Intervention by Dr. Bashy Quraishy
Conference on the topic « Multiculturalism: A contribution to Peace ? »
United Nations Office Geneva • Room XIX (19), Geneva, 23 September, 2011
Let me start, by thanking UPF for inviting me to this conference. For an NGO activist, it is always a pleasure to note that dedicated people like you are out there, seeking peace and harmony among the nations, states and people in general. From what I have learnt and read about your work, I am certainly of the belief that you are on the right path. Thank you for spreading a ray of hope in these difficult days, which are full of despair, hopelessness and the ever increasing march of nationalism, discrimination and exclusion. I wish, I could say the same thing about most of our politicians and media, who thrive on conflict, negativity and lack of spirituality.
Let me also thank you for another important issue. The workshop is titled;
Interreligious/ Intercultural Cooperation and Human Rights
For the last many years, I have asked the opinion makers and politicians in Europe to drop the concept of multi-culturalism and dialogue. Do not be alarmed. I am all for a meaningful dialogue to create a true multi-cultural society. Sadly all our talks over the last 50 years did not show any viable result or everlasting peace. Here a question arises;
What should we replace these ideas with?
Well choosing the correct topic for this workshop is a good start. You have moved from multi-culturalism to inter-culturalism and from dialogue to co-operation. We must be aware that there is a huge difference between multi-culturalism and inter-culturalism. In multi-culturaism, all the decision making powers, resources and implementing mechanism are controlled by the majority. Minorities are usually placed on the outer edges of the society and are very dependant on the good will and handouts of those who pulls the strings. In the case of Inter-culturalism, majority and minorities collectively take decisions and minorities have a bigger say in the running of the society. Here all cultures – big and small - are equal and represented.
The same goes for an inter-religious society, where living together take place with co-operation and not with talking only. I have been to lots of conferences, where good intentioned rabbis, Imams and priests come, have a spirited dialogue by making speeches, kissing cheeks and promising to come back next year. What is missing is the active co-operation, on people to people level, at work places, in neighbourhoods and through educational institutions. I am sure that UPF is aware of this dilemma.
Looking at the state of affairs from a minority and NGO perspective, discussions regarding Multiculturalism and Integration are gaining momentum, in line with the European Union’s political development as well as the demographic changes taking place in each European country.
These issues constitute founding elements - collectively or separately – of a modern and well functioning society as well as for the well being of different ethnic groups. The focus mainly is, on the concept of multiculturalism and the role it should or could play for a true mutual integration in the diverse European societies. All European countries are grappling with similar issues and are applying home grown remedies to find solutions. Few solutions have succeeded while most have had disastrous effects for fundamental human rights, citizenship and even mutual integration.
It is with this in mind, we should explore the concept of inter-culturalism based on diverse but equal cultural, religious and linguistic foundations. We should also look at the efforts, the European Union is making to further the cause of pluralistic societies, where one’s culture, religion and language is not considered a barrier but a resource.
In order to understand or fully comprehend the mechanism at work in diverse European countries with respect to the progress of and in some instances resistance to the notion of inter-culturalism – theoretical or practical, one needs to explore those historical processes, Europe went through in the last few centuries.
The appearance of nation-states in Europe is a modern phenomenon, where social, economic, political and intellectual factors together formed the matrix for a Nation-State. All European countries have managed to keep their societies mono-cultural, mono-ethnic and mono-religious. But after the de-colonisation period and coming of a rapid industrialisation of the European continent, there arose a great demand of unskilled workers to take care of those menial jobs, the native Europeans did not want to perform.
From 1945 until the middle of the seventies, particularly during the rapid expansion of industry, which took place between 1960 and 1975, the import of labour power was a marked feature of all advanced industrial Western countries. This demand forced European countries to allow migrant workers from the developing countries to come and settle.
It is important to mention that societies in Europe – authorities, politicians, media or public – did not consider these imported workers as human beings with needs but only as cheap labour, fulfilling an economic necessity. This non-visionary way of dealing with immigrants of that time - socially, culturally, religiously and politically - resulted in the creation of two parallel but not interacting layers in the society. When it happened, European politicians and the media blamed the non-European ethnic and religious minorities as unwilling to integrate. Classical Blame the victim scenario.
