In the annual Milton K. Wong lecture at UBC last night, British author and BBC broadcaster Kenan Malik delivered a damning indictment of European state multicultural policies.
"What multicultural policies do is not empower minority communities, but empower so-called community leaders, who achieve power not because they represent their community, but because they have a relationship with the state," Malik said.
He cited how policies in the English city of Birmingham "created conflicts" by fomenting competition between minority ethnic communities for resources. Rather than prioritizing needs, Malik said, different "umbrella groups" representing communities attempted to maximize their interests.
"Once political power and financial resources become allocated by ethnicity, then people begin to identify themselves in terms of those ethnicities, and only those ethnicities," he claimed. "Imagine you're a secular Bangladeshi living in Birmingham. You don't think of yourself as Muslim. You may not even think of yourself as Bangladeshi. Over time, however, you come to see yourself in those terms, not just because those identities provide you with access to power, influence, and resources, but also because those identities possess a social reality through constant affirmation and confirmation. It is how you are seen, so it is how you come to see yourself."
That, Malik suggested, leads this Bangledeshi to fear and resent African Caribbeans, Sikhs, and Irish, in part because they are competitors for largesse and power, but also because the Bangladeshi's identity needs to be seen as distinct from the identities of other groups.
"The consequence is what the great Indian-born economist Amartya Sen has called plural monoculturalism—a policy driven by the myth that societies are made up of a series of distinct, homogenous cultures that dance around each other."
Sen's 2006 book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, warned of the danger of reducing people to one narrow part of their identity—such as religion—at the expense of their multiplicity of identities, including class, education level, occupation, hobbies, and place of residence. Sen argued in the book that this "reductionism" led politicians like former British prime minister Tony Blair to give greater power to religious leaders to speak on behalf of communities in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
In the lecture last night at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, Malik emphasized that he celebrates the experience of living in a society that is less insular and more cosmopolitan, and he abhors racism. But he also argued that European government multicultural policies make a segmented society a reality.
"The result in Birmingham was to entrench divisions between black and Asian communities to an extent that sparked intercommunal rioting," he said.
He went on to say that the controversy over a 2005 Danish cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad was linked to multicultural policies reinforcing the notion that the most conservative and reactionary voices are "authentic" representatives of communities.
He said there is "no universal Islamic prohibition on the representation of the Prophet"—and claimed it was common to portray him until recently. It still occurs among Shiites.
"The publication of the cartoons in September 2005 caused no immediate reaction, even in Denmark," Malik stated. "Journalists, disappointed by the lack of controversy, contacted a number of imams for their response."
One of the first ones they reached, Ahmed Abu Laban, "seized upon the cartoons to transform himself into a spokesperson for Denmark's Muslims", Malik maintained. Then he added, it only became a major controversy thanks to "considerable arm-twisting by Saudi diplomats" and a four-month campaign.
At the time, Abu Laban's organization was only attracting 1,000 of Denmark's 180,000 Muslims to its Friday services, according to Malik. But because Abu Laban was notorious in that country for supporting Osama bin Laden's attack on the World Trade Center towers, he was a natural person for the journalists to approach.
"Western liberals have come to see figures like Abu Laban as the true, authentic voice of Islam," Malik said. And that's why they see the cartoons as offensive, he claimed.
The result of this thinking, Malik argued, is that progressive voices within diverse communities end up being marginalized. They are regarded as "too westernized, secular, or progressive to be truly of their community".
Malik also claimed that the liberal desire to show respect for all cultures and beliefs leads to the policing of public discourse to reduce friction between cultures.
"One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views," he said. "Leaving aside the question of whether there is anything morally wrong with giving offence—and I don't believe there is—the problem with this line of argument is that what is often regarded as an offence to a community is, in reality, a debate within a community."
Kenan Malik's Milton K. Wong lecture at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts will be broadcast on CBC Radio's Ideas program on June 22 at 9:05 p.m.
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