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Manufactured multiculturalism

By Oishik Sircar

Multiculturalism is the official policy that countries adopt to legally protect racial, ethnic and cultural diversity. But multiculturalism is going awry in a world that encourages the free movement of capital across borders while guarding against the free movement of people who threaten our ‘manufactured’ multiculturalism. Intercultural dialogue, on the other hand, is a small but effective means to realise the power of multiculturalism. It doesn’t need governments to implement it. Intercultural dialogue can be initiated by anyone who believes in the spirit of multiculturalism, and anywhere

Exclusive inclusion 

What do Belgin Dogru, Esma-Nur Kervanci, Sarika Singh and Mohammed Salim have in common? Well, to start with they are school students: Salim studies at the Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School in Madhya Pradesh, India; Sarika at the Aberdare Girls Comprehensive School in Wales, UK; and Belgin and Esma-Nur at the State Secondary School in Flers, France. Across continents separated by several miles these school students, coincidentally, have shared the same predicament. 

In 1999, Belgin Dogru and Esma-Nur Kervanci were excluded from school as a result of their refusal to remove their headscarves during physical education and sports classes. The school’s discipline committee decided to expel the students from school for breaching the duty of assiduity by failing to participate actively in physical education and sports classes. The students moved the European Court of Human Rights, but their plea was rejected and the court observed that the purpose of the restriction on the applicants’ right to manifest their religious convictions was to adhere to the requirements of secularism in state schools. 

In November 2007, Sarika was barred from attending her school for refusing to take off her kada. A note from her school stated: “We have a strict code of conduct that has been in place for years. A copy of this is given to all the girls before they are even pupils, and also at the start of every new term. We use the code to ensure equality between all pupils.” Sarika moved the British High Court and managed to have the ban lifted in August 2008; she retuned to school wearing the kada

In March 2009, the Supreme Court of India rejected a plea from Salim who petitioned for quashing a school regulation requiring students to be clean-shaven. The Madhya Pradesh High Court rejected his plea, after which he appealed to the Supreme Court. It is interesting to note what Justice Katju of the Supreme Court said in rejecting Salim’s plea: “We don’t want to have Talibans in the country. Tomorrow a girl student may come and say that she wants to wear a burkha; can we allow it? I’m a secularist. We should strike a balance between rights and personal beliefs. We cannot overstretch secularism.” 

In all the above cases, restrictions were imposed on the use of visible symbols of religious significance, but belonging only to minority/immigrant communities. Interestingly, the restrictions have also been imposed in countries that are declaredly liberal, democratic, secular and multicultural. 

Justice Katju’s remark comes against the background of India’s Constitution categorically guaranteeing the fundamental right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion without adversely affecting public order, morality and health. This guarantee forms the core of the idea of secularism in the Indian Constitution. Justice Katju, however, cautioned that allowing Salim to sport a beard would amount to overstretching secularism. What is also interesting about the judge’s remark is the connection he makes between keeping a beard and the militant ideology of the Taliban. In effect meaning that overstretching secularism by allowing Muslims to grow a beard would turn them into ‘terrorists’. Surprisingly, allowing Hindu brahmins to wear the holy thread, or Sikhs to wear a turban did not strike Justice Katju as other instances of overstretching secularism.  

Secularism then gets overstretched when an identified and already disenfranchised minority demands rights beyond what they are benignly granted. Responding favourably to that demand would be called ‘appeasement’ by detractors. In India we have seen the same argument used during the debates on the uniform civil code where it was said that secularism would be compromised if Muslims were allowed to follow their personal law. Similarly, the headscarf and kada debates have been looked at as crossing the limits of multiculturalism.  

Thus, the values that the ideas of secularism, pluralism, diversity and multiculturalism embody are premised on qualifications. The inclusion of a cultural minority as same and equal citizens of a body politic will depend on how well the minority population is able to assimilate into and culturally behave like the ‘authentic’ citizens of the country where they are claiming their rights. What this understanding of pluralism misses out on is the fact that there is never a sanctified ‘authentic culture’. The very origins of civilisations are founded on hybrid cultures. 

Our mongrel selves 

Born to a black immigrant Kenyan father and white immigrant European mother, had an Indonesian stepfather, schooled in Southeast Asia, was born a Muslim, raised a Christian, and now American President. If there’s anyone who presently singularly personifies the meaning of multiculturalism, it is Barack Hussein Obama. Although he is referred to as the first black president of the USA, reducing his identity to the colour of his skin erases the journey of his parents and his growing up to become what he is today. 