The reality is though that in spite of hardships and separate social and economic environments, most ethnic minorities have actively tried to become a part of the local society, individually or as a group. The experience shows that the full participation of various minority groups into most European societies has not succeeded optimally. This has been pointed out time and again by scholars, researchers and ethnic minority organisations. Although the reasons for this vary - depending upon who is the source and which interest one wish to enhance, ethnic and religious minorities, especially the Muslim communities, are often blamed by the European political establishment, for the source of conflict and parallel societies.
Multiculturalism or Intercultural
One of the prevailing arguments in favour of multiculturalism is that with the passage of time and the advent and acceptance of globalisation as a permanent feature of Planet Earth, different ethnic groups would have the possibility to mix, adapt and give birth to a new way of thinking.
Since we live under the declared democratic value systems, it is assumed that the concept of multiculturalism, cross-culturalism or inter- culturalism would not only prevail but would influence our common future. Our children would learn from each other’s traditions, cultures, religions and ways of life.
Although this is a picture of an optimal wishful thinking, based on our noble human desires and faith in continuous progressive development, we must be realistic enough to know that this wish is hard to translate into a reality because all the signs are pointing in the opposite direction.
The multiculturalism, being practised in some European countries is in fact based on the majority cultural norms, as a standard to be adopted by ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. There is no equality, respect and acceptance of minority cultures. They are allowed to function as an ethnic niche on the periphery of society and exclusively on the good will of the majority society. There is tolerance but not acceptance. In this brand of multiculturalism, European societies reflect their beauty, their ugliness, their humanity, their ruthlessness, their democracy, their tyranny, their well-functioning systems and the oppressive ways they have, especially towards their ethnic minorities.
In such hostile atmosphere, few very vital questions arise.
- Is the ideology of multiculturalism possible to realise or is it a wishful thinking?
- Should it be replaced with inter-culturalism and active participation?
- Should we encourage parallel societies resulting in cultural isolation and segregation or should we insist on mutual integration based on inclusive society?
Besides these questions, we should also look at the role to be played by Nation – States and the European Union as well as organisation like UPF, to achieve the goal of peace through inter-culturalism.
Unfortunately, a resurgence of Euro-centrism and a revival of national chauvinism have become two main stumbling blocks, which are preventing the walk on a true intercultural path. Besides this, there are some other very important economic interests and right wing ideologies at work.
Unfortunately, political developments in the global arena have introduced a new factor, which is unwinding the whole process of multiculturalism. Terrorism committed by a small section among a few ethnic minority groups has created an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion.
Many EU countries from Denmark to Spain and Holland to Poland are using terrorism as an excuse and introducing new drastic and restrictive laws, which would totally stop family reunion and access to asylum. This has also resulted in the introduction of mono-cultural societal model all over Europe. This is being done without taking into consideration fundamental human rights of 20 – 25 million third country nationals, with immigrant, refugee and citizen status as well as of their children who are often born in Europe and have EU citizenship.
It is true that a successful integration was a pre-condition for the creation of multi-cultural societies. To that extent, it has not been a success story. It is not a secret that most countries in Europe have badly failed in integrating non-European ethnic and religious minorities, especially those from the developing countries. This has led to a status qua in the form of mono-cultural societies instead of the creation of true inter-cultural societies. The reason is simple. Too much lip service and too little vision and almost very little plan of action, with the participation of minorities.
At the same time, it will be unfair to entirely blame the European societies as a whole for this sad situation. Ethnic and religious minorities have no doubt also played a small part in this failure, but the real culprit is the European power elite - the politicians as well as the media, which is mostly responsible for bad policies, and negative coverage. European intellectuals, academics, priests and civil society have not been helpful either.
If European governments think that multiculturalism is not desirable, then we have no choice but to replace it with, inter-culturalism or even better, with a holistic approach society, where non-European ethnicity and non-Christian religions are also accepted and respected. If the dominant culture is not prepared to accommodate inter-culturalism, then it must acknowledge that ethnic groups can, should and in fact are forming their own sub-cultures within the confines and boundaries of a mono-cultural society. Ethnic minorities in some cases feel that they are actually better off outside the mainstream. This viewpoint is based on years of efforts and willingness to be part of the majority without any visible success but many setbacks.
As one Pakistani shopkeeper so graphically put it to me the other day:
”Learning the Danish language and culture has left me bitter and angry. Now I understand, how closed this society is. I do not want to put up with this.”
