Sunday, 9 June 2013

A Brief Argument for Interculturalism in New Zealand

 New Zealand considers itself a bicultural society. It regards its own identity as a combination of two cultures: Maori and colonial English. This is affirmed in everything from myths about our country's formation to our use of Maori language and symbolism in official ceremonies (Kolig, 2004). Te Reo is one of the three official languages of New Zealand and all of our public services are officially bilingual, though for the most part they are known by their English names.
However a policy of encouraging biculturalism (and defining New Zealand identity as bicultural) means excluding all those who do not belong to one or both of the cultures. For those who are not members of the majority culture or the indigenous minority – immigrants, typically in New Zealand from the Asia-Pacific or Latin America – they have no means of identifying with the identity of a nation which explicitly excludes them. More than that, any attempt to continue the practices of their own culture and religion (practices which are outside those of the majority or the indigenous minority) serve to further distance them from the bicultural community and can lead to tension and even prejudice against minorities with visibly different religious practice to the bicultural mainstream (de Bres, 2007).
If we are to embrace cultural and religious diversity in New Zealand we must abandon a strict policy of biculturalism and adopt another model of identity that both recognises the indigenous identity of New Zealand (Maori people and culture) and includes minorities who have religious and cultural practices outside of the majority.
One such model we could look at would be an adaption of Quebecois interculturalism. This model is based on
  1. the primacy of the French language,
  2. equality of gender, and
  3. strict lacite secularism.
While using common language (and one that has a strong tie to the cultural history of the region) allows all members of Quebecois society to form a common identity and certain basic liberal rights are guaranteed by gender equality, individuals who have religious or cultural practices outside of those of the majority are free to continue these practices (within the confines of the law). An immigrant from a country that has highly different practices to that of Quebec, whether religious or cultural, can continue those practices without feeling excluded from the shared identity of Quebecois, based as it is on common language and values rather than religious or cultural practice.
If we were to adapt these three components of Quebecois interculturalism to New Zealand we could formulate them as
  1. the primacy of Maori culture and spirituality as a form of civil religion (see Kolig, 2004),
  2. equality of all citizens (including gender, sexual, religious, ethnic and cultural equality), and
  3. strict disengagement from religious or cultural bias
This would allow the formation of a New Zealand identity that recognises the importance of Maori culture and spirituality while still allowing participation from all members of society, regardless of background. Point (3) as in Quebec ensures that New Zealand identity is in no way based on religious or cultural practice, allowing for religious diversity within New Zealand, while point (2) ensures that all citizens are free from discrimination and maintains that any religious or cultural practice may be acceptable so long as it remains within the boundaries of the law.
The ability of all New Zealanders to participate in Maori culture as civil religion is evidenced by our current usage, often by non-Maori politicians, of Maori language in public ceremonies. We can also use Maori culture as a creation myth of New Zealand, particularly the story of Maui raising New Zealand out of the depths with his grandmother's jawbone. This story gives us a compelling narrative of Maori arriving in New Zealand in boats, much as many immigrants do today. This is reflected in the traditional practice of greeting with Mihi, in which one of the first lines is usually “ko... te waka.” This means of introduction, originating in the indigenous culture of New Zealand but making explicit reference to the fact that all New Zealanders at some point in their history had to arrive here in their own waka, could be hugely valuable to a recent immigrant seeking to identify with New Zealand culture without compromising their own religious or cultural practices, as they would have to do when identification is based on homogenity and interaction between two dominant cultures (as in a bicultural system).

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