Putting the lie to the racism of multiculturalism: A conversation with Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Zizek

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Scanning Al Jazeera this weekend for news of the Egyptian revolution now underway, I came across this conversation between Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Zizek (video  below). While the whole conversation is well worth twenty-five minutes of your life, the first few minutes of Zizek's impassioned description of events in Egypt I think make an excellent addendum to the conversation that is being had around an earlier piece I had written on the genetic origins of democracy.

What is so interesting in Egypt – beyond of course the fact that we get to watch people actually standing up for themselves – is that it is a very real study in the racism that masquerades itself as multicultural respect. This event represents explicitly how the narrative of cultural relativism, this claim that democracy is something culturally specific and not a universal value as some of us would have it, is in fact grounded in spurious assumptions and a sense of cultural superiority.

The narrative that is dominating much of the reporting of this revolution here in the West particularly is one of fear and suspicion...but not fear and suspicion of the Mubarak regime and its thirty years of repression and violence, but rather fear and suspicion of those who are rallying against it. We saw this in the first few days with the Obama administration’s initial reluctance to accurately describe Mubarak as a despot, to Israel’s current insistence that their own security must be safeguarded against a potential democratic Egypt, and finally to Tony Blair’s ridiculous assertion that the ‘West’ must is some way manage the process in Egypt so that the Egyptian people “will have a proper democracy” – implying of course that there is such thing as an improper democracy!

This narrative is grounded in the assumption that Egyptians, given the opportunity, would not want what we here in the West want when they demand freedom, dignity, and justice – that somehow these words mean something different to those gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. The narrative is grounded in fear that, by virtue of the location they occupy on this planet, the language they speak, and the god they worship, Egyptians cannot possibly share a common understanding of what We understand to be democracy, and given the choice, Arabs, Muslims are incapable of making ‘correct’ decisions and would choose a radical theocratic regime.

And yet, what we see on the street stands almost comically in contrast to the underlying assumptions built into this narrative. As Zizek points out, this uprising puts the lie to this ‘truth’ and offers proof against the stereotype that democracy is somehow not a cultural trait of Muslims.

Indeed, what we see happening on the streets of Egypt, as before it in Tunisia, is the long-suppressed impulse towards the universal values of freedom, human dignity, and justice...the very same values that undergird our democracies here in the West.


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  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 09 February 2011 23:38 posted by Chris Dierkes

    I definitely agree with Zizek that people can grasp a sense of solidarity and universality in these types of events. The word multicultural gets thrown around so much I'm not really sure what it means anymore, but if it means something like Egyptians have a different culture than North Americans, it's still to me valid and we can still have universality in the midst of difference.

    If multiculturalism means (and I'm not sure it always does) something like each culture is an island unto itself, then yes this is stupidity manifest.

    But what if the word simply means in certain ways (not all but certain) cultures are really distinct and different from one another and different does not necessarily mean better or worse (just different), then that to me is a rather admittedly prosaic but surprisingly under-appreciated point.

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Thursday, 10 February 2011 18:37 posted by Andrew Baxter

    No doubt there is much to be lauded about the value of respecting another's culture as worthy in and of itself, and if we want to call that "multiculturalism", then great.

    I suppose, though, that when we use this respect and understanding of difference and distinction to circumvent values or aspirations that are in fact human-based rather than culturally-based such as freedom and fairness, the idea itself then simply becomes another means of oppression.

    There are clearly many differences between Canadian and Egyptian cultures, but to ascribe universal human values to a particular culture, or better yet, to claim however implicitly - as American and Western foreign policy in general does - the reverse, an incapacity for these values, is just straight up racist as Mr Zizek concludes.

    We see in the streets of Egypt a direct example of these universal human values...and one really has to wonder what Mr Blair and others are actually afraid of? Do they truly believe that Egyptians, fresh on the heels of tossing out one Pharaoh will simply demand another one, but this time one with more Islam in him? What does this fear actually say about those who hold it?

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Saturday, 12 February 2011 00:53 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    "One leathery old victim of this revolution, at whose death we should rejoice, is the fallacy of cultural determinism – and specifically the notion that Arabs and/or Muslims are not really up for freedom, dignity and human rights. Their "culture", so we were assured by Samuel Huntington and others, programmed them otherwise. Tell that to the people dancing on Tahrir Square.

    This is not to deny that the religious-political patterns of both radical and conservative Islam, and specific legacies of modern Arab history, will make a transition to consolidated liberal democracy more difficult than it was in, say, the Czech Republic. They will. Maybe the whole thing will still go horribly wrong. But the profoundly condescending idea that "this could never happen there" has been refuted on the streets of Tunis and Cairo"

    From a good article by Timothy Garton Ash:


    I applaud the line you are taking here Andrew, and I applaud those courageous philosophers like Zizek, Alain Badiou and Terry Eagleton who are challenging the postmodernist orthodoxy that fetishized difference and plurality. We need to dialectically move through that moment, and these philosophers are making the much needed push toward (re)including universals in the human experience. The partial truth of multiculturalism has had its moment, and we need to now transcend and include it (or "negate and preserve" to use Hegel's language) in a higher order embrace.

