In Search of the New 'Multiculturalism'

In discussing multiculturalism, there is always a tendency to focus on the challenges posed by increased cultural and religious diversity to social cohesion. This is especially the case in states that are supposed to be more ‘secular’ or where religion is not expected to dominate public life.

But how nation states deal with religiosity in general is not always easy to predict. In Australia, for example, Section 116 of the Australian Constitution explicitly provides that the Commonwealth shall not legislate to establish any religion, impose any religious observance or prohibit the free exercise of any religion.

 In the USA, the religious and civilian freedoms of all citizens are guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. In France, religious symbols, such as the hijab (headscarf), have been banned to protect secularism in French government offices and schools since 2004.

The 2004 ban of the hijab and most recently the 2009 inquiry into banning the burqa (veils that cover the entire face) in France on one hand, and the public criticism of President Obama of such laws in June 2009 on the other, indicate the divergent public discourses and policies that nation states have taken vis-à-vis religiosity. Such divergent approaches have significant implications for migrant social integration, their representations in public discourses and their feelings of attachment to the liberal western polities within which they live.

In recent months, we heard a number of leaders from Europe such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the British Prime Minister David Cameron declare that multiculturalism has failed in their respective countries.

In the context of a post 9/11 world and a rise in security fears compounded by recent economic woes, these comments are in many ways populist reactions to a nervous electorate that is looking for scapegoats. In truth, neither the UK nor Germany in particular had in fact anything like a fully-fledged multicultural policy. Germany is a multiethnic country but never really adopted a proactive multiculturalism policy as was the case with Australia. And whilst the UK has had a policy of accommodating cultural diversity it nonetheless stopped short of adopting social and settlement policies to support the cultural aspirations of migrant communities.

And this is where Australia’s multiculturalism has managed to lead the way despite its own difficulties at different points in time (e.g. Pauline Hanson; Cronulla riots and the various ‘boat people’ episodes). Australia’s multiculturalism managed to strike the right balance between emphasising an attachment to Australia the nation with all its local facets and universal values on one hand, and a capacity to retain elements of heritage culture and faith that do not transgress domestic laws on the other.

 Indeed, this marriage of migrant heritage culture and mainstream values created a vibrant and creative Australian society capable of projecting a positive confident image that is the envy of the world.

 I have been involved in a lot of comparative projects that looked specifically at attitudes towards multiculturalism and cultural diversity in Australia and in a number of similarly émigré societies such as France, the UK, Canada and the USA.

And whilst Australia still has a long way to go before a truly inclusive multicultural society is achieved where absolutely no one is excluded because of their cultural or religious background, it is heartening to report that these comparative studies have shown that Australia has indeed managed the issue of migration, multiculturalism and cultural diversity much better that other countries.

This is not totally surprising given some of these countries such as France for example has a policy of assimilation that denies aggressively any projection of cultural or religious identity in the public sphere. Germany never had a policy that supports migrant communities who were seen as ‘guest workers’ even if they were born in Germany, only recently that citizenship laws have been amended so that those born in Germany of migrant parents can obtain German citizenship. In both cases, the government policy towards migrant integration was essentially not to have an explicit policy but an unrealistic hope that migrants will ultimately shed their cultural baggage and assimilate smoothly within the host society’s own pre-determined cultural norm.

 It is this naïve expectation that resulted in the high level of disfranchisement that manifested itself in the Paris riots and the German crisis of second-generation migrant youth.

 Multiculturalism as a demographic state of affairs is well and alive not only in Australia but even in those very countries that declared it ‘an utter failure’.

The strength of multiculturalism in Australia is derived from the people that carry it and practice it in their everyday lives. Many people now accept that diversity is an advantage rather than an impediment to social development as well as to economic growth.

But a renewed emphasis on multiculturalism as a conduit towards social inclusion and active citizenship can and should also be articulated in a discourse of global ethics and universal cosmopolitan values rather than mere material advantages.  This new emphasis need to start with the next generations of Australian citizens and should have a strong presence amongst youth and within educational institutions.

Fethi Mansouri