In most European countries, there is an impression that their own country and culture is unique. It comes through very clearly in conversations and political statements. Today, many European mistake technological development for cultural progress, and thus draw the conclusion that some races and cultures are better than others. These ideas have of course been proven wrong, by anthropologists, sociologists, archaeologists and historians through scientific studies.
Culture in Progress
Culture is a combination of the basic ideas and behaviour of a people, influenced by the history, language, religion, social and material level, and institutions, artistic and literary progress of the country in question. In short, how and why one thinks and acts the way one does.
All cultures are dynamic and changing, very few cultures have been static. On the other hand, cultures can stagnate for periods of time. Some cultures are conservative and less open to changes than others, and in some cases one part of a culture develops, while other become s static or regresses. Many cultures that once were highly developed socially and technologically have vanished through the passing of history.
Is there an intercultural and inter-religious society in the making?
The answer to this question is yes and no at the same time. Yes, because most European societies are in fact already, inter-ethnic, inter-cultural and even inter-religious societies. You just need to look at the Eurostat statistics to confirm this reality. No, because governments do not dare to acknowledge or even silently accept the belief that we become richer persons by knowing and experiencing other cultures, that we add to our personality because of encounters with other cultures. This is due to the fear that their changed course will cost them votes and power.
Clearly, the present time shows that cross-cultural understanding in a mono-cultural society is a condition still in a process of achievement. For example, the cultural pluralism gained in recent years, in many societies in the Western World is being challenged by economic instability, and by increased ethnic and religious tensions. In response to this situation, many youth among diverse ethnic minorities, are not only refusing to "submit" but are also turning their back on the majority culture, which of course always is and will be a local European one. When it comes to inter-religious nature of the society, I cannot help recalling, what Pope told the EU during the Lisbon Treaty negotiations. Europe is a Christian continent. The same goes, why Turkey is not being allowed to enter EU. Islamophobia and anti-Islam discourse is now part of the daily life of most Europeans.
Future looks bleak
So what is the future of inter-cultural and inter-religious Europe? When looking for an answer, one must be honest and blunt. If experience is any yardstick to measure, then the future looks bleak on the national level in Europe. However the EU Equality Directives and the Charter of Fundamental Rights are the only guarantee that a true intercultural society can be evolved. The tide seem to turn from restriction to openness.
Ethnic minorities also sincerely believe that there are people, movements and forces in Europe who are concerned about their beautiful country and continent, its great human values, its international reputation, its freedom-loving spirit, and its humanism.
A Europe, of true peace and prosperity for all its inhabitants, where ethnic and religious minorities can feel safe when walking down the street. Here, they want to be able to move inside and outside airports without being stopped just because of their colour. They want to go where they please without their ID cards being checked by the police. They certainly want to be respected as fellow human beings. They want their colour, religion, accent, cultural and ethnic background, not to be seen and experienced as a hindrance, but instead, as a positive and enhancing contribution to the society they live in.
That is why, it is vital that ethnic minorities and the progressive forces must join hands. This co-operation however must be above party politics, political ideology and human pity. We should work together to build a society, free of prejudices, and bubbling with tolerance and heart-felt openness. This can happen if the western rational spirit mingles with the eastern philosophical soul, paving the way for a true understanding.
The Great Lebanese philosopher and poet Khalil Gibran once said:
"Love is not looking at each other, but looking in the same direction".
Dr. Bashy Quraishy
Chairman – Advisory Council-ENAR-Brussels
General Secretary – EMISCO- European Muslim Initiative for Social Cohesion-Strasbourg
Nyelandsvej 53, 2000 Frederiksberg. Denmark
Dr. Bashy Quraishy is a Danish-Pakistani author and consultant regarding minority rights. He was born in India, but grew up in Pakistan. He studied Engineering in Germany and USA, and later studied International Marketing in London. He is a member of a number of Commissions, Committees and Boards involved with Human Rights, Ethnic/Religious Equality Issues, anti-racism, anti-discrimination, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, both in Denmark and internationally.
On the international level, from 2001 – 2007, he was President of European Network Against Racism (ENAR)–Brussels which is the largest European Union network against racism with over 700 member organisations, and is currently the Chairman of its Advisory Council. Amongst his current responsibilities, he chairs the European Platform for Jewish Muslim Cooperation.
Dr. Quraishy contributes regularly to the Danish and European press with essays, chronicles and TV debates and since January 2010, he hosts a TV program, “Bashy’s Corner”, on the Greater Copenhagen TV Channel.