There is a wide range of different definitions and understandings of what mutliculturism is – and is not. Politicians, sociologists and historians – let alone ordinary pundits like me – understand the term in very many different ways, some more positively others more negatively.
In the past few days a certain Finnish politician here in Finland, Olli Immonen, has spoken out against mutliculturism, writing in English on Facebook.
I’m dreaming of a strong, brave nation that will defeat this nightmare called multiculturism
It’s caused a strong reaction, a backlash, around the nation. Amongst that reaction is a sense of fear, particularly a fear of the rise of any ‘us v them’ thinking, whether the ‘them’ is those who enrich our nation, language, culture OR those who belong to the political party the politician belongs to.
It is not so long ago that the Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron’ in 2011, found himself in similar multicultural hot water.
… we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values. 1
If Olli Immonen’s fear of multiculturism is that it divides us, rather than brings us together, he could have a point. If his dream were assimilating all Finns -irrespective of their background, colour, gender, language, religious affiliation or sexual orientation – into one colourful, vibrant nation, embracing difference as part of the whole, instead of promoting grey uniformity as the norm, he might have a point.
Sadly that doesn’t seem to be his fear. While my dream is to live in a free and just society, where there is freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of opportunity and the same protection for all under the law, I am not convinced Immonen or the political party he belongs to share my vision.
His statement – and people’s reaction to it – across the political spectrum – has got me thinking,however. In particular ‘what do I understand by the term multiculturalism?’ and ‘what role do I play (if any)?
One understanding is that multiculturism is the same as cultural pluralism. In other words multiculturalism is an ideology or doctrine that believes that a particular society benefits from the fact that minority groups participate fully in the dominant society, yet maintain their cultural differences?
In the case of Finland, this means embracing Finnish minorities, including the Swedish speaking minority and the semi nomadic, Saami population of Lapland, with their ‘alternative’ languages, and cultural differences. Multiculuralism has helped both keep their distinct language and culture, while enabling them to participate fully in society and endorse their unique Finnishness.They are True Finns in the best sense of the word ! – watching Swedish speaking Finns at any Finland v Sweden match in the ice hockey world championships leaves you in no doubt of that!
Is multiculturalism then the opposite -in one sense – of assimilation?
For other minorities becoming part of Finnish society is certainly more troubled. The drive is less towards embracing the differences but more towards assimilation – speaking Finnish, not standing out, and behaving in ways that are more consistent with Finnish expectations.
Most Finns belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, for example. Historically, to be a member (Finnish or Swedish speaking) was to be a Finn, with only 1% belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church. To belong to another Christian denomination, to follow a different faith or to have no faith at all (secularism) is to be part of a minority … How far that difference is embraced varies, and fear of Islamic extremism in particular is growing here and indeed throughout Europe, giving rise to right wing political rhetoric and xenophobic speeches.
Until quite recently Finland was more or less monocultural. That’s changing – and the way I see it with that comes the challenge of preserving what it means to be a Finn, while at the same time embracing the range and diversity of all who live here.
I hope Finland can embrace an alternative brave, new world, can demonstrate what dialogue and consensus can achieve in creating a nation worth living in, a place of safety for all its citizens, and where love and respect flourish abundantly. What is certain is that we all must be prepared to work for it.
2. The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition