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Protesters symbolically raise and cross their arms as prisoners, during a demonstration in Marseille, southern France, Wednesday, April 8, 2009. Humanitarian associations demonstrated in front of court houses in major cities around France to protest the rules that put pressure on those who assist illegal immigrants in any way. (CLAUDE PARIS/AP)
Protesters symbolically raise and cross their arms as prisoners, during a demonstration in Marseille, southern France, Wednesday, April 8, 2009. Humanitarian associations demonstrated in front of court houses in major cities around France to protest the rules that put pressure on those who assist illegal immigrants in any way. (CLAUDE PARIS/AP)

Review: Non-fiction

Reviving the dream of diversity Add to ...

The past 10 years have not been kind to defenders of multiculturalism. Around the world, we hear calls that multiculturalism has failed. It may once have been a laudable dream, but experience has proved it to be a “multicultural tragedy,” and only people blinded by political correctness cling to its defence.

Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac want to resuscitate the dream, or at least they want to challenge the pessimism that has accompanied recent debates around ethnic diversity. But rather than jumping directly into the heated arguments for and against multiculturalism, they set out on the road to find places where diversity “succeeds.” They looked to find the “unsung exceptions” where ethnic diversity might be expected to be a source of strife and conflict, but where, in fact, it is accepted and even celebrated.

The book identifies five such examples, from all corners of the globe: the German border region of Schleswig, where Germans and Danes fought for centuries over borders and language rights, but now live in peace; the Russian republic of Tatarstan, which has overcome its historic animosity between Muslim Tatars and Orthodox Russians; the Indian province of Kerala, where Hindus and Muslims live peacefully together; the French city of Marseilles, where North African immigrants feel more welcome than in other parts of France; and the New York City borough of Queens, with its dozens of languages and ethnic groups.

Canadians may be disappointed that we were not included in this list of success stories. In fact, Meyer and Brysac do cite Canada approvingly in several places, and we may have been left out simply because our story is not “unsung.” Canadians have been actively telling (or selling) our diversity story to anyone who will listen, and Meyer and Brysac have looked instead for less-known cases.

They spend a chapter on each of their five success stories, giving a brief history of ethnic relations in the location, and identifying one or more turning points where accommodations were made that helped turn diversity from a threat into a benefit. They flesh out the story with interviews of leading politicians, journalists, academics, artists and activists, whose personal anecdotes of amity and conviviality among the various ethnic and religious groups enliven and illustrate the argument.

Meyer and Brysac are both former journalists – he with The Washington Post, she with CBS News – and they write in the same engaging journalistic style they used successfully in their earlier books on Central Asia ( Tournament of Shadows) and the Middle East ( Kingmakers). They clearly have a strong pro-diversity perspective, but as much as possible they let the local interviewees do the talking. The result is an interesting and encouraging glimpse into five cases where diversity seems to succeed.

As a long-time defender of multiculturalism, I’m sympathetic to the authors’ argument. I agree fully that we need to challenge the idea that ethnic diversity inevitably leads to conflict. As the authors emphasize, human agency matters. It is the decisions we make, individually and collectively, that determine whether diversity succeeds or fails. Their five case studies persuasively show this.

And yet I worry about the strategy of invoking “unsung exceptions.” After all, the very idea that these are exceptions implies that ethnic conflict is the norm. And, indeed, the authors describe these five cases as “harbingers of multiethnic peace in an otherwise feral world,” which have overcome “history’s most pernicious quandary” and “most intractable problem.”

Yet this, too, is a myth that must be challenged. There is nothing normal about ethnic violence. Many people think that Africa is being torn asunder by ethnic conflicts, but studies have shown that if you randomly pick any two neighbouring ethnic groups in Africa, the likelihood that they are involved in violent conflict is infinitesimally small. In describing their five cases as exceptions, Meyer and Brysac may unintentionally be reproducing the myth that ethnic diversity is prone to violence. I would have preferred a more direct attack on the claim that ethnic diversity creates a “pernicious quandary,” rather than trying to identify “exceptions” to the alleged quandary.

Perhaps the authors would respond that what is exceptional about these cases isn’t simply the absence of violence, but rather that diversity “succeeds.” At their best, these cases go beyond mere tolerance or bare co-existence to include positive elements of inter-group solidarity, and this is what makes them harbingers of a better society. The various groups are committed to living together in justice, and to sharing fairly economic opportunities, political representation and cultural recognition.

But if this is the goal – to identify cases of ethnic justice and not merely ethnic peace – then this is an odd mix. The Danish minority in Germany may come close to achieving what ethnic justice requires, but that is not true of the other four cases. North African immigrants may feel more at home in Marseilles than in Paris, but they remain woefully disadvantaged in economic, political and cultural institutions. Here and elsewhere, Meyer and Brysac skip over difficult questions about how we would measure “success” beyond the mere absence of violence.

Without a clearer sense of what counts as success, the book is unlikely to mollify critics of diversity. After all, most critics of multiculturalism are not primarily concerned about violence. When critics say multiculturalism leads to Balkanization, they do not literally mean that it leads to Bosnia-type civil war. Rather, they worry that multiculturalism will drain public life of any real sense of common purpose and solidarity, leaving society as an archipelago of mutually indifferent groups who live together in (mere) peace.

To refute that fear, we need cases not just of ethnic peace, but of multiethnic societies that sustain a meaningful sense of solidarity, justice and collective purpose. Meyer and Brysac may intend some of their examples to fill this need, but they never clearly articulate a standard of success other than the absence of violence. At times, it seems that the main reason why Marseilles is a success is that fewer cars were burned there during the 2005 riots than in Paris.

Similarly, the main reason why Tatarstan is a success is that it avoided the civil war that engulfed Chechnya; and the main reason why Kerala is a success is that it avoided the atrocities between Muslims and Hindus that occurred in nearby Gujarat province.

It is hugely important to understand why some cities or regions remain peaceful while others erupt in violence. But if the aim is to respond to pessimists about multiculturalism, we need a different standard of success. And we are likely to need a different set of examples than those in this book.

Will Kymlicka holds the Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy at Queen’s University. He is the author of Multicultural Odysseys and co-author of Zoopolis.

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