The central focus of this article is to demonstrate insufficient media attention to a subterranean coded message beneath the ideological demagoguery dressed as revisionist justifications against multiculturalism. The media rationalizations, currently in vogue, not only challenge and reject permeation of cross currents from other cultures but simultaneously reassert Western values to the exclusion of all others. Their impact is under-recognized and born out of the nihilism of a well-crafted template perfected over some 500 years, skillfully used to seek domination and resist any threat to Western civilization. A sober analysis reveals that the duplicitous neocolonial and neoliberal argot is so all-encompassing that a whole new socio-political reality is manufactured by the ill-defined and nebulous conceptions of things Western: its notions of secular democracy, freedom and liberalism. To accept this reality is to concurrently reinforce its countercurrents as Eastern, Oriental, Islamic terrorism, backwardness, Islamic fundamentalism and illiberalism. The powerful media commentators routinely rely on the sub-texts generated by these concepts to justify the ‘putdownability’ of ‘other cultures’ but especially their contemporary target – the Islamic culture. Yet it is worth noting the current turmoil in the Middle East indicates freedom and libertarian ideals are valued equally by all human beings and their potency is far greater if internally realized rather than externally imposed. The Western nations are hardly in a position to claim monopoly on virtue.
Is it Elitist Discourse?
The current hysteria about the failure of multiculturalism appears to be a blowback from contrived and politically-inspired elitist discourse under the guise of the necessity for an honest debate on this most unpalatable subject. But however we dissect the underlying messages from recent European clarifications, they broadly retain a stench of neo-racism, whose defense is now considered essential for critical thinking to engender debate, freed from the constraints of political correctness, anti-free speech or self-righteousness. In the pompous pontifications of European leaders, the wizardry of linguistic acrobatics is palpable; after all, language is much more than a simple facility for carriage of our emotions, thoughts and ideas for it inexorably shapes or helps transform, originate and crystallize our thoughts into ideas which can lead to actions. In this context, language cannot be regarded as capable of being entirely neutral however passive, innocuous or dsyphemic its intended application. The primacy of English language has been used by the media to craft a contrived reality – a metaphor for all that represents goodness – capable of being projected by only the dominant Western culture. But as the arguments herein will demonstrate a single culture is no more able to impose its meanings or texts than its cultural underpinnings are able to declare the way forward for all others to follow.
At the time of writing (third week in February 2011) the debate on the perennial topic of the desirability of multiculturalism within key Western democracies, including Australia, appears to have reached new heights. It bears critical re-examination because on the 16th it took a more sinister tone for three reasons: first, the jettisoning off of the bipartisanship on non-discriminatory immigration policy and ‘a race to the bottom of the barrel on refugee policy’ due to ‘a very narrow and a very mean attitude’ displayed by the Liberal Party, according to a putative source, the former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (crikey.com.au, viewed 17 February 2011); second, the misguided attempt by the far right within the Liberal Party (and One Nation Party) to link the debate on the apparent failure of multiculturalism in Europe with the over-worked mantra of threats posed by Islamic terrorism and the failure of Muslim immigrants to integrate within Western societies (hence, the justification for the rejection of Muslim refugees); and, third, the perceived failure of the national leadership to counter strident attacks on the broad thrust of the Australian multiculturalism and its tolerance by the vast majority. The debate appeared more acrimonious than it really was because recent comments by a number of European politicians were mistakenly appropriated by some Liberals to respond to the reaffirmation of Labour Party’s policy on multiculturalism, as articulated by the Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, on 16 February 2011 at the Sydney Institute.
