Michel Wieviorka: Discussing Multiculturalism

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While Indonesians pride themselves on having a multicultural society with hundreds of ethnic groups and languages, a French sociology professor said his countrymen view the word multiculturalism as not politically correct.

“France is the only place in the world where multiculturalism is not politically correct. It’s a word the French don’t like to use,” Michel Wieviorka said.

The professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales said he was one of the few social scientists to use the word.

Wieviorka, the former president of the International Sociological Association, was in Indonesia to give a series of lectures on democracy in universities across the country. His first lecture, held on March 11 at Salihara cultural center, centered on the French notion of laicité, or secularism, and diversity. His following lectures were at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, the University of Indonesia in Depok and Airlangga University in Surabaya.

Wieviorka who holds an amiable smile under his thick mustache, shared some of his thoughts with The Jakarta Post at Gran Mahakam Hotel before giving his lecture at Salihara. He talked about multiculturalism, the reason he became interested in that topic, and why he would never be a politician.

First, he explained why there was such a negative attitude toward multiculturalism in France. Wieviorka said the French hold very highly the freedom of each individual. They fear the cultural becoming much stronger than the individual, which could result in repression of those who have less power; for example women. This is what the French call “communitarianism”, where the community is stronger than individual rights.

But, there is another possible danger apart from this “communitarianism”, which is “abstract universalism”.

“Here [In France], we don’t recognize cultural differences. We only recognize human individuals as such. And human individuals as such all have the same rights and same responsibilities; which is wonderful, but also very theoretical,” he said.

“In real life, it is not like that. If you say human rights is [a] good [thing], but you don’t make it possible, really, then you have made it abstract.

“I consider multiculturalism very interesting, because it can bring an answer to this problem,” he said.

According to him, the one area where multiculturalism flourishes is “quite surprisingly a place where one has a strong sense of belonging to a nation”. He added that multiculturalism was very difficult though. “It needs a strong democracy at the very least.”

“Multiculturalism isn’t about a society having many different cultures. Its’ a political and institutional proposal to build with these differences, and build this in a democratic way.”

That is why he is against France’s policy of banning the use of niqab. He said he had two students who did their thesis on women wearing niqabs. Most of the women they interviewed had started wearing the niqab after converting from Catholicism to Islam. These women said they felt stronger wearing a niqab. Therefore Wieviorka said wearing a niqab wasn’t “a deep provocation against the French values”.

Wieviorka became interested in multiculturalism very early in his career.

“I started as a sociologist many years ago. At that time, even the word multiculturalism did not exist,” he said.

His first interest was in social movements. When he started his career in the early 1970s, the working class movement was ending and a new movement led by students was starting.

Having been an intellectual for many years, Wieviorka was very realistic about the role of intellectuals.

He acknowledged their ideas or recommendations would not be embraced by policymakers easily.

“It’s not like people will listen to them and the population will be happy to have this solution that has been invented by intellectuals. It doesn’t work like that,” he said.

“Because the truth is that politicians don’t listen to intellectuals and they don’t have to listen to intellectuals.”

Wieviorka, who supports the French Socialist Party, said he knew many politicians on a personal basis.

“I have wonderful discussions with them and they might accept my ideas,” he said. “But,
they [then] go back to their constituency and they know their constituency will not follow my ideas.”

The important thing is to create a dynamic between the world of intellectuals — and their ideas — and the world of politicians, he went on.

Despite his interest in multiculturalism and social change, Wieviorka is not interested in e ntering politics.

He said only a few sociologists could be good in politics, citing as an example Fernando Enrique Cardoso, the former Brazilian president, who is a sociologist.

Wieviorka’s contribution will be in the form of books he has written, he explained. His most recent book is The Next Left and the Social Sciences.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Wed, March 23 2011

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