Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Limits of Multiculturalism

This morning in the Star Tribune I read an interesting piece by Anne Applebaum on the controversy that is currently roiling much of Europe about what to do with the Islamic communities that are not interested in integrating into European society but want to be able to live separately and have the right to follow and practice their own understandings of Islamic law. And as Applebaum notes, they are being supported by some politicians and intellectuals on the left in the name of multiculturalism.

The window that Applebaum gives into this discussion has to do with an outspoken member of the Dutch Parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is currently living in the United States with round-the-clock protection because her life is at risk from Islamic extremists. I have read about Hirsi Ali before; her story is quite inspiring. She was raised as a fundamentalist Muslim in Somalia; as a girl she was genitally mutilated. But as she was on her way to Canada for an arranged Islamic marriage she escaped and made her way to Holland where she went to college and eventually became a member of Parliament. After 9/11 she officially renounced the religion of her upbringing. When she joined with a Dutch film-maker to make a film about Islamic mistreatment of women, the film-maker was murdered by an Islamic extremist who pinned a death-threat for her on the victim. So she came to America.

It is no surprise that Hirsi Ali has upset fundamentalist Muslims but what Applebaum comments on is the fact that she has also upset the European liberal supporters of multiculturalism because she strongly challenges the notion that in the name of respecting Muslim religious sensibilities, Muslims living in Europe should be allowed to practice their religion even when it subjugates women to second-class status.

Applebaum provides a link to a website,, where you can read the raging debate about this issue by European intellectuals. It is quite fascinating and in its own way quite relevant to events in America as well.

Here is a partial post by Pascal Bruckner, explaining how multiculturalism threatens the hard-won enlightenment principle that the individual has rights that triumph those of any particular tribal, religious, or national community:
Today we combine two concepts of liberty: one has its origins in the 18th century, founded on emancipation from tradition and authority. The other, originating in anti-imperialist anthropology, is based on the equal dignity of cultures which could not be evaluated merely on the basis of our criteria. Relativism demands that we see our values simply as the beliefs of the particular tribe we call the West. Multiculturalism is the result of this process. Born in Canada in 1971, it's principle aim is to assure the peaceful cohabitation of populations of different ethnic or racial origins on the same territory. In multiculturalism, every human group has a singularity and legitimacy that form the basis of its right to exist, conditioning its interaction with others. The criteria of just and unjust, criminal and barbarian, disappear before the absolute criterion of respect for difference. There is no longer any eternal truth: the belief in this stems from naïve ethnocentrism.

Anyone with a mind to contend timidly that liberty is indivisible, that the life of a human being has the same value everywhere, that amputating a thief's hand or stoning an adulteress is intolerable everywhere, is duly arraigned in the name of the necessary equality of cultures. As a result, we can turn a blind eye to how others live and suffer once they've been parked in the ghetto of their particularity. Enthusing about their inviolable differentness alleviates us from having to worry about their condition. However it is one thing to recognise the convictions and rites of fellow citizens of different origins, and another to give one's blessing to hostile insular communities that throw up ramparts between themselves and the rest of society. How can we bless this difference if it excludes humanity instead of welcoming it? This is the paradox of multiculturalism: it accords the same treatment to all communities, but not to the people who form them, denying them the freedom to liberate themselves from their own traditions. Instead: recognition of the group, oppression of the individual. The past is valued over the wills of those who wish to leave custom and the family behind and - for example - love in the manner they see fit.

One tends to forget the outright despotism of minorities who are resistant to assimilation if it isn't accompanied by a status of extraterritoriality and special dispensations. The result is that nations are created within nations, which, for example, feel Muslim before they feel English, Canadian or Dutch. Here identity wins out over nationality. Worse yet: under the guise of respecting specificity, individuals are imprisoned in an ethnic or racial definition, and plunged back into the restrictive mould from which they were supposedly in the process of being freed. Black people, Arabs, Pakistanis and Muslims are imprisoned in their history and assigned, as in the colonial era, to residence in their epidermis, their beliefs.

Thus they are refused what has always been our privilege: passing from one world to another, from tradition to modernity, from blind obedience to rational decision making. "I left the world of faith, of genital cutting (7) and marriage for the world of reason and sexual emancipation. After making this voyage I know that one of these two worlds is simply better than the other. Not for its gaudy gadgetry, but for its fundamental values", Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote in her autobiography (8). The protection of minorities also implies the right of individual members to extract themselves with impunity, through indifference, atheism and mixed marriage, to forget clan and family solidarities and to forge their own destinies, without having to reproduce the pattern bequeathed to them by their parents.