The repeated allusion to the threats posed by Middle Eastern asylum seekers by the Liberal Party and its conflation with multiculturalism policy and the management of the politics of immigration-cum-refugees, attracted heavy criticism due to some insensitive and incendiary comments from the Opposition spokesperson on Immigration, Scott Morrison. It was an extension of the ongoing debate on ‘boat people’ which developed into a furor because he made his remarks on the very day of the funeral arrangements for some of the estimated 30 Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish refugees who died on 15 December 2010 (excluding some 18 presumed to have perished at sea) when an ill-equipped boat carrying an estimated 90 asylum seekers attempted to land on Christmas Island during tempestuous weather conditions. It has to be noted that like Mr. Fraser many prominent Liberals (Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull, Bruce Baird, George Brandis and others who did not wish to be identified) were incensed by the comments, but unlike them and the vast majority of the media commentators, Scott Morrison continued to retain the support of the Liberal Leader Tony Abbott, who said: ‘There’s no one who is a more decent and a more compassionate and a more sensitive person in public life.’ (See SMH, 18 February 2011, p.1.)
This succor from his leader provided Morrison with some breathing space, who only apologized for the ‘timing’ but not the substance of his comments. It is quite possible Morrison’s comments were motivated by the almost unanimous disparagement of multiculturalism since late 2010 by the political leadership in frontline European states; a la Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Jose Maria Aznar (ex-Premier) as well as former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. They have all attributed the failure of multiculturalism to the inability of immigrants, especially from Muslim countries, to fully assimilate with the predominant ethnic community. But do/did these leaders pursue policies that are/were assimilative or are/were they merely articulating the failures of their own leadership to implement intra-state socio-cultural policies amenable to inducing desired behavioral changes? One thing is clear: regardless of their efforts at changing behavior or public perceptions, their recent utterances remain problematical and are less conducive to resolving the whole gamut of immigration issues identified by them.
Dubious European Commitment to Multiculturalism
Surprisingly, the revisiting of the subject was triggered by ‘completely unacceptable’ and ‘appalling’ comments by a member of the Bundesbank, Dr. Thilo Sarrazin, in September 2010, when he described certain immigrants to Germany as ‘unproductive’ and suggested that ‘all Jews share a certain gene’ in common with the Basques (France 24 News, 3 September 2010). In his book Germany Does Itself In (2010) he attacked Muslim immigration and argued higher birth rate among Turkish immigrants would negatively impact German economy and contribute to its eventual impoverishment. A year earlier he had similarly offended; in October 2009, he suggested that Turks were conquering Germany by higher birth rate (similar to how Kosovars conquered Kosovo). He had then argued that many Arabs and Turks in Berlin had ‘no productive function other than selling fruit and vegetables’. It created a sufficiently powerful storm in the German political teacup to entice the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to declare the German approach to multiculturalism (multikulti) had ‘failed, utterly failed’ (Deutsche Welle News, 17 October 2010). She went on to stress that the immigrants, who filled the void of skilled-worker shortage, were still welcome in Germany as long as they mastered the German language and obeyed the laws. However, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s unexpected and robust critique of multiculturalism (SMH, 7 February 2011, p. 8) appeared to go much further by linking the problem of Islamic terrorism with the question of the efficacy of Britain’s cultural pluralism. He called for a ‘hard-nosed, unambiguous’ adoption of the doctrine of ‘muscular liberalism’ to counter ‘passive tolerance’ of extremism and terrorism, which, he argued, were spawned by publicly-funded institutions because most terrorists turned out to be the products of middle-class British education. Within a few days, right-wing French President, Nicolas Sarkozy (of Hungarian and Jewish ancestry), also declared multiculturalism had ‘failed’ in France: ‘If you come to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is the national community, and if you do not want to accept that, you cannot be welcome in France.’ He went to argue that citizens were free to practise their faith but ‘we in France do not want people to pray in an ostentatious way in the street.’ (Yahoo! News, 10 February 2011). Not surprisingly, none of these learned leaders spelt out why no similar strictures applied to Europeans who lived or worked in non-white countries around the world, where they maintain their exclusive enclaves, enjoyed special privileges and mostly continued to shun contact with the locals, whose usefulness was confined to being good cooks, drivers, cleaners or performing a host of other menial tasks.
On closer scrutiny of the re-energized debate, one has to ask if the implicit similarities in their commentaries indicate a form of brazen solidarity among these powerful figures. Multiculturalism was never adopted as an official policy in Europe, unlike in Canada and Australia, where it remains an official policy. The concept itself is of recent origin (its usage came into vogue first in Switzerland in 1957) only to find acceptability in Canada in the 1960s before its adoption in varying degrees in other countries.
