Kenan Malik: “I am critical of multiculturalism precisely because I defend diversity”
“What’s wrong with multiculturalism?” This is the question that English writer, Kenan Malik, will try to answer on Sunday June 3 at a conference organized by the Laurier Institution. Before his lecture, the author of From Fatwa to Jihad (2009) and Strange Fruit (2008) compares the European and Canadian systems of integration.
What’s the difference between multiculturalism and cultural diversity?
The problem is the constant confusion between two notions: what I call the lived experience of diversity and multiculturalism as a political process. The experience of living in a society transformed by mass immigration, a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan, is positive. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.
In an article you said “It’s good to be different’ might be the motto of our times” (New Humanist, summer 2002). You come across as being against multiculturalism. Explain your position.
I am critical of multiculturalism precisely because I defend diversity. Diversity is important because it allows us to expand our horizons, think about different values, beliefs and lifestyles and decide which are better and which are worse. It’s important because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can, paradoxically, help create a more universal language of citizenship.
But it is precisely such dialogue that multiculturalism undermines by policing the boundaries of those ethnic boxes in the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’. It has allowed many on the right to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. It has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity.
In the U.K. and Germany, multiculturalism is problematic. What happened there?
Multiculturalism has developed in different ways in Britain and Germany. The consequences, however, have been the same. Policy makers have tended to treat minority communities as homogenous groups, ignoring class, religious, gender and other differences, and leaving many within those communities feeling misrepresented and, indeed, disenfranchised. The people who have gained the most are the so-called ‘community leaders’ who are often unrepresentative, [and] usually highly conservative. In both countries multicultural policies have led to the creation of fragmented societies, the alienation of many minority groups and the scapegoating of immigrants.
Compared to multiculturalism in Britain, France has a concept of assimilation which leads to their own kind of societal. Do you also think that assimilation is a bad thing?
There are two notions of assimilation that get confused. On the one hand, assimilationism has come to mean the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, not as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. On the other it has become an argument for cultural homogeneity, the insistence that minorities give up their differences, because too great a degree of cultural diversity would undermine social cohesion and national unity. In principle, French policy is about the former. In practice it is about the latter. The consequence is that ‘assimilation’ has become a means of legitimizing discrimination against, and hostility to, certain groups, in particular Muslims.
Canada appears proud of its immigration policy and multiculturalism. Do you think that European countries should follow this example?
Canada has a very illiberal immigration policy, cherry picking middle class professionals and working hard to keep out the supposedly ‘wrong’ kind of immigrant. At the same time it is making increasing use of ‘temporary workers’ who have now become the biggest source of new labour. They have few rights and little chance of citizenship. They are, in other words the equivalent of the European ‘guestworker’. The same kinds of problems that Europe has faced may well be in store for Canada, too.
As for multiculturalism, I remain skeptical about how successful the Canadian model has been and will be. Community relations in Canada have certainly remained relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, many confrontations that have marked European multicultural tensions – such as over free speech issues or the wearing of the burqa – are present in Canadian society, too.
In your opinion, what is the perfect system?
It would be to marry multiculturalism, in the sense of enhancing the lived experience of diversity, with assimilationism, in the sense of the resolve to treat everyone as citizens. In practice, European nations have done the very opposite. Different countries have institutionalized either multiculturalism, in the sense of policies that force minorities into ethnic and cultural boxes, or assimilationism, in the sense of equality as meaning the giving up of cultural or religious differences. In both cases, European nations have rejected the best aspects of the two outlooks, and institutionalized the most wretched parts.
What’s Wrong with Multiculturalism? A European Perspective
Sun., June 3, 2012 at 7:00 pm
Chan Shun Concert Hall
FREE tickets. Available day of event only, at the Chan Centre Ticket Office.
For more information: 604 822 1444 / www.thelaurier.ca