- By Romesh Abeywickrema
Long years ago some wise ancients, among them St. Ambrose, discovered that the best way to enjoy the then thriving city of Rome was to do as the Romans do, hence the yet widely used English proverb, ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’ or as first attested in medieval Latin — “if you were in Rome, live in the Roman way; if you are elsewhere, live as they do there”.
And this is how things were for the greater part of modern life. But in the recent past a new phenomenon has emerged where migrant communities seek to replicate their home culture and way of life in their adopted land. Needless to say these efforts have not gone down well with the host communities and now there is a growing movement to resist such adaptation to alien cultures.
The rapid evolution of transport systems made crossing borders a far more frequent and much less hazardous endeavour than what St. Ambrose and his fellow travelers endured in the 4th Century AD. In handling the mass exodus of populations across borders, countries through the years formulated their own entry and exit rules. These rules and regulations have not always been immigrant friendly, but by and large, bar the Communist world post World War II, the rest have welcomed immigrants with open arms, and none more so than the West.
With its rapid industrialisation and shortage of cheap labour the West as a whole turned a blind eye to this mass migration of people from less affluent countries and to give this policy some degree of respectability, the term ‘multiculturalism’ was attached to it and this status quo was displayed to the rest of the world as being the epitome of democracy. Multiculturalism is essentially the notion that different groups within a society should be allowed the freedom to follow their own cultural paths.
This policy of the West however underwent a thorough overhaul following the events of September 11, 1991 in the US. Post 9/11 and the US War On Terror, those who wanted to migrate to the West found the going not that smooth as a complicated whetting process had been introduced to check on the bona fides of would-be immigrants. Multiculturalism was beginning to slowly but surely, go out of fashion. There yet remained some countries that still were considered havens for would-be immigrants, among them, Britain, Australia, and Canada.
We in Sri Lanka have often watched in awe how these so-called ‘developed’ countries have been suckered by hundreds of thousands of hardly literate people in Third World countries, into granting them ‘asylum’ and then when these asylum seekers get their foot in the door, the rest of the family follows quickly, bleeding the host country taxpayers dry. If ever there was a raw deal that the Western taxpayer has had to endure, this then is it with hundreds upon thousands abusing the social security systems in these countries to establish a foothold for themselves. At least in Canada the modus operandi has been to exploit the “Family Re-unification” immigration policy. Today it is an open secret that Toronto has the largest concentration of Sri Lankan Tamils next to Jaffna itself. How did this come about when Jaffna and Toronto are at two extreme ends of planet Earth?
What usually happens is that these Sri Lankan passport holders somewhere between Katunayake Airport and Toronto’s Pearson International Airport destroy their Sri Lankan passport, and on landing on Canadian soil claim persecution in the home country. The other method is via boat. This simple strategy then kick starts the Immigration Refugee Determination procedures to facilitate permanent residency (PR) and obtaining a Canadian passport. Once a person gets the PR, then the Family Reunification Act becomes effective. This so called refugee, moving at the speed of greased lightning then brings over the rest of the family and in next to no time the single refugee multiplies into 10, and all of them at least initially depend on welfare funding courtesy the local taxpayer.
The situation is no different in Britain and the procedure is almost identical. So much so that places like Harrow in Greater London could easily be mistaken for Wellawatte in Colombo. All well and good if the newly arrived residents of Harrow ‘do as the Brits do’ but that is asking for the impossible as when numbers grow, so do people’s aspirations. These aspirations are achieved by flexing the power of numbers.
We recently saw the rather queer situation where even high profile politicians like the former British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, at least according to WikiLeaks, pandered to the local Tamil community for political benefit – votes. The Tamil community could however not be faulted because at the end of the day they were only engaging in what was allowed legally, replicating their lifestyle back home, thanks to ‘multiculturalism.’
The Muslim brotherhood doing their own little number in much the same way however elicited a different response from the British thanks to 9/11, and just last week, the tried, tested and much abused British tolerance finally ran out.
That is when the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron while attending a ceremony in Munich, Germany in the company of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was to publicly pronounce in a speech that ‘multiculturalism has failed.’