Yet, despite the multiculturality fostered within many European countries, mostly through economic immigration, the acceptance of multiculturalism remains a problem in Europe. Its rejection has been traditionally perpetrated by ultra nationalists through the pursuance of ethno-politics, who insisted that white ideology had to triumph and remain the central plank of the societal aspirations. In the revised arguments they mount though there appears to be a remarkable absence of European culpability in unwittingly sowing any seeds of discord and their commitment to the hegemony of Eurocentric monoculture, while paying only lip service to inclusiveness. In this sense, European pretentiousness towards cultural pluralism operates to demand ‘multiculturalism’ on uniquely European terms. If anything, European attitudes contribute to the suppression of social integration and impede much-sought-after assimilation. In fact, the adoption of post-imperial bluster by European leaders and their ill-defined policies contribute to the failure of multiculturalism. Such reasoning is seldom part of any serious assessment of the explanations for inter-ethnic conflicts; the slightest suggestion of the differentness of immigrants or the propensity of a tiny minority to terrorist activity is blindly accepted as evidence of the failure of multiculturalism.
Is it Failure of Multiculturalism or Something more Sinister?
There is no compelling evidence it has failed in Australia, NZ or Canada but three additional factors also help explain the perceived failure of multiculturalism in Europe: one, historically the Europeans have barely tolerated each other until 1945 and their history is one of endless conflicts, violence expressed through numerous wars and other modes of oppressing the perceived alien/outsider/foreigner/other; two, their continued rejection of an honest assessment of historical European indiscretions, practices and policies coalesce to mold the contemporary attitudes and prejudices against immigrant populations throughout Europe; and, three, the contemporary strategy utilized by all Western governments to subvert the narrative of the outsiders; that is, the need to preserve the unspokenness of their policies takes priority over truth and prevents the telling or retelling the stories of the ‘outsiders’ by the Western media, which is anything but free. So much for Western freedom and the freedom of the press but a few other issues also need rebuttal. For all the Western concerns about medieval Islam unable to separate religion from statecraft and its advocacy of some form of theocracy (Sharia law) in preference to secularism, Catholicism can also be charged with similar misconduct. As for Islamic hostility towards Israel, the Jews were victims of European racism and organized violence; their suffering was not a product of innate Arabic racism. Equally the contemporary Western feminist anger at the denial of equal status for the Muslim women and its obsession with the potential for dilution of their own rights require greater scrutiny: no one is demanding that Western women change their dress code or that their existing rights be diminished. Perhaps, the rights of Muslim women should a matter for them and they have to be judged in terms of their cultural mores. This is not an option if they choose to live in the West. Still why other cultures can’t be understood in terms of the notions of moral or cultural relativism that Western anthropologists are keen to promote when it suits them? Even covert insistence on universal conformity is merely a demand for the subservience of other cultures to the torch-bearing Western culture.
It is in the whorls and ellipses of the silences of Western media where we are likely to find the truth which explain the despicable actions of a small minority that lead to terrorism and violence; where we may find answers to the desperation that drives ‘people’ to leave their homelands; and, where we can locate their sufferings or humiliations and injustices they experience as the boat people, illegal immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, displaced persons or the perceived ‘others’. The current debate is deliberately mismanaged because the despised ‘boat people’ are detained and shepherded into detention centers as non-citizens, yet they become viscerally part of the consideration for costs incurred on their behalf, or fears attaching to their countries of origins, or other ‘unknown unknowns’ generating security concerns among host countries. The debate has become far too lop-sided and truncated because the cries of people at the centre of attention are not heard, yet they are constantly demonized, but not always for the right reasons. For now though, the greatest challenges presented by the darker powers of ignorance, bigotry and misbegotten ideology will need to be uprooted and replaced by open-mindedness and pluralist impulses to restore balance and sanity to any ongoing deliberations. The Western countries that champion democracy can hardly afford to parade their double standards by opposing pluralist culture within their own borders.
Gopal Nair PhD, Sydney, February 2011. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not represent the views of the publisher(s).