Amartya Sen on British multi-culturalism


by Jay Singh
18th February, 2006 at 7:19 pm    

In July, Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen is publishing a book titled Identity and Violence that brings more perspective to the debate on British multi-culturalism. Sen’s voice is badly needed. He is heavyweight intellectual with an impeccable record in advocacy for tolerance, pluralism and harmony; critical of the situation we are in but ready to defend multicultural precepts where they need to be defended.

In the Guardian today:

What begins by giving people room to express themselves, he argues, may force people into an identity chosen by the authorities. “That is what is happening now, here,” he says, a little indignantly. “I think there is a real tyranny there. It doesn’t look like tyranny – it looks like giving freedom and tolerance – but it ends up being a denial of individual freedom. The individual belongs to many different groups and it is up to him or her to decide which of those groups he or she would like to give priority.”

And next, he makes a point that Pickled Politics has been expounding consistently:

“Suddenly the Jewish, Hindu and Muslim organisations are in charge of all Jews, Hindus and Muslims. Whether you are an extremist mullah or a moderate mullah, whether you’re Blair’s friend or Blair’s enemy, you might relish the idea of being able to speak for all people with a Muslim background – no matter how religious they are – but this may be in direct competition with the role of Muslims in British civil society

In particular it means that government accords power and consults with the most conservative and self-interested representatives of a community, it silences dissent, and it also formulates a crude counter-response by society as a whole.

Unable to appreciate the diversity of individual life within minority groups, mainstream British society slots individuals into reckless and inadequate stereotypes, viewing minorities through the telescope of the issue-and-identity politics that sectarian bodies push, pumped up as they are with hot air and hubris because they get to sup with politicians and appear in the media.

He further speculates that this attitude may have roots in a disastrous policy followed by the British in the end years of British rule in India:

“This is the way,” he says, “that the British tried to interpret community divisions in India between Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. To Indian nationalists, it looked a further example of divide and rule, emphasising the divisions. The way that the British are handling it today makes one wonder whether the cultural confusion that the British had then has now been brought back home.”

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Guest post by Jay Singh


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  1. Jay Singh — on 18th February, 2006 at 7:23 pm  

    All in all, a valuable insight into the thinking of a man whose contribution to our present day dilemmas is very important, and an advance warning of a vital intervention in the national debate that his book, to be published in July, will make.

    We need more people like Sen speaking – unless those on the Left start making serious and reasoned critical responses we leave the way open for the Right to make the running on these issues.

  2. Jay Singh — on 18th February, 2006 at 7:33 pm  

    There is a double-bind for individuals from said groups.

    *First of all, categorised by government and assumed to be spoken for by people with no real democratic right to speak on their behalf other than chest-thumping and sectarian policing and self-declared representation —————-> Ethnic or communal identity is reduced to pint sized sound bites on single issue sectarian issues.

    * Wider society stereotypes and views individuals through these lenses – it is the blowback from this communalist handshake between government and media on the one hand and the ‘community representatives’ on the other.

  3. Rohin — on 18th February, 2006 at 7:55 pm  

    I recently read the Argumentative Indian, Sen’s last book. I’m a big fan of his, even though I disagree on a few things. He’s a very shrewd, intelligent writer.

  4. Siddh James — on 18th February, 2006 at 8:48 pm  

    Thanks for the heads-up on this article Jay.

    Sen says:
    “To classify Bangladeshis, for example, only as Muslims and overlook their Bangladeshi identity is seriously misleading. To drown all that into a vision of ‘you are just a Muslim – please be moderate and likeable and replace all those extremist imams with moderate and likeable ones’, that is simply wrong-headed.”

    Well thats just the complete synthesis of everything I’ve tried to say on Pickled Politics all along. And its imperative for the Bangladeshi community in the UK not to fall into the trap of identifying themselves exclusively as Muslims simply because (apart from the fact that not all Bangladeshis are Muslims!) the Authorities and the Media have replaced broad-brush racial identities (Asian/Bangladeshi/Muslim) with even broader religious ones (Islam). And then having done so, they are free to blame these communities whenever some Islam-related PR disaster has occurred on the other side of the world. There are plenty of subcontinetals who are more than willing to reduce their entire life-experience and allegiance to that of a religious one because the DSS form they had to fill in for getting housing benefit only recognises them in such and such a racial and religious group.

