Chomsky resorts to such a cheap slur. I have an idea for a series of sketches where a German shares a flat with a Brit or an American. “Could you do the washing up?” “Ah, slave labour, is it?” “Could my friend sleep on the couch?” “Lebensraum, eh?” “Don’t wear my hat! You’ll stretch it.” “Been measuring heads have you?” “Oh, forget it.” (What? No laughs? Oh, screw you guys! I’m off to BBC3.)

I haven’t read Sarrazin’s tome but is there anyone who thinks that’s a fair representation of Merkel’s words? Fair enough to even be a half-effective wisecrack? No. It’s evidently not. I mean, what’s funny is that all the Allied Powers – y’know, the guys who actually beat the fascists – ran societies that were, by my unscientific reckoning, about a million times less pluralistic than just about any nation in Modern Europe.

Shrill, accusative moralism, which, I’ll grant, characterised this blog many a time, now frustrates me. It often seems that social liberals display the same exclusivity they dislike in conservatives – to other opinions rather than to other lifestyles. Ultimately, though, they’ll find that their censoriousness is just as self-defeating. It pisses people off.

Or, In Defence of Cultural Differentiationism. Skidmarx writes

I tend to think that people everywhere are born the same, so culture may introduce some peculiarities, but nothing fundamentally incomprehensible.

Incomprehensible? Maybe not. Incompatible? I think so.

Cultural “peculiarities” I’d see as varying tastes; endearing differences in etiquette. So, some value slenderness; others go for flab. Some delight in eating fish sperm; it makes others gag. Some think slurping up your food is a welcome sign of pleasure; others think it makes you lower than yer average simian. These variations signify little about people’s consciousnesses. Aside from the occasional scrap over dinner they’re unlikely to divide people in any violent sense.

Then, however, there are views that define perceptions: ethical and philosophical opinions. These have the potential to inspire conflict because ideas and deeds that to some are uncontroversial or at least acceptable are blasphemy to others. Across the world great swathes of people – from theocrats to nationalists – are fiercely and proudly authoritarian; prizing unquestionable values above notions of liberty. This, but for convenient distances between people, would set them in opposition with those who disagree.

This might be hard for some Englanders to grasp because – aside from marginal examples like drugs or the age of consent – private behaviour that’s accepted elsewhere is tolerated here. Barring occasional spasms of moral outrage we aren’t a dreadfully censorious people and may find it difficult to comprehend those whose interest in other people’s acts and deeds is more belligerent.

I think there are oftentimes when given a choice between political Islam and secular authoritarianism, I can see the former more representative of popular aspiration, and so may be a component of the national or international struggle for…liberty.

Can one elide popular aspiration with a desire for liberty? I don’t see how. Lots of folk aspired to have a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, but I doubt that Skidmarx thinks that represented true emancipation. People can be wrong – wrong on what serves other people’s interests and, indeed, their own. So, a voter for the Muslim Brotherhood needn’t be a closet socialist or libertarian – they probably support them for the bad reasons they give.

(That’s not an argument for supporting their opponents, by the way. When it comes to a fight between political Islam and secular dictatorships my attitude is roughly the same as towards a deathmatch between Necro Butcher and Mad Man Pondo. Avoid it.)

I think an assumption made by people of a thousand views is that humans  is that humans have been imbued with common aspirations. To some extent, that’s absolutely true. We have material needs – functioning anatomies; rooves above our heads; dinners in our bellies – and the same desire for intimacy, companionship and, perhaps, some vague notion of existential purpose. But many seem to think we’re born to yearn for grand abstractions and I don’t see how that works. Equality? Freedom? Truth? No. Our ancestors were rigging up hierarchies, imposing ethics and enshrining fantasies for millenia. Naturally, values can be endeared to people but that’s the product of their experience. That’s the nub of it, really: different experiences.

It’s easy for me to say Malaysian Islamists are tragicomic – I don’t live beneath them. Yet their efforts to shroud their theocratic nature in reasonableness are darkly amusing. After the raid on a church last week religious figures have leapt to the defence – of Islam!

Barisan Nasional Senator Mohd Ezam Mohd Nor was slammed by fellow politicians for threatening local media for criticising [religious police].

Last week at a mosque in Shah Alam, Ezam had declared an “all-out war” against those who attacked the Islamic faith, and said he would “burn” Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insider.

Yesterday, however, he explained that he had meant otherwise. “Malaysiakini/Malaysian Insider are cyber news portals. No threat to burn any reporters/building,” he said in Malay on his Twitter account.

“I didn’t mean it when I said I’d blow his head off, your honour. After all, my lungs aren’t strong enough!”

Muslim activists are trying to persuade the state to be more cruel to apostates and more restrictive with regards to proselytising. (The latter is the “crime” the raided church has been suspected of.) They’ve apparently tried to sugarcoat their message with liberal platitudes. Behold…

We stressed that matters relating to the faith of Muslims are very sensitive issues that could affect racial harmony…

Yet their real message filters through nonetheless…

PAS Youth chief Nasrudin Hassan said…that while Islam was a “religion of discourse”, a law was needed for those who “cannot be persuaded through arguments”.

“To curb and control those who will no longer listen to arguments, we need laws,” he was cited as saying by Malaysiakini.

Islam is a religion of discourse, he says, but only if the conversation runs exactly as it likes. This reminds me of beef-eating “vegetarians”.

Anyway, I thank these rogues for illustrating this point so effectively: in Malaysia the tropes of pluralism – “racial harmonyet cetera – are tools with which to justify communalism. And the only view of “harmony” its engineers can tolerate is one where the desires of minorities are subordinate to their religious doctrine. I’d say this means it’s only harmonious for them, but their paranoia ensures that no one’s safe from distress.

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