If there is one person who would be laughing in his grave then that would be Sri Lanka’s S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, who exactly 55 years ago said much the same thing. Bandaranaike’s downfall was his politically opportunistic stance; had he resorted to Cameron’s more cultured interpretation of the ‘failure of multiculturalism,’ he may well have lived to rule another day.
From America to Europe to even South East Asia as evidenced by the Mumbai attacks, the growth of Islamist extremism is something even the politically correct have found hard to ignore, and Cameron’s outburst is certainly not the first even in his own neck of the woods. Last September, Nicolas Sarkozy’s France, enacted landmark legislation banning the wearing of the Muslim burqa – the facial covering – and the full body robes worn by Muslim women. France it must be noted has a sizeable Muslim population as a result of migration from its African colonies. With five million Muslims, France is home to Western Europe’s largest Islamic community. Sarkozy, unlike Britain’s vote-conscious Miliband, without mincing his words said in essence, ‘When in France, do as the French do. If you can’t then go back to where you came from.’
A month later, in October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism in Germany had been a “total failure.”
European critics of the concept say the failure to integrate immigrants has resulted in generations of people who don’t speak the local language well, lack basic skills and have become a drag on welfare systems.
In November 2009, Swiss voters approved a ban on the construction of new minarets on mosques. That same month in Sweden, which for decades prided itself as a beacon of multiculturalism, the Sweden Democrats made huge gains in national elections after campaigning on a platform of anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism. Things had got so bad in Sweden that Swedes had begun leaving some cities complaining that they don’t feel it’s their home: “it doesn’t feel like Sweden anymore.”
Thanks largely to ‘multiculturalism,’ European countries have nurtured more than one generation of citizens who have no loyalty toward their country and who, on the contrary, often despise it.
With Miliband’s Labour now out of office the tide even in Britain seems to be turning as evidenced by Cameron’s outburst in Munich. Last week in east London, probably emboldened by the Cameron cameo, local campaigners argued at a Town Hall hearing that the Tablighi Jamaat Islamic group should be stopped from winning an extension of their land-use permit because, the campaigners allege, the group doesn’t let women worship; its teachings have inspired terrorists, and it preaches isolation from the wider community.
“Tablighi Jamaat are exactly the sort of people who come here and are not in the slightest bit interested in integrating and they, in fact, teach against integration,” said Alan Craig, head of Newham Concern, a local group as quoted by the WSJ.
Back in Sri Lanka we have our own little post war battle over multiculturalism. The TNA has in recent times been complaining that with around 40,000 troops now stationed in the north permanently, most of who are Sinhalese, it will result in altering the ethnic balance, as the families of these soldiers would soon join them. They complain that the Tamil way of life will be disrupted much the same way Alan Craig has been complaining in Britain.
But then on the other side of the divide in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese have been known to point out that it is hard to find anyone other than a Tamil in Wellawatte in Colombo, due to systematic colonisation.
Pre war and post war, there has been gridlock on this issue in Sri Lanka. But now, by default, the West seems to be sending a message to the rest of the world, Sri Lanka included. Sri Lanka, has been told, ironically by the West for decades now, to engage in multiculturalism – that it is the path to national reconciliation. Tongue in cheek it might seem now to the ordinary Sri Lankan, in the backdrop of the West dumping its own concept like a hot potato.
Some however will argue that while the West comes to terms with its ‘multiculturalism mistake’ and engages in some serious soul searching, the scenario in Sri Lanka is quite different – a kind of multiculturalism which is essentially home grown and has been a facet of Sri Lankan society right through the ages, and a shining example to the rest of the world, notwithstanding the cheap politics of those like S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
It is evident that multiculturalism is a much misunderstood notion. Western governments exploited this. People, especially those in the Third World, were led to believe that ‘multiculturalism’ meant multiracialism and pluralism. It did not. But anybody who frowned on this ‘multiculturalism’ was tagged as a racist.
So the bottomline is while the West now says multiculturalism is a mistake, Sri Lanka is supposed to embrace it as the panacea for all its ills – little wonder then that ‘multiculturalism’ has been seen as the most pernicious policy pursued by Western governments. There certainly is a paradox in this that needs figuring out.