    One of the ironies I find about the situation you describe here is that the multicultural pluralistic worldview was originally meant to actually curb dominant imperial power in its use of (Enlightenment) universals in their colonial expansion (the "life conditions" of the day, to use Spiral language). In fact, the resistance actually goes a long way back to the early 18th century and the work of the philosopher Herder. Nevertheless, it's a good lesson in how power operates. As Scott mentioned in our talk about Egypt and the Western Response, dominant power has a way of taking popular ideals and twisting them to its own advantage, or hiding behind them to achieve its own goals. So power says- "Oh, universals are out, and multiculturalism is in. Hmm. Ok, how about we are the ones that love democracy and freedom, all cultures are different, and they don't like these values so we must lead them". It's actually pulled a ju-jitsu move and flipped the current ideals to its own advantage again. It's an ongoing dance. I'm glad you and others are unmasking this, and I'm so glad universals are back on the table. Somewhere Plato and Socrates are smiling.

  • Comment Link David Saturday, 12 February 2011 04:07 posted by David

    Andrew: "And yet, what we see on the street stands almost comically in contrast to the underlying assumptions built into this narrative. As Zizek points out, this uprising puts the lie to this ‘truth’ and offers proof against the stereotype that democracy is somehow not a cultural trait of Muslims."

    I think we would need to do a study to really find out. We know they are sick of Mubarak, we know they want more economic opportunities, but I don't think we can tell really what they stand for without doing a study.

    Most likely, we would find a lot of diversity among the protesters. As you probably know, some studies of anti-Vietnam-War protesters found that a majority of protesters actually had preconventional thinking. Other studies found an even split between preconventional and postconventional or perhaps a majority with post-conventional thinking, so that is controversial, but I don't think we should assume anything about them without a study. It does look like they all want Democracy, though, when CNN shows an educated protester who speaks English talking about Democracy.

    It's nevertheless become a common thing to hear that they are all James Madisons, such as in this editorial from the New Republic:


    I once saw a study about IDF conscientious objectors from the recent war against Hezbollah that found most were preconventional as well, but I wouldn't take that necessarily as fact.

    I have seen some poll data from Pew Research, however, that makes me skeptical that they all want democracy and worldcentrism as we know it. Just over half of Egyptians polled had a favorable view of Hamas; nearly half had a favorable view of Hezbollah, and a whopping 95% of Egyptians had an unfavorable opinion of Jews. I did find the story about the human shield around Coptic churches recently very inspiring, so there may well be a significant number of Egyptians who do want some kind of pluralism, but again I think it's hard to tell without a study. I think we'll just have to wait and see.


  • Comment Link David Saturday, 12 February 2011 06:02 posted by David

    Another interesting thing I just noticed about the Pew study. Only 9% of Egyptians identified as "modernizers." On p. 13.

    Also, 51% of Egyptians had a favorable view of Christians, 49% unfavorable. P. 23.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Saturday, 12 February 2011 18:30 posted by Chris Dierkes


    that's an interesting reference to Sam Huntington. I never would think of Huntington as multiculturalist. His views strike me much as modernist--there's basically one path to civilization (the Western liberal market-based democratic one) and all societies are judged relative to that position. He wrote a lesser known (but actually quite good imo) book called Culture Matters in which he argues contra the multiculturalist position that cultures can change and there are better and worse forms of cultural adaptation.

    I think if anything Huntington's work when it comes to the Muslim world is too influenced by Bernard Lewis and the Orientalist (to use a pomo critique term) school of Arab decline. That Orientalist view (definitely not multiculturalist) has taken a deserved and wonderful wounding in light of Tunisia and Egypt.

    Though yes, a view that the Muslim (or in this case Arab) world is somehow existentially different than the West and therefore cannot be judged as better/worse also has correctly taken a shot. Weirdly that view is simply the inverse of The Orientalist "exotic" Middle Eastern colonialist position.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Saturday, 12 February 2011 18:35 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Good points. We'll have to see how this all plays out. I think a good model for Egypt would be Turkey and/or Indonesia. A more socially conservative but technocratic government that is opening up more freedoms (though still plenty of unfreedom). A country that would start to play have its own regional and international foreign policy--e.g. they could be critical of Israel (as is Turkey) but wouldn't be stupid enough to abrogate their peace treaty.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Saturday, 12 February 2011 18:38 posted by Chris Dierkes


    sorry, one more thought. I appreciate your distinction between a post-pluralistic universalism and a pre-pluralistic one. Huntington, by my recollection, is normally linked up more with neoconservatives. Bill Kristol was saying "We Are All Egyptians Now". The neoconservative position began as a critique of realist conservatives (in the tradition of George HW Bush, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, etc.) who felt we had to do business with dictators in that region. The neocons were the ones who said that everyone has an aspiration for democracy. It's just that the neocons felt that aspiration could be ignited by invading, toppling a dictatorial government, and then leaving a governmental vacuum to be filled by violence and chaos.

    iow, Zizek and Bill Kristol aren't exactly ideological allies though they both like to criticize multiculturalism and both supported the Egyptian uprising.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 17 February 2011 21:36 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Just wanted to let David and Andrew et al. here know that I've been busy researching on the topic we were discussing here, and will be posting a full article on it soon.

    The main piece that set me off was a tweet by author Howard Bloom that said:

    "It's the facebook-generation secular democrats versus the religionists. the winner will determine the shape of Egypt for generations".

    I thought this was a nice starting point for a lens through which to view the situation. David was asking for caution, seemingly suggesting that the country was tilted towards the "pre-conventional" religionists, whereas Andrew and I felt that there was a greater tilt toward the secular-democratic side of the streets.

    I spent two nights scouring the web, mainly following links in tweets, and gathered a bunch of material that speaks to both sides. It's going to be called: "A Twitter Inspired Mosaic of Levels of Development in Egypt".

    It has to go through edits first and then I'll publish, but wanted to mention that I'll be circling back around to this topic.

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