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Friday, April 13, 2012

Pax Ethnica: Islands of Peace

There is a good post over at Arun with a View about L’exception marseillaise (The Marseille Exception).  Recent events in France have revived the debate about assimilation versus integration and the violence that can erupt in some places fueled by ethnic, linguistic and religious differences.  Arun points out that:
When it comes to immigration/ethnicity/race, Marseille really is exceptional in France, in that français de souche are likely a minority (and many, if not most, white folks there—apologies for the Americanism—have recent origins in Corsica, Spain, Italy, North Africa pied noir, Armenia, Greece, Lebanon, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, etc.; and as there are no banlieues to which poorer immigrant-origin populations are relegated, everyone lives in the city).
I think he's right and I say that knowing that there is violence in that city:  muggings, murders, drug-trafficking and the like which is probably true of any large metropolitan area, including Paris.  The elder Frenchling's boyfriend got to experience this up close and personal on a train one day when he was robbed and beaten for his electronic devices.  But what you don't see in Marseilles is communities at war with each other over things like national origin, race and religion.  As the New York Times article that Arun links to in his post points out, "In the fall of 2005, as ethnically charged riots consumed Parisian suburbs and spread to scores of other cities and towns, peace prevailed in Marseille."

How this came to be fills an entire chapter in a book called Pax Ethnica by Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac.   (Meyer authored the piece in the NYT).  I'm reading the book now and though I'm only two chapters into it, I will be very daring and recommend it to you.  The premise of the book is an excellent one:  as much as we "tsk tsk" over all the places in the world where diversity seems to breed aggression and violence, there are communities where people have managed to work out their differences without forcing everyone into one linguistic/religious/ethnic mold.  These places are a direct affront to those who say that, "multiculturalism doesn't work" and that may be why you don't hear very much about them.

For example, does anyone remember the conflict between the Danish and German populations of a little region in Northern Europe called Schleswig-Holstein?  This is a place where the Danish minority (and Sinti, Roma and Frisians) live peacefully alongside a German majority.  A 1955 agreement actually protects the rights of the Danish minority:  the right to profess loyalty to the Danish people and culture, the right to use Danish if they so choose in their daily lives and the right to the very same treatment afforded to Germans.  Reading this you do have to wonder what in the heck Merkel meant when she said that multiculturalism has "utterly failed" in Germany and that everyone must learn German "as quickly as possible."  To those who might argue that, for the Germans, the Danes are "not so foreign," let's go back and look at the history.  Within living memory, clashes like this one in Europe were real and angry and fraught with violence.  In this particular conflict, the Germans did their best to assimilate these minorities and destroy their Danishness or Frisianness.  Yes, today they are  "not so foreign" but how quickly we forget there was a time when those "small differences" were a big deal and treaties and laws were required in order to control a tendency toward violence, discrimination and forced assimilation.  The result of this multicultural journey can be seen on the website of Schleswig-Holstein where they proudly proclaim that "Schleswig-Holstein’s unique cultural diversity is a hallmark of the federal state."  Do you honestly think anyone was saying that back in 1955?

It is useful to read history if only to put things in perspective.  We look at ethnic and religious conflicts today and excuse ourselves from doing anything about them because they are "intractable" and based on centuries of ill-will and irreconcilable differences.  Nonsense.  All situations crafted by human hands  and minds are impermanent.  My father-in-law pointed out to his son one day that, in his time, the Spanish and Italian immigrants in France were the object of much contempt and discrimination.  My goodness, how things have changed.  The current French President's wife was an Italian (she became a naturalized French citizen in 2008) and this was a complete non-event as far as the French were concerned.

So the lesson I take away from my (albeit limited) reading of Pax Ethnica is that time changes everything and all we really can be sure of is that things will evolve in unexpected ways.  Whatever is today, will surely be different tomorrow (or in ten years or a hundred years.)  So we could conceivably wait and see how things shake out.  Time is, after all, said to heal all wounds (and wound all heels).

Or, when it comes to ethnic conflict, we can read about places like Marseille, Kerala, Tatarstan, and Queens  and try to devise a strategy based on their experience in order to shape a course toward resolution and a more peaceful future.  Not only for the violence that is but for the conflicts yet to come.


The Lady Dee said...

I didn't know this about Sarkow's wife. That piece of information just cracks me up!

Berliniquais said...

That's a beautiful post, Victoria. Indeed, there are more than a few of these "islands of peace" out there if we bother to look at them. I have always been fascinated by these regions. In Germany, you mention the special case of Schleswig-Holstein, but there are other such regions too. If you leave Berlin and drive for just 2 hours at a leisurely pace, you will reach a region called "Spreewald", famous in Eastern Germany, among other things, for its beautiful marshy forests, its lakes, its waterways, its pickles, and its unique Slavic minority called the "Sorbs", who have been living alongside their German-speaking neighbours for centuries. Until now, they still speak, not just one, but actually two Slavic languages (Upper and Lower Sorbian) that have a lot more to do with Czech and Polish than with German. Cohabitation has not always be easy, and their language and traditions suffered a lot in the past centuries, especially during times of Prussian and German nationalism. Nevertheless, their culture lives on and now is heavily supported by the states of Brandenburg and Saxony where they live today, although it is likely that the languages eventually die out within the next decades.

We can't see any "utter failure" of multiculturalism here, it has rather thrived against all odds for the last millennium.

So actually Germany did not have to wait until post-war immigration to happen to become a multicultural nation - it always was one in the first place. But too many people don't know this or just pretend the don't.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi JM, Good to see you. I loved your post about the Easter displays in Berlin. :-) So Germany has more than one multicultural region? That is fascinating and thank you so much for pointing it out. I looked up the Sorbs and they are present in several European countries. I suspect in a lot of places "diversity" is more the norm then most people care to admit.

Lady Dee: I think it's pretty funny too. :-)