Out of consideration for all the abuses they may have suffered, ethnic, sexual, religious and regional minorities are often set up as small nations, in which the most outrageous patriotism is passed off as nothing more than the expression of legitimate self-esteem. Instead of celebrating freedom as the power to escape determinism, the repetition of the past is being encouraged, reinforcing the power of collective coercion over private individuals. Marginal groups now form a sort of ethos-police, a flag-waving micro-nationalism which certain countries of Europe unfortunately see fit to publicly support. Under the guise of celebrating diversity, veritable ethnic or confessional prisons are established, where one group of citizens is denied the advantages accorded to others.
So multiculturalism holds that truth is relative, that there is no "eternal truth," that each community has a unique vision of the truth and should have the freedom to live out its life following its own vision of the truth. It sounds very appealing and I have heard it propounded by many a liberal and derided by many a religious conservative.

But here is where the tables in the argument get turned. It is important to realize that when Bruckner talks about eternal truth he is talking about a truth that transcends the truth claims made by particular religious communities. He is talking about the same eternal truth that the founders of America claimed was self-evident to all and the source of the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. This truth is found in sacred scriptures, of course, but too often in history religious communities had claimed that their God-given truth was exclusive and it allowed them to trample the rights of individuals if need be. The American founders believed they were grounding their notion of eternal truth in principles that had a prior claim than the truth claims made by any particular religious communities. They also believed that at the center of this eternal truth was the notion that every individual has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is certainly true that liberals believe that the truth claims we make as humans are relative. We all see through the glass darkly. And as science unfolds more the the mysteries of the universe, we realize how little about it all we really know; and as our world gets smaller and smaller and we realize that we share the planet with people of all sorts of religious beliefs we also realize that it is the height of arrogance to believe that out of all the religions in the world only we have been given the true insights into the nature of God. But that doesn't mean that liberals don't believe in eternal truth. We just don't believe that any religion has captured all of it. We believe that the search for the truth is ongoing. It is for us what drives both the spiritual and scientific journey.

It is Hirsi Ali's challenge to the liberal supporters of multiculturalism in Europe that they are taking a step back from Enlightenment principles and once again subsuming the rights of individuals to be free to the rights of religious communities to practice their religion as they see fit even if it means subjugating members of their communities against their will. Is it really O.K. that some Muslim religious communities practice genital cutting in the name of God? It is not.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's challenge to the religion of her upbringing was also grounded in core enlightenment principles:
"The Koran is the work of man and not of God," she writes. "Consequently we should feel free to interpret and adapt it to modern times, rather than bending over backwards to live as the first believers did in a distant, terrible time."
Therefore whatever the Koran may say about the place of women; we must recognize it is culturally bound and should no longer have the same weight as in our day. It is not the word of God.

Ali is a brave woman. Critical scholarship of the Koran has not come nearly as far as has critical scholarship of the Bible. We recognize today that the Christian scriptures were written by humans in a particular time and place. Those who wrote the scriptures were genuinely striving to discern the will of God for their time and place; but they wrote in the midst of their own cultural milieu. Their cultural biases are reflected in their writings, and seeing that today we can say that though the scriptures might have accepted slavery as a fact of every day life we do not; though the scriptures might have accepted the subjugation of women to men as the will of God, we do not think that God wills that women be submissive to men.

The issues surrounding multiculturalism that are threatening to tear apart Europe have not been felt as keenly in America. Waves of immigrants have come into America and found a way to retain parts of their culture but integrate into the larger American community. In large part this is because of our deep grounding in Enlightenment principles. Interestingly, even religious communities like the Amish that have intentionally kept themselves separate have bought into a key Enlightenment principle: no force in religion. They maintain a strong social pressure to conform but ultimately don't want anyone to be a part of their community who hasn't freely chosen to be there.

These days it is fashionable in some religious circles to bash the Enlightenment, and it is certainly true like every human endeavor it has its limitations, but I am glad to be living in a time and place that has enshrined and endeavored to protect Enlightenment values. I am also grateful for people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who discover them anew in different parts of the world. If are going to avoid a clash of civilizations between Christians and Muslims, we are going to need people dedicated to Enlightenment principles to lead us out of the dark.


Anonymous said...

"Is it really O.K. that some [...] religious communities practice genital cutting in the name of God? It is not."

Have you told this to your Jewish friends, who also practice genital cutting in the name of God? I don't see the difference.

liberal pastor said...

My Jewish friends?

In terms of ancient, painful, unnecessary, religiously inspired practices, I don't see the difference either.

One can at least make the case - and I am not saying it is a strong one - that male circumcision today has its medical reasons. Female genital cutting has none.