dali the persistenc of memory

This is a transcript of the keynote lecture I gave at the annual conference of the Riksantikvarieämbetet (the Swedish National Heritage Board) in Stockholm this week. The theme of the conference was ‘The Struggle for Cultural Heritage’.

‘The ministry of symbols.’ That’s how Mélanie Joly, the new Minister of Canadian Heritage in Justin Trudeau’s recently elected administration in Ottowa, this week described her portfolio. What kind of symbols? Not the ones promoted by the previous conservative government of Stephen Harper, but, in Joly’s words, ‘symbols of progressiveness’. For Joly, the job of a heritage minister, the job of the state, is to reimagine the nation in a particular way.

It sums up what much heritage policy has come to be: a means of presenting the past in a way that helps define the present from a particular political or moral perspective. It is an approach that has become increasingly important as societies have become more diverse, and debates about history, identity and belongingness more intractable. But is one that seems to me to diminish and devalue, indeed to eviscerate, the lived experience of history, heritage, belongingness and identity.

Consider, for instance, two debates in two cities at either end of Europe: Córdoba and Istanbul.

Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral is one of the most glorious buildings, not just in Spain, but in Europe. I was last there some 20 years ago. But the memory is still vividly etched in my mind. I remember walking through the Courtyard of The Orange Trees. Then, almost if they had changed form, the rows of orange trees give way to a forest of columns of red-and-white arches that signal the mosque. The transition is stunning, as is the mosque, whose beauty, spacious and peaceful, is almost impossible to covey in words rather than in the experience. And then, as you walk through, there comes another transition – to a Renaissance cathedral that squats like a familiar stranger within. It would be difficult to call the cathedral beautiful. But there is something quite remarkable about it.

Córdoba’s mosque-cathedral is an architectural expression of the complex, intricate story of Europe. And, for some, that is the problem. In recent years the Cathedral Chapter of Córdoba, the branch of the Catholic Church that administers the site, has slowly wiped away the word ‘mosque’ from the monument’s title and from the publications about the site, officially calling simply the ‘Cathedral of Córdoba’. According to the official brochure, the site is really Christian, and that Córdoba’s Muslim period was but a footnote to the city’s Christian history.

The story is, of course, far more complex and far more fascinating. The first Muslim armies came to Iberia in the first decade of the seventh century. Córdoba, the capital of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, had become, by the tenth century, perhaps the most important city in Europe.

The heart of the city was the mosque, or Mezquita. The Caliph Abd al-Rahman purchased the Church of St Vincent to be able to erect upon the site a new mosque, in return for which, Christians were permission to rebuild another one.

The original mosque was a remarkable architectural hybrid, fusing the artistic values of East and West, adopting Roman and Visigoth techniques, and including elements previously unknown in Islamic religious architecture such as the use of double arches to support the roof, and the blending of stone with brick. It was not just a religious house; it was also Córdoba’s university, and one of the great centres of learning in the world.

cordoba mosque

The Mezquita was held in such esteem even by Christians that when the king of Castille Ferdinand III reconquered Córdoba in 1236, his army did not, as it normally would have done, destroy it. It became a place of Christian worship, but for three centuries the main structure of the Mezquita was left untouched.

In the 16th century King Carlos V gave permission to the Church authorities to rip out the centre of the Mezquita to construct a cathedral. When Carlos V visited the completed cathedral in 1526, he was said to have been shocked by the damage wrought on the mosque, exclaiming ‘You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.’

Three thousand kilometers away at the other edge of Europe stands Istanbul. And at the heart of Istanbul is the glorious Hagia Sophia, one of the great cathedrals of the world.

Istanbul once occupied the same role in eastern Christendom as Córdoba played in the western Islamic Empire. And Hagia Sophia was to Istanbul as the Mezquita was to Córdoba. And in Istanbul today a similar debate is taking place over the fate of Hagia Sophia, a debate that is the mirror image of that in Córdoba.

