by Eva Sohlman
- Sweden -
How does a society best deal with its immigrant minorities? This is a question which has become increasingly urgent as more people than ever leave their home countries due to conflict, climate change and globalization. But as they aspire for a brighter future in new lands, these “new” citizens risk being discriminated against, marginalized and even isolated.
The French riots in 2005 and late last year served as a brutal wake-up call and reminder about what can happen if a society lets its immigrant communities drift in the periphery without integration. But while some countries have tried to deal with racism and ethnic discrimination such as Britain, which suffered race riots in the 1980s, some of the initiatives did not always have the intended effect – as in the case of multiculturalism.
Speaking at his offices in the majestic Littauer building at Harvard University, Amartya Sen, Indian economist, philosopher and winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics tackles the topic in a rare interview.
•Sen is not your typical Nobel laureate. The first Asian academic to head an Oxbridge college, he was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, between 1998 and 2004, and is presently the Thomas W Lamont University Professor at Harvard.
His work spans a vast field of subjects such as welfare economics, the underlying mechanisms of poverty and political liberalism. One of his most well known arguments claims that governments should be measured against the concrete capabilities of their citizens – i.e. citizens’ actual ability to do or become something in the society.
A lifelong believer in equality, the witty 74-year-old Sen is widely popular. In India he was tipped as a dream candidate for the presidency in a 2007 poll, and seems to have particular appeal among women. “You should see the lecture halls when Amartya gives a seminar. They bristle with women!” an Indian fellow academic noted. Perhaps this is because Sen has written extensively on women’s liberation and gender equality.
World leaders also want a piece of Amartya Sen. At the time of this interview – squeezed in between seminars – Sen was, with the help of his assistant, frantically trying to catch up with a hectic schedule, including email correspondence with a prime minister and a foreign minister.
How do you define multiculturalism and why do you think it gained such a bad reputation in recent years?
“This is a very interesting question, especially for Europe today. Multiculturalism has deserved a bad reputation, because it has often been used as a very reactionary idea. Originally, the idea of multiculturalism was a tremendously insightful initiative,” the mild-mannered Sen explains with a gentle smile.
“It started in Canada in the 1970s. The idea was that many countries had people with different cultural backgrounds, and that each and every one should be able to live a free life without being forced to do things they don’t want to do. Multiculturalism with a pro-freedom argument had two points: if people wanted to speak their own language, or wanted to listen to their own music, or eat their food, it should not be hindered.”
“The other point was that regardless of background they should enjoy their basic human rights, the right to vote if they were otherwise entitled to it, the right to social security and the right to equal protection by the police. None of these could be compromised.”
“Gradually, it has taken another shape. One of the countries that played a hugely positive role, but which later on misinterpreted it badly, is Great Britain.”
“Multiculturalism soon came to be understood as something quite different: each culture could stay in its own little box without having contact with other cultures,” he says raising his eyebrows. “But if you are in another country – not the country where you were born – then you must have contact with other people.”
“To give one example, if you come from Sri Lanka and live in Britain you should be free to talk in Singhalese or in Tamil (depending on what your language is) with others who speak the same language, but your life would be more comfortable if you also learnt English. Living abroad calls for adjustment,” Sen says matter-of-factly in his distinctive, warm voice.
“It should depend on the person – whether he or she wants to adjust more and be absorbed, or remain more aloof. There could exist several varieties of democratic, adjusted life. What characterizes democratic life is that it is the person who decides.”
“What happens with multiculturalism under this distorted definition is that one defines the person by his or her culture. If culture is defined only by religion, then this person is put into that religious box. The families are often encouraged to send their children to religious schools by the fact that the government has been setting up new ‘faith schools’ at state expense.”
“Defining people only by their religion hugely restricts the understanding of persons who have many different attributes of which religion is only one. And by putting people in different boxes, sometimes in different schools, you try to separate them from each other, rather than encouraging integration. This is in fact what I call ‘plural monoculturalism’.”
“Different cultures each growing by themselves separately like trees. You know, trees don’t speak to each other,” he says with a broad smile, chuckling a little. “We humans do.”
Sen illustrates his point by raising his hands in several strokes, symbolically shaping trees. “A pine. An oak. A lemon tree. This view is on the one hand socially and culturally reactionary, and on the other, has regressive implications on human freedom.”
