Egypt and Liberalism's Discontents


The current violence in Egypt between Christians and Muslims is frightening from many perspectives. Obviously, the loss of lives during peaceful protests and the attacks on religious buildings are unacceptable. Freedom of religion and association are fundamental human rights. We accept that I am a member of the Commune of Carouge at the same time I am part of the Canton of Geneva and the country of Switzerland. In addition, I am a citizen of the United States born and raised in New York City. Numerous other affiliations are part of this diversity. Multiculturalism means multiple associations based on multiple identities.

But, freedom of association does have limits; we are witnessing more and more homogenous ethnic/religious associations demanding separation if not statehood. Abkhaz want their own country; Kosovars as well. Large, heterogeneous groups are breaking apart into smaller homogeneous units such as the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

The United States used to be called a melting pot, especially New York City where millions of immigrants first arrived. Formerly, there were homogeneous neighborhoods within the City of Irish-Americans, German-Americans, African-Americans and so on. They were all hyphenated Americans, just as many ethnic groups inhabited parts of the Canton of Geneva. Many became Swiss, but their children still attended special classes in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and English. Ethnic identity did not exclude assimilation. The hyphen remained important.

Liberalism has been called the art of separation. "Good fences make good neighbors" is a 17th century proverb, perhaps coming from the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 that separated Catholics and Protestants after the bloody Thirty Years War. The ICRC Museum had a wonderful exhibit on walls around the world, illustrating barriers between North and South Korea; the dividing line in Cyprus; the peace lines in Northern Ireland; the divide that crosses the Western Sahara; the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico; the wire fence in Morocco surrounding Spanish enclaves; an electric fence between Pakistan and India; and the wall separating the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Berlin Wall did come down, but other barriers are being constructed. Ethnic/religious conflicts seem to be on the rise, perhaps as an emotional reaction to fears of identity loss from globalization. As a combat veteran of ethnic conflicts in New York, I am alarmed by a return to monoculturalism. The Dayton Accords might have stopped the fighting in the Balkans, but they tried to recreate homogeneous nation-states that seem to reflect where we are moving.

The art of separation shows its limits in Egypt with primitive violence against Others. Liberalism's call for self-determination paradoxically can play into some very dangerous instincts that limit our ability to have multiple associations. The hyphen as a symbol of plural identities is important, and should remain so. The violence in Egypt is a reminder how tenuous multiculturalism has become within and between countries.


October 16, 2011


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