The current church that we know as Hagia Sophia is built on the ruins of two previous churches on the same site. It was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian, the last Latin-speaking ruler of what was then the Eastern Roman Empire, and completed in 537. It was built with extraordinary speed – it took five years to complete as compared to the century for the construction of Notre Dame. Yet it is a most remarkable building, at once the culminating architectural achievement of late antiquity and the first masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, casting an enduring shadow upon the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim worlds, influencing the development of both architecture and forms of worship.

Hagia Sofia became the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople and the spiritual heart of the Byzantine empire. In 1453, the city was captured by the Ottomans. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, and the name Aya Sofya was Islamicised. The cathedral itself was turned into Istanbul’s first imperial mosque, coming eventually to boast four minarets.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, and the abolition of the Caliphate two years later, and the establishment of the secular republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the church mosque became a museum, in which worship was forbidden.

Now, however, there is a campaign to turn Hagia Sofia back into a mosque, a campaign backed by Turkey’s President, and leader of the ruling Islamist AK Party, Recep Tayyip Erdoğa. For many Christians, that would be sacrilege. Greece, which sees the monument as part of its own historical heritage, has condemned the idea as ‘an insult to the religious sensibilities of millions of Christians’.

roger hayward hajia sophia

Here are two cities at opposite ends of Europe, two buildings symbolic of the continent’s complex history, two debates that expose the fractious character of contemporary debates about culture and identity. Two debates reveal that attempts to rewrite the past to create symbols upon which to buttress a particular view of the present. In the one case, the Catholic Church attempting to establish the idea of Europe as a Christian continent, on the other the AKP attempting to reinforce a sense of the Muslim foundations of modern Turkey.

It is against this background that I want to discuss the issue of the ‘struggle for cultural heritage’ and of the meaning of heritage in a diverse society. We often imagine, particularly in Europe, that it is contemporary globalization and immigration that have transformed our societies, making them more plural, unleashing fractious debates about identity and belongingness, and creating that ‘struggle for heritage’ that is the title of this conference. Immigrants bring with them their own histories and identities and cultures. They don’t, many believe, ‘belong’ to the nation or identify with its past as the indigenous population does. And so, the argument goes, we need to think about history and heritage in a new way to accommodate the new diversity.

I want to question many of the assumptions that lie behind such an approach. The very stones of Cordoba’s Cathedral-Mosque and of Istanbul’s Aya Sofya reveal that complex, messy cultural interactions are not new but have deep roots in European history. And the disputes swirling around the two extraordinary buildings suggest that it is not simply immigration that has made the debates about history and identity so heated.

This is not to say that globalization and mass immigration have not had a major impact upon European societies. Nor is it to say that their impact has not transformed the ways in which we think of culture, identity and heritage. Rather it is to say that there is more to the question of a fraught sense of identity and belongingness than simply a greater movement of peoples, ideas and goods. What is equally important is the political and social context in which this greater movement takes place, and the ways in which we have come to imagine the meanings of diversity, identity, culture.

When we talk of heritage we are not simply talking of the reality of one’s past or origins. We are talking also of how one perceives that past or those origins. Perhaps no concept reveals better the gap between perception and reality than that of ‘diversity’. We imagine that Europe used to be homogenous, and that immigration has made it diverse. Much public policy has been shaped by this assumption. But is it true?

‘When I was a child’, the Ghanaian-born American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah recalls in his The Ethics of Identity, ‘we lived in a household where you could hear at least three mother tongues spoken each day. Ghana, with a population close to that of New York State, has several dozen languages in active use and no one language that is spoken at home or even fluently understood by a majority of the population.’ So why is it, he asks, that in America ‘which seems so much less diverse than most other societies are we so preoccupied with diversity and inclined to conceive of it as cultural?’

It is a question that is even more relevant for Europe. When we talk of European societies as historically homogenous, what we mean is that they used to be ethnically, or perhaps culturally, homogenous. But the world is diverse in many ways. Societies are cut through by differences, not only of ethnicity, but also of class, gender, faith, politics, and much else. All that is often ignored in contemporary discussions of diversity.

