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Multiculturalism through the looking glass

2011 February 10
by Paul Vallely

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

The word this week is multiculturalism. It has as many definitions as there are experts to give them. Enthusiasts say it is about people of different races and faiths living side by side, without surrendering their identities. Critics insist it is fostering a divided society which allows minorities to behave in ways that should not be tolerated in a civilised democracy.

Meaning has shifted over the decades. In the Sixties it was an enriching “live and let live” tolerance of steelbands, saris and samosas. Then in the Eighties it expanded to the idea of celebrating different cultures as a way of countering routine racial discrimination. But after 9/11 hope turned to fear and the emphasis in multiculturalism shifted subconsciously from valuing diversity to avoiding conflict.

A similar shift seems to have taken place more rapidly within David Cameron. In opposition in 2007 he went to Birmingham to spend two days and a night with a Muslim family in Sparkbrook. To make a more cohesive society, he wrote afterwards, integration must be “a two-way street”. Minority communities had responsibilities but so did wider society to offer attractive values and quality of life. “Many British Asians see a society that hardly inspires them to integrate,” he wrote, quoting Edmund Burke: “To make men love their country, their country ought to be lovable”.

Ironically he warned against the “lazy” use of language which fuels demonisation of Muslims by routinely associating the word Islamic and terrorist. “By using the word ‘Islamist’ to describe the threat, we actually help do the terrorist ideologues’ work for them.” We need to guard against “soft bigotry”, he said, concluding “we cannot bully people into feeling British; we have to inspire them”.

As prime minister he appears to have forgotten what he learned in opposition. His recent speech in Munich linking the “failings” of multiculturalism to terrorism handed a propaganda coup to the extremists of the English Defence League as they launched one of the biggest anti-Islam rallies ever staged in Britain. Mr Cameron’s speech was full of the dog-whistle “soft bigotry” phrases to appease the fearful Tory right (and “muscular liberals”) who objected to last month’s warnings by the Tory chairman, Baroness Warsi, that Islamophobia is being sub-consciously legitimised in polite British society.

No reasonable person among Britain’s ethnic minorities is against the “British values” set out by Mr Cameron in his speech – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. Honour killings and forced marriages (as distinct from arranged ones) are not cultural practices; they are crimes. And, yes, it makes more sense for local councils to fund English lessons for Asian women (if Coalition cuts don’t prevent that) than endlessly produce leaflets in a dozen languages.

But to affirm the worth of individuals from minority groups, and celebrate what is good in their cultures (or better than our own, like their respect for old people) is a positive not a negative. You don’t accept the values of the community until you feel that community values you, says the seasoned interfaith activist. Fr Phil Sumner.  We want an integrated society which is a salad bowl of harmonious and complementary difference, not the bland homogenised soup of assimilation.

from The Church Times 

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