TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Freedom or Culture?

Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt’s The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism, reviewed in this essay, is available for purchase here.

I cannot refrain from first saying that this is a must read-book. That goes for those who are critical of “multiculturalism”—whatever this means—and for those wanting to defend it.

Let us begin the central concept in this book—multiculturalism. I have, when confronted with the word, been wondering if the one who utters it is referring to an ideological ideal or a state of affairs. The authors use a similar distinction: multiculturalism is confusing since it is often not clear what is meant. It can be either an existing condition or a coming condition. This kind of use is descriptive. Then we have the normative one: a necessary way to think and act in a society when we have different (most often) ethnically based communities with different ideas on what is right or wrong. Just remember the Danish Mohamed cartoons from some years ago, and now recently the short film ridiculing “the prophet” available on YouTube. All of this has led to a discussion of whether there should be limits on free speech that involves ironies, jokes, pictures, etc., that could make religious believers feel insulted. The objection of many others, including me, is that in a modern, western liberal democracy one can say or illustrate any religious matter in whatever way you want. The public sphere is totally secular, or at least it should be so.[1] If you feel insulted, this is a private reaction, outside the public sphere. The bottom line would then be very simple: the public sphere gives anyone the right to argue his or her opinion, while civil society is the sphere of emotions. As long as these emotions remain just emotions, there is no problem. But the reason why this is an important book is that we have seen the emergence of leaders in the west who have considered limitations regarding free speech so that no minority gets insulted. If we follow this logic to its conclusion, then cartoons illustrating stereotypes of men, for example, should also illegal. A related problem is self-censorship, which many modern writers and artists have admitted suffering from. So the problem starts to get very complicated.

Now I will say just a few words about the authors. Jens-Martin Eriksen is a prolific Danish writer, and Frederik Stjernfelt is an internationally distinguished professor in Cognitive Semiotics at Aarhus University, Denmark. Together they have written (in Danish) important and revealing texts about the mess in the former Yugoslavia. In this book Eriksen has written the first part (on Malaysia), and Stjernfelt the two middle ones, mainly in a philosophical discourse. Together they have written the concluding parts, consisting of shorter reflections. All in all, their arguments are well supported, and to argue with them requires some scholarship and the ability to put good arguments on paper.

In the book’s short introduction, the authors discuss another distinction one has to make when discussing multiculturalism: there is a weak form and a strong form. The former is individualist and is only about expressing one’s cultural or religious identity in public. Within a liberal framework there are no problems so far. But the latter, “hard” form is present if the legal system and the law enforcement authorities compel members in a state to act and dress in a certain way. This would end in total conformity, the end of freedom. To make this more concrete, the first chapter (by Eriksen) focuses on Malaysia, a country where the hard form is dominant but where some tendencies toward a softer version can be watched. Eriksen should have begun his text more as an ambitious teacher, presenting, shortly, on some basic facts about this country and its history. As it is now, one has to go to here and there, and in the best case, find what one is looking for.

Malaysia is a modern state with a complicated history, migrations and multiculturalism. As most of us know there are three dominant ethnic groups: the original Malaysians who (almost all of the as far as I know) converted to Islam during the 14th century. At that time it was an ethnically homogeneous country. Then the Europeans came, and there were struggles concerning the rights to trade. It ended when Malaysia became one of the colonies of Great Britain. National autonomy came as late as 1957, and the ones who were to write the constitution had great problems to solve since by then there were large ethnic minorities. When there was a high demand for stannium on the world market in the years around 1900, the fact that there were huge quantities of this mineral in Malaysia meant that there was a need for mining labors. Masses of Chinese workers were imported; the same thing, this time concerning rubber, masses of Indian workers came, and it accelerated heavily with the demand for rubber from the car industry (here Eriksen’s chronology is a little bit unclear). Today, in a country with 27 million people, 65% are Malays, 26% Chinese, and 8% Indians (the rest are mostly mountain people with animist beliefs). Each group is granted right according to their cultural traditions. But Malaysia has an “official” religion, Islam, and many of the Malays even want a more homogeneous character.

The problem with this country with a “hard” multicultural face is that there are three different legal systems, structured along the lines of ethnicity/religion, plus a general system for crimes of the severe kind. This leads to culture ruling over the individual. There are many examples of this. Apostasy in Islam is a crime that should lead to a lethal sentence; however this is not possible since the federal laws prohibit it. In an ongoing case, a person who wants to leave Islam, the federal court judged that the Islamic courts with their sharia laws must handle the whole thing. Thus, freedom of religion does not exist here.

If you are born by Malay parents, you are automatically defined as a Muslim and subjected to sharia laws. If a Chinese man wants to marry a Malay woman, that is possible, but the man must convert to Islam. There are many more problems, and Eriksen has also interviewed officials and writers who give their views of this huge complex of “culturalism.” There is not space enough to go into all the views. It should be enough to say that Eriksen’s conclusion is that the problem is the culturalist outlook of the world. As both of the authors remind us, “culturalism” came from anthropology and was disseminated among the Western middle classes. We see the result today: in Canada we are getting closer to the “hard” multiculturalism, and in the UK the “right” to subject Muslims under sharia law is close. So, in the end we have a clash between culturalism and liberal democracy. “Culturalism” stands for giving culture the ultimate basis for everything else and for the victory of a collective unit over the individual.

