Multiculturalism Is a Burning Issue

The Press, August 17, 2002

Denis Dutton

When General George Napier was governor of Sind province in India in the 1840s, he vigorously enforced the ban on suttee, the practice of throwing a Hindu widow on to the funeral pyre of her husband. A delegation of Brahmins came to him to explain that he must not prohibit the practice at the funeral of a particular maharaja, as it was an important cultural custom.

“If it is your custom to burn a widow alive, please go on,” Napier responded.

“We have a custom in our country that whoever burns a person alive shall be hanged. While you prepare the funeral pyre, my carpenters will be making the gallows to hang all of you. Let us all act according to our customs” The Brahmins thought better of it, and the widow lived.

Napier, a humane, robust, and enlightened imperialist, met head on a problem that still bedevils immigrant countries in our post-imperial age: where do we draw the line in respecting another culture? Just how much “diversity” can we tolerate?

The United States is a nation of immigrants, and continues to take on 800,000 new people every year, turning them largely into patriotic, public-spirited citizens. Europe lately has been much less successful with its immigrants, notably it Muslim populations.

Part of the problem is a historic reluctance to grant rights of citizenship to immigrants: until recently, even third generation Turks in Germany could be citizens, and similar situations pertain elsewhere in Europe. (In contrast, citizenship is a birthright of anyone born within U.S. borders, even to illegal aliens.)

Another difficulty has been well-meaning academics and public officials in Europe who react to the citizenship exclusion by pursuing multiculturalism as a matter of ideology. They insist, for example, that immigrants be granted schools of their own, where they are instructed in their own language, according to their native religion and values.

The multiculturalists usually talk cultural relativism: Western culture’s values of freedom, democracy and individualism are merely chance products of history – everyone’s culture is as good as everyone else’s. To claim superiority for Western ideals is “insensitive” and “ethnocentric.” Many will claim that making immigrants conform to the norms of their new countries is inherently racist.

Bruce Bawer, an American resident in Oslo, has written of the ugliness this kind of political correctness produces. On recent crime stats, “non-Western” immigrants commit 65% of all rapes of Norwegian women, and in Norway most of those are Muslims.

Bawer quotes an anthropologist at the University of Oslo who explained that Norwegian women “must take their share of responsibility for these rapes.” The reason? Norwegian women dress suggestively in the eyes of Muslim men, and in any event, rape is “scarcely punished” in their native cultures because it is viewed as the woman’s fault.

Not a word from the university academic about how immigrant men should conform to the laws of Norway, not to mention local standards of common decency. The anthropologist’s multiculturalist claptrap, far from improving race relations, embitters the race divide in a country like Norway.

There is also anguish in Europe over forced marriages. One British Muslim leader has denounced government-funded women’s shelters because they provide refuge to Muslim girls and women trying to flee the tyranny of a husband or father.

Such shelters, he explained, often staffed by lesbians, “tear apart our families.” He has a point: any closed culture in which the transmission of values depends on the control of girls and women will find European feminist individualism and ideals of freedom most uncongenial.

Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch academic and about-to-be politician assassinated on the eve of the recent Dutch election, spoke forthrightly about Muslim opposition to gay rights (in fact Saudi Arabia beheaded three homosexuals earlier this year; the Taliban had more imaginative ways to kill them).

Fortuyn, proudly gay himself, was called racist for daring to question whether Holland, the most traditionally tolerant country on the planet, could afford to incorporate subcultures that were themselves profoundly intolerant – of gays, the rights of women, and other religions.

It’s a disturbing situation. The United States is far more ethnically diverse that Europe, and is stronger for it. American tradition and laws stress citizenship and assimilation for immigrants (the “melting pot”).

In contrast Europe denies political affiliation while it grants generous welfare benefits to immigrants (which taxpayers resent), offers native language schools and turns a blind eye to attitudes and behavior no longer acceptable among Europeans.

By disparaging as racist any open discussion of the issues, European elites have encouraged the likes of Jean Le Pen to promote true race hate. Across the Atlantic, President Bush peppers his speeches with Spanish, and like presidents before him, tries to give all U.S. citizens a sense of civic inclusion. The Europeans have made a bad strategic choice. New Zealand can learn from this.

General Napier knew the success of the British Empire, as with the Roman Empire long before, depended on allowing limited reign of local customs. He would not, however, tolerate suttee. Similarly, modern immigrant states must draw lines on what’s acceptable from immigrants, and not be cowed by politically correct academics who brand as racist any effort to blend immigrants and their children into the laws and lifeways of their new country.

Should immigrants expect to be able to practice traditions of their native societies – Passover or Ramadan or Thanksgiving dinner? Of course. Should they expect to see their children schooled exclusively in their original language, or according to the dictates of their religion, all at taxpayer expense? Absolutely not.

No one can predict what the ethnic face of New Zealand will look like in fifty years except that it will include more generations of immigrants. If we’re smart about it, whatever New Zealanders look or sound like, they’ll all be proud citizens who share the best values of the liberal democracies around the world. Let’s be smart.

Denis Dutton teaches at the University of Canterbury. He is editor of the webpage Arts & Letters Daily.