Multiculturalism and the culture of offence
Multiculturalism is inherently racist, argues Carol Hunt, with help from Kenan Malik and Maryam Namazie
'Each to their own", is the phrase we use when pointing out that as individuals we're all different, and therefore shouldn't judge each other's practices by our own standards. Difference is good, we're told. It could even be, as writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik put it in an essay on multiculturalism, "the motto of our times".
And so, last week, the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) announced that Muslim women wearing head-scarves were entitled to privacy when applying for visas. There had been complaints, said Ebbas Ali of AFA Consultancy, (the company who bring students from the Gulf States to Ireland to study), from Saudi Arabian female students who objected to removing their face coverings in a public place. And so screens are now provided for those who require them. It's a simple solution to what may have become a bigger problem. Irish immigration law and Saudi cultural sympathies were both taken into account and happily a resolution was found where one didn't conflict with the other.
Tolerance, pluralism, respect for cultural diversity, multiculturalism - these are all good things, right? They show that we're part of a progressive, liberal society that doesn't tolerate bigotry or discrimination. Say that you think multiculturalism is a very bad idea and you'll automatically be labelled a racist - or worse. We saw this in the recent debate about the cultural rights of the Travelling community in the aftermath of that terrible fire. Anyone who suggested that formally labelling Travellers an ethnic minority may do more to alienate them from society than integrate them, was given short shift. Debate was effectively shut down - in the same way as debate on other sensitive cultural issues is being shut down - supposedly in the name of "tolerance".
It's considered elitist to compare one set of cultural values with another, and God forbid that you suggest one culture is in any way superior to another. You might offend someone's cultural sensitivities, and that wouldn't do at all, would it? Recently, human rights activist - and ex-Muslim - Maryam Namazie spoke to Trinity College's Philosophical Society on what she calls our "culture of offence".
(She was lucky to get the chance. Last March, Trinity's Society of International Affairs cancelled a talk by her, because of last-minute restrictions on what she could say.)
She said: "The days when unconditional freedom of expression was seen as a cornerstone of all rights are long gone. Instead, self- censorship and censorship are promoted as intrinsically good. It's no longer a defence of unconditional free expression that is progressive but a defence of censorship".
Google Namazie and you'll read comments about what a danger she is to society. She is regularly described as being "inflammatory" and a person who "incites hatred". You'd be forgiven for thinking that Namazie was a supporter of the death penalty for adulterers and apostates, like the Islamist speaker TCD allowed to speak earlier this year, but no, as far as right-thinking pluralists are concerned, she's even worse.
Namazie, you see, is a feminist who opposes Islamic fundamentalism, Sharia law and gender segregation. She is particularly vocal about women's rights. She thinks stuff like stoning rape victims to death, murdering apostates, mutilating young girls' genitals and putting LGBT people in jail, are all bad things. Consequently, she needs to be heavily censored because her opinions offend people who believe that if your culture requires little girls to be mutilated, then, in the name of multiculturalism, you cannot be criticised for it.
Earlier this week, Namazie gave a talk at London's Goldsmith College. You can look it up on YouTube. In it she doesn't say anything about the impact of religion on the lives of women that I haven't said over the years about the Catholic Church and Irish women. She talks about blasphemy and free expression. She's polite, factual and extremely well informed. The talk is a disaster. She is whistled at, shouted at, intimidated, harassed and heckled by male students. At one stage a student stands up and turns off her PowerPoint. Afterwards, she received death threats and abuse. Just imagine if an academic giving a lecture in Ireland received that sort of treatment. We would, rightly, be horrified. Women's groups all over the country would be up in arms, supporting the right of Irish women to speak freely in public. But what did Goldsmith's Feminist Society do? They gave out a statement on their Facebook page saying that they were standing in solidarity with the men who silenced and threatened Namazie. Why? Because her speech was entitled 'Apostasy, blasphemy and free expression in the age of Isis'. The men who protested against her and made death threats were allegedly members of the college's Isoc (Islamic) society. (Namazie is very clear in her distinction between Islam, the religion and Islamism, the far-right political movement).
The aforementioned Kenan Malik tweeted about their Facebook post: "Oh, the irony. "I believe in free speech… but not when criticising ideas hostile to my rights". But, as Malik, himself a Pakistani Muslim, has often pointed out, this is the reality of multiculturalism. In his book, From Fatwa to Jihad, he asserts that "multicultural policy creates the segmented society and fixed identities to which it is supposedly a response". Namazie argues that "is a profoundly racist phenomenon, which values and respects all cultural and religious practices, irrespective of their consequences for women."
I've often argued that the support some feminists and members of the Left have for regimes and cultures that discriminate against women and LGBT people, is contradictory, West-centred and, yes, racist.
Seemingly if you're Christian, white, Western and from the settled community you're entitled to universal concepts like civil rights and equality. But if you are, for instance, a Muslim woman from Saudi Arabia who wants to drive a car, or a Traveller woman who wants a career instead of marriage, no one is going to fight your case for you. Instead, the cultures which perpetuate inequalities will be defended, in the name of tolerance and pluralism. But what about human rights? When did we decide that they weren't universal after all? When did feminists, like those in Goldsmith, decide that intolerance and sexism should be championed above the right of a woman to speak about injustice? Namazie argues that even in the heart of the secular West "different laws and customs apply to women who have fled Islam- stricken societies. As a result of this racism, the veiling of girls becomes acceptable in the heart of Europe and men who kill women in the name of honour are given reduced sentences."
In a letter to Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald about the relatively benign topic of Saudi girls and veiling, Ebbas Ali added that students from Gulf states were "voting with their feet and choosing countries who are more sensitive to their culture".
That's all very well, but perhaps we should be more assertive in protecting ours? Or is that racist?