By Umamah Basit, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
In the context of Europe, it is clear that the debate over multiculturalism largely refers to Islam in the West. Growing anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments have been fuelled by the belief that Muslims are not “willing” enough to integrate themselves in society. Two years ago, key European leaders including Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy condemned multiculturalism as having “utterly failed”. While David Cameron warned that it has “fostered terrorism”, Nicolas Sarkozy declared that multiculturalism in France had “detracted citizens from their commitment to a collective French identity”. Although it can be argued that there is a “clash of cultures”, in the sense that some Islamic traditions are incompatible with Western democratic and secular values, it is also true that multiculturalism has been practiced for decades and continues to form the basis of European social policy. The problem, however, is that multiculturalism has come to mean different things in different places. Many governments are still unsure of what direction they are moving in as well as what they can realistically achieve in a liberal democracy.
Multiculturalism, as a normative term, describes government policies which aim to promote and sustain the coexistence of multiple cultures in society. The multicultural theory is based on the understanding that minorities have the freedom to retain their core cultural identity while acknowledging the political and cultural norms of their adopted country. Britain is one of the few countries which has fully embraced the notion of multiculturalism. However, over the years, and particularly since the July 2005 bombings in London, there has been a realization that multicultural policies have not produced the desired results. As opposed to promoting integration, this approach has resulted in highly segregated communities. Ethnic community schools and centers in Muslim-dominated neighborhoods provide little incentive for minorities to fully become part of British society. To tackle this problem of “parallel societies”, the British government has slowly started to alter its approach through advancing a model of interculturalism. Intercultural initiatives encourage greater interaction between communities in order to create a better understanding of each other’s cultures, but also to get everyone to focus on the “commonalities” as opposed to the “differences”. Since multicultural policies have dominated British tradition for years, it will certainly take some time to transform the dynamics of social interaction in the country.
The situation in Germany is more complex to understand. Some experts argue that multiculturalism never existed here, therefore to say that multiculturalism has “failed” contradicts what the country has been practicing in reality. For instance, here in Germany, immigrants have been viewed as “guest workers” for years. Although various integration policies have been adopted to deal with the country’s expanding immigrant population, there has been a conscious effort not to label these “multiculturalism” policies. The government has frequently maintained that integration is not only about “promoting” but also “demanding”. On the one side, the host society is expected to promote the values of acceptance, tolerance and equality; on the other side, however, migrants need to demonstrate a sense of belonging and willingness to become part of German society, for example by learning the German language and recognizing German traditions and culture. Unlike in the UK, the German government does not fund ethnic group organizations or activities nor has multiculturalism been incorporated in the school curriculum. Moreover, there are no positive action policies for disadvantaged minority groups. Even though there is a large Turkish community in Germany, the government has not taken a very sensitive approach to issues of culture, religion and identity. The recent decision of the Cologne court to outlaw male circumcision is one example to demonstrate Germany’s reluctance to compromise its fundamental values and human rights concepts.
Turning to France, despite being a culturally diverse nation, the government has refrained from pursuing a “multicultural” agenda. The French approach in fact is very similar to the American melting pot theory which requires different elements of society to become a harmonious whole and assimilate into the common national culture. The ban on full-face veils in public space to counter religious extremism shows that the government has compromised the right to freedom of religion to give greater value to “French identity”. In other countries such as the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark, where nationalist and right-wing parties have gained popularity in recent elections, there has been increasing emphasis on protecting the national culture from the fear of growing “Islamization”. Academics argue that taking up such an approach might have detrimental effects as it will lead to more immigrants adopting extremist ideologies. Therefore, and as Jocelyne Cesari, research fellow at Harvard University, argues, it is “imperative for policymakers to change the dominant narrative of French national identity by including Islamic culture and history.” This is not to say that the French culture needs to be replaced by an Islamic one, however societies need to be more sensitive to traditions that constitute an individual’s cultural and religious identity.
Given that almost 5% of the European population is Muslim (expected to be 7% by 2030), the need to accept cultural and religious differences cannot be undermined. Rajeev Bhargava, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, states, “Cultural and religious diversity is what precisely characterizes Europe now”, thus parties need to “see religious pluralism as an integral part of their ideology”. We must not overlook the fact that Europe is very different to America. The majority of the American population is constituted of immigrants who moved to the country in the 1920s and 1930s and naturally became part of the system. The assimilation model of integration cannot be practiced in Europe as such, especially in those countries with there are many ethnic groups and divisions. It simply wouldn’t work.
When creating intercultural/multicultural initiatives, governments need to engage in a careful balancing act. