The portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media and the hostility emanating from political leaders, whether directly or indirectly, has continued to shape the perceptions of non-Muslims by large, who then place all Muslims in the same category based on their skewed understanding. Muslims have generally come to be recognized as part of a distinct cultural group on their own, one that most consider alien and even hostile to Western values.
A wave of European leaders have recently made headlines with their statements regarding the failure of multiculturalism in its integration of minorities into European culture, making Islam and Muslims the target of their criticisms. David Cameron recently joined the long list of such leaders.
Throughout our contemporary history, multiculturalism has been a fiercely debated topic as globalization takes over. Multiculturalism was first coined in Canada in the 70’s to integrate marginalized aboriginals, appease independence-seeking Francophones and give validation to cultural minorities that demanded formal recognition from the government. The policies of multiculturalism thus spread far and wide beyond Canada’s borders to the US and much of Europe. A doctrine composed for a society that embraces tolerance seemed to become the identity, and perhaps the selling point for most of these nations. What must be noted, however, is that each nation devised its own unique approach to multiculturalism based on the political and social realities on the ground.
At first glance, multiculturalism was coined to maintain cultural differences within a country, as opposed to the repression and denial of cultural differences from the mainstream, dominant culture, while at the same time awarding these minorities their full rights of citizenship. Such an approach would thus go a long way in preserving cultural identities, while giving these groups an added incentive to identify with the larger population of the country based on the awarded citizenship.
However, while critically examining the doctrine of multiculturalism, it is impossible to ignore that it has been used as a tool to deal with divergence in culture among the population. Cultural and ethnic differences are categorized into groups through which differences are managed, and relationships are constructed between these groups and the larger society. These ethnic minorities are expected to conform with the values and principles of the dominant group or culture, while practicing their differences in the areas allotted to them. The specifications of the limits and boundaries within which these differences are accepted and tolerated are usually determined by the dominant group. Also, this categorization will be a major factor in deciding the nature of interactions these groups will have with the dominant one, as well as the forging of any sort of relationship.
Cultural differences are systematically categorized and put into various identifiable groups based on the nature of cultural divergence, and the extent to which these differences are allowed to manifest in societies are thereafter controlled. This method of dividing populations into distinct groups based on cultural diversity with the goal of “management of differences” has been vigorously criticized as a contemporary form of blatant racism.
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that in various countries that have adopted multiculturalism, cultural differences are celebrated so long as they play a positive role in the larger society. Yet cultural differences are met with more than just hostility when they challenge the majority’s way of life. Any such obstacle is considered as being in defiance of the multicultural ideology.
As the population of Muslims has grown significantly over the years in the West, it is intriguing that the adherents of Islam are categorized as a distinct, cultural group, whilst no other religion is treated as such. Even though Muslims come from an array of different cultural and social backgrounds, the West continually recognizes them as one ethnic, social and cultural entity.
Islam as a religion has taken a few hits over the years, particularly with the launch of the war on terror, with every labeled terrorist turning out to be a Muslim. The portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media and the hostility emanating from political leaders, whether directly or indirectly, has continued to shape the perceptions of non-Muslims by large, who then place all Muslims in the same category based on their skewed understanding. Muslims have generally come to be recognized as part of a distinct cultural group on their own, one that most consider alien and even hostile to Western values.
For most, it is easier to conceptualize Muslims as being part of one cultural and ethnic entity as opposed to trying to understand the diverse cultures and ethnicities that follow the religion of Islam. For governments, it is easier to exert that control and maintain diverging practices if Muslims are conceptualized as a single group.
Islam does prescribe certain communal rites and practices such as fasting, congregational prayers, Eid, etc. which all serve to unite Muslims from all cultural backgrounds in certain ways. At times, it is easier and even advantageous to be categorized as one group, for it gives Muslims a far better representation in society, alongside greater political and social influence in matters that affect their way of life. It is understandable that Muslims in the West by large may even want to maintain the status-quo due to these factors, amongst others.
Islam however, is a religion that has withstood the test of time, cultures and ethnicities. It has spread from the Arab world to both the East and the West – with Indonesia now boasting the largest Muslim population in the world. What the West has failed to recognize too is the fact that although Islam unites its followers in a plethora of ways, communities, societies, and even individuals differ in their approach towards the encompassing issues in matters where “culturally-specific” understanding of Islam (or any other religion for that matter) comes to play. The flexibility Islam that displays in such matters remains unrivaled even today, and perhaps may be one of the factors that have ensured the religion’s appeal beyond race, culture, language and background.
Multiculturalism has failed. As an ideology which was supposed to celebrate ethnic, religious, racial and cultural difference as opposed to exerting control over minorities, multiculturalism has failed indeed. The very goal of this doctrine is one that cannot be sustained in the long run. As subtle as the workings of multiculturalism may be, trying to exert control and limit the expressions of ethnic minorities as a whole will only result in further disenfranchisement of these groups, ultimately causing them to feel disinclined to honor any of their obligations or feel any loyalty to the awarded citizenship.
What has also failed here is the Western approach towards the integration of Muslims in the greater society. Western leaders have failed to understand the diversity of the religion’s followers, and to comprehend the diverging role Islam plays in various situations based on individual and cultural perceptions.
An upheaval is needed in the policies of multiculturalism. But change in the direction of what Cameron, Merkel and Sarkoszy are preaching is not the change these societies need. Their expectation of ethnic minorities conforming with the principles of the West dates back to the era before multiculturalism was introduced and does something other than managing differences – it cracks down on them. Not only does it go against the principles of democracy, but also defies the very values these nations tout to stand for.