Interview with Charles Taylor

"We Think in Factions"

"The more one feels accepted, the less susceptible one is for extremism," Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor says. Edith Kresta and Daniel Bax spoke with him about multicultural society and integration politics in Europe and Canada

Charles Taylor (photo: private copyright)
According to Charles Taylor, multiculturalism requires mutual learning as well as a certain feeling for how far one can go

​​Mr. Taylor, you are considered to be one of the pioneers of multiculturalism. Are you aware that here in Germany, the term has developed a bad reputation?

Charles Taylor: Yes, that's true in many places. However, in Germany and France, "multiculturalism" has a completely different meaning than in Great Britain, Canada or the USA. Therefore, it is practically impossible to use the word in an international comparison. It only leads to misunderstandings.

Is the recent unrest in France a reason to be sceptical?

Taylor: The unrest has a lot to do with discrimination. Many of these young people can't find a job solely because of their ethnic origin, their name or even their mailing address. One of the forces driving this discrimination is a mistrust of Islam. This mistrust is the reason many efforts toward integration fail.

In Germany, people are wary of the conservative views of many Muslims, for example toward homosexuality.

Taylor: Of course, there are Muslims who are strictly against homosexuality. But that doesn't mean they all think that way. And such conflicts can only be resolved if we integrate the majority of the minority.

It doesn't help to declare the entire Muslim culture to be a threat. One has to make compromises – with those who are open-minded. Muslims are not one homogenous faction. Thus, they shouldn't be treated as a faction, because that only contributes to them actually forming into a faction. And that must not happen.

Hasn't it happened already?

Taylor:This kind of bloc thinking really does resemble a self-fulfilling prophecy. We always believe that we are not a faction; we only view the others in such a way. All the while, we don't even know how the majority of Muslims thinks.

What does the term "culture of acknowledgement" mean in the case of the recent caricature-inspired conflict? For us, these caricatures did not violate any taboos. How should one deal with taboos which are foreign to us in a multicultural society?

By informing oneself about them. There are things that would shock even liberal-minded Christians or shock women because they are sexist. We avoid such things because we want to get along with one another. For Muslims, other things are important.

In this context, do you believe that the state should place restrictions – with laws against incitement of the people or against blasphemy?

Taylor: No, I don't think the state can decide that. In any case, I can't imagine any kind of sensible legislation in this area.

In that case, who determines what is sacred for Muslims? Must we always take the most conservative views into account?

Taylor: What we need is greater sensitivity. Multiculturalism requires mutual learning as well as a certain feeling for how far one can go. Of course, one must always go a little bit too far in order to test the borders.

Does multiculturalism mean being completely tolerant of everything?

Taylor: No. Certain things have to be forbidden by law, for example, female circumcision.

What about forced marriage?

Taylor: Forced marriage is against our laws. But of course it is difficult to say exactly what a forced marriage is. Canada's Indian community has a tradition of arranged marriage. But it takes places at such a high socio-cultural level that it would be wrong to speak of brute force. And if integration works, then the next generation breaks with this tradition.

You are optimistic. In Germany, there also appears to be regression within the second generation.

Taylor: One thing is clear: An open society requires patience. Regression can be found above all in places where immigrants don't feel accepted by the society. The more one feels accepted, the less susceptible one is for extremism.

There are examples that demonstrate the opposite.

Taylor: There are always examples. I'm horrified when I think about those young middle-class Britons who planted the bombs in the London Underground. I saw video footage of one of the bombers broadcast on the BBC: He spoke with a British accent, worked as a teacher and had a family. But somehow, these disturbances of identity exist.

Don't these disturbances of identity pose a great threat?

Taylor: Yes, because we live in a world in which individual terror is glorified as an act of heroic self-fulfillment. What we should be afraid of is the kind of war of civilizations that people like Bin Laden are stirring up. He inspires young, frustrated people who gobble up his ideas and do terrible things. This kind of escalation has nothing to do with the way the majority of Muslims feel. It is a kind of global war that was declared by a very few and then picked up by the media. But it does not at all reflect the views of the majority of Muslims.

In Europe, the idea of a multicultural society is questioned in principle after every act of terror, be it the van Gogh murder or the London bombings. In the USA, this was not the case even after September 11th. Why not?

Taylor: The Americans feel threatened by Muslims from outside the United States. On the other hand, most of the Muslims in the US

Charles Taylor, born November 5, 1931, is a Canadian philosopher known for his viewpoints on multiculturalism, morality and modern western identity of individuals and groups. He is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Philosophy at McGill University. In 1992 the Quebec provincial government awarded him the Prix Léon-Gérin, the highest honor given for contribution to Quebec intellectual life.

consider themselves to be nearly 100% American, and Bush invites the Imams to the White House. Nevertheless, there is within the population a great deal of prejudice against the Muslim world. But the Muslims in the USA are educated, and for that reason, they are not treated in this way: It is directed at the poor and poorly assimilated population.

Instead, prejudice is directed toward Hispanics. In his last book, "Who We Are," Huntington fears them more than Muslims!

Taylor: That's right. He's afraid of poverty. Huntington is a typical anti-multiculturalist: He believes that only the Anglo-Protestant culture can hold the country together politically.

What, then, is the difference between yourself and Samuel Huntington? Both of you emphasize the assimilation of immigrants in the long-term.

Taylor: Yes, but I believe that cultures continually change and multiply. Assimilation takes place, but it is also accompanied by change. While I believe that in the next 50 years, we in America will continue to speak English, Spanish will become extremely important.

And what about the political system? Western liberals in Europe would be horrified if, for example, our laws were to be influenced by Islamic Sharia laws!

Taylor: That is extremely improbable. Despite all the immigration into America, the political system has hardly changed since the end of slavery. The aspect that will change, however, is the political culture – the way politics is organized, and the parties. In Latin America for example, this culture is completely different.

Interview: Edith Kresta and Daniel Bax

© TAZ/Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German: Mark Rossman

This article was previously published by the German daily TAZ.

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