Obama’s story tells us that the world is what it is today because of a very dense history of the intermingling of people from different civilisations and cultures, crossing man-made borders, redrawing them, and creating a hybridity so complex that searching for its origins might be a futile effort. The histories of all countries in this world are multicultural in some way or another. The racial and ethnic similarities between people across continents speak of the great journeys that our ancestors undertook, sometimes for conquests, better prospects, and sometimes as slaves or indentured labourers. It is a history of the triumph of the human spirit that always wants to discover newer lands, and also a history of grave tribulations where entire communities were displaced and evicted from their place of origin either in the name of slavery, or for maintaining racial purity.  

India is a plural and diverse country, but can we imagine that there are Indians with distinct Negroid features? These are the Siddis whose ancestors are from sub-Saharan Africa. While most were sold as slaves and taken to the US, many were brought to India as well. They live in parts of Gujarat and Karnataka. Similarly, in Mizoram and Manipur there are Christians with Mongoloid features called the Bnei Menashe tribe, who are originally Jews from Israel; many of them have returned to Israel. More interestingly, a US court in a 1923 decision said that Indian Asians were of Caucasian origin (as Europeans are), except that they were not white. While the racial origins of peoples are contestable claims, these illustrations throw some light on the extent to which civilisations have mixed with each other through what has been referred to as ‘miscegenation’ leading to the creation of mongrel identities that never have singular origins. 

The realisation that the world is not homogeneous, and the fact that we can find more similarities than differences among disparately located cultures has become more apparent since we’ve called our world a ‘global village’: interconnected not just through technology but also through history. Multiculturalism is the practice of keeping intact this history of exchanges across cultures and civilisations. It is premised on the principle of pluralism that supports cultural, ethnic and racial diversity and works towards a rainbow society.  

While there has always been recognition of this hybridity of cultures, the term ‘multiculturalism’ is of recent origin. Western countries like the UK, France, Canada, USA and Australia have been the primary proponents of the practice of multiculturalism as official government policy. The concept was strategically deployed to achieve two objectives. First, they wanted to symbolically declare that these countries belong to the aboriginal or natives as much as they do to the conquerors, and that the settling communities need to undo the violence and disadvantage that aboriginals have been forced to face through history. Second, when these countries required skilled and cheap labour from Third World countries, one way of attracting potential immigrants was to project themselves as places that are tolerant of other cultures. The practice of multiculturalism was also emblematic of support for human rights of all people, especially cultural rights. In countries like USA, Canada and Australia, which have a big population of ‘native’, ‘aboriginal’ or ‘first nations’ communities, multiculturalism was an attempt at compensating for the historical wrongs committed against them by European settlers.  

There is, however, a distinction between diversity and multiculturalism, although they are generally used synonymously. While diversity means the existence of pluralism, multiculturalism is the official policy that countries undertake to legally protect that diversity. For instance, the constitutional declaration that India is a secular country is the practice of multiculturalism. Countries attain multicultural status in two ways: they either become ‘mosaic’ cultures, or a ‘melting pot’ of cultures. This is best understood by looking at the UK and USA as multicultural countries. The UK is a place where people from all over the world immigrate to form a multicultural ‘mosaic’, where each community carries on with practices traditional to their culture, while they become British citizens. In the USA, on the other hand, immigrants from other cultures are expected to embrace the American way of life -- where cultural differences get mixed into the American ‘melting pot’. The British mosaic was wonderfully depicted in the film My Beautiful Laundrette or the recent bestseller Brick Lane by Monica Ali; and the American ‘melting pot’ was beautifully captured in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala or the wacky Harold and Kumar films.

The predicament of pluralism 

While multiculturalism sounds like a great idea, incidents like the ones discussed at the beginning of the essay have revealed its not-so-rosy side. What began as a progressive practice of plural governance has, on several occasions, been turned into a practice of coercive assimilation. This is evident from the ongoing controversies around the wearing of religious symbols by minority/immigrant populations in Europe, the conflict between the French and immigrant black Algerians in France, and the need to prove ‘American-ness’ to save yourself from arbitrary arrest if you are a brown person in the USA. Anyone bearded and turbaned was labelled Arab and brutally beaten up in the USA, post-9/11. The connection: Arab means Muslim, Muslim means enemy of the USA. Not so different from the logic used by Justice Katju. 

