Multiculturalism: A blasphemy or a blessing?

January 31, 2012

Multiculturalism is a Western ideal, amounting to a secular faith. Every Western government at least mouths its mantras – that a mix of peoples in one nation is a social good, that it enriches what had been a tediously monolithic culture, that it improves (especially for the Anglo-Saxons) our cuisine, our dress sense and our love lives. Besides, we need these immigrants: In Europe at least, where demographic decline is still the order of the day in most states, where else will the labor come from? Who else replenishes the state pension fund? Even where leaders criticize multiculturalism’s tendency to shield communities from justified criticism – Angela Merkel of Germany and David Cameron of the UK have both spoken out on this – they touch only on its more obvious failings. As a process, they agree it is welcome.

Forgotten, or at least suppressed, in this narrative is religion and the animating force it still gives to many groups. Animating – and also divisive. To believe deeply in a religion had been, in the West as well as elsewhere, to believe deeply in the error of those not of the same faith, and to shun them. It has been one of the remarkable transformations of the past century that in the West, those of religious faith, or none, should accommodate the faiths of others. Indeed, they should even honor them. Those societies where that did not happen — say, until very recently, Ireland — the culture was seen as aberrant.

The reverse is true in many strongly Islamic societies. And that’s causing a problem for the Christians still living in them.

In Pakistan, the Christians number around 2.5 million. At 1.5 percent of the population, it is the largest minority in an otherwise wholly Muslim country, its origin as a community stemming entirely from the missionary activities of the British colonialists and the small number of Christians who stayed on after independence came in 1947. Promised complete equality, the progressive Islamization of the state has put increasing pressure on Christians, who face both official discrimination and periodic popular violence. The latter increased in the past decade: Last year claimed two prominent victims.

Shahbaz Bhatti, 42 years old, was the federal minister for minority affairs, a Catholic and a strong opponent of the country’s blasphemy laws: In March, his car was sprayed with bullets. By the time he got to the hospital, he was dead on arrival. The group Tehrik-i-Taliban claimed responsibility, citing Bhatti as a “known blasphemer.” The murder came two months after another, of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. Although not a Christian, Taseer had also strongly opposed the blasphemy law and offered support to those caught in it. He was shot in January by one of his bodyguards, Malik Qadri, reportedly associated with the Dawat-e-Islami group.

There also isn’t much multicultural harmony in countries where Christianity and Islam are both strong. In Nigeria, where the two religions each make up about half the population, tension and violence has tended to increase. Over the Christmas and New Year’s period, the Islamist group Boko Haram (the name means “Western education is a sin”) attacked Christian worshippers, culminating (so far) in a Jan. 20 gun and bomb attack in Kano, a mainly Muslim city in the north of the country: The attack, on police as well as Christians, claimed 185 lives. The aftermath has seen Muslims and Christians come together in the capital, Lagos, to pray for peace. The present reality is increased fear and distance.

It’s in Christianity’s former heartland – the Middle East – that the religion faces its most poignant fate. The reasons why Christianity is now quite rapidly disappearing are contentious. Some, like the late Edward Said (himself from a Christian tradition), saw Western imperialism, support for Israel and aggressive intervention as the culprits. Others point to a millennium-long Islamic pressure on a faith regarded as a blasphemy. More recently a much more violent pressure has appeared from Islamist fundamentalism, stirring — as the Lebanese scholar Habib Malik put it in an essay for the Hoover Institution — “ancient antagonisms and reviv(ing) atavistic rejections of the different other as a despised infidel.” Christians were some 20 percent of the Middle Eastern population a century ago. Now, they are estimated to account for about 5 percent.

Thus throughout the Middle Eastern Muslim states, Christians retreat. In Gaza and the West Bank, Christians make up only about 2 percent of the population. Even the relatively large community in Bethlehem is declining. In Iraq, the slow drop in Christian numbers was much accelerated after the invasion let loose sectarian violence: Some half of the community has left. In Iran, traditional Christian groups are recognized in the constitution and given parliamentary seats – but face informal discrimination and leave. In Saudi Arabia, both public and private expressions of Christianity are banned (though the latter is rarely enforced). The only Christians are foreign workers or visitors, who must keep their blasphemy to themselves.

