Open up to a very creative culture

June 14, 2002

The fear that British culture is being 'swamped' has arisen from the absurdity of essentialism, says C. W. Watson.

In debates about multiculturalism, assimilation and integration in contemporary British society, the statements made by government ministers about the need to allay the fears of people who feel they are being overwhelmed ("swamped") by the numbers of immigrants in their midst, and the importance of persuading the immigrant communities out of their isolationism, evoke several responses.

At one end of the political spectrum, the constituency that the assassinated populist politician Pim Fortuyn played to in the Netherlands, the reaction is "Thank God someone has had the courage to say what we are all thinking"; at the other end, the reaction is a feeling of at least puzzlement, if not betrayal: why should Labour ministers appear to be echoing the crude sentiments of discredited politicians of the 1960s?

Disentangling the substance of the debate from the tactical reasons why politicians, commentators and journalists may feel the urge to make provocative statements can be difficult, and frequently the ensuing polemics obscure rather than clarify the issues. Two questions do, however, constantly recur: first, is it true that British (western) culture is being threatened by the establishment of immigrant communities whose cultural traditions are alien and inimical to our own; and, in relation to Muslims in particular, is there something intrinsic to Islam that sets it at odds with British values and traditions and makes the integration of Muslims impossible?

The answer to both those questions is no, but how can we put that conviction across in a manner that is convincing and helpful when large numbers think the answer is yes. Well, let us take the issue of Islam first. The obvious point to make is that there are as many differences in the way individuals and communities practise Islam as there are in the way communities practise Christianity, and that it is simply wrong to take fanatics and extremists in either religion as representative of the majority.

This argument has, of course, been made several times but it is worth repeating. It is also worth making another point against those who argue that the ostensible difference between Muslim communities is all very well, but at the heart of Islam there is a notion of Islam as a complete way of life and that it is not something peripheral that can be separated from mundane secular concerns. Where, for example, Christianity says render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's, Muslims will say that everything is God's.

But devout Christians say the same. Neither they nor their Muslim counterparts want to see the establishment of a theocratic state, but they want to see a form of governance established that is imbued by values that are acceptable to Christian belief, informed by a commitment to love one's neighbour. In this respect, there is no difference between Christian and Muslim aspirations.

However, a common set of values is no guarantee that extremists on one side will be happy to associate with the other. As well-informed Muslim scholars, writers and journalists in Britain today have frequently noted, there are local Muslim communities that hold a narrow restricted view of their religion - compare the strict Christian sects - and whose views of the place of women in society is abhorrent to most Muslims.

The way forward in such circumstances is not through confrontation but through education, argument and persuasion. In this regard, with their recent recommendations for the establishment of local institutions that would facilitate this sort of cooperation, the independent Community Cohesion Review Team, set up by the Home Office, was moving in exactly the right direction.

Once seen in these terms, the absurdity of Samuel Huntington's infamous thesis of a clash of civilisations becomes clear. There is nothing in Islam that is in any way hostile to democratic practice. Huntington and those like him who try to persuade others of what constitutes the core of Islam are guilty of essentialism. They assume that there is some form of immutable essence, by reference to which they can characterise Muslims throughout the world and at all periods of time.

As any anthropology student knows, this notion of a religion divorced from practice and then used to label communities and individuals is absurd: in any religious community, what people believe and how they act on their beliefs will differ across space and time, even though universal reference is made to the same symbols and the same texts.

It is precisely this same fault of essentialising that has led to the first of those concerns that politicians are reacting to: the fear that British culture was being swamped.

British culture does not exist as an immutable thing. Culture is a process: a process of learning about the experiences of the collective past, borrowing selectively from those experiences, adapting them and using their lessons profitably to decide on what might best be done in the present and future.

Until the communications revolution of the 20th century, it could be argued, the past was constituted by what was handed down directly to us - tradition - at the local level of family, class, religious community and, for some, nation, and we made creative use of what we were given and developed it further for succeeding generations.

Now we have access to many more and much broader sources of information. Consequently, the responsibility to examine and scrutinise what we have, what we value and what we want to preserve is made much more complex than ever.

What we must do in response to this complexity is very little different from what we have always done - the difference lying only in the scale - namely, be vigilant and painstaking in our examination of what we hold our values to be. The way to do this is through dialogue and discussion rather than through intolerance and outright rejection.

The government is correct in identifying schools as the principal arena in which to carry out that scrutiny of tradition and the sharing of knowledge and ideas. The initiative taken in relation to the new citizenship curriculum is to be applauded. Our starting point should be education in schools, which must run in parallel to the undertaking of initiatives in the community. Over time, this will lead to openness even within those communities and families - to be found in all ethnic groups and creeds - that are today still caught in blinkered visions confined to their own worlds and shutting out any recognition of others except as demoniacally threatening to them.

I have avoided the word multiculturalism because it risks waving the red rag of liberalism at the raging bulls on the left and the right.

Those on the left, or at least some of them, regard the celebration and tolerance of cultural diversity as at best tokenism, a diversion from the real need to examine carefully the causes of social exclusion throughout contemporary British society, which, in their eyes, are what lie behind tensions and violence between different ethnic groups. This view has a lot to commend it, but it does not explain the particular forms through which those tensions are articulated. There is also a fear on the left that an overcharitable degree of cultural relativism will lead to the condoning of what are or should be regarded as abuses of a set of non-negotiable human rights.

Those on the right share the latter fears, but carry the argument further by referring to the fragmentation of society, ghettoisation, the breakdown of consensus, threats to security and the moral order, that arise when unassimilable migrants become established in large numbers.

Multiculturalism, however, needs to be viewed in a more positive light. The celebration of diversity provides society at large with an opportunity to explore traditions and the experiences that have brought them about. It provides individuals who have grown up within a set of particular values and norms to test them against those shared by others whose versions of what constitutes the good life may differ from their own. From that critical testing and exploration will come sometimes a modification of earlier views, sometimes a strengthening of them. Either way society gains.

It is the failure to be open to new ideas for fear that they may expose one's own beliefs and attitudes as hollow that is the danger both to individuals and to society. The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates, a sentiment with which few of us would disagree.

C. W. Watson is senior lecturer in anthropology, University of Kent at Canterbury, and author of Multiculturalism , published by the Open University Press, 2000.

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