Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Monday, October 30, 2006

Multi-culturalism in Secular Western Societies
A number of recent events have really opened the debate about the role of multiple cultures in secular societies of the West, most notably in the US and the UK. In the UK, the recent controversy over the niqab, a Muslim woman's veil, has sparked huge debate around the obligation of integration into British culture by Muslim societies.

Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, called the veil "a visible statement of separation and of difference", clearly intending to provoke debate around the topic. Tony Blair has tried over his term to develop Britain as a successful multi-cultural society, but the threat of terrorism has raised questions. The British populace is all too aware that the London bombers were home-grown, fully-fledged British compatriots, and many are perturbed that Muslim communities are not integrating into British culture. The other side of the debate is that Muslim communities feel that they should be free to follow their own cultures within the British culture, as Britain is a secular society.

The US has also experienced its fair share of similar issues, most recently with a debate over Somali Muslim taxi-drivers in Minneapolis who are refusing to carry passengers with alcohol.

These debates highlight the tightrope that secular state governments have to walk between liberal societies and non-secular communities. Should the minority be forced to integrate with the majority? Does this infer the majority is superior in their culture? Will this further radicalise minority communities under feelings of oppression?

With increasing globalisation and cross-border immigration, the protection of non-indigenous communities becomes a more pronounced issue that will only continue in prominence and salience. Multi-cultural secular societies have a real challenge in finding the right balance between a national identity and the protection of minority rights. The key surely, must be found in dialogue, both at a political and a community level. Cultural expression is surely a case of people over politics.