Guyana, a diverse nation

Diversity at its most obvious level concerns differences. While we may all be humans, we would be hard put to deny that we are further characterised by a surfeit of differences. Even if we were to restrict our survey to “culture”, which supposedly distinguishes us from other animals, there are so many religions, languages, traditions, values, morals, customs, etc. While equipping us with attributes that connect us with some people, at the same time, they make us different from others.
Diversity, then, is an ineradicable fact of life. It is rather anomalous, however, that recently, with the increased immigration of Muslims into a generally Christian Europe, there has been a backlash against diversity, after a period when the West as a whole had seemed to embrace diversity. The ascendancy of Donald Trump in the US presidential race demonstrates that the movement against diversity is rising there as well – and against Muslims in particular.
Interestingly, the definitive text of Islam, the Quran, offers a salutary perspective on the question of differences: “We have made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other.” Differences, therefore, were inscribed in the human condition by the Creator to facilitate recognition. If we were identical in every way, how would we distinguish between each other?
Today, Islam is bearing the brunt for being “exclusionary and assimilationist”. One has to wonder, in light of the above explicit exhortation, whether this may not be a reaction to the pressures of the exclusionist and assimilationist imperatives of the West following the Muslim Ottoman Empire’s defeat in, and subsequent colonisation after, WWI.
During its four hundred years of rule, the Ottoman Empire area was an ocean of stability. Unlike their practice of allowing all groups to observe their own cultures and personal law, the European successors insisted that all groups had to assimilate into the majority (read “victorious”) culture. Uniformity, not diversity, became the standard. The epitome of this perspective became the motto of the US, the successor and inheritor of the European vision: E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one.
Interestingly, the West backed off their rejection of diversity and promotion of assimilation from the 1960s, as they became aware of the dark and violent downside of such policies. Multiculturalism became their watchword, and much goodwill was recovered – which, as was stated earlier, the new Islamic dispensations rejected as a subversive tactic.
Very sadly, however, there has been a reversal of the multicultural approach in Europe and the US, making them more like the post-Ottoman Islamic states. In both civilisations, there is a growing xenophobia against “others” who come from different cultures.
In Europe, because many – if not most – of the immigrants are Muslims, the backlash has taken an overtly anti-Islamic flavour. That this rejection of multiculturalism comes close on the heels of several wars waged in several Islamic countries by Western powers raises the suspicion that there is more in the mortar than the pestle can pound.
In Guyana, our diversity is legion, as, apart from the Indigenous peoples, we are a nation of “immigrants”, whether brought here voluntarily or otherwise. There was a time when, under colonial domination, we, too, insisted on total assimilation; but after independence, good sense came. We now actually celebrate our diversity, hence our public holidays’ calendar is dotted with commemorations of events from our various cultures.
Our school curriculum also assists in teaching acceptance of diversity by exposing us to the significance of the various beliefs and practices. Fear is always fear of the unknown, and is banished by knowledge. We have to be careful that our proclivity to slavishly adopt Western trends does not precipitate any local anxiety about our Muslim brothers and sisters, and vice versa.
In our hundreds of years of coexistence, Islam has not simply added to our diversity; it has enriched our common humanity, not to mention our Guyanese identity.