November 2, 2012 § 4 Comments
The Canadian government is in the process of setting up an Office of Religious Freedom. Religious freedom is about the right of people to hold certain beliefs, and to act upon them, so long as in so doing they do not harm others or discriminate against them in the public sphere. It is the right to be free from interference from other faiths and from the state. For a government to set up an official body to oversee religious freedom is precisely to interfere in matters of faith. The state setting up an Office of Religious Freedom is a bit like a fox setting itself up as protector of the hen coop.
The state promotion of religious freedom, the political scientist Elizabeth Hurd has pointed out, ‘may add fuel to the fire of the very sectarian conflict that religious freedom claims to be so uniquely equipped to transcend’:
The top-down promotion of religious freedom creates a world in which religious difference becomes more real and more politicized. It draws lines between communities, horizontally and hierarchically. It presses dissenters, doubters and families with multiple religious affiliations to choose a side. It compels them to define their identities in religious terms: “Are you this or that?”
This is unhealthy for democracy, and for religion… Religious freedom needs to be reimagined as a site of resistance against powerful authorities, rather than a form of discipline imposed by them, funneling people into predefined religious boxes and politicizing their differences. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 10, 2012 § 5 Comments
How times change. There I was sitting in the Olympic stadium with my daughter. She had red, white and blue braids in her hair and was enthusiastically waving a Union Jack. When I was her age I would far rather have burned the flag than waved it. The Union Jack was then the property of jingoists and Empire loyalists, on the one hand, and of neo-fascists on the other. If I saw a pub or a housing estate with Union Jacks flying, it signaled to me ‘enemy territory’.
Not only would I not wave the flag, I would not, in those days, have passed Norman Tebbitt’s ‘cricket test’ either. Growing up in a Britain that was viciously racist, and tried to deny me the right to belong, I refused to support any British team, still less any English one. Whether in cricket, football, rugby or tiddlywinks it was a case of ‘anyone but England’.
Thirty years on, it is very different. Racism has not disappeared, but the kind of vicious, in-your-face racism that defined Britain a generation ago is thankfully relatively rare. The nature of Britishness has changed too, no longer rooted in race and Empire, but seemingly defined as much by its diversity as by its jingoism, as exuberantly expressed in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Olympic Games. And as for me, I have long since dropped my ‘anyone but England’ attitude. I now, too, feel the pain of penalty shoot-out defeats and the joy of Ashes victories. And on that magical first Saturday night in the Olympic stadium, when Britain won three golds in under an hour, I like everyone else cheered on Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford, and Mo Farah. From the velodrome to the Serpentine, from Eton Dorney to Greenwich Park, I have enjoyed the flourish of British medals. And yet I have not, and will not, wrap myself in the flag. I am tribal about sport but I am not patriotic about Britain. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 24, 2012 § 1 Comment
My Milton K Wong lecture, ‘What’s wrong with multiculturalism?’, that I gave in Vancouver earlier this month, was broadcast on CBC on Friday. I have already posted the transcript of the talk, in two parts, here and here. (The broadcast has been slightly edited to fit the CBC schedule; the transcript is in full.) There is a Milton K Wong website dedicated to discussion and debate around the themes of the talk.
June 7, 2012 § 6 Comments
This is the second part of the transcript of my Milton K Wong lecture that I delivered in Vancouver last week. I posted the first part earlier this week. The talk will be broadcast in full on 22 June on the CBC’s Ideas strand.
The story I have told so far is of a Europe that is not as plural as many imagine it to be, and of immigrants less assertive of their cultural identities than they are claimed to be. Multicultural policies emerged not because migrants demanded them, but primarily because the political elite needed them to manage immigration and to assuage anger created by racism.
Why, then, have we come to imagine that we are living in particularly plural societies, in which our cultural identities are all-important? The answer lies in a complex set of social, political and economic changes over the past half century, changes that include the narrowing of the political sphere, the collapse of the left, the demise of class politics, the erosion of more universalist visions of social change. Many of these changes helped pave the way for multicultural policies. At the same time, the implementation of such policies helped create a more fragmented society. Or, to put it another way, multicultural policies have helped create the very problems they were meant to have resolved. I want to demonstrate this through two examples. The first is a riot in Britain, of which you may not have heard, the second a cartoon crisis in Denmark, about which everyone has heard. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 4, 2012 § 13 Comments
I gave the Milton K Wong lecture in Vancouver on Sunday. I very much enjoyed the event- it was a stunning venue, a superb audience and a good discussion of the issues. My thanks to the Laurier Institution, University of British Columbia and CBC for inviting me. Entitled ‘What is Wrong with Multiculturalism? A European Perpective’, the lecture pulled together many of the themes about immigration, identity, diversity and multiculturalism of which I have been talking and writing recently. It was a long talk, so I am splitting the transcript into two. Here is the first part; I will publish the second part later this week. It will be broadcast in full on 22 June on the CBC’s Ideas strand.