Until relatively recently, the largest single Christian community, the Egyptian Copts, had been relatively secure. The 19th century brought them not just toleration but recognition, especially of their religious and political rights. But the 20th century, with the growth of the view that Egypt should not be for Egyptians but for Muslims, saw pressure bear down on the Copts, moderated only by the suppression of Islamism from above — especially during the period of rule by Gamal Abdel Nasser, from 1956 until his death in 1970. Anti-Copt riots and murders continued through the seventies and eighties: their position improved in the nineties, when former President Hosni Mubarak, under international pressure, returned land and property taken from the Copts years before and improved security. Sporadic attacks, however, continued: They are underrepresented in the administration and in politics, and media attacks on them persist.

The greater fear now, in Egypt as elsewhere, is that the Arab Spring has a dark side. Anti-Copt riots were a feature of last year: A Coptic demonstration against the burning of one of their churches in October saw more than 20 dead as the army charged the demonstrators. The irony that the Christian tradition is older in the area than Islam’s (and once dominant in it) is ignored in the zeal for purification.

In December, the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the world’s Anglicans, told the House of Lords in London that “the position of Christians in (the Middle East) is more vulnerable than it has been for centuries … of late, the Coptic community has seen levels of emigration rise to unprecedented heights, and in a way that would have been unthinkable even a very few years ago, it is anxious about sharing the fate of other Christian communities that once seemed securely embedded in their setting.”

Christians, now, cannot look for security in any setting where Islam makes a monopolistic claim on the hearts and minds of the people. Fervent faith in one part of the world; a secular trust in the benign effects of cultural mixing in another. The two are not, for the moment, meeting.

PHOTO: An injured Christian protester holds a statue of Christ and shows off a bullet during clashes with soldiers and riot police in Cairo, October 9, 2011. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh


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What kind of nonsense is this? In this age of globalization you are still questioning Multiculturalism?
Religion is different and run by folks who are pursuing their own narrow interests, whether it’s the Taliban or Pat Robertson

Posted by Dyota | Report as abusive

It is damning that over the last two thousand years religion has made absolutely no progress if progress is measured in tolerance of another’s differences so each has a legitimate place in a given society or in this world.

Those who preach or believe it”s “my way or the highway” have warred, killed, tortured. They have brought new meaning in the worst possible way as to the definitions of humanity and that which is “humane”.

Perhaps the strongest possible argument for atheism or agnosticism is to point at this record and the absolutely incredible investment of human attention, time, and financial resources that could have been more effectively employed to improve the “human condition” would wide in the here and how on Earth.

Instead these have been utterly wasted by those who divert man’s attention to “questions of eternity” with few, if any, “real” answers. No one has come back with credible first person experience one way or another, and so man’s tendency towards “inhumanity towards other humans” continues without pause for the foreseeable future.

I do not see such conscious choice as either logical or desirable. It makes no sense to me.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

“would” should have been “world”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Multiculturalism, the seeming ideology of globalization, is no different than any other religion or ideology. Who’s interests are served by multiculturalism/globalization? Certainly not the average person in Western society, be it America or Europe. But … it is new, and those who need something to cheer for and have been raised in this nano-second culture find much gratification in it. After all it is a marketer’s paradise.

Tell me … if it is so good to have a quick, or forced some would say, mixing of cultures, rather than the usual cross cultural flows that occur normally, and so bad if we don’t, how has Western society survived up till now? Tell me, is it bad to be Dutch? How about the Swedes? Has the development of those societies been retarded by the apparent homogeneity they had up till the last few decades?

Shall we talk about the British?

Let’s face it, globalization benefits capital first and foremost. The average person is left to adapt as best they can. The kumbaya of multiculturalism seems nothing more than certain Western values raised to the level of ‘universal.’ Should anyone be telling anyone else how to live, what is of value, who to have sex with? Wow! This just sounds like the old music from a new instrument.

The mixing of cultures is done best organically, from the bottom up, as it has been from long, long ago. We don’t need Big Brother (or Big Sister, too) telling us how to live. It only seems to suggest that the true reasons for our supposedly impotent culture lies elsewhere.

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

Ah maybe, all looks bad on the surface, but you have missed the point. The fact that the Christian church has gone underground. In Chine an underground church divides when it gets to 60 people or has been in existence for 6 months.(usually the 60)
Jesus HAS appeared to many Muslims (including some hard line leaders) in dreams and visions. The end result is about 9 million convert to the love of God every year. (and suffer for it even to death, as you have read)
I promise you (all) one day soon, we will all stand before God and account for ourselves. All our best works will be worth nothing. That’s where faith Where will you stand?

