Amartya Sen discusses his new book, in which he claims that the British approach to multiculturalism has undermined individual freedomby Kenan Malik / August 27, 2006 / Leave a comment
Identity and Violence by Amartya Sen (Allen Lane, £16.99)
Just before the anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, a public argument broke out between Tony Blair and Britain’s Muslim leaders about the lack of progress in combating home-grown terrorism. Muslims accused the government of ignoring their advice about how best to deal with extremists. The real problem, the prime minister responded, was that moderate Muslims had not done enough to root out extremists within their own communities.
The starting point for both sides was the belief that Muslims constitute a community with a distinct set of views and beliefs, and that mainstream politicians are incapable of reaching out to them. So there had to be a bargain between the government and the Muslim community. The government acknowledged Muslim leaders as crucial partners in the task of defeating terrorism and building a fairer society. In return, Muslim leaders agreed to keep their own house in order. The argument was about who was, or was not, keeping their side of the bargain.
For Amartya Sen it is the bargain itself that is the problem. Why, he asks in his new book Identity and Violence, “should a British citizen who happens to be Muslim have to rely on clerics and other leaders of the religious community to communicate with the prime minister?”
At 72, Sen still retains all of his intellectual vigour. He divides his time between India, America, Britain and Italy. Home for him is not a country but a way of life. “I was born in a university campus and seem to have lived all my life in one campus or another,” he has said of himself. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel prize in economics for his work on the relatively abstruse area of social choice theory. But it is his writings on equality, development and the causes of famines that have given him a standing outside of academia. In Identity and Violence he has turned his attention from economics to what he sees as the most troubling issue of our times.
At the heart of the book is an argument against what Sen calls the communitarian view of identity—the belief that identity is something to be “discovered” rather than chosen. “There is a certain way of being human that is my way,” the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote in his much-discussed essay “The Politics of Recognition.” “I am…