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Multiculturalism is not cultural relativism!

Jesco Delorme defends Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash and Stuart Sim against charges of cultural relativism.

French philosopher Pascal Bruckner accused Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash of propagating a form of multiculturalism that amounts to legal apartheid. His fiery polemic unleashed an international debate. By now Timothy Garton Ash, Necla Kelek and Paul Cliteur have all entered the ring. Read their contributions as well as Ian Buruma's initial response here.

To put it as clearly as possible: All the participants in the Perlentaucher debate so far explicitly affirm a belief in certain universal values; not one of them takes a position of genuine cultural relativism. It is unfounded, to put it mildly, to accuse Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash and Stuart Sim of doing so. Why then, Messrs. Bruckner, Cliteur and Gustafsson, Madam Kelek and Madam Ackermann, do you level that accusation regardless?

I believe the answer is clear: you commit the error of assuming that the multiculturalist position necessarily implies an attitude of cultural relativism, or is subsumed under it.

Observe the thinking of one of the most prominent advocates of multiculturalism: Canada's Will Kymlicka. He includes under this heading all approaches which maintain that there are certain claims made by ethnic / cultural groups which are in keeping with the liberal principles of freedom and equality, and which justify granting certain special rights to minorities. Thus multiculturalism – in contrast to communitarianism – does not stand in opposition to liberalism; rather, a liberal order is a condition of multiculturalism's very existence. So Kymlicka terms his position "liberal culturalism." The multiculturalist calls for certain group rights as complementary to the liberal order that until now has borne the stamp of the white, middle-aged, heterosexual male with no disabilities. But the liberal order claims universal – not relative – validity. Hence the multiculturalist advocates a monistic or pluralistic world view, not one of cultural relativism!

The real question is: "On the basis of what criteria may the claims which supplement liberalism be differentiated from those which undermine it?" Ms. Ackermann and Ms. Kelek may (or may not) be right when they oppose removing private funds from banks, setting aside beaches for Muslim women, founding Muslim hospitals or the wearing of headscarves as concessions to religious feelings. But they must specify their criteria and their reasons. What, for example, differentiates a segregated stretch of beach where Muslim women may bathe unobserved by men's eyes, from a local sauna which is set aside for the same purpose on certain days of the week? To what extent does one constitute a danger to our political system, while the other does not?

In order to answer that question we should first agree on which values are essential to the liberal model of society. Only then will we be able to examine whether certain individual or collective actions threaten that model. So let us sketch the physiognomy of genuine liberal thinking:

The fundamental idea of liberalism is ethical individualism – that is, the individual human being is autonomous, takes precedence over the collective. Supra-individual or metaphysical concepts such as God, History, or The People may not be invoked in the formulation of political demands. Only individual preferences form the legitimate basis for political decisions.

Governmental power always looks askance at liberalism. The burden of justification lies with those who would limit the freedom of the individual. Moreover, to avoid the imposition of a government's will on its citizens, the actual wishes of adult individuals may not be ignored by invoking their emancipation or "their own interests."

Ultimately, all individuals are entitled to an equal measure of respect and consideration. Incidentally, Mr. Sim, this in no way implies obliviousness to differences or advocating conformity. Aristotle himself insisted that equality must be understood as proportional equality. To treat persons equally in the strictest sense is justified only when they are truly equals. However, if they differ from one another in normatively relevant respects it is justified – indeed imperative – to treat them unequally in proportion to their differences.

The liberal state has the noble task of safeguarding the individual from being hampered by others in the pursuit of his unique life objectives, to the extent that those objectives grant the same freedom to all other individuals. But the state does not have the right to determine what those life objectives are to be in detail.

With the best will in the world, I cannot see why reserved beaches for Muslim women or the other examples cited above necessarily call into question the spirit of liberalism which we have sketched here. The same thing applies to a beach reserved for women as applies to a sauna reserved for women; women should be free to use segregated or non-segregated facilities. Only when they are not free to make such decisions is our political system endangered. This does not mean, however, that reserved beaches or saunas must be closed. That would be an unjustified limitation on the freedom of those who voluntarily choose to use such facilities. Rather, anyone who tries to compel others one way or the other should be prevented from doing so by the state, or punished for having done so.

Bruckner, Kelek and the other critics of Ian Buruma apparently do not realise how constraining their own political thinking is. How else to explain that they count themselves among the ranks of those who condemn the wearing of (Muslim) headscarves?

Their implied argument is familiar enough: The headscarf is an expression of Islamic fundamentalism – or, in the more rigorous judgement of the Bavarian Constitutional Court (an extended arm of the Bavarian CSU), it "may be understood" as an expression of a fundamentalist attitude. As such, in this view, the headscarf undermines the emancipation of women and promotes patriarchy.

Liberals must be puzzled by this argument, or indignant at its Bavarian version. Liberalism does not recognise collective guilt or collective responsibility. Guilt is always regarded individually and must be proven beyond a doubt on the basis of an individual's behaviour. The mere possibility of a certain interpretation does not suffice; proof of fact is a requisite here. Whatever views "Islam" may hold in Ms. Kelek's opinion (and the same would hold true for "the Majority" or "Western culture"), no Muslim woman who has not been proven guilty beyond a doubt of proselytizing may be deprived of the right to wear a headscarf, as long as she does so voluntarily. Is not the right to make one's own decisions the very essence of emancipation?

Pascal Bruckner praises French secularism. But on closer examination it, too, turns out to be blatantly illiberal. Atheists and agnostics by and large ignore the question of the meaning of human life. Believers counter this with their religious convictions, which sometimes call for the wearing of certain items of clothing. Two reactions to one and the same phenomenon. Both are equally deserving of respect. A liberal society forces no one to carry out any particular religious practices; no more should it forbid such practices, as long as they are voluntarily chosen.

Its opponents seem to regard the headscarf as the touchstone of its wearers' liberal views. I would propose instead that it is the touchstone of our own liberal convictions. We betray those convictions by banning it.

But back to cultural relativism: It frightens us, rightfully, as the threat of "Anything goes!" For even though, in my opinion, the call to establish Muslim beaches is justified, that certainly is not true of such demands as granting ethnic / religious groups the right to make judicial decisions within the family – which has led, in Germany and elsewhere, to so-called "honour killings."

On the basis of what criteria should we identify the legitimate demands of minorities? Kymlicka names two: They must protect the rights of the individual within the group – especially the right of free association – and serve the goal of equality among different social groups.

So let us take multiculturalism seriously and pinpoint how much lifestyle difference our liberal social order actually permits. If we want to integrate people of different cultural backgrounds into our society we face a threefold challenge: politically, we must teach them the morals of liberalism; morally we must uphold these principles ourselves and philosophically, we are obliged to deliver good reasons for the superiority of this liberalism.


Jesco Delorme studied political science and philosophy in Göttingen, Berkeley and Berlin and is currently writing his doctorate on the relationship between liberalism and pluralism.

Translation: Myron Gubitz.

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