Many worry today of the clash between Islam and the West, and fear that Islamic values are incompatible with Western values. We assume that such clashes and such fears new, the product of a Europe made diverse through mass immigration. Yet, the way many think of Muslims now, was how many, especially in Northern Europe, looked until relatively recently upon Catholics. They were perceived, in the words of historian Leo Lucassen, as ‘representing an entirely different culture and worldview’, and ‘feared because of the faith’s global and expansive aspirations’. As such they were denied right and often persecuted. At the same time Protestants – the Huguenots in France, for instance – were equally subjected to persecution and pogroms for their alien views.

Jews were seen even more of a threat to European identity, values and ways of being, so much so that they became victims of the world’s greatest genocide. But the treatment of Jews as the ‘Other’ was not confined to Germany. It was a central theme in most European nations, from the Dreyfus affair in France to Britain’s first immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act, designed principally to stem the flow into the country of European Jews.

bak ghetto

Europe was rent not just by religious and cultural but by political conflict too, from the English civil war to the Spanish civil war, from the German Peasants’ rebellion to the Paris commune. Of course, we don’t think of these conflicts as expressions of a diverse society. Why not? Because we have a restricted view of what diversity entails.

Yet, even within that restricted notion of diversity, our historical picture of European societies is mistaken. We look back upon European societies and imagine that they were racially and ethnically homogenous. But that is not how Europeans of the time looked upon their societies. In a speech in Paris in 1857, for instance, the French Christian socialist Phillipe Buchez wondered how it could happen that

within a population such as ours, races may form – not merely one but several races – so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.

The ‘races’ that caused Buchez such anxiety were not immigrants from Africa or Asia but the rural poor in France. The social and intellectual elite in France, far from viewing their nation as homogenous, regarded most of their fellow Frenchmen as racially alien.

In Victorian England, too, the elite viewed the working class and the rural poor as the racial Other. A vignette of working-class life in east London that appeared in an 1864 edition of The Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the era, was typical of Victorian middle-class attitudes. ‘The Bethnal Green poor’, the article explained, were ‘a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact.’  ‘Distinctions and separations, like those of English classes’, the article concluded, ‘which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship… offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.’

Modern Bethnal Green lies at the heart of the Bangladeshi community in East London. Today’s ‘Bethnal Green poor’ are often seen as culturally and racially distinct. But only those on the fringes of politics would compare the distinctiveness of Bangladeshis to that of slaves. The sense of apartness was far greater in Victorian England than it is contemporary Britain. And that’s because in reality the social and cultural differences between a Victorian gentleman or factory owner, on the one hand, and a farmhand or a machinist, on the other, were much greater than those between a white resident and one of Bangladeshi origin living in Bethnal Green today.

However much they may view each other as different, a 16-year-old teenager of Bangladeshi origin living in Bethnal Green, or a 16-year-old of Algerian origin living in Marseilles, or a 16-year-old of Turkish origin living in Berlin, probably wears much the same clothes, listens to much the same music, watches much the same TV shows, follows the same football club as a 16-year-old white teenager in that same city. The shopping mall, the sports field, the iPod and the Hollywood film all serve to create a set of experiences and cultural practices that is more common than at any time in the past.

None of this is to say that immigration has not had a major impact on European societies, or that public policies should not take account of the changes that immigration has wrought. But we need to recognize that the conventional narrative that underpins much policy – that Europe used to be homogenous but has been made diverse by immigration – is both facile and false. A form of historical amnesia always seems to creep in when we discuss questions of diversity, social contestation and cultural conflict.

The questions of what constitutes national values, or who belongs to the nation, or how to imagine a nation’s history, have always been contested. The discussion of how the diversity created by immigration should be addressed is the latest, though probably the sharpest, expression of a historically long-standing issue.

chiaru shihota labyrinth of memories

Whether or not contemporary Europe is really more plural than it was in the nineteenth century is, then, a matter for debate. What is unquestionable is that today’s Europeans perceive their world as more diverse.

The question we need to ask ourselves is not simply ‘What policies do we need to accommodate the diversity of European societies?’ but also ‘How should we engage with the perception that European societies are so diverse?’ To begin to answer that, we need first to answer the question that Kwame Appiah asked: ‘Why is it that in Western societies which seem so much less diverse than most other societies are we so preoccupied with diversity and inclined to conceive of it as cultural?’

