Musing on the death of western multiculturalism

Western countries should revise their model of citizenship by rendering it into an active model, allowing the impetus for integration to come from demonstrating the tremendous soft power of liberal societies.
Wajahat Qazi
21 February 2011

Cecile Laborde has opened up an important debate, not just for Britain. But it is a debate which can determine whether Britain is a society that turns inwards, or becomes a confident vibrant democracy and polity at ease with itself. Laborde touches on the issue of faith schools, whose continuation in their present form and modus operandi might lead to parallel societies at odds with each other. The underlying question here is in what way faith-based schools replicate and transmit the cumulative tradition of any particular community. An uncritical acceptance of any legacy or tradition may become obscurantist, going against the grain of liberal societies. The function of a liberal education, as we know, is, among other things, to imbue in the pupil a sense of individual autonomy, critical thinking, openness, and respect for diversity. Thus a liberal education is necessarily at odds to some degree with the religious instruction imparted in faith-based schools. But it is all a question of degree.

State-sponsored, faith-based schools may lead to individuals being disconnected from their social milieus. They may nurture ambivalent floating individuals at home with neither their own tradition and culture nor the culture and values of their host societies. Even worse, this approach can lead to a sullen and resentful pool of individuals, open to the arguments of radical Islam. These fears are probably what David Cameron had in mind when he publicly ruminated on the ills plaguing Muslim Britain and hence the broader society and polity. He was echoing Angela Merkel’s disdain and fatalism with regard to multiculturalism in Germany.

However, the issue is not as clear cut as this. Religion lends meaning to many peoples’ lives and coercive attempts to wean them off this source of sustenance and of identity can equally lead to a negative reaction. Religiously oriented people will want aspects of their faith to be transmitted to their progeny. But, in the case of Muslims, what kind of Islam should be transmitted and how? How far has the policy-making elite of Britain thought through the challenge of using its subsidies to encourage faith-based schools that impart a broad-based education to people - the kind that enables them to negotiate their faith and their liberal milieus rather seamlessly.

Britain and Germany

Moreover, it would be a mistake to see a parallel between Britain and Germany. Britain - proud pioneer of ‘state multiculturalism’ - clearly departs from the condition of Germany, where it is the conundrum raised by the gastarbeiter (or guest workers) overlain with problems engendered by the deepening and widening of the European Union and the structural forces of globalization that have suddenly catalyzed a social problem. Such distinctions have to be made before the entire multicultural enterprise is designated flawed and replaced by some alternative policy straitjacket or edifice that goes against diversity and pluralism. Having said this, some of the assumptions undergirding multiculturalism and its policy implications are due for a comprehensive review.

The evolving consensus in the west about the ills or pitfalls of multiculturalism we are told, relate to the failure of state-encouraged or more accurately state- patronized multiculturalism to inculcate the ‘we’ feeling among Muslims who for whatever reasons of persecution or flight from failed states - find themselves in the west. This multiculturalism, it is alleged, has failed to make citizens out of Muslims in the west. It must be pointed out that this state of affairs, intrinsically alarming as it might be, does not accrue from Islam or the nature of the Islamic faith. The failure lies in the lackadaisical approach towards accommodating the presence and existence of Muslims living in western societies. In the final analysis, it is an educational failure. By that I mean that the nature of open societies, the rights, duties and responsibilities accruing from living in open societies have not been adequately explained to Muslims in the west. Having said this, I am not for one moment suggesting that western societies owe Muslims an ‘explanation’. But for reasons of prudence and sagacity, it would have been better if the nature of liberalism and open societies had been made clearer to Muslims in an idiom that could be understood by them.

Abandon the entire project of multiculturalism and you abandon with it the promise which is implicit in multiculturalism of a renewed or a fresh relationship between Islam and the west. A relationship hitherto articulated at best in the idiom of colonialism, coloured by colonialism and its legacy, not to mention the historical memory of the crusades, has now at last turned the corner into a contemporary encounter between Islam and the west, mediated by globalization. This offers a meeting point which for the first time could be frictionless, from a long durée point of view. It can be a good both for Muslims and by extension the host societies: good because some of the stubbornly persisting accretions that have been built upon the Islamic tradition, thanks to vested interests and the power of the mullahs, may be given short shrift by this contemporary encounter. Reform of some Islamic ideas and practices, long overdue, but resisted by the corpus of mullahs and their patrons within the Islamic world, may take place in the west. The doors of Ijtihad (roughly translated as independent and enlightened reasoning), frowned upon of course by extremists and fanatics, may actually be opened in the west - the ancillary benefit of liberalism and the liberal tradition.

Moreover, the virtues of toleration and respect for diversity - virtues that the Quran respects and enjoins - could become a reflex once more among Muslims living in the west. Long used to living in mono-cultural societies, unfortunately some Muslims have lost this virtue and in some cases or instances may even aggressively pursue a majoritarian agenda - Taliban rule in Afghanistan springs to mind here. But it is precisely in multicultural and liberal societies that an appreciation of diversity, tolerance and toleration, with the ability to countenance diverse points of view, is most likely to emerge, building on the legacy of multiculturalism albeit in a new and profoundly revised form.

In our globalized world, with diasporic movements across cultures, these enlightened Muslims can represent the west as it is to their fellow-Muslims worldwide, rather than the warped images which reduce the west to a crude caricature.  This new model of multiculturalism would have to take as its starting point the kind of integration which assuages Muslim fears that living in the west does not necessarily entail the loss of their faith. As important, it should lay the onus for integration into the broader society on both Muslims themselves as well as on the members of the broader societies too. In other words, western countries should revise their model of citizenship by rendering it into an active model, allowing the impetus for integration to come from within, by demonstrating the tremendous soft power of liberal societies.

Alternative models of crude assimilation may well send the wrong message to Muslims both within and without western societies. A message that only confirms the fears of some Muslims that the west is embarked on an all-out assault on Islam can only render the passive majority of Muslims, if not open to the suasions of extremists, rather more sympathetic to their warnings. This is a message that does not need to be sent out at this delicate moment of tension between the Islamic worlds and the west. So Mr. Cameron, a review is what is called for, but not a jettisoning of the multiculturalism paradigm.

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