Multiculturalism vs. Purity

Salman Rushdie’s latest op-ed in the Times is about that hot topic of the moment: multiculturalism. In it, he argues that those who seek “purity” are deluding themselves:

The mélange of culture is in us all, with its irreconcilable contradictions. In our swollen, polyglot cities, we are all cultural mestizos. So it is important to make a distinction between multifaceted culture and multiculturalism. In the age of mass migration and the internet, cultural plurality is an irreversible fact; like it or dislike it, it’s where we live, and the dream of a pure monoculture is at best an unattainable, nostalgic fantasy and at worst a life-threatening menace when ideas of purity (racial purity, religious purity, cultural purity) turn into programmes of “ethnic cleansing” or when Hindu fanatics attack the “inauthenticity” of Indian Muslim experience, or when Islamic ideologues drive young people to die in the service of “pure” faith, unadulterated by compassion or doubt. “Purity” is a slogan that leads to segregations and explosions. Let us have no more of it. A little more impurity, please; a little less cleanliness; a little more dirt. We’ll all sleep easier in our beds.

But, he insists, multiculturalism cannot serve as justification for the oppression of people. The solution, he thinks, is for a society to make it clear what its boundaries are:

When we, as individuals, pick and mix cultural elements for ourselves, we do not do so indiscriminately, but according to our natures. Societies, too, must retain the ability to discriminate, to reject as well as to accept, to value some things above others, and to insist on the acceptance of those values by all their members. This is the question of our time: how does a fractured community of multiple cultures decide what values it must share in order to cohere, and how can it insist on those values even when they clash with some citizens’ traditions and beliefs?

The beginnings of an answer may be found by asking the question the other way around: what does a society owe to its citizens? The French riots demonstrate a stark truth. If people do not feel included in the national idea, their alienation will turn to rage. Chouhan and others are right to insist that issues of social justice, racism and deprivation need urgently to be addressed. If we are to build a plural society on the foundation of what unites us, we must face up to what divides. But the questions of core freedoms and primary loyalties can’t be ducked. No society, no matter how tolerant, can expect to thrive if its citizens don’t prize what their citizenship means if, when asked what they stand for as Frenchmen, as Indians, as Britons, they cannot give clear replies.

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