There are, as one might imagine, many reasons underlying this perception. One of the most important is the way that the understanding of what constitutes significant social divisions, or makes for a diverse society, has transformed. A century and half ago, social differences were cast largely in terms of nation, race and class. Class, in particular, was the frame within which social interactions were understood. It may be difficult to conceive of now, but even racial differences were seen then, as the speech from Philippe Buchez or the Saturday Review article suggests, in terms of class or social distinctions. The ‘Other’, for nineteenth century thinkers, came not from over the border but inhabited the dark spaces within.

Over the past few decades, the centrality of ‘class’ has eroded in European politics, both as a political category and as a marker of social identity. At the same time ‘culture’ has become increasingly important as the medium through which people perceive social differences.

The shift from ‘class’ to ‘culture’ is part of a much wider set of changes. The broad ideological divides that had characterized politics for much of the past two hundred years have been all but erased. The old distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ has become less meaningful. Old forms of collective life – usually based around class – have weakened. In politics, universalist visions have waned, while particularist perspectives gained strength. Meanwhile, the market has expanded into almost every nook and cranny of social life. And institutions that traditionally helped socialize individuals – from trade unions to the Church – have faded. We live today in much more fragmented, atomized societies.

Partly as a result of such social atomization, people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become defined increasingly not in political terms, but rather in terms of ethnicity, culture or faith. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’.

The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity.

It is against this background that Europeans have come to view their nations as particularly diverse. It is also against this background that the issue of cultural heritage has become so much more important. As we define ourselves increasingly by our relationship to the past, so how we understand that past has become more important. The past also become more contested as we struggle more fiercely to shape the past to suit our present. From Córdoba’s mosque-cathedral to the the ruins of Palmyra, from Aya Sofia to the Elgin Marbles, we imbue every historical object, every historical event, with greater meaning and turn each into a myth, a symbol, to help articulate a particular narrative of how we are and of how we should be.

matta etre evec

These changes have been fuelled by, and have fuelled, another transformation: that in our understanding of culture.

Culture is one of those words that seem indispensable and yet seem also impossible to define. After all, what exactly is a culture? What marks its boundaries? Why should cultural differences be viewed as more salient than, say, class or age differences? In what way is a 16-year old Swedish-born boy of Pakistani origin living in Stockholm of the same culture as a 50-year old man living in Lahore? Does a 16-year white boy from Stockholm have more in common culturally with his 50-year-old father than with that 16-year old of Pakistani origin? And so on.

Such questions have led most contemporary anthropologists to reject the idea of cultures as fixed, bounded entities. Some have come to question the very concept of culture. ‘Since the concept of culture has become so multifarious as to obscure rather than clarify understandings of the social world’, the Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hyland Eriksen believes, ‘it may now perhaps be allowed to return to the cultural pages of the broadsheets, to the world of Bildung.’

But if anthropologists have become increasingly wary of the concept, it has become for policy makers and the public almost a social necessity. Culture has become the primary medium through which we define people and understand differences between groups, the key gauge by which individuals locate themselves in the world.

A cultural view of the world has become so embedded in the way we think about ourselves and our relationships that it is easy to forget how new such a view is. The anthropologist Margaret Mead observed in her memoirs that in the 1930s the notion of cultural diversity was to be found only in the ‘vocabulary of a small and technical group of professional anthropologists’.

Three-quarters of a century on, what has changed is not just that culture has become indispensable to the vocabulary of just about everyone. What has also changed  is the manner in which  we conceive of it. At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two broad ways of thinking about culture. One is to view culture in the singular, the other approach is to view cultures in the plural. At the risk of even greater over-simplification, one can call them the Enlightenment and the Romantic visions of culture.The story is much more complicated than such a binary distinction suggests. But for the purposes of this discussion it is a useful frame within which to look at issue.

