Multiculturalism is an important dimension of our national identities
today is not free from racism, xenophobia, islamophobia, anti-Gypsism,
anti-Semitism, homophobia and other phobias directed against
others. Minorities are made targets of hate speech, violence and
systematic discrimination, not least in the job market.
Responsible politicians must take such negative tendencies more
seriously. There is a need to analyse and address the very root
causes of these human and political failures.
It appears that intolerance has spread during the economic
crisis. During my travels, I have observed that extremist groups
and parties have become more active and more threatening and
have succeeded in recruiting supporters from amongst young,
Groups such as Roma, who are already marginalised, have been
increasingly targeted and subjected to particularly violent
attacks. The response from mainstream political parties and
other majority representatives has often been meek and confused.
The impact of “globalisation” is seen as one explanation for
these problems. Increased migration inside and between countries
and the ongoing electronic revolution have contributed to a
feeling of insecurity among many. More and more people appear to
feel the need to define their own identity in a world which is
changing so rapidly.
President Sarkozy has initiated a country-wide debate in France
on the very issue of the French national identity. In other
European countries there are calls for the “identity” to be
Such discussions could be helpful if those taking part avoided
the trap of promoting one single identity which defines who is
included and by extension who is excluded.
Despite its sad history of discrimination and oppression of
minorities and vulnerable groups, Europe has always benefited
from being an inherently pluralist, multi-faceted continent. Our
ability to interact positively with one another will affect the
future of Europe. Multiculturalism is a value which must be
I hope that some of those taking part in the soul-searching
talks on national identity will read two particularly relevant
books: Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence and Ryszard
Kapuscinski’s The Other.
Professor Sen observes that the world is increasingly seen as a
federation of religions or civilisations and that we thereby
ignore all the other ways in which people define themselves. He
questions the presumption that people can be categorised into a
single, overarching system of partitioning.
He is of course right. In reality we all belong to a number of
different categories depending not only on ethnicity,
nationality or faith, but also on local roots, gender, sexual
orientation, parenthood, language, education, profession, social
class, politics, age group, health, leisure activities,
membership of organisations and many other distinctions.
The relative importance of belonging to a particular group or
having a particular identity can only be determined by the
individual. Though nationality or religion could be of upmost
importance to some, this is not the case for many others. For
instance, a widespread misunderstanding is that most Muslims go
to the mosque on Fridays which is as far from the truth as the
notion that most Christians are regular churchgoers.
We know from experience that the imposition by the state or
other authority of one allegedly unique identity – such as a
particular civilisation or a particular religion – creates a
basis for sectarian confrontation.
Sen stresses the risk that a fostered sense of identity with
only one group can be made into a powerful weapon to brutalise
another. Within-group solidarity can feed between-group discord.
Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist and writer, underlines that
practically all civilisations have had a tendency towards
narcissism leading to arrogance and contempt for Others. We
should learn the lessons of history. He also writes that one’s
identity is highly influenced by how one is seen by the Others
and underlines the importance of inter-group contacts and
While he argues in favour of multiculturalism, he stresses that
the ability to take part in a multicultural world requires a
strong, mature sense of self-identity. This is where the
decreasing trust in the political system and the consequences of
the economic crisis could be most damaging.
Widespread unemployment is a real threat to bridge-building and
respecting people as they are. Joblessness undermines
self-confidence and can easily be exploited by extremist groups
who offer “identity” through attacking the Others, especially
the vulnerable ones.
What are the concrete challenges for national human rights
• States should actively promote the fundamental principles of
pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness on which democracy is
• Guided by these key values, states should show greater
receptiveness to diversity in their societies and take
appropriate measures to allow members of existing minority
groups to determine and express their own identities.
• States should create consultative mechanisms, at national,
regional and local levels, which would ensure an
institutionalised, open, sincere and continuous dialogue with
representatives of all non-dominant groups, such as minorities.
These consultative bodies should have a clear legal status and
be inclusive and representative.
• Social rights are absolutely crucial in order to avoid
widening gaps and further injustices. Minorities suffer
disproportionally as a result of such inequalities and tend,
moreover, to become scapegoats when other sections of the
population grow disappointed.
• Further concrete measures are needed to address latent
discrimination in public and private employment policies. More
efforts should be made to recruit minority representatives into
key professions like teaching and policing as well as into
• Greater priority should be given to the school system. Primary
and secondary education should not be segregated, but inclusive.
Respect for the Others should be part of the curricula as stated
in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
• Human rights should be once again made the cornerstone of the
policies on migration.
• Hate speech and discrimination against Roma should be stopped.
The problems here remain scandalous and appear to indicate that
European governments are not as serious as they should be about
promoting human rights for everyone. An official apology for
past violations would be a good place to start.
• Comprehensive, anti-discrimination legislation should be
adopted and monitoring bodies established to guarantee equality
• Steps to promote equal opportunities should not overshadow the
positive achievements made in this field to date. Our dependence
on one another, including on migrants, also needs highlighting.
• Different groups should be allowed to fully integrate into
society and, over time, demonstrate what they and their culture
have to contribute. Curiosity and open-mindedness should be
encouraged as well as a dynamic vision of the future instead of
fear and suspicion.
“Building bridges of understanding”, writes Kapuscinski, “is not
just an ethical duty, but also an urgent task for our time in a
world where everything is so fragile and where there is so much
demagogy, disorientation, fanaticism and bad will”.
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