Agita Misāne. What is multiculturalism and should one be afraid of it? 19.09.2016.

"Multiculturalism" is also one of such concepts, although it should be admitted that its epithets are not as acrimonious as they used to be in the first half of 2008, when the arguments whether the integration policy of Latvia should be directed towards multiculturalism reached their apogee. Until then, the concept of multiculturalism was little known to the wider public, it was referred to almost only by the integration policy experts and professionals of social sciences, and there was no actual in-depth and serious discussions on the content of the concept itself even among them. Besides, there were no discussions also later. Cautious optimism, with which some of the integration experts had looked to multiculturalism, seeing there an opportunity for various ethnic communities of Latvia to get on and cooperate, was replaced by almost unanimous denial of an idea of multiculturalism. Its most fervent advocates kept simply silent. Moreover, in 2010, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a liitle bit later British Prime Minister of that time David Cameron acknowledged that the policy of multiculturalism has failed in their countries. Very heavy and pessimistic debates on the future of multiculturalism already for a number of years have been going on in the Netherlands - after the murder of film director Theo van Gogh. In the morning of 2 November 2004, he was murdered on the street by a Dutch and Moroccan dual citizen whose family has been living in the Netherlands already for the second generation. After a year, wide riots caused by immigrants took place in France.

What had exactly failed and could it happen differently? Multiculturalism is based on an optimistic ideology, it is the official policy of Canada and Australia respectively since 1971 and 1973. These two countries are considered as "success stories" of multiculturalism, although a lot of critical voices are heard also there both from politicians, and experts. What is this story about?

What exactly is multiculturalism?

All answers to this question are rather new. The concept "multiculturalism" is known already since the forties of the 20th century, it became popular in the sixties, but the most part of the analysis of this phenomenon was carried out in the nineties - the most optimistic decades of the multiculturalism policy, when it really seemed that it could function almost in all multicultural societies. Multiculturalism in its broadest meaning and also at the ideological level is recognition of cultural diversity and equivalence. Sometimes the concept is used when simply recognizing the multicultural nature of the society.  At the same time, it is a political doctrine and a specific policy deriving from it envisaging specific political instruments to protect the said diversity and the interests of specific groups of society. The famous Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls multiculturalism "the politics of recognition". Multiculturalism may be described also as an anti-assimilation policy. According to it, it is worth paying for diverse society as it is value in itself. From the economic aspect, multiculturalism, even if it is successful in a sense that there are no commotions, is expensive, it takes significant financial investment to maintain it, and it is also one of the arguments used by the critics of multiculturalism.

In some ways, a sense of guilt and efforts to straighten out the things that can be corrected can also be seen in the doctrine of multiculturalism. Already mentioned Canada and Australia are the states where the native inhabitants have been oppressed for a long time, their land was taken away and natural resources were plundered, depriving native inhabitants of adequate medical care and education, persecuting their traditional culture and languages. Multiculturalism was if not an official then the practised policy in the former colonial power states such as Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc., the largest part of the immigrants comes to these countries from their former colonies.

Practical policy instruments for recognition of the uniqueness of these ethnic groups and for a long-term injustice prevention are different. For example, granting a specific status to their languages at the regional or national level, recognition of dual citizenship, a specific economic framework for specific territories, quotas in the representation authorities and educational system, especially in case of vulnerable groups, recognition of contribution of various ethnic groups, for example, in school programs, inclusion of traditional holidays in the official holiday calendars, specific programs for protection of specific cultures and social integration. A lot of states have complicated regulatory mechanisms to protect the rights of religious minorities; they get even more complicated if the particular practice contradicts national legislation or social norms. The recent cases are the ones which often cause the most acrimonious debates and elegant legal solutions. Disputes whether it should be allowed for the Sikhs not to use the skidlids which can not be put on the compulsory turbans of this religious community and whether Muslim women are allowed to cover their faces in the public places and to put on so called burkini swimsuits when swimming are not the most complicated examples in this sense. As we see, multiculturalism is as much a story about the cultures as the concept itself shows it as (and probably even more) a story about legal theory and practice.

No wonder why a lot of people tend to think along the following lines - if so much is done on behalf of the particular ethnic groups, why then "they" are not satisfied anyway, why is it not enough for them? - and this opinion is also often enough heard in the public space. There are political parties and individual politicians and opinion leaders who take advantage of it. During the resent years the growing popularity of the right-wing radical parties is the most convincing evidence.

Multiculturalism and the instruments related to the above policy have been attributed most often historically to ethnic, also religious diversity. In recent years, individual theorists tend to expand it when it comes to an inclusive equal society model which includes not only the rights, but also representation, envisaging special protection for the groups, which have been discriminated for a long time in other aspects. Mostly, it emphasizes racial, gender and sexual orientation diversity. Although an anti-discrimination policy is sufficiently developed practically in all industrially developed societies, in reality both women and people with a darker skin colour receive in many places lower salaries, have lower education and income, they are more often unemployed and suffer from violence. Their opinions are also not equally taken into consideration, and still in some places they are considered as imperfect and less valuable beings. The above tendency raises both political and academical discussions whether multiculturalism is a part of the anti-discrimination policy or probably vice versa?

Repeated actualization of multiculturalism topic during the recent years is clearly linked to the migration crisis, especially in Europe. What consequences will be there after larger amounts of immigrants belonging to different cultures enter Europe where so far by no means all countries were able to find successful integration models? Therefore, most likely we`ll have to come back again and again to reflection on pros and cons of multiculturalism.

Is it possible to have a successful multiculturalism model?

What can facilitate implementation of the multiculturalism policy and what can lead to its failure? Theoreticians and analysts emphasize several significant aspects.

First of all, national borders and the situation of their protection. If people do not feel external threats, integration of society is state`s internal matter and assignment. In that case, we can really speak of integration as of unity of society. The situation is completely different if the state neighbours with a military stronger state which says that it wants only to protect its countrymen which amounts to a numerically significant minority in your country.  It is also different if it is easy to overstep the border and immediately a large number of people is behind it which could overstep it because they do not have any other choice.

Secondly, multiculturalism has to be real, it functions better if there are several cultures. It does not work in two-community countries, as well as in cases when almost all immigrants come from one region of the world or even from one country. This practically always leads to polarization of society and collision of interests. Real diversity of cultures is a balancing factor.

Thirdly, a doctrine of multiculturalism envisages equal contribution of various groups to economic gross product or at least fair efforts to achieve it. If an opinion that "we sustain those others" exists in any part of society, it is a time bomb.  It is also easy to manipulate with such an opinion.

Fourthly, one of the greatest risks in multicultural societies is isolation of cultures both geographically (for example, immigrants live in enclaves in the large European cities), and not coming out of one`s language, media and education space. It is clear that prevention of such situation takes both efforts and funds.

Fifthly, an agreement on human rights which is binding for all members of society. This is a sensitive issue as there are rather different views in traditional cultures of the individual value in general and especially of the rights, and it can not be quickly and easy to change them. However, if the society does not have a strong conviction that the rules of the game are the same for all, there will be no mutual trust which is one of the most significant preconditions for unity.

This summary list allows also to understand why multiculturalism was not a successful policy in Europe. Does it mean that this "project" has to be written off and forgotten? It will not be an easy task to do, the elements of multiculturalism - both positive and risky ones - still exist. Also in Latvia, where it never became a purposeful and planned policy. However, Latvia can learn from the mistakes of other European countries and those of the world in order not to repeat them. 

This publication has been made in the framework of the project “Information Centre for Immigrants”. The Project co-financed by the European Union within the framework of the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.Grant Agreement No.PMIF/12/2016/1/1.

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