Friday, July 05, 2013

Multiculturalism: In defence of a multicultural Europe

by Arwa Ibrahim

London - The debate about multiculturalism resurfaced after the recent Boston bombings, Woolwich attack and Stockholm protests. Many now feel justified in saying that multiculturalism across Europe and the West has failed miserably. It’s easy to feel that cultures are boundaries, incapable of coexisting.

But history has proven otherwise.

Recognizing the multiple cultural influences in Western history is an important means not only to reduce tensions in our communities but also to encourage more understanding and respect among our societies.

The European Renaissance, beginning in the 14th century, is known for being an age of preoccupation with science, learning and invention. But the passion for wider social and political knowledge, disassociated from a religious interpretation of the world, only reached Europeans in the 18th century when Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire, Locke and Hobbes promoted ideas to help improve living conditions through science and reason.

Their ideas, which were based in Greek and Muslim thought, advocated that war, disease, poverty and ignorance are not God-given punishments to be accepted stoically but can be alleviated through the application of knowledge. Yet since the 7th century caliphs and emirs in what is now the Middle East and North Africa had been prioritising lectures, conversing with men of science and spending long hours in libraries. The European tradition of literary salons, social gatherings designed to increase the knowledge of guests, was in fact borrowed from the courts of Muslim caliphs.

Literary genres including poetry, fiction, romance and chivalry were influenced by Muslim authors, such as Ibn Tufayl of Spain who influenced Defoe’s classic novel, Robinson Crusoe.

And these are only a few of the cultural affinities brought to the West from the Muslim world.

Culture has historically been an ever-evolving concept among human civilisations, used to connect, not divide people. And it continues to be structured through an exchange of ideas, values and customs.

European and Western culture is a compilation of centuries of exchange between different peoples and different civilisations. Culture is more accurately defined as an exchange of values among civilisations rather than consisting of sets of Arab, British, Swedish or American values.

It is alien to me that today multiculturalism is used as a scapegoat, blamed for problems like poverty, increased crime rates, unemployment and extremism. It is disturbing to see some policymakers and analysts suggest a stricter definition of European identity or become less tolerant of cultural exchanges and differences.

I believe it is important for today’s European and wider Western communities to realise that societies and cultures constantly evolve – due to many internal and external factors. We should not be bullied into objecting to multiculturalism through fear that accepting ethnic minorities in Western communities will change them. They will change anyway.

This myth assumes that Western culture has developed in isolation and without exchange with other world cultures and that it can be defined and restricted to maintain a static set of values. It also denies the great influence of Muslim civilisations on modern Western culture - this very culture belongs to the ancestors of the communities that today are seen as threats.

More dangerously however, the myth misleads policymakers into thinking that the solution to such social problems is found simply in challenging multiculturalism. And it transforms the role of a historically harmonising human experience into one that creates boundaries of division and hatred within communities.

Muslims and non-Muslims in Western societies can address the social challenges we face today by accepting and respecting each other as equally valuable parts of one community. Realising that there are differences, which do not have to disappear, actually enriches our various cultures as we give and take to evolve into more humane and advanced societies.

Violence, crime, poverty and segregation need to be addressed as social and economic issues that may be prevalent among certain ethnic communities but are not a result of their ethnicities.

It is now time that European and Western communities encompass the best of their identities, customs and cultures and learn to embrace and respect their differences instead of endeavouring to erase them. This is the way toward a more harmonious, cohesive and advanced society.


* Arwa Ibrahim is a British Egyptian journalist and researcher on issues of social and public policy and development. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 2 July 2013,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.