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November 13, 2011

If not multiculturalism, what?

Dr. Rahat Naqvi

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Let me tell you the story of an eight-year-old boy who traveled on camelback across the desert border between modern day Pakistan and India. That boy would eventually settle in Sukkhur, a small town in Pakistan. Little did he know that, within 60 years, the newly-born country to which his parents had migrated would proceed with an experiment that would attempt to define a homogeneous cultural identity in what was then a collection of extremely varied cultures.

At the time, Pakistan was divided into two geographical parts. East Pakistan was Bengali speaking and had a rich cultural heritage and pride associated with that. West Pakistan was more heterogeneous in nature and consisted of multiple ethnicities: Punjabis, Sindhis, and Pushtoons, to name a few.

A disastrous experiment

Over the next 24 years that boy, who came to be my father, would witness the attempt to form a single cultural identity fail, with disastrous consequences. East Pakistan scoffed at the idea of adopting Urdu as their national language. Mass protests in the province led to the adoption of both Urdu and Bengali as national languages but that was not the end of it. Cultural differences, coupled with a sense of discrimination amongst the people of East Pakistan, would eventually lead to the formation of a sovereign Bangladesh in 1971.

This process of defining a single cultural identity within Pakistan continued throughout the next decade when General Zia, a military dictator, attempted to form a cohesive national and cultural identity based on religion rather than culture and language. Pakistan today is still reeling from the effects of that disastrous policy and it is only today that we are beginning to see recognition amongst Pakistani intellectuals of the idea that the cultural heritage of different ethnicities in the country needs to be allowed to flourish, rather than suppressed.

Pakistanis are reaching this conclusion after over six decades of violence. Canada, also a country rich in a variety of cultures and religions, was fortunate to have had the time and the foresight to be more introspective and learn from the world’s lessons of the past. I am an immigrant to this country and, looking back on her history and reminiscing on the lived realities of my new homeland, I appreciate how Canada created a policy that acknowledges differences as an essential core of the country in the name of multiculturalism. This has allowed Canada to thrive and create a dynamic society.

Nevertheless, in the shadow of 9/11, Canadians find themselves in a precarious position. Recently, Europe was taken by storm when political leaders declared multiculturalism a failed enterprise. In the light of current global challenges and what can be interpreted as a general state of hysteria about extremism, I argue that multiculturalism finds itself in a precarious situation. In fact, when we consider the meaning and impact of the debates opened by such declarations, one question that arises is: “If not multiculturalism, then what?”

We need to articulate shared aspirations oriented to developing inclusive forms of global citizenship. Such efforts are critical in the shadow of silos created by fears of the unknown. Such fears raise critically important questions about how we ought to understand the other and how we might negotiate common spaces within the realm of democratic norms and institutions. The other piece of this argument is noticing how lived realities of immigrants are obviously overshadowed by images presented by the media.

The task is really quite simple

As a female Muslim academic, I am often struck by the simplicity of the task that lies before us: we need to live together, but in ways that are not cumbersome or unwieldy. The nature of multiculturalism requires us to acknowledge the so-called other within boundaries dictated by official policy. Canada is an amazing land of freedom that offers people from all over the world new beginnings and provides an opportunity to create new narratives. The question Canadians face is not any different from the question raised in so-called “homogeneous societies” in the world: is it possible for us to live well, together, under the shadow of 9/11?

Troy Media, November 1, 2011

Professor Naqvi teaches at the University of Calgary about the relationship between language and culture. She is also Associate Director of the university’s Language Research Centre.

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