Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Rethinking Our Ideals: Multiculturalism

22 Nov 2011

Originally published in the Daily Princetonian November 22, 2011 as Thoughts from abroad: Rethinking our ideals.

Europe seems confused about multiculturalism. David Cameron and Angela Merkel have both proclaimed in the last 12 months that multiculturalism is dead. This is the same David Cameron that four years ago was celebrating how much immigrants had given the UK. His rationalization now is not that multiculturalism was wrong all along or that a European identity in the 21st century does not include immigrants. In fact, if predictions of population demographics in the coming years are to be trusted Europe needs immigrants now more than ever.

So what is Europe’s argument for letting multiculturalism go? For the most part politicians seem to highlight continued segregation in communities, a lack of cultural integration, tensions between state and nongovernmental community groups — especially Muslim ones. European governments feel they have failed to realize and promote a vision of multiculturalism that is accepted and embraced by all stakeholders.

Point taken. But ground reality suggests the situation might not be as bleak. Ignore for the sake of argument the violent, at times racist, rhetoric that European politicians have employed. In Britain at least that leaves a society with a heavy immigrant population that oft lives in its own areas, keeps its own systems and inhabits little cocoons in larger England. It’s not integrated in the traditional sense, but it’s not hostile in the traditional sense either. You don’t walk into these communities fearing covert political action or underlying violent sentiment. As a South Asian visitor from America studying abroad in England, I feel both immigrants and hosts seem to realize that they are dependent on each other and so both live their lives and do their jobs. You have a pleasant conversation, exchange business, and that’s all.

There are differences in how immigrants and hosts relate to national identity. But it is no longer black and white. Second- and third-generation immigrants are now trying to forge new collective identities for themselves. They see both their own cultural past and Britain’s heritage as things they derive from but don’t belong to. Their identity is fluid and in a process of major reimagination. And the question is: Are they still immigrants? In fact, this question is pertinent to all sorts of individuals who have claim to broadly transnational identities — such as international students, who often integrate into larger societies as part of an academic culture but still aren’t naturalized.

New reports from America have revealed that the NYPD is spying on Muslim students and even on Muslim partners in the community. There is mistrust everywhere, and ethnic and racial profiling is rampant as ever. The new government line for security procedures says that flags are raised not because of ethnicity but because of activity that fits certain patterns. There is little clarification on what that means, but it seems like it could mean this: We don’t target you for a security check because you’re from the Middle East and Muslim; we do it because you take frequent trips to the Middle East and because you have activity with Muslim communities.

That is twisty logic that might work in courtrooms but shouldn’t work in moral debate. For some reason security policies are no longer about protecting fundamental rights — they are targeted solely at combating terrorism. There is a subtle but important difference there. If the moral justification for security policy is to protect human rights — specifically the right to life and protection from external aggression — then racial profiling would be unacceptable, itself being an infringement on equal treatment and non-discrimination policies. But when we make security policy just about anti-terrorism it is easy to fall into the trap of accepting anything that might be politically correct at the time.

Compared to America spying on even its own Muslim citizens, multiculturalism hardly seems as big a problem in Europe. But then I have to stop in my tracks and think of how I answer the question: “How are things in America? Have you ever felt targeted?” I always answer: “Not outside of airports, no.”

That makes me question my viewpoint as a student in both America and Europe. Politicians have made strong statements, governments have taken Islamophobic positions, but I don’t feel targeted in everyday life. I assume that debates about immigrants would be as explosive in regions other than the West if they were important political issues there. I understand that xenophobia is not unique to the West.

But aiding that xenophobia with charged political rhetoric is unique to the West, and it is this that turns xenophobia into racism. It is the difference between an uneasy query into understanding other cultures and specifically targeting them because we are afraid. Somewhere along the line a knee-jerk uneasiness with immigrants has become a more organized, structurally racist viewpoint of national identity.

My question to policymakers is simple: If multiculturalism is dead, what do we replace it with? My claim to a transnational identity is motivated by the feeling that I have learned more and furthered a stronger human understanding by living in different cultures. For me multiculturalism is a romantic idealization of all our principles about human rights and equality coming to fruition. It is not just demographics but something much bigger. I hope others too see reason to protect it.