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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Special Issue of the Journal of Contemporary European Studies: Rethinking Multiculturalism by Spyros A. Sofos and Roza Tsagarousianou

Introduction: Back to the Drawing Board: Rethinking Multiculturalism

The Terror in Norway and the Multiculturalist Scapegoat

Elisabeth Eide
pages 273-284

European Muslim Audiences and the Negotiation of Belonging

Roza Tsagarousianou
pages 285-294

Ethno-Cultural Clusters and Russian Multicultural Cities: The Case of the South Russian Agglomeration

Oxana Karnaukhova
pages 295-305

‘And People's Concerns Were Genuine: Why Didn't We Listen More?’: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Recognition in Europe

Umut Ozkirimli
pages 307-321

excerpt from the introductory article

Immigration and the Limits of Tolerance

Current debates about immigration in Europe, in many ways are not that dissimilar to those of the 1980s as they still revolve around the question of whether (national) societies have the capacity to ‘absorb’ people with different cultures and values. This question took the form of the pseudo-scientific debate on the seuil du tolerance in France in the 1980s, and is asked once more through the various, often exaggerated, and again occasionally linked with dubious scientific research, debates on the burden immigration places on resources such as education, health, housing, or more generally, public funds, or through discourses that stress its impact on the social fabric. Although there are clearly redistributive dimensions involved the relevant debate touches upon these only superficially as it is largely characterised by rumour and sensationalism.
However, more important than the issue of redistribution is the issue of cultural compatibility which is raised systematically in most debates on the issue of multiculturalism and its limits. Critics of multiculturalism often draw examples from what they perceive as the irreconcilable antagonistic relationship between European secularism and Islam or juxtapose practices and attitudes of ‘other’ cultures to mainstream European cultures in order to argue that migrant populations are unassimilable. It follows that if migrants want to be tolerated and accepted, they need to abandon their cultural specificity outside the public sphere and then enter it as equals among equals. Such arguments are premised on the assumption that ‘other’ cultures are backward and partial and do not share the ‘superior’ problem solving capacity that ‘our’ cultures possess. But more importantly, such propositions entail the artificial dissection of the citizen, who has to pay a price in order to be recognised as an equal participant in the public sphere. In other words, the public sphere where ‘others’ are welcomed to participate without bringing on board their cultural experiences is still a public sphere constituted by a ‘number of significant exclusions’ to borrow Fraser’s (1990) characterisation of the bourgeois public sphere that discriminated against women and lower social strata of society—in this instance the exception consisting in the participation of citizens that are unable to draw upon the resources that their culture, and cultural experience has endowed them with. This amounts to the exercise of symbolic violence by those who claim to share a culture that is superior and neutral yet at the same time may resonate more with some citizens and much less with others.
Such perceptions of the public sphere and of democracy are essentially based on the reification of western liberal democracy which is supposed to be premised on universal values that are by definition non-negotiable. But as Fraser (1990) points out, referring to the definition of the common concern and of the common good, this has been the product of the particular social-historical conditions of different epochs. As an example, she refers to the historic shift in the general conception of domestic violence, from previously being a matter of primarily private concern, to now generally being accepted as a common one after sustained discursive contestation. It would be unreasonable therefore to contemplate the possibility of a similar contribution by contemporary ‘others’ in a way akin to that through which feminism challenged the boundaries of the public sphere—cultural contestation.
In short, behind the crisis of multiculturalism today lies a crisis of our democracies and of their ability to remain open to the reinvigorating force of cultural contestation and deliberation. But also, behind the current crisis of multiculturalism looms the inability or unwillingness of our societies to create paces of encounter and of hearing, where strangers can meet and communicate in an attempt to forge shared, common goals, ambitions and projects. As Anthony Giddens (2006) suggests, ‘[i]n a pluralistic society all groups should accept the need for interrogation from others—it is the condition of producing mutual respect, rather than undermining it’.
In many ways our cultures are increasingly becoming ‘windowless semantic monads’  (Geertz, 2000, p. 113) that engage in very little interaction with the cultures of others. Or to use the train metaphor employed by Claude Levi-Strauss (1985):
We are . . . passengers in the trains which are our cultures, each moving on its own track, at its own speed, and in its own direction. The trains rolling alongside, going in similar directions and at speeds not too different from our own are at least reasonably visible to us as we look out from our compartments. But trains on an oblique or parallel track which are going in an opposite direction are not. [We] perceive only a vague, fleeting, barely identifiable image, usually just a momentary blur in our visual field, supplying no information about itself and merely irritating us because it interrupts our placid contemplation of the landscape which serves as a backdrop to our daydreaming.
At the end of the day, what is at stake is our capacity to communicate and to get to know the ‘other’, going beyond a fleeting glimpse of an obscure and irritating presence.

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