So are you against state-funded religious schools?
“That I am also, even if I am prepared to see possible arguments (in their favor) – like the one given by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and he is not wrong – that it is largely about imbibing the traditional values of that group.”
Tilting his head contemplatively, he continues. “But there are cons as well. Some traditional values can be in complete conflict with what is going on in the world today. In any case, people should have the freedom to learn about different values and decide what they would reasonably choose. If as a child you encounter many different faiths, if you meet people of different backgrounds, different cultures, different religions, then you are in a much better position to make your decision in an intelligent and a reasoned manner about what you want to do with your own life.”
“It is about helping a person to prepare for a life of freedom and choice rather than a life of imprisonment in choices made by others on your behalf. What is most important is to encourage young children to understand the world in which they live and to reason about alternatives they have which they can consider and choose from, guided by their own thinking.”
What role do you think the state should play in order to counterbalance the isolationalist tendencies?
“Britain was, in fact, a rather remarkably positive example of doing good multicultural things initially, in the 1970s, the 1980s and even some in the 1990s. In 1981 the insightful Scarman report pointed out how minorities often had difficulty in getting good behaviour from the police and felt that they were discriminated. The report was indeed visionary,” Sen says approvingly. “Many of the French riots in the autumn of 2005 could have been possibly avoided if there were correspondingly strong moves toward integration in France.”
“It is important to see that the British successes in the initial period was because of integration, not partition and separation. People have many different identities and a person can be attached to more than one group. If a Bangladeshi Muslim can be simultaneously a good Bangladeshi national, a lover of Bengali language and culture, and also a good Muslim, there is no conflict between them, and one can choose one’s priorities. Bangladeshis fought a war and sacrificed their lives to become an independent secular country with a focus on Bengali culture, language and literature. This was not a religion based struggle at all.”
“There are many Bangladeshis in England, many in London. Since the British government’s categorization of people is now mainly by religion, a Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh, living in Britain, is now simply merged into a category of being ‘a British Muslim’. There is no other identity that gets a similar treatment, thereby undermining the importance of language, literature, political beliefs, musical taste and so on. In this sense the present British attempt at multiculturalism is, in fact, rather ‘anti-cultural’.”
“As far as religious schools are concerned, it is sometimes argued, ‘since there are Christian schools financed by the government why should there not be state-financed Muslim schools, Hindu schools, Sikh schools?’”
“I understand that argument but there are three points against it. First, it is much harder to abolish existing schools, than to refrain from starting new schools of a certain type. Christian schools have already existed, and one way of thinking about symmetry is not to start new state-financed Christian schools, no Muslim schools, no Hindu schools, no Sikh schools, no Jewish schools. The distinction is between abolishing existing schools and not starting new ones linked with faith.”
“Second, the old schools have developed over centuries in a tradition of being broad and inclusive. Many of the activists in the Arab world went to convents and studied in Christian schools,” Sen muses. “The new schools however are often started by religious zealots from each religion, and the curriculum and the priorities often reflect this enthusiastic narrowness.”
“Third, what is really important is not any kind of mechanical symmetry with Christian schools in a country with a long Christian tradition, but to see what kind of schools would serve best the interests of the children to do well in languages, literature, mathematics and other subjects, and also to learn how to reason and to choose intelligently by one’s own reasoning. The new faith schools can be very problematic in all these respects. I personally am not a great defender of even old faith schools, but to treat the new faith schools in exactly the same way as the old faith schools would be a large mistake.”
“Our focus must be on how to develop and cultivate the ability of free thought,” Sen says before rushing back to his hectic schedule.
About the Author
Eva Sohlman is a Swedish journalist and writer with credentials in print, radio and TV. She is presently Editor and Producer of The World in Focus ("Världen i Fokus"), a Swedish TV program which reports world news and in-depth studio interviews. The show follows Eva's international career reporting for Reuters and publications in The Economist, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Having lived, studied and worked in Sweden, Britain and France, Eva is fluent in each of those languages. Her book, Arabia Felix [Happy Arabia] in the Time of Terror – Journeys in Yemen ("Arabia Felix i Terrorns tid – Resor i Jemen" ) was published in Swedish in January 2007. It is based on her reporting for Reuters and the Economist. Three chapters translated into English by her Swedish publisher, Wahlström & Widstrand can be found here.