Friday, August 03, 2012

Multiculturalism in Sarajevo and beyond?

Maja Bajevic, Double – Bubble, 2001
Maja Bajevic and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich

I've been asked over at the Marmot's Hole blog why I grew skeptical of multiculturalism. I intend to stay away from this topic over there since I don't want to waste my time being called names by some commentators who prefer shouting to listening and arguing to thinking, and I'm not ready yet to go deeply into the issue here, but I did come across an interesting quote yesterday from the 1961 Nobel Prize winner for literature, the Bosnian Serb writer Ivo Andric, taken from his short story "A Letter from 1920," and it seems apt:
Whosoever spends sleepless moments in a bed in Sarajevo might hear the voices of the Sarajevo night. Hard and firmly strikes the bell at two o'clock in the morning in the Catholic Church. More than one minute passed (exactly seventy-five seconds -- I counted) and only then . . . did I hear the slightly weaker, shrill sound of the Orthodox Church clock, also striking two o'clock in the morning. A moment later the sa-hat-kula spoke in a hoarse, subdued voice from the Bej Mosque, striking the eleventh hour -- the ghostly Turkish hour, the strange timekeeping of distant foreign countries. The Jews have no clock, only the heavens know what time it is -- whether according to Sephardic custom, or according to Ashkenazi. When all around is still and quiet, the difference separating men equalized by sleep is in the calculation of this hollow phase of the night. When they awake, they will be happy and sad, feast and fast by four different feuding calendars, and all their requests and prayers will be sent to heaven in one of four liturgical languages. The difference is sometimes visible and open, sometimes hidden and treacherous, but it always resembles hatred -- this difference is often hatred itself.
This passage (another translation found here) accompanies the remarks of curator Agata Rogos on the exhibition "From the Sunniest Day to the Darkest Night," which shows the artworks of Maja Bajevic, Adrian Paci, Alban Hajdinaj, Igor Grubic, and Hubert Czerepok. Concerning such night thoughts of Andric, Rogos observes:
With these words the Bosnian writer and Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric described Sarajevo -- a town where four religions meet -- in his short story entitled A Letter from 1920. Such places never know peace, as the confrontation between various visions of the world more often serve to emphasize differences, and not similarities. Meanwhile, political correctness notwithstanding, the idea of multiculturalism, so deeply rooted in European philosophy, will always remain [merely?] a pious desire. This exhibition focuses on the ties between power, violence, and religion, and draws upon difference as a source of conflict . . .
Neither Andric nor Rogos appears to put much faith in the power of multiculturalism to quell hatred over differences, though they acknowledge the exceptionally deep culturally determined hatreds of the Balkans. Perhaps the Bosnian conflict itself initiated my skepticism as well, though I still advocated multiculturalism in those years of the early 1990s. Only with time -- toward the latter 1990s -- did I come to perceive the paradoxes of multiculturalism.

The problem with multiculturalism in its radical form is that it offers no metacultural foundation upon which to stand and critique cultural flaws, and one is left with extreme cultural relativism, except that everyone's supposed to be tolerant of other cultures, including such intolerable cultural practices as the genital mutilation of young girls, I suppose, and how does one deal with a culture of intolerance . . . tolerate it?

A moderate multiculturalism based on human rights offers a metacultural foundation for grounding a critique of cultural flaws, in every culture, but to what degree is moderate multiculturalism genuinely multicultural? It seems, rather, to assume a universal culture with national or ethnic variants. Moreover, what Rogos refers to as "the idea of multiculturalism, so deeply rooted in European philosophy," was likely predicated upon the values of Western Civilization and is in practice a moderate multiculturalism that works relatively well in Europe, which largely shares common foundational values, though there are obvious tensions even in the European multicultural reality.

That's all I have to say for now, but perhaps today's post here on Gypsy Scholar will provide some of those at the Marmot's Hole a partial answer to the question as to why I grew skeptical of multiculturalism.

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At 8:11 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

"The problem with multiculturalism in its radical form is that it offers no metacultural foundation upon which to stand and critique cultural flaws..."

A good Derridean/Foucaultian/Baudrillardian postmodernist would cheer this state of affairs. Down with ahistoricality! Down with totalizing metanarratives!

At 8:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, it's not very popular.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:42 PM, Blogger Eujin said...

Aha, I think I found what I was looking for.

What I'm understanding is that you think everything has to be based somehow in human rights - that is the key. Do these human rights have to be codified? Because I expect they would change with time.

Your point about genital mutilation is interesting. As you probably know it's a bit of a hot issue in Europe at the moment because a regional court in Germany has decided the male version is somehow bodily harm (I forget the exact wording). This has caused outrage amongst Jewish and Muslim groups and now the federal government is considering to explicitly legislate that circumcision of male infants is legal.

But we also hear that there may be a majority of lawmakers in other European countries that are in favour of outlawing the procedure. One of the reasons given is that male infant circumcision conflicts with the UN rights of the child (allegedly).

I find myself in favour of allowing the practice - not so sure about female circumcision, but many of the arguments are similar. So we have some human rights principles here that may broadly say "you can't remove parts of people's bodies without their consent" that I don't fully agree with, although they sound in principle reasonable.

The problem of the Sarajevo clocks seems rather mundane and are probably just due to different conventions. In a civilised society I'd like to believe people can see beyond such conventions - but maybe you are arguing that in practice they can't?

At 3:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm not sure that everything has to "be based somehow in human rights," though I may have said something like that. What I mean is that culture does not trump human rights.

I'm no expert on law, so I approach this from particulars. On genital mutilation, I would distinguish between male and female 'circumcision.' Removing the foreskin of a male is entirely different than cutting out the clitoris of a female, for in the latter case, something essential has been taken from a person.

The interesting issue in "Sarajevo Clocks" is the writer's recognition that the very festival that celebrates a sacred memory in one culture can for another culture be a reminder of some offense against them. For instance, a day celebrating the Spanish Christians' victory over the Muslim Moors is these days offensive to Muslim immigrants in Spain. If the Spanish have to give this festival up to satisfy Muslims, then what would happen if the Spanish refused?

Some cultures can easily coexist. But some cannot. If Islam requires Shariah, then Islam is incompatible with Western Civilization and its laws, which tend to reflect concepts of human rights. Any Muslims who are committed to Shariah will accept neither assimilation nor even integration in Europe. There will certainly be conflict if that is the case.

Jeffery Hodges

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