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Kenan Malik

Open minds, not ethnic boxes Add to ...

We Are All Multiculturalists Now, observed Nathan Glazer, a former critic of pluralism, in his 1998 book. He's right. Respect for difference and the celebration of pluralism have come to be seen as the hallmarks of a modern liberal democracy.

And yet, over the past decade, we've also become skeptical about the very enterprise. Immigration, especially Muslim immigration, has come to be seen, in the wake of 9/11, as form of "colonization" that, in the words of American writer Christopher Caldwell, "is not enhancing" Western culture but "supplanting it."

Part of the reason that it has become difficult to make sense of this debate is that, in thinking about multiculturalism, we have come to confuse two distinct concepts - the idea of diversity as lived experience, on the one hand, and of multiculturalism as a political process, on the other. The experience of living in a society transformed by mass immigration, a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan, is obviously very positive. It's a case for open borders and open minds.

As a political process, however, multiculturalism has come to mean something different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It's a case not for open borders and minds but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

This conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. From the success of the far-right Sweden Democrats in the recent Swedish election to the campaign against the Ground Zero mosque, politics is being driven by fear and resentment of the Other. On the other hand, it has led many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon their attachment to free speech and secularism in the name of defending diversity.

The irony of multiculturalism as a political process is that it undermines much of what is valuable about diversity as lived experience. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to think about different values, beliefs and lifestyles, to challenge received wisdoms, and to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create a more universal language of citizenship. But it's precisely such dialogue and debate that multiculturalism as a political process tries to suppress in the name of "tolerance" and "respect."

Take, for instance, the debate about free speech. "If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict," British sociologist Tariq Modood argues, "they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each other's fundamental beliefs to criticism."

From a multiculturalist viewpoint, public discourse needs policing both to minimize friction between cultures and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in different cultures. Hence the argument for legislation against hate speech and the demand that we shouldn't give offence to other cultures or faiths.

I take the opposite view. It's precisely because we live in a plural society that we need the most robust attitude to free expression. In plural societies, it's both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. It's inevitable because, where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable and we should deal with those clashes openly rather than suppress them. And it's important because any kind of social progress invariably means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The right to "subject each other's fundamental beliefs to criticism" is the bedrock of an open, diverse society.

What drives the arguments on both sides of the debate is fear - fear of cultural engagement, fear of the Other. To get away from such politics of fear, we need to oppose multiculturalism as a political process, the demand that people be placed in ethnic boxes, and the restrictions such policies place on individual freedom. But we also need to defend diversity as lived experience - and all that goes with it such as mass immigration, freedom of worship and expression, and the insistence of equal treatment for all.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer, broadcaster and senior visiting fellow in the Department of Political, International and Policy Studies at the University of Surrey.

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