Defending Multiculturalism: A Guide for the Movement

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HASSAN MAHAMDALLIE (Ed.). Defending Multiculturalism: A Guide for the Movement. London, U.K: Bookmarks Publications. (2011). 231pp. (£8.99) (ISBN 978-1-90519-284-7).

Defending Multiculturalism: A Guide for the Movement is a reaction to British Prime Minister David Cameron's early 2011 speech on the failure of multiculturalism (Cameron, 2011). This speech proved to be incendiary and led to a number of reactions, including petitions, responses published in British daily, The Guardian, a rally and, of course, this collection. Using essays, poems, photographs and artwork from activists, scholars, politicians, and poets, Defending Multiculturalism is a determined and impassioned critique of Cameron's speech itself. The subtext of this compilation exposes oft-reinforced trends of Islamophobia and class discrimination currently present in the West. This book illustrates how Cameron's critique of Britain's current multicultural policy is the manifestation of larger social and political climates that have emerged since 9/11. While the immediate goal is to respond to Cameron's statements, this collection provides a larger critique of the misuses of, as well as the misunderstandings surrounding, multiculturalism. In this short review, I will discuss how this text illustrates and examines the concept of multiculturalism itself.

In his introduction, Hassan Mahamdallie states that the book's purpose is to promote multiculturalism as a public policy that shapes multiple cultural realities, as expressed by the diversity of genres included. He outlines the aftermath of Cameron's speech and explains why so many communities and individuals saw it as a clear cause for concern. While this chapter sets up the political context for the reader, it does not clearly define multiculturalism itself. Clearly, Britain's multicultural policy has similar tenets to other forms of multiculturalism; however, the specific brand of multiculturalism is not made clear. The meanings attached to the term "multiculturalism" are slippery: the word itself is heavily context dependent, manifesting in different ways based on its social, political and historical milieus. Scholars Nasar Meer and Tariq Modood (2011) clarified, "in both theoretical and policy discourses, multiculturalism means different things in different places" (p. 179). Conceptually, it can signify anything from mere tolerance to fostering cultural exchange. As such, the multiculturalism(s) that emerge can differ substantially from one context to another. In Defending Multiculturalism, Modood ("Multiculturalism and integration") offered another hypothesis for why this concept remains blurry, "This is partly because 'multiculturalism' is too often defined by its critics, whose sole purpose is to create a straw man to knock down. But its [sic] also because there is more than one form of multiculturalism and they relate to integration in different ways" (p. 64). The lack of conceptual clarity surrounding multiculturalism in general calls for perpetual clarification of how the term is being taken up at specific times and in specific spaces. While I would be leery of the inclusion of a one-size-fits-all definition, I do believe that a working definition of how multiculturalism is being conceptualized and worked through within the confines of this book is necessary, offering the reader a firmer grasp of its theoretical frame (this would be particularly helpful to those readers living outside of Britain).

That said, the multiplicity of definitions offered by the authors create a very nice juxtaposition that allows the reader to piece together various interpretations of the concept. Multiculturalism is defined in multiple and complex ways; these definitions unfold throughout the collection, each author adding a further layer of understanding to how multiculturalism is being interpreted. For example, Zita Holbourn ("The freedom to express who we are") dismisses the notion that multiculturalism can be defined in strictly political terms, adding that it

is ever-changing and ever evolving as we embrace traditions that are ancient, handed down to us through generations while adopting, adapting and experiencing new ones so the two fuse together to create an eclectic explosion of religion, culture, music, food, language and lifestyle. …