Hindu Vivek Kendra
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Multiculturalism. A dangerous word...just like apartheid

Multiculturalism. A dangerous word...just like apartheid

Author: Matthew Parris
Publication: Times Online
Date: January 24, 2004

Please do not misunderstand. I do not think young Muslim women in Britain should be banned from wearing the veil at school. President Chirac is making a mistake. He is currying favour with racists. He will regret it.

But discussing the controversy with French friends has shaken me. My suspicion grows that the argument is more finely balanced than knee-jerk liberal opinion in London supposes. The proper limits to multiculturalism are not easy to fix.

It's a silly word, "multiculturalism" - or, rather, it's a silly "ism" to stick on the end of an otherwise perfectly inoffensive word. A country such as ours, containing many cultural groups, is obviously multicultural. That's what the word means. It's a fact, a state of affairs.

The sting is in the "ism". It suggests that this state of affairs is something to be forcefully pursued and extended: a social and political goal. Sociologists and politicians have coined the term not as another way of saying "tolerance" or "integration" but as an alternative approach to either.

Those who argue simply for tolerance usually mean that our dominant culture - what you might call the long-standing, English-speaking, predominantly (but not exclusively) white majority culture in Britain, rooted in a mostly Christian history - should not persecute or hate those from other cultures. To multiculturalism this is not enough: multiculturalists seek positively to promote other cultures. Typically, a multiculturalist, from within the stockade of one culture, wants to see others strengthened.

Those who argue for integration tend toward the "melting pot" theory: the old American ideal. Much as they affect to despise the United States, the French take a similar view. La France is to them more than a country and a majority culture: it is an ideal - linguistic, cultural, almost spiritual - which all citizens should be urged to admire and pursue. I have been astonished in recent conversations to discover how my French friends - enlightened intellectuals, most of them; socialists, some of them; and none of them racists - subscribe to this view, or at least acknowledge its potency, even nobility.

True multiculturalists see that as kind of bullying - they call it cultural imperialism. They urge minority cultures to resist assimilation. If the different peoples here were to grow more alike, to lose their original cultures or (worse) to turn their backs on those cultures, the multiculturalist sees this as deeply regrettable.

Thus we have come full circle from apartheid. White racists in South Africa disapproved of mixed-race marriages and were appalled by the dream of a world in which race did not matter. Today in Britain I hear people who would have been in the vanguard of the fight against apartheid in South Africa, insisting that race ought to matter, that (for instance) white couples ought not to adopt black children or black couples white children. I have even heard a zealous multiculturalist question the desirability of mixed-race marriages.

South African apartheid, as those of us who were there at the time well know, was white greed dressed in the garb of sociological theory. The government in Pretoria would never countenance real equality or respect between the races and tribes it wanted to separate. There is a strain of multiculturalism in 21st-century Britain that almost seems to believe that what was wrong with the white South Africans' cry of "separate but equal" lay only in their failure to promote the second half of the package.

In an ideal Britain, I hear it argued, minorities would be encouraged to cleave to the communities and cultures from which they come. In practical terms this would usually mean marrying and living together. Your hard-line multiculturalist can have little logical objection to homelands, as long as land and property are fairly apportioned and nobody has their address imposed upon them by law.

I disagree with them. I do not like ghettos, even prosperous ones. The increasing number of mixed-race couples in Britain encourages me. The sight of school playgrounds in which many races mingle happily without apparent consciousness of race, religion or colour, delights me. Every outward sign that people are thinking less about their own or others' race or religion pleases me because I think that the only way we shall prove Enoch Powell's prophecies wrong (and I think we shall) is by mixing, by losing race consciousness and breaking down cultural apartheid.

In the end, a small, crowded island that is permanently composed of quite separate groups not fluent in a common language, who congregate and socialise mostly with members of their own group, whose lives beyond the workplace are lived mostly within communities which are in practice separate, and whose norms and moral reasoning are not shared, will be an island where difference breeds dislike.

There will always be distrust when values are not shared. Where members of one group speak to each other in a language others do not understand, there will always be suspicion and resentment. When in everyday circumstances a community refuses to adopt the dress worn by others, this assertion of difference will always be felt as a kind of recoiling from the rest, even when that is not intended. I believe there is no long-term future for sharp inter-community differences based on ethnicity. The theory has its attractions. The practice will bring strife.

It follows that the aim of public policy should be to soften differences and promote shared values. We should be honest about what this means: in practice it must mean the slow erosion of minority value-systems, minority cultures and minority languages. Islamic, Hindu or Judaic conservatives who sense that cultural identities are threatened by this are right. They are.

But only very gradually, and probably not within their lifetimes. It must happen incrementally and through a million small personal choices. In fact, in a democracy it can happen only in this way. Attempts by the majority community to force its way of life and thought upon minority communities are a violation of human rights - and anyway likely to prove counterproductive, for this will sow a spirit of resistance. That is what Jacques Chirac will do.

One culture encroaches most effectively (and finally) on another slowly and by persuasion. I am afraid the honest term is really "by stealth". The result is not so much victory for the dominant culture, any more than the dominant gene wins victory. The result is a kind of gene enrichment, a hybridity which strengthens.

On Thursday in Bristol, recording a programme in a series I present on BBC Radio 4 called Off The Page, I discussed multiculturalism with three British writers who have strong distinct personal views on the subject. Reshma Ruia was born in India but lives, teaches and writes her novels in Manchester. The culture from which she comes is Hindu. Archie Markham was born in Montserrat and is now a professor of creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University. He is black. Leone Ross is a Jamaican novelist with Scottish blood - or vice-versa.

I must not distort their opinions in the lens of my own. Each wrote and read a short column on the subject and voiced their thoughts for themselves. They would not, I think, subscribe to some of what I have just written about multiculturalism.

But I was struck by how ambivalent all three seemed about multiculturalism. I expected stridency and found subtlety and doubt. All saw its positive appeal, of course: all three were intensely proud of their "ethnic" cultural inheritance. But all three had succeeded within a fundamentally British culture and wanted others to as well. They were part of that culture. They did not want to renounce it or retreat from it: only to add to it, influence it. Each, in their way, gloried in hybridity.

Describing her realisation as an adult that, as an British-educated, Indian-born writer raised partly in Italy, she was inseparable from all such influences, Reshma Ruia wrote: "These hybrid, hyphenated roots have, rather than confusing me, enriched me." If Ruia's outlook is multicultural, it is a multiculturalism to which I can subscribe.

And there was something else on which all four of us could agree. That just as one culture may be oppressed by another, so people within a culture may be oppressed by their own community's shared values. We should not, by affirming the collective rights of Muslims as Muslims, betray what we believe to be the individual rights of Muslim women as women.

We must not, by affirming the collective rights of Orthodox Jews to live in an Orthodox Jewish community, betray the right (in our belief) of an Orthodox Jewish boy to be gay. We must not, in affirming the collective rights of Hindus to live in communities where respect for their own values is maintained, betray the right (in our belief) of an Untouchable to a status he might not command in parts of India.

Some multiculturalists need to think harder about these things.

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