Posted by bobsyeruncle12 | Report as abusive

It’s disingenuous and perhaps also intolerant to think that violence is something unique to religon, it is and always will be a shared vice for all of humanity. The 20th century saw the advent of enforced atheism, yet death and suffering did not decrease, the countries where it was institutionalized saw an incredulous amount of killing by the regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pot. The Nazi eugenics program was based off a post-darwinian goverment policy that thought why shouldn’t humanity should adhere to the same darwinian laws that rule the animal kingdom? Survival of the fittest. In this case “the blond haired blue eyed German” was considered the “fittest.” Science gave us the atom bomb which vaporized 250,000 civilians at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Science and a atheist ideology are no more clean than religeon, in fact if the numbers were to be counted it is estimated 60 million were killed by Stalin, Mao and Hitler’s ideologies in the last century, where as if you were to count all the religious deaths from the crusades to the inquistion to islamic terreorism, the number adds up to a third of that at; 20 million. Does this mean I should vilivy science and atheists? No! That vast majority of science has done incredible things for humanity and the vast majority of atheists are good, caring moral people. Just like religon has done vast good for humanity from inspiring some of most incredible art, literature and philosophy the world has ever known, too inspiring everyone to be good in ones life, help the poor, feed the hungry, encourage selflessness and I know the vast majority of christians, muslims and jews do these things and are caring and moral people. It is humanity as a whole that struggles with tolerance, violence and evil ideas, no one part of it.

Posted by BoomerMizugama | Report as abusive

“Don’t worry, the comming cultural diversity will be good for us!!” said the Aztec to the Inca as they watched Colombus’s ships arrive over the horizon.

Posted by tnourie | Report as abusive

Multiculturalism has never worked, probably never will. In Western societies, it is a pacifier to non-dominant groups. In most cases the non-dominant groups have lower qualities. Usually these lower quality groups have a higher birthrate than the higher quality groups. This creates a sub-culture that never assimilates. It is better for the nation and the high quality/dominant groups if the sub-culture groups were sent to a nation where they are a majority.

Truth is rarely nice; because it is not what people want to believe.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

Brutally honest.

Posted by society | Report as abusive

In the end Christ wins. I read the book….LOL

Posted by jjmciny | Report as abusive

There should be an obvious difference between “multiculturalism” and “conquest”.

What is it?

What good is a “nation” without a single culture? How is it different from the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Or Yugoslavia? Or the Soviet Empire? Many peoples under the same boot.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

OneOfTheSheep, atheism doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record of treating the other with humanity, either. History hasn’t forgotten the Cultural Revolution, won’t forget the persecution of Orthodox Christians under Soviet rule, so why have you? If the humanity we show in our treatment of others is a measure of the worth of our ideas, you might want to reevaluate investing your efforts in villainizing religion–maybe consider whether the evil acts of the few can be rightly blamed on institutions that give hope and meaning to millions.

Posted by DirtieHippie | Report as abusive

I”m not sure “millenium-long” pressure is entirely accurate – the Ottoman empire provided one of the longest-lasting examples of religious tolerance, with Christians and Jews welcome throughout the empire, including in Jerusalem. Indeed, it’s often said that the Ottomans killed more Shi’ites than either of those groups.

We, on the other hand, have only really been practising tolerance since the end of WWII. We’ve still quite a few centuries to go yet before we can get all preachy about it.

Posted by IanKemmish | Report as abusive

good article, about time.

raises interesting points regarding cultural reciprocity and protection of religious rights for christian minorities in countries whose citizens benefit from human rights in western countries.

one signal is to restrict immigrant quotas from states that remain passive in the face of overt persecution of christian minorities. passive being the operative word.

Posted by scyth3 | Report as abusive

The comment about the Ottoman Empire is very relevant when you look at the lack of religious tolerance throughout the world. Maybe we should look at the British impact since they were mostly responsible for the breakup of that Empire:
1. Lack of religious tolerance in the UK brought immigrants to America.
2. The Protestant/Catholic conflict in Ireland exploded during the rule of Cromwell.
3. British pitted the Muslims and the Hindu in India to justify their continued presents in that part of the world.
4. The British pitted Muslim against Jew in Palestine to extend their occupation in that region.

The British learned this Machiavellian technique a long time ago. When you occupy a territory, get the different factions in the territory to fight amongst themselves and you will have a less chance that they will unite against you. And is there a better cause than religion and its fervor to get people to fight one another?

Posted by rdinTempe | Report as abusive