Multiculturalism under Fire -By Dr. Niaz Murtaza

Multiculturalism has earned the ire of several leading western politicians recently. Moderate politicians argue diplomatically that multiculturalism, however well-meaning, fails to actually help disadvantaged minority groups. Unencumbered by niceties, conservatives question its very justification, arguing that minorities lag behind due to their own cultural or personal weaknesses rather than societal hurdles. Their blunt message for minorities is to either adopt the dominant culture to enhance their own status and national cohesion, or internalize their grievances in silence. However, closer analysis reveals that many forms of multiculturalism are widely accepted as integral parts of western state policies. The recent backlash only targets specific “unwelcome” cultures.


As a policy, multiculturalism simply means encouraging the existence of multiple cultures within society.  It emerged in recent decades as a reaction to the long history of domination by powerful groups in ethnically diverse societies.  The most extreme manifestations of such domination historically have been genocides: deliberate attempts to exterminate weaker identity group, e.g., the Jews in Nazi Germany. Ethnic cleansing or the forcible expulsion of weaker groups, e.g., of the Bosnians in ex-Yugoslavia, has ranked next in the hierarchy of domination historically. Some dominant groups have been ‘content’ with physically quarantining weaker groups, e.g., under Apartheid in South Africa and in America earlier. Forced assimilation has been the policy of choice elsewhere as public manifestations of minority cultural symbols are banned, e.g., Turkish restrictions on Kurdish symbols.  Weaker but more widespread forms of domination have included formal (manifested explicitly in laws) and informal (manifested covertly in every day practice) discrimination.


However, the dogged efforts of liberal activists have weakened the pillars of ethnic domination gradually. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and segregation are becoming increasingly uncommon. Formal discrimination and forced assimilation continue to exist, though increasingly sheepishly, in some countries, especially in Asia and Africa. However, informal discrimination continues to thrive almost everywhere. These discriminatory policies have been replaced gradually by two categories of multiculturalism policies which aim to enhance the economic, political and cultural status of disadvantaged groups. The first, more powerful, type incorporates ethnic considerations into the country’s governance structures. The second type establishes state programs to enhance the economic and cultural rights of disadvantaged groups.


The specific policies depend on local demographics. Where large ethnic groups have historically lived in different regions within a country, federalism has emerged as a successful multiculturalism policy. It allows diverse ethnic groups to exercise significant cultural, political and economic autonomy regionally while subscribing to a minimum package of common federal jurisdiction. Some states, e.g., Canada and Malaysia, have adopted asymmetrical federalism where minority federating regions are devolved greater authority. Confederalism is rare but devolves greater authority, often giving the right to secede to confederated units, e.g., in Ethiopia.


Where large ethnic groups live co-mingled throughout the country, federalism is obviously not feasible. Some countries facing such diversity profiles, e.g., Lebanon, have experimented with consociationalism, under which different ethnic groups are guaranteed representation in key state institutions in proportion to their population size. Finally, where one or more small ethnic groups live dispersed in a country dominated by one large ethnic group, multiculturalism policies have usually consisted of programs to enhance the economic and cultural status of minorities and counter informal discrimination, e.g. the affirmative action programs in America.


The recent western backlash has taken different forms on the two shores of the Atlantic. In America, the official backlash has mainly targeted affirmative action programs designed to economically benefit blacks and other non-white minorities. Thus, slavery and segregation extended for four centuries but affirmative action only for four decades. Surprisingly, the backlash in Europe, which is generally more progressive in its outlook than the US, is worse. It introduces mild forms of forced assimilation by banning the public manifestation of some symbols and practices of certain “unwelcome” cultures, e.g., Muslims and the gypsies.  Thus, the French have banned the burqa while the Swiss have banned mosque minarets.


However, federalism and even consociationalism remain comfortably in practice in several western countries, e.g., Canada, UK, and Switzerland, to benefit ethnic groups that have lived historically in those countries. There is no expectation, for example, in Switzerland that the French, Germans and Italians must forgo their individual identities to adopt an exclusive Swiss identity. In fact, these identities are encouraged through multicultural policies. This discriminatory back-sliding on multiculturalism in advanced democracies is unfortunate. Liberal democracies must not champion the dominant culture just as they don’t champion the dominant religion. This western back-sliding makes it more difficult to encourage multiculturalism in developing countries.


How has Pakistani state wisdom managed diversity? The focus initially was on forced assimilation. Regional languages were not recognized and the one-unit system was enforced to enhance the new Pakistani identity at the expense of ancient regional identities. Better sense prevailed but only after the loss of the eastern wing. A federal structure was adopted that recognized ethnic diversity. However, this recognition extends only to the identities represented by the four provinces and ignores the many ethnic minorities that live within each province, e.g., the Hazara and the Seraiki. The recent discussion about establishing new provinces may be the first step in what is likely to be a long battle for official recognition of other ethnic identities. Finally, local-level ethnic cleansing is often practiced by non-state actors by chasing out other ethnic groups from particular neighborhoods.


The status of religious minorities is also poor due to formal and informal discrimination. Formally, the constitution disqualifies them from the highest state offices. Informal discrimination is also rampant. The blasphemy law misuse has disproportionately targeted religious minorities. Many religious minorities lag behind socio-economically due to widespread informal discrimination. Pakistan must dismantle discriminatory laws. It must also adopt affirmative programs for disadvantaged religious minorities to counter the significant informal discrimination that exists in society. Only then will minorities have the equal rights that the founding fathers had promised them.


The writer works as a Research Associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley. This article originally appeared in the Express Tribune.




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