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Unease over multiculturalism

IT is clear that some major countries in Western Europe, like Germany, Britain and France, believe that multiculturalism as a policy has failed as it has not succeeded in assimilating the Muslim minorities that continue to have a separate identity.

Angela Merkel in Germany, David Cameron in Britain and Nicolas Sarkozy in France have expressed similar views.

Can one blame them? Or is this issue the result of confusion over what multiculturalism means? This column attempts to examine the various facets of the debate that is now beginning to take centre stage in many European capitals. The timing of the debate may be fortuitous but it intersects with another important policy change that will occur in 2014 when international troops begin a drawdown in Afghanistan
The outcome of this debate is extremely important for Pakistan as many of those naturalised in many European nations, particularly Britain, have identity links with Pakistan. Financially too, Pakistan has a stake in and responsibility towards a peaceful outcome of this debate since a substantial portion of its remittances from abroad amounting to almost $15bn annually comes from this category — this is the hard cash that permits governments in Pakistan to remain functional rather than the doles obtained through other sources.

We must be clear on some terms before furthering the discussion. ‘Multiculturalism’ means different things to different persons. At one level, it means the appreciation and acceptance of various cultures that coexist in many countries today. In this sense, ‘multiculturalism’ approximates a respect for diversity.

In a political context, the term means propagating the extension of equitable status to distinct ethnic and religious groups without promoting any specific ethnic, religious or cultural values as central. This is separate from the concept of assimilation or integration.

Thus multiculturalism would lead to respect and a belief in the coexistence of diversity with its various social, religious and cultural forms. On the other hand, ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’ mean the domination and ‘secondarisation’ of ethnic, cultural and religious minorities by an assumed dominant majority.

Clearly, the discourse coming out of Berlin, London and Paris sees ‘multiculturalism’ in terms of integration and the assimilation of minorities. It has nothing to do with multiculturalism per se.

The question that arises is whether Merkel, Cameron and Sarkozy are right in condemning multiculturalism when in effect they want the integration and assimilation of Muslim minorities. This mixing up of the meaning of words can lead to a type of solipsism that can be disastrous for policy formulation and result in dominant majority violence or the rise of fascism in many European countries.

Many countries began as multicultural formations. Take the example of Britain. For a long time, the UK has been a multicultural state composed of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and also a multicultural society made up of a diverse range of cultures and identities. They have coexisted with respect, understanding and tolerance for each other and they preceded large-scale immigration to UK after the Second World War.

For the British, the common core values would be respect for the law, the right of making of laws by parliament, abiding by democratic practices in one’s social conduct and having mutual tolerance and respect for the rights of others.

I think that the ongoing war against Osama bin Laden, his support for the Salafist version of Islam and its propagation in European society as a response to western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq are the major driver of changing European views on this matter.

Secondly, investigation of terrorist acts in Britain, France and Germany has established a close link between the perpetrators and certain minorities in these countries and many of them happen to be Muslim. I feel that this is the real threat that is worrying the European leaders and that is why they are shifting towards a more counter-terrorist approach towards the Muslim minority.

However, this clearly shows that it is not a failure of multiculturalism but has more to do with crime prevention and detection. But one cannot blame western leaders for their cautious approach as they are answerable for the security of their respective populations; they cannot politically afford another terrorist act within their countries. If one takes place, it will provoke a backlash that will be bad both for the minorities and the host countries.

Obviously, the answer lies in greater collaboration between the minorities and their governments and reining in the messengers of death and destruction; they need to be identified and dealt with by the community and the law. These objectives will be best met by an open approach to multiculturalism integrated with better policing based on community support. This can work and succeed.

One of the emerging contingencies projected is the drawdown of international troops in Afghanistan in 2014. Strategic thinkers believe that there can be no question of leaving Afghanistan completely and that a security system must remain in place as a counter-terrorist wall around southern and eastern Afghanistan, both Taliban strongholds.

This area coincides with the demographic location of the Pakhtuns. Planners are proposing the location of fire bases to the north of the Pakhtun belt in Afghanistan and hope that Pakistan will create a similar Maginot line to its northwest in Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to contain the menace.

In many ways, the current argument in European capitals is symbolic of a similar need to create a security wall by regulating Muslim minorities in their midst. It is a time for clear thinking and not panic. Countries like Pakistan, Turkey and Francophile North Africa can and must
assist Europe.

The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.

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