It is somewhat alarming to be asked to present the European perspective on multiculturalism. There is no such beast. Especially when compared to the Canadian discussion, opinion in Europe is highly polarised. And mine certainly is not the European perspective. My view is that both multiculturalists and their critics are wrong. And only by understanding why both sides are wrong will we be able to work our way through the mire in which we find ourselves.
Thirty years ago multiculturalism was widely seen as the answer to many of Europe’s social problems. Today it is seen, by growing numbers of people, not as the solution to, but as the cause of, Europe’s myriad social ills. That perception has been fuel for the success of far-right parties and populist politicians across Europe from Geert Wilders in Holland to Marine Le Pen in France, from the True Finns to the UK Independence Party. It even provided fuel for the obscene, homicidal rampage last year of Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo and Utøya, which in his eyes were the first shots in a war defending Europe against multiculturalism. The reasons for this transformation in the perception of multiculturalism are complex, and at the heart of what I want to talk about. But before we can discuss what the problem is with multiculturalism, we first have unpack what we mean by multiculturalism. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 28, 2012 Comments Off
Back in March I published a review of DV8′s extraordinary show Can We Talk About This?. I was both positive and critical of the show. It was I wrote, ‘unmissable theatre’, both ‘thought provoking and gut-wrenching, food for mind and heart’ and ‘the kind of bold, polemical spectacle that the theatre so badly needs’. Its weakness, I suggested, was as a polemic:
The ambition of the show, and its willingness to stomp all over the debate, is its great strength; its unwillingness to be more nuanced about whose boots are stomping where is its great weakness.
LLoyd Newson, the founder of DV8 and the director, choreographer and creative drive behind the show (and one of the panelists at last weekend’s Brighton Festival debate on free speech) has responded to my review. Lloyd is famous for never reading reviews of his work, so I am honoured that he should not only have read my review but responded to it. I am publishing that response here in full. As you might expect, I disagree with Lloyd’s disagreements, particularly about the show’s depictions of Ray Honeyford and Geert Wilders. I don’t, however, want to turn this into a drawn-out debate, especially as I am both a friend and an admirer of Lloyd’s work, and I very much agree with him about free speech. So I’m happy for Lloyd to have the last word. I am, however, interested in what others think, especially those who have seen the show. So do join in the discussion.
Kenan Malik was one of roughly 50 people I interviewed for DV8’s verbatim theatre production, Can We Talk About This?, a work about Islam, multiculturalism and free speech. Having seen the production at the National Theatre in London, he reviewed it on his blog. This put me in a difficult position because I have only read one review of my own work since the late 1980s. At that period of my life I had a compulsion to reply to critics whose reviews I disagreed with, but as I’m not a natural writer it took me an inordinate amount of time to pen a reply and I came to the conclusion that my energy was better spent making work, rather than writing letters. However, as Kenan was kind enough to agree to be interviewed for Can We Talk About This? and is someone whose intellect and book From Fatwa to Jihad I admire, I felt obliged to read his review and predictably, despite myself, have fashioned a response. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 21, 2012 § 12 Comments
This is a transcript of the first part of the talk I gave last week as part of the Criticise This! seminar in Ulcinj, Montenegro on ‘Rethinking the Question of Difference’. (The second part of the talk overlaps with the Milton K Wong lecture that I am giving in Vancouver next week; I will publish that in full.) The audience comprised mainly of artists, writers and critics, and the aim was to explore more deeply the philosophical and political underpinnings and consequences of contemporary ideas of social difference.
There is a certain irony in being invited to Montenegro to give a lecture on questions of identity, difference and multiculturalism. Not only has the English language appropriated the name of this region of Europe for its description of an intractably fragmented society – ‘balkanized’ – but few events have more shaped our perception of these issues than the conflict that led to the break up of Yugoslavia two decades ago. The messy, bloody, monstrous events that marked that break-up have helped entrench the sense of the contrast between racism and ethnic chauvinism, on the one side, and cultural diversity and multiculturalism, on the other. They have helped entrench the idea that the best, indeed only, antidote to the evils of ethnic nationalism is the embrace of diversity, of multiculturalism. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics – these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook and as the foundation of modern liberal democracies. We’re All Multiculturalists Now as the American sociologist Nathan Glazer, and former critic of pluralism, observed, almost wearily, in the title of a book published in 1998.
What I want to do is challenge this received wisdom about difference, diversity and multiculturalism. I want to question what we mean by diversity, why we should value it, and how should we value it. I want to dispute what I regard as the lazy conflation of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ and to suggest that to defend diversity is not the same as promoting multiculturalism. Most of all, I want to contest the claim that racism and multiculturalism are concepts at opposite ends of a pole, and show, rather, that they are two sides of the same coin. « Read the rest of this entry »