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Multiculturalism: An idea gone sour

Updated August 20, 2015

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Multiculturalism has become the new white man’s burden. — Image courtesy of David Franklin
Multiculturalism has become the new white man’s burden. — Image courtesy of David Franklin

Us and them

When the word ‘multiculturalism’ began echoing in the West after the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, many on the left sides of the ideological divide suspected it to be yet another expression of ‘post-modern capitalism.’

However, in 1991, when the new Soviet regime crushed an attempted coup by the defeated forces of Cold War communists, and broke the Soviet Union into pieces, many young people in developing nations did manage to find certain aspects of multiculturalism to their liking.

To them, it meant that now the West was opening up to allowing immigrants to live (in Europe and the US), according to their (the immigrants’) cultural mores, without having to entirely integrate to the mores of Western societies.

The idea of multiculturalism was welcomed by immigrant communities in the West.
The idea of multiculturalism was welcomed by immigrant communities in the West.

Multiculturalism 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 attributes, and to respect (rather than suspect) their distinctiveness.

This was to be done for the benefit of the countries in which the men and women of different nations had come to settle and work.

However, some two decades after the arrival of the idea of multiculturalism in the West, it has started to be questioned, and even scoffed at for creating political and social turmoil in Western societies. So what happened?

Multiculturalism invited social, religious and cultural diversity and assured to give it respect. This part was well understood by most non-Western immigrants who had arrived to stay 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 with and integrate into 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 their adopted country’s predominant language or exhibit a similar respect towards that country’s cultural norms.

It’s become a one-way traffic, in which large sections of immigrant cultures in a multicultural country ghettoise themselves, and then throw up their arms and complain how they were being discriminated against when asked to integrate. According to them, being asked to be assimilated, runs against the whole concept of multiculturalism.

Usually critics of multiculturalism simply grumble if a people from an immigrant community demonstrates this kind of behavior.

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 demands for integration as an attack on its cultural mores, but sometimes even threatens to respond more vehemently.

This dilemma seems to be particularly testing in the UK. The South Asian Muslim communities in the UK, though not alone in triggering the ghettoisation fall-out of multiculturalism, seem to be one of the leading exponents of voluntary cultural segregation.

There to stay

From the 1980s onwards, as Muslim countries across the world were flushed with petro-dollars from conservative oil-rich monarchies, they saw a surge in religious conservatism in their societies. The surge’s impact was felt by the Muslim diaspora in non-Muslim countries as well.

Consequently, during the heydays of multiculturalism, large sections of South Asian Muslim communities in Europe, US and Canada actually began using multiculturalism as a license to shun integration! They expected their cultural mores to be accepted and respected, but refused to do the same regarding the mores of their adopted countries.

For example, one often hears about how immigrant clerics in some prominent European countries are openly enticing the young Muslim Diasporas to attack symbols of ‘moral corruption’, ‘sin’ and ‘vulgarity’ in countries where this diaspora was allowed to settle and earn its livelihood.

Stand-up Muslim comedian Humza Arshad works alongside Scotland Yard to help fight radicalisation in UK’s Muslim communities.
Stand-up Muslim comedian Humza Arshad works alongside Scotland Yard to help fight radicalisation in UK’s Muslim communities.

Rather bizarrely, liberal principles ingrained in the socio-political set up of the adopted countries 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 community return to their own 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 aligned with their idea of righteousness.

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 if given the chance to become a part of these societies.

But their path is being sullied by the ghettoised mindset of many of their 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 exhibit and live by their cultural identities in the West.

However, according to the idea of multiculturalism, this can’t be done in a vacuum or in a segregated manner. But this is the aspect of multiculturalism that does not count in their understanding of the idea.

Multiculturalism has become the new white man’s burden, and also a cultural deterrent in the hands of those who plan to devour its more tolerant and progressive notions with their zeal to impose their own skewed and myopic beliefs — ironically, expressed as ‘multiculturalism.’

The natives return

Years before the mid-1980s, Pakistanis who had lived in a western country and then returned home, were usually perceived to have become more informed and ‘modern’.

One way of observing this is to study how the country’s once-thriving Urdu cinema scene portrayed such Pakistanis.

For example, across the 1950s and 1960s, most Urdu films that had in their plots a character who had returned from Europe or the US, was usually portrayed as being an enlightened person who had been intellectually enriched by his stay in the West.

In those days the narrative in this context went something like this: An educated city dweller was seen to be more level-headed and less religious than a person from the rural areas. And such a city dweller was usually a Pakistani who had gone to the West for studies or work.

Pakistanis in the UK in the 1960s: They were considered to be ‘enlightened’ back home. —Photo courtesy of Saltley Stories Birmingham
Pakistanis in the UK in the 1960s: They were considered to be ‘enlightened’ back home. —Photo courtesy of Saltley Stories Birmingham

Then, in the 1970s, Pakistan chose its first elected government led by the left-liberal populist, Z. A. Bhutto.

Bhutto's populism was a concept of social democracy that was supposedly positioned to be more rooted in the common wisdom of the ‘masses’. It is even more interesting to note how Pakistani films treated this new phenomenon.

