came about a growing disenchantment with multiculturalism in the closing decade
of the 20th century. The events that unfolded in the aftermath of 9/11, the
Madrid train bombing in 2004, the terrorist attack on London in July 2005, the
racial violence in Sydney in December 2005, and the rioting and vandalism on the
streets of Paris in November 2005 engendered a good deal of discussion and
debate about the future of multiethnic societies and about multiculturalism as a
viable model of societal integration.
multiculturalism entails a set of value-orientations, including equality, an
ungrudging recognition and acceptance of ethnic and cultural diversity,
sensitivity towards the beliefs and sentiments of others, and respect for human
rights, including group-differentiated and community-specific rights.
Unfortunately, these ideals and principles find only a partial reflection in the
policies and functioning of Western countries. In most Western countries,
immigration and cultural diversity have become sites of intense contestation. By
and large, the immigrants are faced with widespread discrimination, lack of
legal security, unclear citizenship status and institutionalized racism. During
the past couple of decades, racist sentiments and violence against foreigners
and immigrants, spearheaded by the neo-Nazis and other racist groups, have been
on the rise in many Western countries. The growing popularity of racist, ultra
right-wing political parties, such as the British National Party, Front
Nationale in France and Vlaams Belang in Belgium, indicate that racist
sentiments and xenophobia are getting strengthened.
2004 annual report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia
points out that the record of most European countries in combating racism and
xenophobia is at best mixed. The report reveals that the British police received
nearly 53000 complaints of racist attacks on immigrants and foreigners in 2004,
followed by Germany which received 6474 complaints. According to the report,
ethnic and religious minorities, particularly the Gypsies and Muslims, face
discrimination and exclusion in many different forms, from inadequate access to
education and poor housing to ghettoization and meagre employment opportunities.
many Western countries there is a glaring chasm between legal norms and ideals
(such as equality, citizenship) and the reality of exclusion and discrimination
experienced by certain sections of society. France, for example, swears by the
ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. In reality, French society is
differentiated in terms of class, religion and ethnicity. Mainstream jobs and
positions remain largely with the white, upper class, Christian majority. The
suburbs, where most of the immigrants live, are characterized by poverty, high
unemployment rate (over 30% as compared with the national average of 10%), and
crime. The rioting by immigrant youths on the streets of Paris in November 2005,
triggered by the accidental death by electrocution of two of their colleagues
who were being chased by the police, provided a sad commentary on the hypocrisy
and failure of the French system.
In Britain, legislation on discrimination on grounds of race was passed in the 1960s. However, racial discrimination and exclusion and the vilification of religious and ethnic minorities are still widely prevalent. There is an avowedly colour-blind allocation of housing, which in reality is discriminatory in respect of non-whites. Thousands of Anglican, Catholic and Jewish schools in Britain are funded by the state. About a quarter of all school pupils in the UK attend state-funded religious schools. It was only a few years ago that this privilege was extended to a few (five) Muslim schools and one Sikh school.
publication last September of the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish
newspaper Jyllands-Posten (in which he is shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban),
which were republished by newspapers in many European countries in early
February, created a furore in Muslim countries. The Western media and some
European governments have sought to justify the publication of these cartoons in
the name of freedom of expression. This is a specious, hypocritical and myopic
argument which can be faulted on at least three counts. First, to regard freedom
of expression as an absolute right, regardless of its implications and
consequences for the wider society, is absurd. No country allows complete
freedom of expression. It is restricted by prohibitions against defamation,
libel, blasphemy, obscenity, and judicial and parliamentary privilege. The
European Convention on Human Rights, while recognizing that everyone has the
right to freedom of expression, allows European nations to impose restrictions
“in interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety,
for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals,
for the protection of the reputation or rights of others.” Many Western
countries have placed restrictions on freedom of expression through legislation.
Thus, in Denmark (which has a state church) and the UK there is an
anti-blasphemy law in respect of Christianity (which, ironically, does not apply
to other religions). Seven European countries, including Germany, France,
Switzerland and Austria, have laws (known as Auschwitzluge in the
German-speaking countries) against the public denial and repudiation of the
Holocaust, including the figure of six million Jewish victims.
Second, the right to freedom of expression needs to be tempered with social responsibility and sensitivity towards the beliefs and sentiments of others. An unbridled right to freedom of expression, especially in a multiethnic society, is fraught with socially disruptive consequences. The French president Jacques Chirac rightly condemned the cartons as a “manifest provocation”. Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary, called the publication of the cartoons unnecessary, insensitive, disrespectful and wrong. Third, in the present context, the controversy is likely to increase the alienation and disaffection of Muslims in the West, exacerbate inter-ethnic tensions, and lead to a further radicalization of Muslim youth. It may turn out to be a horrifying self-fulfilling prophecy relating to the clash of civilizations. It needs to be pointed out that while Muslims, whose sensitivities have been hurt by these cartoons, have a right to protest against this sacrilege in a peaceful and democratic manner, vandalism and violence in any form is absolutely unjustifiable.
The whole controversy, though unfortunate, raises highly significant issues, including limits to freedom of expression in multiethnic societies, the role and social responsibility of the media in the context of a globalizing world, and the role of the state and civil society.g
(The writer is former head of the department of Sociology at University of Mumbai)