We Need Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World

by United Nations Development Program

How will the new constitution of Iraq satisfy demands for fair representation for Shiites and Kurds? Which— and how many— of the languages spoken in Afghanistan should the new constitution recognize as the official language of the state? How will the Nigerian federal court deal with a Sharia law ruling to punish adultery by death? Will the French legislature approve the proposal to ban headscarves and other religious symbols in public schools? Do Hispanics in the United States resist assimilation into the mainstream American culture? Will there be a peace accord to end fighting in Côte d’Ivoire? Will the President of Bolivia resign after mounting protests by indigenous people? Will the peace talks to end the Tamil-Sinhala conflict in Sri Lanka ever conclude? These are just some headlines from the past few months.

Managing cultural diversity is one of the central challenges of our time.

Long thought to be divisive threats to social harmony, choices like these— about recognizing and accommodating diverse ethnicities, religions, languages, and values— are an inescapable feature of the landscape of politics in the 21st century. Political leaders and political theorists of all persuasions have argued against explicit recognition of cultural identities— ethnic, religious, linguistic, racial. The result, more often than not, has been that cultural identities have been suppressed, sometimes brutally, through state policy— through religious persecutions and ethnic cleansings, but also through everyday exclusion and economic, social and political discrimination.

New today is the rise of identity politics. In vastly different contexts and in different ways— from indigenous people in Latin America to religious minorities in South Asia to ethnic minorities.

From the Balkans and Africa to immigrants in Western Europe— people are mobilizing anew around old grievances along ethnic religious, racial and cultural lines, demanding that their identities be acknowledged, appreciated, and accommodated by broader society. Suffering discrimination and marginalization from social, economic and political opportunities, they are also demanding social justice. Also new today is the rise of coercive movements that threaten cultural liberty. And, in this era of globalization, a new class of political claims and demands has emerged from individuals, communities, and countries with feelings that their local cultures are being swept away. They want to keep their diversity in a globalized world.

Why these movements today? They are not isolated. They are part of a historic process of social change, of struggles for cultural freedom, of new frontiers in the advance of human freedoms and democracy. They are propelled and shaped by the spread of democracy, which is giving movements more political space for protest, and the advance of globalization, which is creating new networks of alliances and presenting new challenges.

Cultural liberty is a vital part of human development because being able to choose one’s identity— who one is— without losing the respect of others or being excluded from other choices is important in leading a full life. People want the freedom to practice their religion openly, to speak their language, to celebrate their ethnic or religious heritage without fear of ridicule or punishment or diminished opportunity. People want the freedom to participate in society without having to slip off their chosen cultural mooring. It is a simple idea, but profoundly unsettling.

States face an urgent challenge in responding to these demands. If handled well, greater recognition of identities will bring greater cultural diversity in society, enriching people’s lives. But there is also a great risk. These struggles over cultural identity, if left unmanaged or managed poorly, can quickly become one of the greatest sources of instability within states and between them— and in so doing trigger conflict that takes development backward. Identity politics that polarize people and groups are creating fault lines between “us” and “them.” Growing distrust and hatred threaten peace, development and human freedoms. Just in the last year ethnic violence destroyed hundreds of homes and mosques in Kosovo and Serbia. Terrorist train bombings in Spain killed nearly 200. Sectarian violence killed thousands of Muslims and drove thousands more from their homes in Gujarat and elsewhere in India, a champion of cultural accommodation. A spate of hate crimes against immigrants shattered Norwegians’ belief in their unshakable commitment to tolerance. Struggles over identity can also lead to regressive and xenophobic policies that retard human development. They can encourage a retreat to conservatism and a rejection of change, closing off the infusion of ideas and of people who bring cosmopolitan values and the knowledge and skills that advance development.

Managing diversity and respecting cultural identities are not just challenges for a few “multiethnic states.” Almost no country is entirely homogeneous. The world’s nearly 200 countries contain some 5,000 ethnic groups. Two thirds have at least one substantial minority, def. as an ethnic or religious group that makes up at least 10 percent of the population. At the same time the pace of international migration has quickened, with startling effects on some countries and cities. Nearly half the population of Toronto was born outside of Canada. And many more foreign-born people maintain close ties with their countries of origin than did immigrants of the last century.

One way or another every country is a multicultural society today, containing ethnic, religious or linguistic groups that have common bonds to their own heritage, culture, values, and way of life. Cultural diversity is here to stay— and to grow. States need to find ways of forging national unity amid this diversity. The world, ever more interdependent economically, cannot function unless people respect diversity and build unity through common bonds of humanity. In this age of globalization the demands for cultural recognition can no longer be ignored by any state or by the international community. And confrontations over culture and identity are likely to grow— the ease of communications and travel have shrunk the world and changed the landscape of cultural diversity, and the spread of democracy, human rights, and new global networks have given people greater means to mobilize around a cause, insist on a response and get it.

This is an excerpt from the 2004 World Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). For the full text of the report, see http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/

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