Enlightenment philosophes talked of civilization rather than culture and through that notion they expressed three key ideas.   First, they saw culture or civilization as a single phenomenon, an expression of human universality, rather than of human differences. Second, they understood it as transformative, as an expression of human agency. And third, it expressed their belief in progress – technological, moral and social.

The Romantic view of culture developed through the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries directly in response to such Enlightenment beliefs. Romantics saw not a single civilization, but a plurality of cultures, each rooted in a particular people’s history and myth. Culture, therefore, was an expression of differences, not of universals; and of a putative past, rather than of a potential future.

The philosopher who perhaps best articulated the Romantic notion of culture was Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder rejected theEnlightenment idea that reality was ordered in terms of universal, timeless, objective, unalterable laws that rational investigation could discover. He maintained, rather, that every activity, situation, historical period or civilization possessed a unique character of its own. What made each people or nation – or volk – unique was its Kultur: its particular language, literature, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. Every culture was authentic in its own terms, each adapted to its local environment.

Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich

In reality we always need to view culture from both perspectives.  Culture expresses a universal human ability, but is always expressed within a particular form.

Increasingly, however, both professional anthropologists and society at large have come to view culture through the prism of the particular. The anthropological idea of culture, developed in the late nineteenth century, primarily by the German-American scholar Franz Boas, and largely in response to racial anthropology, drew heavily on the Romantic view of culture in the plural. So, today, does the popular view of culture, and the ideas that guide politicians and policymakers.

We can see this clearest when we look at the idea of ‘multiculturalism’. It has become common to describe any European society made diverse by immigration as ‘multicultural’. But the idea of ‘multiculturalism’ conflates two notions that are crucial to keep separate: on the one hand, the lived experience of diversity; and, on the other, a set of political policies, the aim of which is to manage that diversity.

The term ‘multiculturalism’ embodies, in other words, both a description of a diverse society and a prescription for dealing with that diversity. In conflating these two notion, diversity is turned into a problem that must be solved, multicultural policies into the solution to that problem.

In reality diversity has been turned into a problem by the very policies designed to manage it. Policy makers have sought to manage diversity through the public recognition of cultural differences and by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy.

The irony is that multiculturalism as a set of political policies undermines much of what is valuable about diversity as lived experience. When we talk about diversity, what we mean is that the world is a messy place, full of clashes and conflicts. That is all for the good, for such clashes and conflicts are the stuff of political and cultural engagement.

Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgments upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create a more universal language of citizenship.

But in placing minorities into ethnic and cultural boxes, what multicultural policies do is make more difficult such dialogue and debate. The very thing that is valuable about diversity – the contestations that it brings about – is what many politicians and policymakers most fear.

Another of the ironies of multicultural policies, is that while such policies are rooted in the notion of a diverse society, they are at the same time often blind to the diversity of minority communities. On the multicultural map, diversity magically ends at the edges of minority communities.

Multiculturalists tend to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogenous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. In so doing, they all too often ignore conflicts within those communities. All the dissent and diversity gets washed out. As a result the most progressive voices often gets silenced as not being truly of that community or truly authentic, while the most conservative voices get celebrated as community leaders, the authentic voices of minority groups.

One of the reasons for the blindness of many multiculturalists to diversity within minority communities is the narrow vision of what ‘diversity’ comprises, to which I referred earlier. Because our vision of diversity is confined to differences of ethnicity or culture, so it is easier to ignore other forms of differences within minority ethnic or cultural groups, and to think of such groups as homogenous simply because they are ethnic or cultural groups.

Equally important is that policymakers have bought into a Romantic, Herderian view of culture. ‘Let us follow our own path’, Herder wrote. ‘Let men speak of our nation, our literature, our language.’

Multiculturalists today would speak of ‘community’ rather than nation, but the sentiment is the same. Britain, concluded the Parekh report, the report chaired by the political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh and highly influential in shaping British public policy, is a ‘community of communities’.

roger rapp mostly nothing

To see where such a perpective can take us, consider the work of the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka, perhaps the most important and cogent philosopher of multiculturalism today, a highly subtle thinker, and an unswerving liberal. In his book Multicultural Citizenship, Kymlicka makes a case for the right of cultures to protect their unique characters from changes wrought from the outside. ‘It is right and proper’, he argues, ‘that the character of a culture changes as a result of the choices of its  members.’  But ‘while it is one thing to learn from the larger world’, he insists, it is quite another ‘to be swamped by it’.