In the next, rather long chapter, Stjernfelt takes a close look at the philosophical theories of Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka, both Canadians. Here in Canada, multi-culturalism is an official policy, but what it means for separate cases is very unclear. Taylor, who lives in the province of Quebec, became known for his argument that “cultures” has rights. In this case it is the French language that has the right to be protected in order to survive. If there is no protection, French-style living in America will belong to the past.
Stjernfelt rather easily deconstructs Taylor’s Hegelian version of multiculturalism. He also shows that the more liberal, softer multiculturalism of Kymlicka is very often self-contradicting. Stjernfelt also provides us with a detailed description of how the culturalism that is central in anthropology spread to the United Nations and separate nations. The discussion here is long and detailed, but it is a little bit boring since the author repeats the same arguments many times.

The following chapter, also written by Stjernfelt, is more direct and focuses its problematic very well: the Mohamed caricatures published in 2006 in a Danish daily newspaper. He shows that there is an old tradition of creating images of Mohamed in many Muslim countries. Other things—for example, the cartoon with Mohamed having a bomb on his head is a modern version of saying that Mohamed was a warlord (which he probably was)—point in the same direction. In other words, there is really not anything extremely different from the western tradition of making cartoons, where nothing is held as holy.

Wherein did the problem then lie? It was the reactions from groups in the Muslim world boycotting Denmark, burning the Danish flag, and, of course, the attempt to murder one of the cartoonists. This led to a worldwide campaign against making fun of religions and demands on restricting free speech so that no minority could be “insulted.” In Denmark, and in many other countries in the west, well-meaning “liberals” joined this campaign and journalists witnessed a new “political correctness,” which led to self-censorship. All in all, this illustrates how we might be entering a less soft, harder multiculturalism.

The whole story has continued. This year, as I mentioned before, a short film on YouTube has caused violent protests. And in its turn, at least in Denmark and Sweden, associations for the freedom of speech have been founded. Of course, on paper this is worth praise. The problem with them is that it is almost 100% anti-Muslim attacks that they defend. Also, many of the members are associated with organizations like SION (Stop the Islamization of Nations, another variant of the so called Eurabia-thesis[2]). So, what we now have is, on the one hand, Islamophobes, and, on the other hand, fundamentalist Islamists groups. Both need the other one as a symbol of the enemy. “Anti-racist” groups will probably stigmatize Eriksen and Stjernfelt as “Islamophobes.” That will say more about the lack of belief in liberal democracy among the latter, than about the defense of it by the former. And such an accusation would be absurd: the authors defends a soft multi-culturalism where the freedom to believe in anything is essential.

The last, and most enjoyable, chapter in the book, is a collection of rather short “Political Columns.” I have decided to focus on one of the many columns: “Freedom of Speech: Freedom from Whom?” since it clarifies the position of the authors. According to a naturalist understanding, rights and freedom are given from the start to the newborn. But this presupposes an essentialist understanding and/or a God who grants the rights. Instead, the authors propose a realist understanding.[3] The freedom of speech is not there from the start but must be legally constituted and defended by the state. And the state is the institution, in the “normal” case, which has the God-like status of sovereignty. Who, then, guarantees the freedom of speech when both internal and external groups demand restrictions, i.e., claim their own role of being sovereign? It is the one that can proclaim a state of exception in order to protect and defeat its competitors: namely, the state. Freedom of speech is not given to us by birth, but something that is protected by certain agents, those who have the power to, if necessary, use violence, once again the state with its monopoly of using violence.

The authors demonstrate that they have a liberal worldview without being naïve liberals. In pure (naïve) liberalism an illusion often lurks: the belief in reason as already given, that there is something to tell us what is reasonable and what is not. There always will lurk the will, decision to trust in reason. Since I see no better alternative, I hope that reason is given to us, so that the liberal way is the best one available. What this will imply for concrete legal practice is a question of reasoning with the freedom of the individual put in the first place. In any case, everyone should have the right to exist the way she wants to, without regard to what “culture” in which she might have been born.


1. It is worth to note here that a modern, secularized state take no stance in religious matters. Here we find some anomalies. In Denmark the state is not yet separated from their national Lutheran church, and in Sweden just a little more than ten years ago the earlier couple separated. And monarchy? One more anomaly in a modern state when one can be given a title, rank and status not by merits, but by birth.

2. This thesis says that there is a secret Arab-Muslim plan to take over Europe and impose Sharia laws for all Europeans.

3. “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” These words are the first one in Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology from 1922. The basic line of argumentation by the authors are, in fact, from Schmitt’s works on the state, the state of exception (most of often wrongly translated to “emergency”), legality and legitimacy. Although a political enemy to political liberalism and after 1933 a leading Nazi, Schmitt provides us with perhaps the best understanding of the lack of reflexivity in liberal thought.

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