Why Multiculturalism Is Loosing Its Steam Globally


By Kalinga Seneviratne

Published by South-South Gateway (Malaysia) in June 2013 and Daily News (Sri Lanka) on 6 August 2013

In recent years there has been much debate around the world about multiculturalism, a debate that has been fuelled by the rise of religious fundamentalism, immigration and globalization, which are threatening traditional cultural identities of people everywhere

According to the Collins English Dictionary multiculturalism is the policy of maintaining a diversity of ethnic cultures within a community. While Columbia University Press describes the word as reflecting cultural pluralism, a coexistence of many cultures in a locality, without any one culture dominating the region.

According to the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Multiculturalism centers around the thought in political philosophy about the way to respond to cultural and religious differences. It is closely associated with “identity politics,” “the politics of difference,” and “the politics of recognition.” It is also a matter of economic interests and political power.

Post-Colonial Migration and Multiculturalism

In the 1970s and 1980s when the movement of people across the world gathered unprecedented momentum and millions of people from former European colonies began to migrate to the West, many western countries started talking about multiculturalism to help new migrants to settle down in their new homes. It started first in Canada in 1971 and spread to Australia after the ‘White Australia’ policy was abolished in 1974 and to most of Europe.

Such policies were introduced because western nations were confident of themselves having a strong national culture and a set of values rooted in Christian ideology. They felt that giving migrants some space to practice their different cultures and religious rituals did not threaten their mainstream cultural values. But changing global economic order and rise of Islamic ideological movements at the turn of the 21st century have shaken their beliefs and given rise to strong anti-multiculturalism movements.

European Resentments Against Multiculturalism

Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik reflects these movements that are based on protecting their cultural identity, in his case that of the European Christian identity rather than a crusade to spread the gospel.

“Multiculturalism, as it has been imported from the United States, is the worst thing possible for Europe … and creates a mosaic of ghettoes in which the (host) nation no longer exists,” Richard Millet, an accomplished figure in French Literature told France Info radio  after Brevik’s killing spree. “Breivik, I believe, perceived that and responded to that question with the most monstrous reply.”

In the rambling 12-minute video he posted on YouTube just before his killing spree in July 2011, he talks about the “deconstruction of European cultures”. He has said that he wants to uphold the “white Christian identity” and in court in April 2012 he lamented the disrespect shown to “my culture”.

Recently, right-of-center governments in several European states—notably the Netherlands and Denmark— have reversed the national policy and returned to an official monoculturalism. Several western political leaders have expressed doubts about the success of multicultural policies such as the British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australia’s ex-prime minister John Howard, Spanish ex-president Jose Maria Aznar and French Ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy. They have voiced concerns about the effectiveness of their multicultural policies for integrating immigrants.

In February 2011, Cameron launched a devastating attack on 30 years of multiculturalism in Britain, warning it is fostering extremist ideology and directly contributing to home grown Islamic terrorism. He argued that Britain must adopt a policy of “muscular liberalism”.

“We have failed to provide a vision of society (to young Muslims) to which they feel they want to belong,” he said. “We have even tolerated segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values. Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism”. What he meant by that was that the British government should promote the practice of British values by new migrants, which includes freedom of speech, freedom of worship and democracy.

Confusing Multiculturalism With Multiracialism

In September 2010, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard speaking at the Heritage Foundation in the US argued that “Anglosphere” needed to take greater pride in its values and achievements. “This is a time not to apologise for our particular identity but rather to firmly and respectfully and robustly reassert it,” he told his audience at the conservative think-tank in Washington.

Howard said that some nations had confused multiculturalism with multiracialism, in which migrants accepted the values of the country they adopted as their home. “I am a passionate believer in multiracialism. I believe that societies are enriched if they draw, as my country has done, from all parts of the world on a non-discriminatory basis and contribute, as the United States has done, to the building of a great society,” he added.

Ditching Multiculturalism in Australia

Australia has clearly ditched its multicultural policies of the 1980s during Howard’s premiership from 1996 to 2007, and his Labour successor Kevin Rudd didn’t even appoint a Minister for Multiculturalism as the Labour governments of the 1980s did. Instead a Ministry for Social Inclusion was created along with another Ministry for Immigration and Citizenship. One of his ministers Tony Burke said, “integration is the way to make a multicultural society work”.

In the 1980s (when I migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka), many of us (Asian migrants) who were the first wave of non-White migrants to Australia believed that the multicultural policies would allow us to have our voices heard in the Anglo-centric Australian mainstream media. But, we soon found out that this media was not open to those who have grown up in a non-western country and saw the world differently to the Anglo-Saxon majority. Today, our sons and daughters who were born and bred in Australia may have a slightly better chance of working in the media, but, those few young Asian-Australians who have made it to the media are Anglo-Saxon in their thinking, and they are Asian only by their facial features, even often their names have been Anglicized.

When the western nations talk about “freedom of expression” they are only thinking about this in a political context and they do not understand cultural exclusion which keeps non-western perspectives out of the western media outlets.

This is well reflected in a comment made in a blog recently by a young Australian of Sri Lankan descent Gary Paramanathan. Referring to a conversation he had with an Asian communications scholar he noted: “I was rattling on about the lack of press freedom in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries, exemplifying Australia as the best place to practice media. Then he pointed out, that little do we consider the cultural censorship. If you are a person of colour and you want to tell a story from your perspective you are rarely going to find an editor, a publisher or an advertiser who will give you that opportunity. Your story remains censored through the filter of whiteness. This is called cultural censorship. I had just learnt a new word, and a new way to conceptualise my lack of belongingness”.