That is a telling phrase. For the fear of being ‘swamped’ has long been a rightwing trope, used to whip up fears about immigration and about the Other. Margaret Thatcher talked in the 1978 of Britain being ‘swamped’ by alien cultures. Many Front National politicians in France have done so too. ‘Will the earth be reduced to something homogenous because of the deculturalizing and depersonalizing trends for which American imperialism is now the most arrogant rector?’, asked the philosopher Alain de Benoist, one of the founders of the Nouvelle Droite in France, appropriating the rhetoric of many contemporary radicals. ‘Or will people find the means for the necessary resistance in their beliefs, traditions, and ways of seeing the world?’ And much of the current hostility to migrants coming to Europe is shaped by a fear of being swamped by those of an alien culture.

If the Romantic vision of culture buttresses the arguments of both multiculturalists and of nationalists, it also shapes much of the discussion on heritage. The UN, for instance, has long advocated that indigenous communities should ‘retain permanent control over all elements of its own heritage’, heritage being defined as ‘all of those things which international law regards as the creative production of human thought and craftsmanship, such as songs, stories, scientific knowledge and artworks’.

The 2003 Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage broadened this approach to envision the creation of state folklore protection boards that would ‘register works and authorise their use’ and could intervene if native art was used in ‘culturally inappropriate contexts’. Unesco is particularly worried by ‘the inability of states, in a globalized world, to control the cross-border flow of ideas, images and resources that affect cultural development.’

The World Intellectual Property Organization is developing a protocol for groups, particularly indigenous groups, to own property rights to traditional knowledge and cultural expressions, if that knowledge or those expressions ‘have some linkage with a community’s cultural and social identity and cultural heritage’ and are ‘authentically’ of that community. The aim is to prevent, without the ‘free, prior and informed consent’ of the ‘relevant community’, the ‘misappropriation’ of such heritage,

Expressed in all these reports, conventions and protocols is the classic Romantic view of culture and knowledge. The notions of a ‘relevant community’, of ‘authentic’ belonging, and of ‘culturally inappropriate contexts’ are both illusory and dangerous.

A ‘relevant community’ can be constituted only through a circular argument. Some Muslims regard the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as blasphemous, and hence to be forbidden. To depict the Prophet should, in their eyes, be seen as ‘culturally inappropriate’. Other Muslims see no problem in such depictions (there is, in fact, a long Muslim tradition of creating images of Muhammad). But only the former are seen as ‘authentic’ Muslims, while the latter are seen as too liberal or ‘Westernized’ to belong to the ‘relevant community’. This is Herder’s vision of the volksgeist remade into the language of the 21st century.

The Danish MP Naser Khader tells of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, the liberal Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Muhammed cartoons. Seidenfaden claimed that ‘the cartoons insulted all Muslims’. Khader responded that ‘I am not insulted’. ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’, was Seidenfaden’s response.

‘You’re not a real Muslim.’ Why? Because to be proper Muslim is, from such a perspective, to be reactionary, to find the Danish cartoons offensive. Anyone who isn’t reactionary or offended is by definition not a proper Muslim. Here liberal multiculturalism meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. From at the heart of the bigoted is also the idea of Muslims as authentically reactionary.

Culture is our entry ticket into the world, a means of opening it up, of allowing us to engage with it and expand our horizons.  But too much policymaking, both at national and international level, turns culture into barrier, a means of protecting people from the world. The consequence has to create cultural enclaves and intellectual Bantustans.

This is true even when policy makers try to forge a common perspective. In most European nations, in response to the diversity created by immigration, and to the growing sense of social fragmentation, there has been a desire to define a national identity and the common core of the nation. Immigrants, from this perspective, must be taught British values, or French values or Swedish values. The government must craft a statement that sets out, in the words of one recent British policy document, ‘the ideals and principles that bind us together as a nation’.

