Multi-culturalism: the flipside of fundamentalism?


Alwyn Lau, New Mandala

It is common to hear multi-culturalism being endorsed as a basis for national identity. Given this era of increasing fundamentalism, what could be more welcoming than a philosophy which embraces the particularities of all ethnicities? What could be more helpful than a mode of thinking which asserts the uniqueness of all cultures (hence,multi-culturalism)?

In a country like Malaysia, where extremists groups like Perkasa and Isma sprout their racist and bigoted views with impunity, multi-culturalism is de facto accepted as the norm. That Malaysia’s varied communities (differing in ethnicity, cultural, regional, religious and social background) have lived peacefully (and tolerated racists and bigots), attests to this fact. Is this not the true form of 1-Malaysia (as opposed to the corrupted formula peddled by Barisan Nasional)? Can there be anything wrong with multiculturalism at all?

I want to, in fact, point out some problems with multi-culturalism. Indeed, fundamentalism and multi-culturalism may ironically be one and the same phenomenon and reflect what Hegel called a speculative identity of opposites. This is to say that often when two phenomena appear to directly contradict each other, there could in fact be hidden a subtle commonality which nurtures them both. For example, multi-culturalists logically can (and should) easily accept the extremity of fundamentalists as something to be embraced and understood as an expression of theOther, whilst fundamentalists can likewise adopt a multi-culturalists stance by affirming the uniqueness of their identities and claims.

If multi-culturalism itself demands that all cultures merit interest and respect, should this not include respecting that particular culture which asserts that other cultures meritless interest and respect than its own? From within a multi-culturalists perspective, should it not respect the fact that a fundamentalist Muslim insists that his unique Islamic identity should be the basis for Malaysia’s national identity?

Unfortunately, many multi-culturalist thinkers would only embrace an-Other subject if he speaks and acts in a manner suggestive of a liberal, democracy-loving and ‘reasonable’ individual. This creates the awkward situation of, say, a Christian and Muslim being extremely friendly with each other as long as they do not publicly assert the superiority of their religion over against that of other faiths, as this would too deeply offend the sensibilities of the multi-culturalist mind-set.

In other words, the more the multi-culturalist insists (inconsistently) that the fundamentalist has to meet a liberal-democratic criterion of thinking and behaviour, the more the fundamentalist would want to emphasise the unique nature of his own specific identity and desires. The speculative identity of opposites appears to be strongly in force.