THE BLOG
09/19/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

Multiculturalism: It's Complicated

AP

There is a moment in Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt's The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism, when an Indian-Malaysian interview subject leans toward Eriksen and entreats him to describe the Malaysian multiculturalism as an "apartheid." He invokes the infamous example of the erstwhile South Africa to underscore the distinct disadvantage his family experiences as a religious and ethnic minority in their native county with its "hard" form of multiculturalism. This provocative claim raises many questions about how multiculturalism is experienced in different contexts around the world.

The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism, which appeared in Danish in 2008, in French this year and in May 2012 in English on Telos Press, examines the complexities of multiculturalism both as a policy and as a cultural practice. This wide-ranging book will appeal to many different audiences with its field studies, interviews, cultural reflections, theoretical elaborations, discussions of the Danish Muhammad cartoons, laws against blasphemy, hijab, the Islamic ban on apostasy, and the limits of the freedom of religion.

Whereas in the U.S. multiculturalism has been steadily integrated into the K-12 public school curriculum, is widely adopted in universities and in the private sector as a research agenda, a pedagogical ideal and an employee mandate, multiculturalism remains obscure as a cultural agenda. Eriksen and Stjernfelt elaborate the different kinds of multiculturalism that exist in various national and political contexts, demonstrating that multiculturalism remains a highly contested concept.

What most audiences in the West recognize as "multiculturalism" Eriksen and Stjernfelt describe as a "soft" multiculturalism, where the individual can choose to live in whatever way she or he wishes without discrimination from society. There is also, however, as the authors show in their fieldwork in Malaysia, a "hard" multiculturalism, in which a community may legally and socially enforce its own mores and traditions to demand the conformity of all individuals, both from the dominant culture and minorities alike. The existence of this harder form of multiculturalism proves eye-opening to anyone who has ever conceived of it as merely an approach to cultural freedom and self-expression.

On September 7-10, 2012 they attended the Telos in Europe conference in L'Aquila, and were kind enough to answer questions about their book.

How did this book originate?

Jens-Martin Eriksen: Our cooperation began with some field studies in Bosnia after the civil war. We wanted to investigate the ethnic strife that eventually led the country into chaos, and we ended up writing two books about why people from different groups began to kill each other and the mechanisms that led people to accept "ethnic cleansing" as legitimate. We asked such questions as, why did the country fall apart when the communists lost control? What are the consequences when politics are being organized along ethnic lines?

The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism is a logical continuation of the field studies of ethnic war in the Balkans. We examine what happens when ethnicity shapes politics and the consequences lead to a deterioration of a free public sphere. There is, to be sure, much multicultural mystique in the West. The ideal is often very beautiful, but some versions and practices can become politically reactionary, and this might be painful to accept.

How did you choose Malaysia?

JME: Malaysia offers an interesting example of multiculturalism in a form most Westerners have little considered. It's a "hard" multiculturalism. Religion runs along the ethnic lines (just like in Europe). Politics is also divided along ethnic and religious lines. There are different laws for different groups. The Muslims are privileged when it comes to the real estate market as they are allowed to buy apartments to a lower price than others. They are also privileged when it comes to education as they enjoy priority entrance to universities over the minorities. When politics deteriorate into a sort of ethnic struggle for privilege and power nothing can be changed. The system will be petrified. You cannot even criticize the system without being accused of hate speech under the sedition law. Journalists can be taken into custody for up to two years without any rights. Newspapers can be closed down without any possibility for appeal in a legal process. These are the conditions for politics and the public sphere in a so-called "hard" version of multiculturalism with strong group rights. The endstation of this multicultural development is really a sort of apartheid. It's difficult for individuals to mix with someone from another group than their own. In case someone wants to marry a person from another group, say a Muslim individual, the non-Muslim will have to convert. But no one is allowed to leave Islam. If you try you will end up in a re-education camp. It's a system, which is meant to preserve religion from influences of modernity and fence people in their own culture.


What other contexts might you consider? Do you want to weigh in on Breivik?

JME: We have written about Breivik in different contexts, including in City Journal. He belongs to the extreme right in Europe, it is quite clear. He is extremely Christian culturalist -- he is a Christian terrorist. It is a manageable fact to understand, although it may be painful for other Christians to face this. But so it is. He has written extensively about it in his 1500 page manifesto. Breivik is also inspired by the so-called Eurabia ideology that imagines a conspiracy between European politicians and bureaucrats with Muslim Arabs. He propagates an extreme example of culturalism in his manifesto. This is a virulent trend in the world today where culture and religion is being mobilized for an ideological struggle.

Can you comment on the recent crisis surrounding the controversial Egyptian American anti-Islam film, The Innocence of Muslims?

