Is multiculturalism an excuse for forced marriages?

Rethinking Multiculturalism: cultural diversity and political theory by Bhikhu Parekh (Macmillan Press, £14.99)
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The Independent Culture

It could be argued that everything about Bhikhu Parekh's book is based on a huge mistake, from the title to the last detail of its intricate argument. The idea of multiculturalism depends, obviously, on their being things called cultures. That is, people usually belong to communities of belief and custom which possess internal coherence, clear boundaries, and enough longevity for those beliefs to be thought "traditional".

It could be argued that everything about Bhikhu Parekh's book is based on a huge mistake, from the title to the last detail of its intricate argument. The idea of multiculturalism depends, obviously, on their being things called cultures. That is, people usually belong to communities of belief and custom which possess internal coherence, clear boundaries, and enough longevity for those beliefs to be thought "traditional".

There are, I believe, good reasons for thinking that this view of culture is mistaken - an error almost as gross, albeit less deadly, as thinking that humans divide into things called races. Indeed, talking about "cultural diversity" has often become a thinly disguised way of talking about " race".

If the basic assumptions of "multiculturalism" are wrong, then policies based on them are bound to go astray, and even the most subtle theorising is built on quicksand. It only makes matters worse if the book concerned comes with such a dreary title. To say you're "rethinking" something is a warning signal for academic incest.

It may seem paradoxical, then, to suggest that such a book can still be brilliantly argued, rigorous, acute in its theoretical insights and persuasive in its practical suggestions. But so it is. Bhikhu Parekh has produced something very important here. Rethinking Multiculturalism is sophisticated but also accessible; it really does force the most sceptical to "rethink" a wide range of issues. It even convinces that Parekh's recent appointments to the House of Lords, and as chair of the new Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, are a redeeming instance of the Blairite patronage system rewarding the truly deserving.

The most publicised attacks on multiculturalism have come from the right: from conservatives, cultural nationalists and, locally, the swelling chorus of voices defending a mythical Englishness. For them, the idea of cultural diversity is a near-revolutionary threat. But most variants of multiculturalist thought have also been rather conservative. Multiculturalism was conceived largely as a way of "managing diversity", where " managing" means control, policing, even manipulation.

The most powerful criticisms have been made by radicals. Feminists have been especially damning. They have pointed out that "multiculturalist" arguments have been invoked in defence of so-called traditions which oppress and even mutilate women: clitoridectomy, forced marriage, polygamy, denial of educational or sexual choice. Sometimes, assertions of "cultural tradition" are so closely tied to male control that such control seems to be their main point.

Socialists and egalitarians, too, have argued that multiculturalism's "politics of identity" has displaced concern for equality and wealth redistribution. Minority demands for "respect" are not unworthy in themselves, but they're no substitute for concrete resources and opportunities.

For some, multiculturalism has been a mere substitute for a more militant politics of anti-racism. Others have urged us to break away from racial thought, and think instead in terms of a "planetary humanism".

Parekh does not, I think, give enough attention to these kinds of argument. Too much of his book assumes that the only serious alternative to institutional multiculturalism is "moral monism": the assertion that there is only one way of understanding right and wrong, only one conception of the good life. And while his command of the relevant literature is hugely impressive, his comments on different experiences of "managing diversity" are far patchier. Some of his examples of successful multiculturalist policies, in countries like Canada and Israel, seem wildly over-optimistic.

There is, then, a great deal to argue with here. But even Parekh's fiercest critics will not be able to question the quality of the argument. All talk of multiculturalism tends to be fighting talk. Parekh is the heavyweight challenger.

The reviewer's book 'Ireland and Empire' is published by OUP

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