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Speaker Events - Monday, March 19, 2012

Where Diversity Means Peace, Not Conflict

As longtime historians and journalists, Shareen Blair Brysac and Karl E. Meyer have documented ethnic cleansing and ancient hatreds. “We’ve had a depressing life,” joked Ms. Brysac at a Beyond the Headlines event at IPI on March 19th.

The two decided their next book would be more upbeat. “We thought there must be some places we don’t hear about where large groups of Muslims, Christians, Jews, all live in peace and ethnic harmony.”

The result was Pax Ethnica, a book that explores the Indian state of Kerala, the Russian republic of Tatarstan, the city of Marseille in France, the city of Flensburg, Germany, and the borough of Queens, New York.

Mr. Meyer thought these “oases of civility” were particularly notable in the context of a current backlash against multiculturalism, citing leaders who have spoken out against it, including France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has called it “an utter failure.” He said that though it’s Muslims that provoke this ire, they represent only a small percentage of the European population, and that most aspire to “a normal life.”

Mr. Meyer discussed Flensburg, Germany as an example of multicultural success. Once the home of an ethnic dispute that embroiled royal families and culminated over a century, the Schleswig-Holstein Question was finally settled. “In short, the Danes swapped land for peace,” he said. “The proof it worked is that very few have heard of Flensburg,” he said, saying this is evidence that multiple loyalties and identities can be reconciled. “The agreement provided a precedent for similar arrangements,” he added.

Much of the night’s discussion turned to Queens, NY, a borough just over the river from IPI where 2.3 million speak 138 languages, and where leaders have embraced this diversity, turning it into a civic asset. “School and community boards provided a foothold to the uprooted,” Mr. Meyer said of immigrant assimilation, and he lauded the Queens borough president, Helen Marshall, for fostering peace by convening an annual General Assembly of all the ethnic communities and issuing a calendar of all principal religious and political days so all can join the festivities.

“We found reassuring evidence that ethnic diversity works on many levels – economic, educational, political, and cultural,” Mr. Meyer said.

The authors have come up with eleven guidelines in promoting civility in diverse societies, which include suggestions such as empowering women, addressing stereotypical characterizations, and using associations, libraries, and cultural expressions as places for different communities to come together.

Addressing the question of why binary ethnic conflicts fester longer than multiethnic tensions, Ms. Brysac said that multiethnic tensions force communities to have to work together for a common aim. She used 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens as an example.

“Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis—these are communities who don’t necessarily get along with each other on the subcontinent, but once they get to Queens, they have had to make peace with one another so they can be represented in community boards and things like that. They have similar wants and desires, and they had to come together to express those.”

Mr. Meyer said that with the book, they were not trying to romanticize these places, acknowledging that they are not perfect. “There are always skeptics who say, ‘It isn’t as great as you think it is, we have this problem, that problem.’ But predominantly, there’s a sense of security,” he said.

The discussion was moderated by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations.

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