Frederik Stjernfelt: The present crisis is, in many respects, a repetition of the Cartoon Crisis of 2006. Then, some Danish drawings were taken as a pretext for Middle Eastern protests and attacks on embassies; now an American film clip serves the same function. We know that in 2006, the apparently spontaneous riots were, to a large degree, the result of meticulous planning on the part of the OIC and especially Egypt. The question is who are the instigators this time -- at least some weeks of planning seems to have taken place. The perpetrators seem to be terrorist grouplets, in Libya, while the Egyptian case seems to be inflamed by the strong extreme right-wing Salafist party, forcing the somewhat more moderate government party of the Muslim Brotherhood to take an anti-American and more radical stance.

Just like the 2006 crisis, a long time elapsed since the original publication of the material claimed defamatory and the gradual escalation of the crisis, to a large extent through the Internet. So it is important not to buy the simple narrative of outrageous, offensive material which, automatically, triggers spontaneous riots among shocked believers, as if the rioters were reaction machines and not responsible human beings. But there are also differences. Until now, the amount of protesters seem lower than in 2006 -- maybe the Muslim world is slowly accommodating to open societies where no cultures can enjoy special protections. Also the character of the Western object chosen as an anti-Muslim symbol has changed. Then, it was rather harmless standard newspaper cartoons -- this time it seems a deliberate attempt at provocation, an extremely amateurish film first addressing a real problem -- the persecution of Copts by Islamists in present-day Egypt -- followed by the painfully gross satire of Muhammad. This shows that in the present climate of tension, very simplistic provocations will do -- or, seen from the Islamist side, almost any Western item addressing Islam can be used in the radicalization game and its culturalist simplifications, pitting "Islam" against "The West," as if all Americans supported the stupid film and as if all Muslims took part in the radicalization power play among competing Islamist elites.

Thank you for that interesting comparison of this crisis to the Danish cartoon crisis, which you also examine in the book, can you elaborate on your position?

FS: In the book, we picked the cartoon crisis as an example of the multiculturalist claim for special group rights -- in this case the alleged right of certain groups to be protected against so-called "defamation," that is, against free speech.

But cultural traditions should not be exempted from fundamental human rights criteria. Other examples of special group rights go all the way from rather innocent small cases -- the exemption of British Sikhs from the legislation requiring bikers to wear helmets -- and to infringing on basic political rights of the "cultural" members themselves, such as the demand for poorer civil rights for women in many cultures or the demand for punishment of apostates in branches of Islam.

The cultural requirements of a curtailment of free speech seem particularly contentious in this respect. The Danish case is but the tip of the iceberg of a vast, ongoing campaign against free speech, beginning with the Rushdie affair in the late 1980s and continuing to this day.


In the book you discuss the idea of culturalism at length, can you elaborate the connection between this idea and the types of multiculturalism you discuss?

FS: We define culturalism as the ideology that individuals are thoroughly and irrevocably determined by their culture. This is an idea which obviously goes against a basic idea of modern liberal democracy, namely the liberty of the individual. Culturalism comes in different variants, which may, themselves, conceive of each other as enemies. It originated in German romanticism, blossomed in 19th-century nationalisms, further spread in the 20th century through anthropology and multiculturalism. For example, nationalism firmly belongs on the political right wing, which claims monoculturalism as a political norm: all members of a polity should belong to the same culture in a narrow sense. Strangely, other variants of culturalism have recently developed on the left wing in the west -- "hard" multiculturalism, which claims, just like nationalism, that cultures are incompatible, but that they should made to coexist in the same polity by political means. This, then, gives rise to the idea that the only way to make incompatible cultures coexist in the same state is by admitting them special group rights, effectively giving rise to parallel societies in that state. So monocultural nationalism and multiculturalism of course disagree because of their different notions of what may constitute a viable polity -- but they agree on their more basic cultural foundation: that cultures are fundamentally incompatible. This is why hard multiculturalism takes us in the direction of apartheid states with different sets of rights for different groups.

As against that, we point to the liberal heritage from the Enlightenment, claiming that equal rights for all individuals is a sounder basis for a modern society. It is even the best political system as yet, in regard to allowing for a wide co-existence of different cultures -- it might, for that reason, be called soft multiculturalism. But all cultures co-existing in such a society, of course, must renounce on special rights running counter to basic democratic principles such as rule of law, democracy, human rights, free speech, etc.

Do either of you have a position that could avoid some of the pitfalls of the various kinds of multiculturalism that you describe?

FS: Our basic idea is that you should not attack multiculturalism from a nationalist position, that will result in an internecine war over culturalism. Instead you should deflate the importance of culture. After all, culture is but only one root to individual identity among many -- race, class, gender, sexual orientation, education, geographical origin, perhaps even an individual's preferred pop group, football team and political and philosophical conviction. It is a strange reduction to believe that all these different identity aspects should come out of culture rather than out of the free deliberations and choices of the individual.

The Democratic Contradictions Of Multiculturalism
by Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt
Telos Press
Paperback | 410 pages
$24.95

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.