    God, Amartya Sen needs to start blogging.

  5. El Cid — on 18th February, 2006 at 9:21 pm  

    It also chimes with what I’ve been saying about the media’s coverage of British moslem communities.

  6. tally — on 18th February, 2006 at 9:46 pm  

    Amartya Sen is right, people should not be pigeon holed. Unless every one has been asleep since New Labour came to power,
    They are imposing britishness on the English too.No room for any mistakes there,they even refuse to say the word “England” in public.

  7. Steve M — on 18th February, 2006 at 10:06 pm  

    Jay, I don’t know how you get the time – in between your various alias’ on HP :-) – but nice piece.

    It’s absolutely true. I don’t consider that the Chief Rabbi speaks for me (although I must admit to quite liking him) but then nor do England football supporters, politicians of any persuasion (except on specific issues), representatives of Parents of young children, the hi-fi community, martial artists, entrepreneurs or leaders of any of the groups that I might consider myself to belong to.

    One of the problems is that television eats up people for interviews, discussion forums, etc. There is a real need for interesting, articulate members of any group that is at the centre of attention and at this time that group is Muslims. Perhaps, as has been said before, interesting and representative voices are required rather than representatives.

  8. Jay Singh — on 19th February, 2006 at 12:13 am  

    There is a real need for interesting, articulate members of any group that is at the centre of attention and at this time that group is Muslims. Perhaps, as has been said before, interesting and representative voices are required rather than representatives.

    Anyone who can razzle up a smart website, work an e-mail address, send letters/e-mails to newspapers and MP’s, thump their chest a few times and claim to speak on behalf of a *fill in the religious community’s* behalf can get themselves on TV these days.

  9. Sid D H Arthur — on 20th February, 2006 at 1:29 am  

    Plea to Prof Sen:

    Doya kore apne ekta blog arombho korun, sar.

    ['Sir, we humbly request you, for our sakes, to please get your shit together and start blogging']

  10. coruja — on 20th February, 2006 at 1:00 pm  

    He has been writing about this concept of multiculturalism vs. ‘plural monoculturalism’ quite a bit recently, obviously getting a lot of attention prior to his new book.

    There were several articles I read earlier this year/possibly late last year – one, for the FT, is blogged here:
    http://www.howardwfrench.com/archives/2005/12/09/freedom_and_reason_offer_the_solution_to_cultural_confusion/

    And what looks like an updated version of an earlier article for the New Republic is here:
    http://www.ocnus.net/artman/publish/article_22794.shtml

    The above is more comprehensive and I am glad he has turned his attention to this debate, everyone from Trevor Phillips to Nick Griffin has waded in to this and made a pig’s ear out it.

  11. Jay Singh — on 20th February, 2006 at 1:12 pm  

    Thanks for those links coruja

  12. BevanKieran — on 21st February, 2006 at 1:40 pm  

    Nice article Jay.

    Prof. Amartya Sen’s articles make good sense. He writes and speaks about these difficult issues in a measured and sensitive way in contrast to the irascible Naipaul (OT but he is old, Asian and learned). Both are opponents of one aspect of multiculturism: the perceived patronage afforded to organisations claiming to represent a racial or religous minority. However, Sen’s analysis is inherently optimistic. He is a first-hand witness to the increasing tolerance of British society over the past fifty years. (The story of his landlord’s concern in 50′s Britain that his colour may wash off onto the bath is indicative of this.) From what I have read so far he is espousing a fine tuning. Naipaul is hampered by anti-Muslim invective, snobbery, racism and high-caste pretensions. I think most people in Britain subscribe to Sen’s multiculturism but there are organisations (i.e religious organisations) and individuals (Griffin, Phillips) who subscribe to plural monoculturalism or Naipaul’s
    monoculturalism.

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