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Multiculturalism - Reality or Illusion

02/06/2013 23:26 BST | Updated 31/07/2013 10:12 BST

The gruesome murder of Lee Rigby in broad daylight has opened a new front for another assault on multiculturalism.

Already declared failed and dead, this social doctrine now faces intensified scrutiny from those who perceive multiculturalism as a threat to social unity and national identity in Western Europe.

Earlier this week, Lord Tebbit stated that "The roots of the murder of Lee Rigby stretch a long way back into our immigration policy, the doctrine of multiculturalism, the failures in our education system, and the war against Iraq."

Given the myriad of anti-multiculturalism rhetoric and policies over the past decade - and especially since 9/11, the former chairman of the Conservative party's remarks should come as no surprise. Yet, as a Canadian who has worked and studied in Europe, I am astonished at the level of scare mongering and demonization of ethnic minorities that has engulfed this continent.

Indeed Lord Tibbet's comments are only preceded by David Cameron's Munich speech in which he attacked multiculturalism and declared that Britain has wrongly "tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values". Not to mention the ill-timing of this speech which happened within hours of one of the biggest anti-Islam rallies ever staged in Britain by the English Defence League in Luton.

Cameron's sentiment is matched by leaders of other Western European nations. For example, Angela Merkel is quoted in 2010 to have said: "We thought they would not stay. Now we have tried living side-by-side and tried to build a multicultural society. It has utterly failed."

In Europe, I have observed a trend of social delineation whereby citizens are divided in arbitrary categories of host and guest communities and are lambasted for being different. Everyone here is required to conform to this 'never defined' national identity and the social conscious is programmed to label some people as the 'other'.

By contrast, multiculturalism has not come under the same level of criticism in Canada. In 2010, Naheed Nenshi, a Harvard-educated Muslim of Indian descent, was elected as the mayor of Calgary, Canada's conservative bastion.

His victory is one of many examples of Canada's commitment to multiculturalism that has encouraged immigrants to preserve their ethnic roots while embracing their Canadian identity.

The last two Governors General of Canada were born in Hong Kong and Haiti respectively. In Canada, well-integrated immigrants at the pinnacle of success in public and private life are increasingly and refreshingly commonplace.

Understandably European history and geography, is different from that of Canada which is founded by three nations, and two languages. And although the United Kingdom is quintessentially a union of four nations of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, I believe the difference truly lays in perception. Canada views itself as a nation built by immigration; however Europe does not view multiple ethnicities as fundamental trait of its identity.

Perceiving immigrants as temporary "guests", or as the "other" rather than offering them fulsome participation in all aspects of public life, which includes the ability and right to critique and challenge all values and norms; will only serve to propitiate a sense of isolation and undermine any sense of multiculturalism. No country that champions multiculturalism as a tool for establishing a sense of social cohesion and national pride can realistically refer to or treat people who have been living and born in it for decades as "other."

Canada recognized long ago that immigrants to Canada are Canadians; they have an equal right like any other Canadian to the social, political and moral discourse of their community and nation. Their differences are utilized to weave the social fabric of Canada, and enrich what it means to be Canadian. Multiculturalism implies creating a system of engagement where all citizens can equally participate and understanding that this system will not obtain a singular truth.

The discourse surrounding the 'other' in Europe is usually accompanied by the notion of tolerance. Tolerance is on one of those words that has a lot of bark, but very little bite. If one examines the fight against apartheid in South Africa, or the civil rights movements in the United States, you would be hard pressed to find anyone of note using the word 'tolerance'. But it is synonymies with multicultural in Europe.

Tolerance as Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek describes it 'is a very suspicious notion. It means, yes, 'let's tolerate each other,' but it also means, 'don't harass me,' which means 'remain at a proper distance from me.' Tolerance institutionalizes a lack of engagement and keeps people apart, which might seem civil to some. However, it can't sustain a society that has to deal fairly and rationally with an ever evolving confrontational and controversial reality.

Instead of tolerance, in Canada, we speak of acceptance and mutual respect. This might seem like a linguistic nuance, but this subtlety speaks volumes at how as a society Canadians have managed to learn to co-exist and engage while apprehending the diversity of points of view and the essence of their similarities.

My religion, ethnicity, culture, the working class community I grow up in, experience and education are all part of the crazy mix that make up 'Hisham Omara' and part of the crazy mix that makes up Canada. People in Canada are comfortable with that mix and are never requested or pressured to make these artificial hierarchies to define themselves.

No vibrant society can be monolithic; suggesting that this may be possible is both contradictory and paradoxical yet we still find this rhetoric make an appearance in both public and private space. A just society is able to negotiate and mediate around the problems that arise, while respecting the uniqueness of its citizens.