Interaction man

November 24, 2006

Bhikhu Parekh, the political philosopher, asserts the importance of multiculturalism in a post-9/11 world in his latest book. Michael North reports

Bhikhu Parekh, who is normally softly spoken, becomes suddenly animated when describing one colleague's reaction to seeing Muslim women wearing veils in the UK. "He lost restraint and said: 'Whenever I see a woman in full veil walking through the streets of London, I lose my balance and feel like going up to her and tearing the veil off.' And he said he would do it not just for her sake but for his country's sake, because we have undergone several hundred years of struggle to get women their freedom, and now we have this walking prison."

Parekh says that he "understands" this view but does not share it. The wearing of the veil "involves issues of individual freedom and communal autonomy".

He has worked tirelessly for years to promote harmony between Britain's diverse ethnic groups, including a stint as deputy chair of the Commission for Racial Equality during the Salman Rushdie fatwa of 1989. His loyal public service has been rewarded. From humble beginnings in Gujarat, India, Parekh now finds himself ennobled (Baron Parekh of Kingston upon Hull), as well as a fellow of the British Academy, and a recipient, among many other accolades, of the 1999 BBC's Special Lifetime Achievement Award and the Isaiah Berlin Prize for lifetime contribution to political philosophy.

His book Colour, Culture and Consciousness (1974), in which he writes perceptively about the differences between the English and Indians, has a blurb on its flyleaf that could stand as his mission statement. It says:

"This book is indispensable to everyone interested in creating a peaceful and culturally rich society in Britain."

Now aged 71, Parekh, professor of political philosophy at Westminster University and an emeritus professor at Hull University, is about to address the post-9/11 geopolitical landscape and its impact on multi-ethnic societies in a book scheduled for publication next year.

He outlines his central thesis: "Cultures can become prisons, and for us to be able to experience freedom we need to imagine ourselves outside of our culture, which we cannot do unless we have access to other cultures. It's what I call an interactionist view of multiculturalism, and that interaction creates a space in which we are able to decide what we want to make of ourselves."

This prescription for a harmonious society is, according to Ralph Grillo, emeritus professor of anthropology at Sussex University, "easy to say, but in practice extremely difficult to achieve". Grillo asks: "How can we foster individual and collective engagement in intercultural dialogue and, above all, get beyond deeply engrained defensive barriers between cultures? These are very difficult questions to which Parekh and others have yet to find an answer."

But Parekh believes a new "space" for interaction is provided by countless formal and informal encounters in a relaxed and confident multicultural society and can be encouraged through imaginative public policies. He says such dialogue promotes new identities and deepens our sense of freedom.

"One question I ask is: given that we have several interrelated identities, why does one identity, especially the religious, become not only obsessive but is defined in an exclusive and militant manner?"

Parekh accepts that global events such as the Iraq War, which he says was "based on lies, moral arrogance and deception", intensify Muslim self-consciousness. "I feel profoundly disturbed when I hear people are prepared to blow up trains and planes. There has to be a sense of gratitude to the country in which people have decided to make their home. What is the answer: to drive Muslims further into their ghettos or to create conditions in which they can identify with the country?"

Rethinking Multiculturalism was first published in 2000, an annus mirabilis for Parekh, in which he was made a life peer and served as chair of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, which published a 400-page report. He calls it a high point in his life as a "man of ideas and action".

His rise to the top of British academia and society has been extraordinary - he was the first in his family to go to school, let alone university. He studied political philosophy at Bombay University, where he was encouraged by the scholar Usha Mehta, a close ally of Gandhi, to study in the UK.

Parekh's father used his life's savings to finance his son's education.

A PhD thesis on Jeremy Bentham at the London School of Economics led to his first two books. One of two volumes on Marx followed, though before the second was published Parekh, who had by then embarked on his long career at Hull University, was invited to become vice-chancellor of Baroda University in India. It marked the start of five years of intense research and three books on the life and ideas of Gandhi.

"As a child, I had absorbed so much of the Mahatma. He influenced every part of Indian life. When I went back to India, I responded to him afresh."

Parekh found that his new subject was very different from the other political philosophers he had studied. "I found I was changing in the process of writing about him. Gandhi asked what right we had to waste natural resources and use wealth for personal gratification. Once you agree, you incur a moral commitment to live it. I found myself thinking I didn't want a car. My attitude to money also changed, I came to believe that beyond one's simple needs, one should aim to be a trustee of everything one has on behalf of others. This is too demanding, but one could try within one's limits."

One striking consequence of these beliefs is that Parekh and his US-based brother have set up a foundation to help causes in the US, UK and India.

They sponsor two doctoral scholarships for Indian students at Oxford University; a postdoctoral fellowship at the LSE; cancer and mental health research in India; and they have just donated nearly £20,000 for a mobile hospital for Indian villages.

Like his moral hero, Gandhi, Parekh is determined to keep on responding to the challenges of the world. He hopes in future to address some of the problems that India faces: "It is changing in a disturbing way. Unbridled capitalism is the dominant ethos, and social justice is absent."

But first he wants his new book to "say something philosophically interesting and practically useful. In the new millennium, we have started a hot and cold war that takes on almost every country and is blunting our moral sensibilities. If we are not careful, we might destroy everything we value. Any human being who has something to say to bring sanity to this increasingly depressing world has a duty to say it."

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