Limited Horizons

Yet more on Sen on multiculturalism – it’s a very rich article, and I prefer not to write enormously long N&Cs. They seem to have a built-in ideal maximum length, so I preferred to break things up.

That’s a fancy way of saying I have a short attention span and can’t write more than four or five paragraphs at any one time. After that I have to go outside and play.

On ‘faith schools’ –

Many of these new educational institutions are coming up precisely at a time when religious prioritization has been a major source of violence in the world (adding to the history of such violence in Britain itself, including Catholic-Protestant divisions in Northern Ireland – themselves not unconnected with segmented schooling). Prime Minister Tony Blair is certainly right to note that “there is a very strong sense of ethos and values in those schools.” But education is not just about getting children, even very young ones, immersed in an old inherited ethos. It is also about helping children to develop the ability to reason about new decisions any grown-up person will have to take.

That’s just it. Unfortunately, a lot of people, including a lot of people who have children, think education is indeed just about getting children, especially very young ones, immersed in an old inherited ethos, and that it is decidedly not about helping children to develop the ability to reason about new decisions any grown-up person will have to take. (No, what you do when you have to take new decisions is you ask WWJD or WWMD. You don’t reason. You apply the rules, you do what the community does, you don’t reason.) There’s no getting around the fact that ‘faith’ and ‘faith schools’ can be and often are in tension with reason and its cognates. That’s one towering reason that ‘faith’ should not be treated with extra ‘respect’ or sensitivity or tact or caution or forebearance or any of the other precautionary items were always being told to treat it with. ‘Faith’ needs more criticism and confrontation, not less.

The Bangladeshi community, large as it is in Britain, is merged in the religious accounting into one large mass along with all the other co-religionists, with no further acknowledgment of culture and priorities. While this may please the Islamic priests and religious leaders, it certainly shortchanges the abundant culture of that country and emaciates the richly diverse identities that Bangladeshis have. It also chooses to ignore altogether the history of the formation of Bangladesh itself. There is, as it happens, an ongoing political struggle at this time within Bangladesh between secularists and their detractors (including religious fundamentalists), and it is not obvious why British official policy has to be more in tune with the latter than with the former.

No, it’s not. In fact it ought to be the other way around. (I read a couple of horrific first-person accounts of what happened in Bangladesh in 1971, the other day, in Ibn Warraq’s Leaving Islam. It wasn’t secularism that caused all that.)

Indeed, official British policy has for many years given the impression that it is inclined to see British citizens and residents originating from the subcontinent primarily in terms of their respective communities, and now – after the recent accentuation of religiosity (including fundamentalism) in the world – community is defined primarily in terms of faith, rather than by taking account of more broadly defined cultures. The problem is not confined to schooling, nor to Muslims. The tendency to take Hindu or Sikh religious leaders as spokesmen for the British Hindu or Sikh population, respectively, is also a feature of the same process. Instead of encouraging British citizens of diverse backgrounds to interact with one another in civil society, and to participate in British politics as citizens, the invitation is to act “through” their “own community.” The limited horizons of this reductionist thinking directly affect the living modes of the different communities, with particularly severe constraining effects on the lives of immigrants and their families.

Sigh. Exactly. It is so confining. Limited horizons and constraining effects. Limited horizons and constraining effects are not good things, not even for immigrants, not even for ‘communities’. Which would you rather be – Amartya Sen or Tariq Ramadan? Salman Rushdie or Iqbal Sacranie? Azam Kamguian or Shabina Begum? Maryam Namazie or Yvonne Ridley? Which has the more open horizons, the more freedom from constraint?

The disastrous consequences of defining people by their religious ethnicity and giving priority to the community-based perspective over all other identities, which Gandhi thought was receiving support from India’s British rulers, may well have come, alas, to haunt the country of the rulers themselves.

So get over it, as soon as possible.

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