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More Reviews of Eriksen and Stjernfelt’s The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism

Jean Lassègue reviews Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt’s The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism, now available in English translation from Telos Press.

The subject of Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt’s book is the concept of multiculturalism and how it relates to organized religions conceived as purveyors of norms in the public sphere. If, in order to justify this approach, one were to draw a comparison with the famous analytical framework conceived by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation, which demonstrated that as from the second half of the 19th century, the economy had striven to absorb society instead of being governed by it, one might ask oneself if the question today is not whether religions are attempting the same endeavor, beyond the secular episode which slowly took shape in Europe until it prevailed in the 20th century, by trying to reverse society’s independence from any kind of external metaphysical foundation seeking to encompass it. From this standpoint, the examination of the relationships between Islam and multiculturalism takes up a significant part of the book, precisely because Islam is the only religion that to this day views its sphere of action as encompassing society and as including a proselytic component, an outlook which Christianity and Buddhism would (maybe temporarily) seem to have renounced. One can therefore readily understand the author’s chosen angle of approach, which bears for the most part on the place that should be afforded to organized religions, and especially to Islam, in the public sphere of liberal democracies at the highly specific point in their history where collective debate has progressively crystallized around the question of multiculturalism.

The concept of multiculturalism as it is used today attempts to provide an account of the reciprocal relationships that communities of distinct ethnic, linguistic or religious affiliation entertain or should entertain in order to live in mutual harmony in the context of the territorial entities where they are led to come into contact with each other. Let us state immediately that according to Eriksen and Stjernfelt, although it is indeed true that we are currently experiencing a transition towards an ethnically diversified social structure, multiculturalism is however by no means inevitable, contrary to what the ideology surrounding its use would have us believe, and that the book is to be understood within the context of the current debate concerning how the present or future relationships between individual freedom, religious affiliation and universal law should be construed. According to the authors, in conflating the factual (the highly diversified nature of group affiliation in contemporary liberal societies) and the normative (this state of affairs presented as a standard to which liberal societies should conform), the concept of multiculturalism is in fact based on a concept of culture that has been substituted for the concept of race and that fully retains the latter’s fundamentally deterministic value: individuals are determined by their affiliation to communities that encompass them to such an extent as to deprive them of any degree of personal autonomy and to leave their stamp on them once and for all.

Originally tied to American scientific anthropology (F. Boas, but mainly R. Benedict), which had inherited the German philosophical concept of culture (Herder, opposing French revolutionary universalism), the concept of multiculturalism has assumed a far greater significance since the 1960s, when it entered the political sphere by becoming the creed of international organizations such UNO or UNESCO. By retracing the genealogy of the concept and of the world-scale ascendancy it now exercises over the debate concerning the status that should be granted to the prescriptions imposed in the public sphere on members of a faith by their religious authorities, the authors endeavour to expose the double game played by the concept of culture as well as the instances of manipulation it makes possible in even the most commonplace of political and ethical vocabulary. When “freedom” is invoked, what is meant is no longer the freedom of the individual, but the freedom that a “cultural” group claims for itself to regulate and possibly oppress its members in the name of an allegedly unquestionable affiliation to the group in question. When “respect” is called for, the issue is no longer the respect due to personal belief, but the tolerance that supposedly should be shown towards the prescriptions imposed upon their members by communities making use of an authority that is entirely self-proclaimed. According to the authors, no group should have a right to a higher degree of reverence, or even to any special reverence awarded on the grounds of its being a group: whether it comprises a handful of individuals or several billion people has no bearing on the fact that in the eyes of the State, only individuals are endowed with legal and moral existence, with the organization of religious communities being both recognized by the State and outside its sphere of jurisdiction. That is why the individual is given the right to criticize and even ridicule any kind of affiliation, whereas the State is not permitted to do so.

Jean Lassègue’s full review can be read here. Purchase your copy of Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism here.

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