Saturday, September 6, 2008

Heritage, multiculturalism and religion

It so happens that I've just finished reading the impressive reader Representing the Nation: Histories, heritage and museums* when I came across an interesting article squeezed on the first page of the newspaper: "Heritage department takes aim at religious radicals". In a true stereotyped fashion, I thought to myself: I wonder if this is about Islam, once again. After all, as a Westerner, I have come to expect that any Western voice talking about religious radicals is talking about Islam - unless the person in question is a feminist, then my stereotype says s/he probably refers to anti-abortion extreme right Christians.

Lo and behold, I was right. Still pondering Broken Mystic's discussion of Rudy Giuliani's islamophobic remarks, I started reading the article in question: The Canadian federal government, in an attempt to make multiculturalism meet modern demands, has identified religious fundamentalism (especially among youth) as its main enemy.

To see how my brain works, the first thing I thought about was the series of articles on the trial of the alleged terrorist conspiracy by a bunch of youngsters in Toronto. The youngsters were identified as radical Muslism (somehow ignorant of their own religion and Westernized - they loved going to Tim Hortons - to the point that their radicalism was treated by the media as a bad joke).

I was not an ardent follower of the case, so I had to google it; but this says a lot about how our synapses work, fostered by our media consumption. Interestingly, the book I just finished makes the connection between the role of heritage in the nation-state and its intersections with media consumption and public education. Speaking about museums in India, Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge see heritage as sites where "spectacle, discipline, and state power become interlinked with questions of entertainment, education, and control" (p. 418). And that is exactly how I would interpret my own connections and reading of the article in question.

Six paragraphs later, the article - and the Heritage department - spells it out: "The slides point out that Islam is, by far, the greatest gorwing religion in Canada..." blah blah blah. I know the drill without reading the rest. But I continue, and true enough, it's about the 'clash of cultures' and how immigrants need to be integrated and religious extremism combated. No more mentioning of Islam, but scholars of critical discourse analysis have long learned that the implicit argument is equally - if not more - important.

"People are not merely legal citizens of a nation - writes Jessica Evans in the book mentioned above - in an important sense a nation is also a symbolic community which creates powerful - and often pathological - allegiance to a cultural ideal" (1991: 1)

Multiculturalism works as an ideal, a discourse of Canadian nationalism. But what is the particular image of what being Canadian means? In this case, we are reminded that immigrants can be Canadian, in a legal sense: they can become citizens, but do they become 'nationals'? The multiculturalism of Canadian society is a difference we love to state, to showcase. But when it comes to living with it, the Department of Heritages spells it out quite clearly: "shifting demographics mean the government must 'adjust multiculturalism programming' in order to 'advance core Canadian values'"

Stuart Hall argued that "The capacity to live with difference is, in my view, the coming question of the twenty-first century" (1991: 42). And I think he's absolutely right. Yet, so far, we lived with difference by asking it to become less threatening by Westernizing and commodifying itself. And we lived with difference by assuming culture is something of the soul, something metaphysical which marks us profoundly and inexorably. It's hard to think of difference in this paradigm.

Reference: Boswell, D., Evans, J. (1999) Representing the Nation: A Reader. Histories, Heritage and Museums. Routledge & The Open University
Photo credits: PhotoFusion

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