What most politicians and policy makers ignore, however, is the complexity, elasticity and sheer contrariness of identity. Whether personal or national, identities can never be singular or fixed because they are rooted largely in people’s relationships with each other – not merely personal but social relationships too – and such relationships are always mutating.

gauguin where do we come from

Identity does not come all neatly tied up in a bundle. My sense of attachment and of belonging, whether personal or national, is shaped by the context. Who am I? Well, that depends partly upon who wants to know. ‘Who am I to my daughter?’ requires a very different answer to ‘Who am I to a group of Swedish policy makers?’ There is only one ‘me’. But that one me expresses itself through myriad identities.

Similarly with national identity, too. I am British. But I am not British in very context, nor in an uncontested way. I only have to visit a London street market to be reminded how open Britain is to foods and goods and influences from all over the world; I only have to stand in line in passport control at Heathrow airport to remember how deep the suspicion of foreigners runs.

There are many aspects of British life that I admire. There are many that I despise. There are many British traditions that resonate with me. There are many I find abhorrent. There are many moments of British history that bring a lump to my throat. There are many that make me shudder.  Many non-British traditions, too, have helped shape my views, values and ideals. To erase this complexity with the myths of community or nation is to diminish the very meaning of ‘belonging’.

Heritage policy should not be about creating the myths by which we live. That is not to suggest that myths may not be important to our lives; just that it should not be the job of heritage professionals, or of the state, to fashion them. Heritage professionals should be neither gatekeepers nor symbol formers. Rather, they should see themselves as providing the tools through which people are able to define themselves. Their job, it seems to me, is to create the space for social conversation and, indeed, for conflict and contestation.

One of the consequences of the peculiar view of diversity we possess today is the fear we have of disagreement and conflict. But conflict is a necessary part of social life. Values, ideas, identities are always contested.

The problem today is not the existence of social conflict, but the means through which it is expressed. Because so much public policy has sought to protect people from the world by creating cultural enclaves and intellectual Bantustans, so conflicts have become more intractable and less negotiable. We sit in our silos and shout at each other.

That is why we need to reject both nationalist and multicultural approaches to heritage. Nations, and communities, comprise many traditions, many values, many visions of the future. Far from fearing this, we should encourage the clashes between these traditions, values and visions.

magritte the cultivation of ideas

In many ways we are each of us like the Cordoba Cathedral-Mosque and Istanbul’s Aya Sofya. We are each of us complex constructions, each with many identities, influences, and sources of heritage. But the way in which we are often regarded by policy makers – and, indeed, the way we often regard ourselves – is like the way the Catholic Church view the Cathedral-Mosque or the Turkish authorities view Aya Sofya – as singular, with all the complexity washed out, and as symbolic of a myth we want to present about our roots.

Unlike the two buildings, however, human beings have agency. We are not simply constructed, but construct ourselves. Our sense of who we are, where we come from, where we belong, what our values are. And we construct ourselves through debate dialogue, contestation.

What heritage policy-making should be about is not having that debate for us, or defining how we should think about these issues, but about using the past to provide the tools and the space that allow us to have that debate in the present.


The images are, from top down, Salvador Dalí, ‘The Persistence of Memory’; David Hockney, ‘Andalucia, Mosques, Cardova’; Roger Hayward, ‘Watercolor painting of the Hagia Sophia’; ‘The Ghetto of Jewish History’ by Samuel Bak; an installation from Chiharu Shiota‘s ‘Labyrinth of Memory’ series; Robert Matta, ‘Être Avec’; Caspar David Friedrich, ‘The Monk by the Sea’; Robert Rapp, ‘Mostly Nothing’: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ by Paul Gaugin; and ‘The Cultivation of Ideas’ by René Magritte.


  1. Excellent reflections for this moment in time. I loved the two examples that inaugurate the talk: the Mosque of Cordoba (la mezquita de Córdoba, I still call it) and Haya Sofia in Istanbul, both paradigmatic examples of cultural diversity. And I take your point on the use of the term “culture.”

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