Europeans against multiculturalism

At Boston Review, John R. Bowen writes:

One of the many signs of the rightward creep of Western European politics is the recent unison of voices denouncing multiculturalism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel led off last October by claiming that multiculturalism “has failed and failed utterly.” She was echoed in February by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron. All three were late to the game, though: for years, the Dutch far right has been bashing supposedly multicultural policies.

Despite the shared rhetoric, it is difficult to discern a common target for these criticisms. Cameron aimed at an overly tolerant attitude toward extremist Islam, Merkel at the slow pace of Turkish integration, and Sarkozy at Muslims who pray in the street.

But while it is hard to know what exactly the politicians of Europe mean when they talk about multiculturalism, one thing we do know is that the issues they raise—real or imagined—have complex historical roots that have little to do with ideologies of cultural difference. Blaming multiculturalism may be politically useful because of its populist appeal, but it is also politically dangerous because it attacks “an enemy within”: Islam and Muslims. Moreover, it misreads history. An intellectual corrective may help to diminish its malign impact.

Political criticisms of multiculturalism confuse three objects. One is the changing cultural and religious landscape of Europe. Postwar France and Britain encouraged immigration of willing workers from former colonies; Germany drew on its longstanding ties with Turkey for the same purpose; somewhat later, new African and Asian immigrants, many of them Muslims, traveled throughout Western Europe to seek jobs or political refuge. As a result, one sees mosques where there once were only churches and hears Arabic and Turkish where once there were only dialects of German, Dutch, or Italian. The first object then is the social fact of cultural and religious diversity, of multicultural and multi-religious everyday life: the emergence in Western Europe of the kind of social diversity that has long been a matter of pride in the United States.

The second object—suggested by Cameron’s phrase “state multiculturalism”—concerns the policies each of these countries have used to handle new residents. By the 1970s, Western European governments realized that the new workers and their families were there to stay, so the host countries tried out a number of strategies to integrate the immigrants into the host society. Policymakers all realized that they would need to find what later came to be called “reasonable accommodations” with the needs of the new communities: for mosques and schools, job training, instruction in the host-country language. These were pragmatic efforts; they did not aim at assimilation, nor did they aim to preserve spatial or cultural separation. Some of these policies eventually were termed “multicultural” because they involved recognizing ethnic community structures or allowing the use of Arabic or Turkish in schools. But these measures were all designed to encourage integration: to bring new groups in while acknowledging the obvious facts of linguistic, social, cultural, and religious difference.

The third object that multiculturalism’s critics confuse is a set of normative theories of multiculturalism, each of which attempts to mark out a way to take account of cultural and religious diversity from a particular philosophical point of view. Although ideas of multiculturalism do shape public debates in Britain (as they do in North America), they do so much less in continental Europe, and even in Britain it would be difficult to find direct policy effects of these normative theories.

Politicians err when they claim that normative ideas of multiculturalism shape the social fact of cultural and religious diversity: such diversity would be present with or without a theory to cope with it. Nor are state policies shaped by those ideas, which tend to be recent in origin. Quite to the contrary, each European country has followed well-traveled pathways for dealing with diversity. Methods designed to accommodate sub-national religious blocs are now being adapted and applied to Muslim immigrants. Far from newfangled, misguided policies of multiculturalism, these distinct strategies represent the continuation of long-standing, nation-specific ways of recognizing and managing diversity.

Facebooktwittermail