Integration and the Melting Pot

Integration is what the Americans call the melting plot. But this melting plot comes with a hardcore center that is Christian and Anglo-Saxon. Election of President Baraka Obama one may says is a success story of such integration. In one way it is, but, in another way it’s a firm no. Obama is no Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson nor for that matter a Martin Luther King. All of them advocated a strong affirmative action policy to empower the poor Afro-Americans. Obama appealed to the largely White American liberals who were fed up with hijacking of the Republic Party by America’s Christian extremists. He has disowned his middle name “Hussein” which was given to him by his Kenyan Muslim father and did not visit Indonesia (where he spent part of his childhood with his mother and Indonesian step-father) until very late into his presidency. In the early part of his presidency he made very public appearances at church services.

Is Multiculturalism Suitable For Asia?

If we look at the situation in Asia, it is interesting to note that while no major European country gives a public holiday for Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim festivals such as Deepavali, Vesak or Ramadhan, many Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and India do give holidays for Christmas as well as festivals of other religions that exists in the country. Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim country and Buddhists number less than 5 percent, gives a public holiday on Vesak day each year, so is Muslim majority Malaysia. Myanmar, which is 90 percent Buddhist with 5 percent Christian give a public holiday for Christmas and Sri Lanka which is 70 percent Buddhist and only 6 percent Muslim gives public holidays for both Ramadan and Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday. Yet, often the West sees it fit to lecture to Asians on multiculturalism and religious pluralism.

Many Asian countries face very delicate issues when dealing with multiracial societies with many of the current conflicts rooted in European colonial policies and exacerbated by recent globalization trends. Many of the majority communities feel that they have been disadvantaged by European colonial policies, which have cropped up minorities in order to divide and rule the country. Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and even India, are such examples.

The Westerners look at human rights from an individualistic point of view while the Asian look at human rights from a community rights perspectives. The western concept often creates conflicts when an individuals’ rights conflicts with the right of a community to live in harmony and to protect its cultural identity from outside influences. Asians would argue that communities have certain rights such as defending themselves against external threats – be it cultural or military. Thus bombarding your community with satellite television programs from overseas or planting churches in Buddhist or Muslim communities could be seen as a violation of the human rights of a community and a threat to community harmony.

Fighting Globalisation By Cultural Mobilisation

Asian political and business elites whole-hearted embrace of globalization in the 1990s have created much tension in traditional societies. In 2005, I did two stories for an international news agency on this topic from Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

When Indonesia’s Ullema Council (a body of Muslim community leaders) issued 11 fatwas in one go it was reported by western news agencies as signs of creeping Islamic fundamentalism in Southeast Asia. But, on closer look I found out that these fatwas were mainly directed against threats to their traditional culture coming from globalization, especially arrival of satellite television and MTV, pornography via the Internet and tourism. The fatwas were not directed at killing non-believers but protecting their communities from unwanted – mainly western – influences.

At about the same time, I was in Sri Lanka doing a story on the rise of the new Buddhist monks’ party JHU and I spoke to one of its leaders Ven. Athuraliya Ratana. Western media has dubbed JHU a Buddhist nationalist party and when I asked him the question he said “we are fighting against the negative impact of globalization on our communities, and we have used religion and language to mobilise people”.

Two or three decades ago these movements would have used Marxist ideology to mobilise the people against social injustices, as we saw with the rise of JVP in the 1970s in Sri Lanka and the communist movement in Indonesia in the 1960s. Both of which were ruthlessly crushed by the respective governments.

Laws Are Not The Solution

Multiculturalism cannot be created by laws. It needs people to respect traditional cultural norms and practice tolerance in their social interactions. If a traditional community, however superior they may be numerically in the country, feels disadvantages when confronting a new and aggressive minority group that may be richer, there is bound to be conflict.

In Sri Lanka and Myanmar Buddhists feel that better funded Christian and Islamic evangelical groups are targeting their community and they need to defend their cultural heritage at all cost. Often Hindus in India and Nepal feel the same, while Muslims in Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh feel that well-funded Christian evangelical groups from the West supported by local Christian minorities are targeting their communities.

As we are seeing both in Asia and Europe, multiculturalism or multiracialism is not an appropriate ideology to address issues of social justice and socio-economic empowerment when the aggrieved groups tend to come from within the majority ethnic or religious groups in the country.

Multiculturalists always blame the majority community for the failure of multiculturalism. They are the ones who are supposed to change while the minorities could form their cultural ghettos and even not integrate with the rest of the community. The fact that such toleration and unequal relationships could lead to the lost of cultural identity of the majority community is no concern to the multiculturalists. When the majority community decides to stand up to protect their cultural identity multiculturalism looses its steam. We need to find a delicate balance, where one is not threatened by the other.



Author: lotuscommnet

Dr Kalinga Seneviratne, who was born and educated in Sri Lanka has spent 20 years in Australia and is currently based in Singapore. He is a journalist, a radio broadcaster, television documentary maker, media analyst and an international communications lecturer. Currently Kalinga teaches Asian regional media systems and journalism and news media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. From 2004 to 2012 he was the Head of the Research division at the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) in Singapore. He has also taught international communications at the University of Technology Sydney and Macquarie University (Australia). He has authored and edited many books on media and communications issues. His expertise are in development communication, journalism and feature writing, community radio and alternative media, and international communications. He has won an United Nations Media Peace Award (1987) and the Inaugural Singapore Airlines Educational Award (1992) from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia for services to the Australian community radio sector. He was the Australian and South Pacific correspondent for the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency from 1991-1997 and still writes for them IDN IN-Depth News on a freelance basis. He has done reporting assignments for IPS from a number of countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Kalinga was a member of a research team from 1991-1993 at the University of Technology Sydney looking at ‘Cultural Diversity and Racism in the Media’ in Australia. Kalinga is still a practicing journalists who writes for many publications across Asia and also produce radio and television documentaries.

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