Similarly, in India, the ongoing debate about having a uniform civil code, separate educational institutes for Muslims, and the violence faced by ‘outsiders’ in Mumbai are incidents that rough out the smooth edges of the neat package of multiculturalism. The indiscriminate violence that Biharis and other north Indians have been facing at the hands of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in Mumbai where ‘place of birth’ was the ground on which ‘outsiders’ were being denied access to employment opportunities, despite the fact that India guarantees the right to carry on a profession of one’s choice anywhere in India, is reflective of what happens when we place limits on the understanding of multiculturalism in India’s most diverse city.

All of these indicate that multiculturalism today means: as long as you behave like ‘us’, you will be guaranteed your rights. For the brown/black people from the Third World, entry into the ‘western’ world as immigrants is determined on the basis of how well they can ‘assimilate’, and how ready they are to denounce their own cultures. This operates meticulously at a time when it is the ‘West’ that is strongly advocating the free movement of capital across State borders and at the same time obsessively guarding its borders to stop the entry of those it feels will threaten its ‘manufactured’ multiculturalism. 

A hilarious illustration of the assimilationist tendencies of multiculturalism is evident in a white paper that was released by the Tony Blair government in February 2002, called ‘Secure Border, Safe Haven: Integration with Diversity in Modern Britain’ which was paradoxically aimed at strengthening border control to protect Britain’s multicultural ethos from outside contamination in the wake of September 11. Among other things discussed in the white paper, it raised great concern about what it called ‘bogus marriages’ among the Indian immigrant population. It treated the practice of arranged marriages as a sham, alleging that it is an ‘Indian’ practice and is increasingly being used to secure easy immigration. In response, it suggested that the ‘western’ standard of ‘love’ marriage be put in place to counter the threat of arranged marriages, where couples will be expected to prove their love within a period of two years, after which immigration proceedings for the spouse may begin!  

Communication is the key 

Clearly, multiculturalism’s plot seems to have gone awry only to revive a ‘clash of civilisations’ kind of idea -- where diversity and tolerance have become mere lip-service towards cultural minorities. Given the immense potential of multiculturalism to play a powerful role in establishing tolerant and peaceful communities of diverse peoples, another tool for reconciliation has been added to multiculturalism’s strategies. This is called ‘intercultural dialogue’ and is being widely promoted by international communities like the European Union to work towards creating a diverse, tolerant Europe.

While there is no internationally accepted definition of intercultural dialogue, the European Institute for Comparative Cultural Research provides a useful one which has transnational significance:“Intercultural dialogue is a process that comprises an open and respectful exchange or interaction between individuals, groups and organisations with different cultural backgrounds or worldviews. Among its aims are: to develop a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives and practices; to increase participation and the freedom and ability to make choices; to foster equality; and to enhance creative processes.”

Intercultural dialogue processes or encounters thus go beyond passive tolerance towards other cultures and are aimed at active dialogue about cross-cultural issues through creative means. Intercultural dialogue involves creative engagement that converts challenges and insights into innovative processes and into new forms of cultural expression.

But where does one engage in intercultural dialogue? The idea is to think of both conventional spaces like schools, universities, and other formal forums, but also unconventional spaces which need not even be physical, they can be virtual. A challenge to creating spaces for intercultural dialogue is to make sure that such spaces are open, accessible, without prejudice, non-judgmental, non-adversary and safe for whoever wishes to be a part of such a space. Civil society organisations play an extremely important role in fostering spaces for intercultural dialogue. Youth engagement is pivotal to making these spaces diverse, vibrant and sustainable. Several peace initiatives by organisations like the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, which has conducted student exchange programmes between the two countries, have helped young people look beyond the diplomatic hostility. Use of the arts, films, music and creative writing has been hugely successful in finding out that peace means the same to everyone and is the most missed experience in the lives of people on both sides of the border.

Intercultural dialogue is a small but effective means to realise the power of multiculturalism. And unlike government policies that can take years to be implemented, and are often likely to get politicised, intercultural dialogue can be initiated by anyone who believes in the spirit of multiculturalism, and anywhere. All you need is to start a dialogue on diversity with anyone, and get more people to join in with time. The medium of dialogue can move from just talking to singing to dancing -- as long as it is about celebrating diversity and learning about our similarities and differences and respecting them. How colourful our rainbow is depends on how we want to paint it.

(Oishik Sircar is a human rights lawyer and independent researcher)

Infochange News & Features, August 2009