Reconciling cultural diversity and public law



I have arrived in Ottawa, Canada, as a visiting professor hosted by the Audio Visual Lab for the Study of Culture and Society, and only a few hours ago delivered my first public seminar about the transnational practices of migrants in multicultural societies.

I was interviewed by local radios on the broader topic of migrant settlement policies and what Canada and Australia had in common and also where their respective policies differed.

However, the most interesting media interaction happened to me in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, a leading newspaper here.

What was rather surprising about the interview is the reporter’s questions about the very contentious issue of domestic law and whether this needed to be amended in some cases to take into account cultural practices of the specific migrant communities.

The case that was mentioned and which has apparently generated a lot of heated debated here in Canada related to the issue of honour killing.

I was asked whether it was possible, or indeed desirable, for the law to sometimes incorporate aspects of migrant cultural norms to deal with crimes that might be explained and prosecuted differently had they occurred in different cultures.

My initial reaction was one of shock not least because I did not know the full details of the case in question but also because how can anyone ever justify a deliberate act of killing?

But after I gathered my thoughts I explained that in my own thinking the recognition of and support for collective cultural rights is a legitimate demand so long as such rights or practices are not in clear transgression of existing domestic laws.

This is especially the case when such transgressions are perpetrated against women or minors and are presented as plausible or acceptable within any particular ethnic minority culture.

Whilst I am and have always been a great supporter of and advocate for minority cultural rights , I do not find any possible justification for amending legal systems to reflect what otherwise could only be described as a blatant deliberate criminal act.

And this same approach should apply to many other practices that can and have been at times presented as reflecting specific cultural norms.

The recognition of cultural rights should not lead to an automatic cultural relativisation process whereby some cultural practices can be deemed beyond scrutiny simply because they reflect the particular value systems or cultural norms of a specific group.

And these exchanges and media interactions bring me back to the ongoing debate about multiculturalism.

Indeed, another reason for my visit to Canada is that we are co-hosting with colleagues from the University of Ottawa, the ‘Second International Symposium on Multiculturalism Research’ on the 21-22 November.

As the program for our symposium shows, the challenge for multiculturalism worldwide is that it raises and gives prominence to the concept of culture in the political process of nation-state deliberations.

Partly for this reason, it is not always feasible nor desirable to expect or demand ‘consensus’ within multiculturalism about cultural matters.

This is because culture and cultural beliefs imply negotiation of meanings, recognition of difference and sometimes an acceptance of different value systems so long as these value systems and cultural practices do not transgress local laws.

And really that should be the fine line that ought to separate the recognition of cultural rights from the condoning of damaging or at times criminal acts perpetuated in the name of cultural rights.