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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 220
May 28, 2011

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'Multiculturalism' debate and European Muslim identity

Kazi Haque

Like many social concepts, 'multiculturalism' has multiple definitions varying from one source to another. Such definitions refer to anything from people of different communities living side-by-side to ethnic or religious groups leading completely separate lives. The Oxford English Dictionary offers a broader definition of multiculturalism as the “characteristics of a multicultural society” and “the policy or process whereby the distinctive identities of the cultural groups within such a society are maintained or supported.” There's a more comprehensive definition from UNESCO that defines multiculturalism “as a systematic and comprehensive response to cultural and ethnic diversity, with educational, linguistic, economic and social components and specific institutional mechanisms.” This is the definition of multiculturalism for this write-up since it complies most with general body of research on the subject.

Multiculturalism was regarded for a long time as an effective governance approach in culturally and ethnically diverse contexts as Europe until recently when some major European leaders denounced it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy - all are saying in unison that multiculturalism has 'failed' causing furor in all sides of political divide throughout Europe. This wave of political rhetoric against multiculturalism began with Angela Merkel's outburst that “this approach (multiculturalism) has failed utterly.” She was soon followed by David Cameron, “we failed to provide a vision of society (through multiculturalism) to which they (immigrants) feel they want to belong.” Then Nicolas Sarkozy enthusiastically joined the bandwagon: “yes, it's (multiculturalism) a failure.”

But is multiculturalism really not working? If not, why not? What underlies the dynamic of this 'failure'? Does the problem lies with the very model of multiculturalism as proposed by the three European leaders or is it rather the faulty (or half-hearted) application of this model and/or conflicting ideas about its elements? This writing tries to explore these questions. My discussions will be mainly in the light of Cameron's above mentioned speech with occasional references to the other leaders. Because he presented an extensive criticism of multiculturalism while Merkel and Sarkozy made occasional statements. Moreover, his comments came at a security conference in Munich where all the major western powers were present.

What is interesting to note is that Cameron's Munich speech made much more sense until it reached the parts on multiculturalism. He alleged that the root of terrorist attacks lies in the ideology of Islamic extremism but emphasized that it cannot be equated with Islam. He recognized that Islam as a religion is peacefully followed by its billion plus followers. The Islamic extremists who are driven by a particular interpretation of Islam are a small minority, he said. He even asserted that western values and Islam can be entirely compatible. Moreover, like a social scientist, he linked extremist inclination of some immigrant Muslim youth with their confused identity perception. But from thereon he himself confused reality while seeking a redress of extremist elements among immigrant Muslims.

Cameron said that “the doctrine of state multiculturalism” is a strategy that “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.” He argued that there was “hands-off tolerance” to unacceptable practices of non-white communities (mainly Muslims) that encouraged extremism and then stressed on a stronger national identity as the way out.

(To be continued…)

The writer is senior researcher and faculty of BRAC University's Institute of Governance Studies (IGS).






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