When the term ‘multiculturalism’ began being aired consistently in the West after the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, us youthful Cold War Marxists saw it as yet another expression of post-modern capitalism.
Nevertheless, in 1991 when the new Soviet regime crushed a coup plot by the defeated forces of Cold War communists, and broke the Soviet Union into dozens of independent countries, we, who in Pakistan, had struggled hard to topple a reactionary military regime in the 1980s and reinstall democracy, did manage to find certain aspects of multiculturalism to our liking.
After all, since Pakistan is a diverse Muslim-majority country with a number of distinct ethnicities, religions and Muslim sects, multiculturalism in the Pakistani context was rather appealing.
Multiculturalism is an almost entirely post-modernist idea that advocates a departure from a homogenised and singular nationalistic, ethnic and religious idea imposed upon a society and polity. It encourages the recognition, respect and institutionalisation of cultural diversity.
So, even if young Marxist pretenders of the 1980s like me saw it with some suspicion, and initially read it as capitalism’s ploy to tap into a whole new market that emerged after the arrival of ‘economic freedoms in a more diverse and globalised world’, in Pakistan’s context it could have meant something a little less cynical.
For decades Pakistan’s ethnic and sectarian diversity has been ravaged and fissured by the state’s dogmatic insistence of imposing a singular concept of nationhood and faith.
In the process, ethnicities, Muslim sects, sub-sects and people of other faiths have resisted the attempt (sometimes rather violently); or have been left alienated, feeling that the Pakistani ruling elite’s arrogant idea of convoluting a single hegemonic idea of faith and nationhood has ended up undermining and demeaning their identities that have been tied to their ethnic and sectarian heritages for centuries, or long before the creation of Pakistan.
Thus, when multiculturalism kicked in as post-Cold War liberalism’s newest kid on the block, one wished its tentacles would reach Pakistan as well. One felt that once and for all, multiculturalism will convince the Pakistani establishment that it could replace the troublesome burden of carrying a convoluted and cumbersome ideology, and find a more progressive and democratic common ground and unity in the idea of a single nation feeding from the collective economic, cultural and sporting ingenuity of its ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity.
Though a form of multiculturalism did begin to creep in slowly after the return of democracy in 2008 (18th Amendment), we still have a long way to go. It still threatens the hold of those who have proclaimed themselves to be the so-called keepers of the ‘Pakistan Ideology’.
However, multiculturalism in the West emerged with full force and peaked in the mid-2000s when it became institutionalised in various Western countries.
The idea was to demonstrate and welcome cultural diversity and draw from various cultures their finest economic, sporting and artistic dynamics, and to respect (rather than suspect) their distinctiveness. This was to be done for the benefit of the countries of which the men and women of different nations had come to settle and work in.
However, some two decades after the arrival of multiculturalism in the West, it has started to be questioned and even derided for creating political and social turmoil now in various Western countries. So what happened?
Multiculturalism invited diversity and promised to give it respect. This part was well understood by most non-Westerners who had arrived in Western countries and appreciated a new openness in their attitudes.
But the other aspect of multiculturalism was about forming unity through diversity, for which it required people from different religious and cultural backgrounds to wholeheartedly interact and integrate with the overall cultural dynamics of the society that they had chosen to be a part of.
This aspect seemed to have gone missing in the attitudes of a number of men and women who have otherwise made full use of multiculturalism’s tolerant ways in countries where they have settled.
Instead of even nominally integrating into a multicultural society, many have simply used it to ghettoise themselves, refusing to learn the adopted country’s prevalent language or exhibit a similar respect towards the country’s cultural norms.
It’s become a one-way traffic, in which foreign cultures in a multicultural country would ghettoise themselves, but throw up their arms and complain of being discriminated against if asked to integrate.
Usually critics of multiculturalism just grumble if a people from a different community demonstrate this kind of behaviour.
However, things get terribly sensitive when a community uses the principles of multiculturalism to settle in Western societies; but after ghettoising itself, it not only begins to describe the demand of integration as an attack on its cultural moorings, but even threatens to respond with violence.
This dilemma seems to be particularly testing in the UK. Though not alone in triggering the ghettoisation fall-out of multiculturalism, the South Asian Muslim communities in the UK seem to be one of the leading exponents of cultural segregation.
As Muslim nations across the world were flushed with petro-dollars from conservative oil-rich monarchies from the late 1974 onwards, Muslim societies saw a surge in religious conservatism. The surge’s impact was also felt by the Muslim diaspora in non-Muslim countries.
During the heyday of multiculturalism the South Asian Muslim community in Europe, US and Canada treated it as a licence to retreat into a myopic mode and shun integration. Some other Asian communities like the Chinese and the Koreans for example, can also be accused of the same, but they did not do what the South Asian Muslims did.
In the last many years one keeps reading about how mosques in some prominent European countries are being used to entice the young Muslim diaspora to attack symbols of moral corruption, sin and vulgarity in the very countries where this diaspora was allowed to settle and earn its livelihood.
Liberal and secular principles ingrained in the adopted countries’ socio-political set up are being challenged and even attempted to be brought in line with the agitated diaspora’s idea of morality.
What’s more, it is also being noticed that when members of this particular South Asian Muslim community return to their countries of origin for a visit, they scorn at the lax attitude of their countrymen towards faith and morality.
They want their surroundings to be according to what they believe is the correct path. And if they are not, then the surroundings need to be infused with their idea of righteousness. By force, if necessary. This is the same attitude that is emerging in the Pakistani middle classes as well.
There are numerous young Muslims in South Asia who have what it takes to strike a constructive give-and-take deal with Western multicultural societies. And they are likely to flourish in many fields in those more open lands.
But their path is being sullied by the irresponsible, selfish and ghettoised behaviour and mindset of their contemporaries who, unlike them, have managed to find a spot in these countries but are hell bent on destroying the very idea that first gave them the chance to demonstrate their cultural identities there.
Multiculturalism has become the new white man’s burden, and thus a weapon in the hands of those who plan to devour its most tolerant and progressive notions with their fanaticism to impose their own skewed and myopic beliefs.