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Opinion--The Anxiety over Assimilation

September 2006
Opinion--The Anxiety over Assimilation

"Kinder statt Inder" is a pithy German slogan that sums up a graying Europe's attitude towards immigration. It means: "Children instead of Indians." America is different.

Back in the ‘90s (how distant that decade now seems!), who could have imagined that ‘multicultural' would become such a suspect word in the 21st-century West? Many people, after all, saw those fin de si�cle years as an exciting run-up to a brave new globalized era in which differences would be embraced and celebrated rather than feared. Sadly, though, it turns out that the millennial fears of the dissenters weren't wholly unjustified.

So what happened? 9/11 happened, of course, along with the other terrorist attacks around the world. And events such as the polarizing Iraq war have created even more problems for the West.���

It's nothing short of astounding that the geopolitical realities of our time could change so drastically in half a decade. One reason is that the U.S., with its aggressive stance in recent years, is an imperious superpower (the only superpower) whose might exceeds the might of all the other nations put together. No such power existed in any earlier period. But a more important factor is that while one IT (Information Technology) opens doors and offers hope to millions, the other IT (Islamic Totalitarianism) poses a grave danger to Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere, perhaps like never before. The first IT is about erasing boundaries and forsaking tribal loyalties to come together in a great human endeavor that promises to benefit everybody. The other IT, which includes all types of religious and political totalitarianism, is just the opposite: there is a total rejection, often hatred, of people who don't share your views and beliefs.

Given that the first IT fosters creativity and connections, while the second IT promotes death and destruction, how does the concept of multiculturalism fit into the equation? In the ‘90s, Nathan Glazer, the eminent Harvard-based sociologist, came out with a book titled We Are All Multiculturalists Now. And, indeed, that's how many of us felt (and still hope to feel) about the increasingly borderless and interconnected world we live in. Over the last few years, however, serious questions have been raised in several Western nations, where there is a growing feeling that multiculturalism can breed alienation and impede assimilation. Those who don't share "our values" and cling to antiquated ways of thinking, goes the argument, are a serious threat to free societies in the West.

Even assuming that amorphous notions like "values" can be so readily assigned to entire groups of complex individuals living in the West, what are we really talking about here? Is it this nation's vaunted Judeo-Christian heritage? Conveniently, of course, the label doesn't tell us that ‘Judeo' was added in the relatively recent past. If this heritage is so superior, why are so many highly educated and intelligent people drawn to Buddhism, making it such a fast-growing trend among Westerners? And does anybody believe these days that the so-called Protestant work ethic of Anglo-Saxons is more impressive than, say, the Confucian work ethic of the Chinese? Don't free markets and democratic institutions flourish in non-Western countries such as India and South Korea, to give just two examples? Are ordinary Muslims clamoring for the imposition of Islamic law? In fact, since it's their freedom that's at stake, nobody dreads it more than they do. These rhetorical questions show just how treacherous it can be to wade too far in the muddy waters of cultural values. As one can argue, the threat to civil society actually comes from the monolithic, our-way-is-the-only-way attitude that was so characteristic of monotheistic traditions in the past. What is radical Islamism—or, for that matter, Christian or Hindu fanaticism—if it's not the rejection of multiculturalism?

One can very reasonably state that integration has to be the goal of any country that takes in immigrants from around the world. And it's only fair that newcomers (and old-timers) should do everything they can to facilitate the process. If we were to go by the Merriam-Webster definition of ‘integrate' ("to form, coordinate, or blend into a functioning or unified whole"), it's safe to say that immigrants in this country fulfill the desired criteria. Overwhelmingly. Just like the native-born population, they go to work, raise families, pay taxes and, in other ways, lead productive lives as law-abiding citizens or residents. The U.S., on its part, rises to the challenge quite admirably in its efforts to "bring [immigrants] into equal membership in society," which is also a dictionary meaning of ‘integrate.'

European nations, on the other hand, have always had a highly ambivalent view of immigrants. "Kinder statt Inder" is a pithy German slogan that sums up a graying Europe's attitude towards immigration. It means: "Children instead of Indians." America is different. Despite the misgivings in certain quarters, the U.S. today remains, as John F. Kennedy put it back in the ‘50s, a ‘Nation of Immigrants.' Multiculturalism, therefore, is not out of place in such a diverse yet integrated society. It allows us to recognize and appreciate the multiple identities within ourselves and in the people around us. It is true that the excesses—or absurdities—of political correctness have given multiculturalism a bad rap. But then, would it make sense to replace that with another PC, patriotic correctness? Wouldn't it be tragic to throw out the baby with the bath water?

The difficulties really arise when we put the entire emphasis on ‘assimilate', which is "to absorb into the culture or mores of a population or group." At the very least, this can lead to a parochial identity that's bland and homogenized. A more troubling consequence is the idea of "exceptionalism," with its implication that our country or culture is somehow the best one around. The danger of letting an overriding national or religious identity submerge our heterogeneous, fluid selves is that it can result in, as we have seen, ultra-nationalism or fundamentalism. We already know how much grief this one-dimensional outlook, which leaves little space for growth and change and multiplicity, can bring to our lives. Amartya Sen, in The Argumentative Indian, points out that "we have to resist two unfounded but often implicitly invoked assumptions: (1) the presumption that we have a single—or at least a principal and dominant—identity; and (2) the supposition that we ‘discover' our identity, with no room for any choice."

In other words, what we desperately need in the 21st century is a multifaceted—and multicultural—identity. "People's choices may be constrained by the recognition that they are, say, Jewish or Muslim, but there is still a decision to be made by them regarding what importance they give to that particular identity over others that they may also have (related, for example, to their political beliefs, sense of nationality, humanitarian commitments or professional attachments)," notes Sen, adding, "Identity is thus a quintessentially plural concept, with varying relevance of different identities in distinct contexts." So the question we need to ask is not whether multiculturalism is compatible with assimilation in this country, but whether multiculturalism is compatible with integration. The answer is, resoundingly, yes. And it's also important to stress that such an approach has never been more important in our increasingly global yet fragile world.

By Murali Kamma

[Murali Kamma is the managing editor of Khabar]

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