As the 1960s radical social youth movements in the West exhausted themselves, they became more faddish in content. These emerging fads and fashions also arrived in Pakistan.

So, whereas in the 1960s most Urdu films had celebrated the US or Europe-returned Pakistani as a bastion of enlightened modernity, in the 1970s he/she usually began being portrayed as a guitar-slinging and dope-smoking hippie!

In Urdu films during the Bhutto era, though the ‘level-headed’ US/Europe returned Pakistani was still perceived as being broadminded, many of his more socially ‘liberated’ contemporaries began being seen through the prism of the so-called ‘masses’ (rather, through the prism of the petty-bourgeoisie).

This did not mean that the Pakistani society had shifted to the right. It was just that the urban liberal tenor of the Ayub Khan dictatorship (1958-1969) had mutated (through Bhutto) into becoming a more populist (‘awami’) notion.

Thus, Pakistani films of the 1970s came up with a new narrative in this context that now suggested that it was fine to be liberal, as long as one remained in contact with the traditions of his/her ancestral and folksy surroundings.

That’s why, whereas the Europe-returned Pakistani hippie was portrayed as a bumbling hippie buffoon in most 1970s Urdu films, an urban Pakistani who was equally liberal but managed to slip in a dialogue or two about ‘eastern values,’ became an admirable aspiration.

Scene from 1975’s Mohabat Zindagi Hai in which Waheed Murad (second left) played a UK-return Pakistani who was ‘wise’ because he held on to his ‘Eastern values.’
Scene from 1975’s Mohabat Zindagi Hai in which Waheed Murad (second left) played a UK-return Pakistani who was ‘wise’ because he held on to his ‘Eastern values.’
1974’s Miss Hippie in which the more ‘socially liberated’ youth impressed by Western fads were portrayed as being bumbling hippie caricatures.
1974’s Miss Hippie in which the more ‘socially liberated’ youth impressed by Western fads were portrayed as being bumbling hippie caricatures.

The 1970s were also a time when a larger number of Pakistanis began traveling abroad.

The only difference this time was that whereas most Pakistanis used to travel to Europe or the US for work and studies in the 1950s and 1960s, many now began moving to the oil-rich Middle-Eastern countries (mostly for work) from the mid-1970s onwards.

Up until about the late 1970s, Pakistan was a lot more pluralistic and ‘modernised’ than most Arab countries. So, for example, Pakistanis going to these countries were actually going to places that were squarely under the yoke of puritanical monarchies and autocratic regimes whose states — though rich — were still in the process of being ‘modernised’.

Soon, these Pakistanis began sending impressive amounts of money to their families back home, triggering the emergence of a prosperous new urban middle-class in Pakistan.

The process that saw these Pakistanis being exposed to the stands of the faith practiced by Arab populations. Also, after enjoying a sense of their rising economic statuses back home, all this generated a whole new component of Pakistanis, who now began relating their former (more folksy) religious and social dispositions as something associated with low economic status.

This is, at least one reason why from 1980 onwards, a large number of urban middle and lower-middle class Pakistanis began sliding towards various shades of puritanism. This puritanism became like a badge exhibiting their economic advancement.

The process was also hastened by the policies of a staunchly conservative regime that had grabbed power through a coup in July 1977.

A successful middle-class Pakistani in the 1980s became to denote an educated urbanite who was a trader, businessman, banker or white-collar employee, but who, at the same time, was now more likely to observe religious rituals and attire than not.

A scene from 1979’s Dubai Chalo. The film parodied the obsession of Pakistanis wanting to reach oil-rich Arab countries and the nouveau riche class that emerged after money from the UAE and Saudi Arabia began to pour in.
A scene from 1979’s Dubai Chalo. The film parodied the obsession of Pakistanis wanting to reach oil-rich Arab countries and the nouveau riche class that emerged after money from the UAE and Saudi Arabia began to pour in.

Two decades later (especially after 9/11), Pakistanis living in the West too, began to go through a similar transformation.

No more were West-returned Pakistanis being associated with cultural modernism.

And interestingly, though this transformation had been more gradual and slower among the middle and lower middle-classes within Pakistan, it became more pronounced within the Pakistani diaspora in the Middle-East, Europe and the US.

This was mainly accelerated by the popularity of travelling preachers catering squarely to South Asian Muslims living in the West.

Anecdotes abound about how the offspring of Pakistanis who had been living like ‘true Muslims’ in Europe and the US from the 1980s onwards were shocked to discover that Pakistan was not the kind of a republic they had imagined it to be.

This is an intriguing development. West-returned Pakistanis are now perceived (or rather perceive themselves) to be 'better Muslims’ than those living in Pakistan. That’s how they like to distinguish themselves.

Had Pakistani cinema been thriving today, I’m sure the films would’ve now been portraying the new West-returned Pakistani not as a ‘modernist’ or a hippie buffoon, but as a shocked Muslim wagging a righteous finger at his countrymen and advising them to repent — in an American/British accent, of course.