Debating Multiculturalism 1: Konya Academic Workshop with the Dialogue Society

It was when they married me off to a woman younger than my daughter that I began to wonder if this wasn’t taking multiculturalism too far. Very few Muslims have more than one wife, and it had taken my own wife more than thirty years to agree to marry me, so she wasn’t going to be too pleased, and anyway, I’m not a Muslim.

So there I was, at the wonderful Sun Gurbey Primary School in Nigde, after a fabulous trip to Cappadocia, waiting for a Turkish wedding ceremony to be enacted before us. Then the Turkish school-teachers copped out. The call went out to the visiting academics from Britain – “Who would like to get married instead?” When Elise jumped up I knew I had to sit tight. I had already disgraced myself at the pottery workshop where she had created a wonderful object as if by magic. To no avail. My fellow academics suddenly lost their customary scholarly reserve and propelled me onto the chair beside her.

Apart from wearing strange lace gloves, and being over in an instant, the ceremony was fine. It was the dancing afterwards that capped my embarrassment. Not only was divorce impending, the gales of laughter at my ineptitude remain with me to this day.

This is what you have to be ready for if you work with the Dialogue Society. One minute you are in the heart of Anatolian Islam, acquiring new knowledge, getting the feel of a new culture, in the company of people who take living properly, and learning thoroughly, with deep seriousness. Then you are sharing jokes, or finding yourself in very funny situations, where the joy of human-ness and the pleasure of sociability, are as central to your experience as the scholarly, the cultural and the Islamic.

Thanks to the partnership forged between my old university, Leeds Metropolitan, and the Dialogue Society, I’ve been learning about the thinking and practice of the volunteers inspired by Fethullah Gülen for about five years. I welcomed the opportunity to co-organise with the Dialogue Society this conference ‘Debating Multiculturalism’, held at Mevlana University in Konya, Turkey, in April this year. (I’m particularly grateful to Omer Sener for the incredibly diligent work he put in.)

In the last minute rush, it proved impossible to do a final edit on the papers we selected for the conference, but they are in good enough shape for you to read them here, if you wish to. To my consternation, I found that I hadn’t even done the final edit on my own paper. These glitches did not detract from the high quality of the presentations or the debate.

As always, the hospitality provided by our various Turkish hosts was exceptional. In this era of what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’ it is uplifting to be with people for whom one set of virtues remain solid: greeting the strangers, providing them with sustenance and kindness, engaging them in dialogue, making them feel at home.

Perhaps the most important lesson I took back to Leeds with me was that this process of hospitable exchange isn’t simply one that takes place between us in the north of Europe and our Turkish friends at the cross-roads of Europe, Africa and Asia.

‘Us’ from the north included people whose heritage lies in the south. They already embody the multicultural ideal, and those of us who have longer histories in the north are also committed to that ideal (though some might prefer the term ‘interculturalism’). Whatever our family histories, whatever our religious affiliations, us ‘northerners’ were obtaining both academic and experiential learning, and being positively transformed in the process. I’ve been to lots of conferences over the years, and I cannot say that about most of them.

Prof Emeritus Max Farrar

Prof Emeritus Max Farrar

Professor for community engagement at Leeds Metropolitan University

Prof Max Farrar, a cultural sociologist, is the head of community partnerships and volunteering and professor for community engagement at Leeds Metropolitan University. An adviser to several boards and organisations on the issue of race, Professor Farrar has previously lectured in sociology and written research papers on the subject.

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