Our multicultural identity

Mosques across Europe have held prayers dedicated to Parisian victims of last week’s ghastly terror attacks. Fearing a backlash against Muslims, communities in several countries have invited them to be part of candle light vigils and condolence meetings so as to visibly integrate them in the grief and despair over senseless murders in the name of religion.

Simultaneously there are voices of prominent citizens questioning some leaders of Muslim communities and Islamic governments for their inability to vociferously and unequivocally condemn the attacks. Common Muslims who live as minorities in Europe fear an escalation of racism and an anti-Islamic mood. On Twitter #killallmuslims was trending over the weekend. Also trending were appeals by liberal Muslims that Islam was a religion of peace and should not be associated with killers who kill in the name of Islam.

The Muslim community don placards reading ‘Islam is against terrorism’ and offer roses in the Sablons neighborhood of Le Mans (western France), in front of the mosque against which bullets were fired and three grenades launched following the attack on the Paris office of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo on January 7. Pic/AFP
The Muslim community don placards reading ‘Islam is against terrorism’ and offer roses in the Sablons neighborhood of Le Mans (western France), in front of the mosque against which bullets were fired and three grenades launched following the attack on the Paris office of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo on January 7. Pic/AFP

Back home, administrations in many cities were hoping that there would be no spillover in India; a country where preserving multiplicity of language, religion and culture is an ongoing exercise for centuries. Free speech yes, but the right to offend is tempered in India where ethnic and religious conflicts are commonplace.

India has a blend of two different models, the melting pot model as well as the multi-culturalism model of society. In the multi-culturalism model, as adopted by many European countries, multiplicity of cultural values is preserved and social boundaries of ethnicity are very much present and thriving. The government and society treat them as equals and try and promote integration but not enforce it.

Then there are models like in Singapore, or in China or Turkey where ethnicity is tolerated, assimilation is enforced, and strict rules applied on practice of rituals and identity politics.

The American model of melting pot embraces homogeneity. Japan and South Korea also strictly adhere to the same homogeneity and credit their low violence rate to the homogeneity in almost all aspects of social life. Ideally, people of different cultures, races and religions must mix but kept their ethnicity alive. But in practice the national identity subsumes all these identities with each successive generation.

To be distinctive, to stand out in your sari, in your niqab, beating your dholak, eating your very strongly spiced food is seen as idiosyncrasy. To be indulged, tolerated and respected as an oddity or an occasional feature. Culture, identity, roots are all words that are difficult to define among second and third generation immigrants in western societies.

There is also the negative aspect of multi-culturalism: when non-state groups enforce it. In many cities in Europe, radical groups are trying to enforce Sharia practices. Quite naturally there is a backlash against this too. Just as there was resistance to France imposing a ban on religious symbols in public schools. Debates rage on across the globe whether wearing a headscarf/ hijab or a niqab or a burqa is socially obligatory or a symbol of oppression whether it is a cultural symbol to be respected like the turban or the bindi.

For India, it was just not possible at the time of Independence to assimilate people of diverse faiths by imposing homogeneity. Racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious identities and boundaries had to be respected and protected for developing cohesiveness in national identity. One had to accept with grace, Punjabiyat, Kashmiriyat, Dravidian, Poorvanchali, North Eastern, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh and several such identities.
And in many cases, they were overlapping identities, not to mention the confusion that partition had brought upon these identities. Forcing any such grouping to amalgamate would have led to ethnic conflict and social turmoil.

Sixty seven years later, we are still working towards weaving that fabric. We fight against ghettoisation and fragmentation, and move towards a melting point state. At least urban India does. It will probably take decades and many may not accept the premise that assimilation leads to a less violent society. After all Indians have always believed that in our diversity is our unity. We celebrate our plurality.

Disagreements and conflicts are natural in a society as diverse as ours. It is then the duty of community leaders and the administration to ensure that these conflicts lead to informed debate, and not violence. That is the best we can do to preserve ethnic, linguistic and religious identities in a multicultural society like India. In India, multi-culturalism continues to enrich our society. Let us keep it that way.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

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