14 May 2006

Blowing up polyculturalism

What do the Rushdie case, the Behzti play and the beach riots say about the value of multiculturalism in states like England and Australia or even Canada for that matter? Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality in the UK, has said that multiculturalism belongs to a different era. English Shadow Home Secretary David Davis too wants to scrap the "outdated" policy which allows the "perverted values of suicide bombers" to take root. Salman Rushdie has waded into the debate with "it’s harder to celebrate polyculture when Belgian women are being persuaded by Belgians 'of North African descent' to blow themselves — and others — up."

Leaving aside questions about the roots of terrorism and the role of these countries in Iraq and in the war on terror, we should ask what will this model society look like? Will it be more gated than it already is to screen out others who have a different "descent" as Rushdie euphemistically puts it? How will it avoid the scenario of the banlieues of Paris because the French certainly haven't subscribed to the idea of pluralism or positive measures for reversing discrimination. Will it expel all those who are of a different "descent" into some wilderness and will the rest live in a fake little England of cream teas and elevenses that Julian Barnes recreated on an island once in a novel? Does it entail applying the Tebbit test of Britishness or its Australian or Canadian equivalent to its new citizens? What will this new national identity consist in? How will it be formed and negotiated? How will we avoid this "us" and "them" that led us to the flawed policy of multiculturalism in the first place? Flawed in that it was a form of neocolonialism, fomented divisions, ignored rights and power imbalances among groups in society. It's certainly time to move beyond multiculturalism but in which direction and how?

First of all, let's clear up some misconceptions. Ghettoization in these countries didn't happen because of political correctness or multiculturalism. Communities first banded together for support and survival against overt prejudice or as a result of policies that flowed from the dominant racial groupings in societies. That legacy persists. You only have to visit one reservation or an Inuit settlement in Canada to see that some communities still remain quite disempowered, impoverished, and isolated as a result of segregationist policies. (In fact, the Afrikaaner government in South Africa implemented their infamous bantustans policy after a visit to Canada where this model of reservations was studied.) Unfortunately, state responses to these issues over time have done little to solve the basic problems of access to jobs and education, which have deepened resentment in these enclaves. Too often, states in their dealings have given too much power to religious leaders who were interested in preserving the status-quo imbalances in their communities at the expense of those progressive community activists who have consistently promoted change, equity, acceptance and integration. For others, the situation has worsened after the backlash from 9/11 even in more progressive societies like Sweden or Canada. So, despite earlier progress in tolerance, there hasn't been real inclusion. Now with the backlash and with fundamentalism growing in pockets of urban poverty where UK/US policy in the middle east is resented, it's become very much the slippery slope to extremism and terrorism, as Davis avers. The situation has not been helped by governments' anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric while accepting newcomers needed to build and maintain national economies.

There's another question. Just what is this British, Canadian or Australian identity that is being mooted? We've heard about "fair play" and "Canadian values" as the defining characteristics of nationhood. How do these myths sell to Aboriginal peoples or to the descendants of slaves and head-tax payers? A few days before 9/11, at the UN Conference on Racism, most of these western powers refused to apologize for their roles in colonialism or even to admit that slavery was a crime against humanity. What does UK, Australian or Canadian foreign policy in supporting the unpopular and highly undemocratic right-wing "war on terror" through the use of torture, invasions, and depleted uranium say to citizens about democracy, pacifism, secularism and the rule of law?

The truth is that traditional national identities and values have never been static. Nationalist imaginaries of Britishness or Canadianness are myths of convenience that have served many a political purpose. This, however, should not excuse religious or political extremism of any stripe. We agree that that has to be squelched but not by controlling immigration — the problem is home grown, not always imported, it's time we realized that — through other means. If we opt for a belief in a country whose citizens have a commitment to live up to their responsibilities under a secular, democratic system where religion and politics are clearly separated, well and good. But you can't force someone to become British any more than you can change the colour of his skin, his "descent," his views or even public perceptions and stereotypes just by saying so or legislating it. A lot relies on changing attitudes to accept as citizens peoples with different racial origins. (A UK publishing executive noted that the demand for south Asian writers such as Hanif Kureishi is on the decline. Funnily enough, as we think of Kureishi as English but others obviously don't.) Identities are lived, dynamic, and participatory just as any inclusive process of nation building should be.

This question about identities has to be linked to any discussion about ending terrorism, about achieving parity, and about acceptance of everyone as English or Australian or what have you. These communities haven't always been listened to but while it is important to hear their stories we need to avoid getting mired into a culture of complaint. In turn, states ought to be scrutinized for their policies as they have been experienced by communities and that have created mayhem at home and in the world. For example, the USA and European powers can confess to their role in funding, arming, and training these Islamist fundamentalists who were their allies in fighting communism and genuine nationalist movements round the globe, the very fundamentalists whom they now disavow.

Although the onus oughtn't to be entirely be on citizens, one hopes that there will be more open debate which gives a leading role to the players from these communities who will be engaged to rebuild their societies according to a progressive vision. This would be a forum starting with an admission of where we all went wrong and where we need to go followed up by the kind of public education that takes us forward not backwards. Only by this form of public engagement about citizens' and society's fears and aspirations, about the barriers to equity, about people's rights and responsibilities will some consensus be formed which can be used to promote integration, curb extremism, and put an end to segregation and inequities that may exist. Such a nation-building project would lead to the articulation of the value of everyone's cultural expression and to a person's unquestionable right to equal citizenship independent of one's "descent" but rooted in one's responsibilities to building an inclusive, secular, democratic nation. The state would then have to ensure that everyone is treated equally and produce tangible improvements and equitable life chances, resources and power-sharing as results. All should be made to feel that they belong, that they are integral parts of the whole.

Everyone has to be involved; everyone should benefit. It's only through such a dynamic, open-ended process that you can ensure that Rushdie and Kureishi will be thought of as completely British one day. At present, sad to say, Europe, Australia or the US are hardly anybody's model of multiracial integration. Pluralism is a fact; diversity is here to stay. It's how you iron out the wrinkles that's key. We, for one, are all for trying.

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