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Multiculturalism is an important dimension of our national identities

Strasbourg 30/11/2009
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Europe 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, unemployed men.

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 defined.

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 protected.

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 relations.

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 policies?

• States should actively promote the fundamental principles of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness on which democracy is actually based.

• 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 political positions.

• 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 for all.

• 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”.

Thomas Hammarberg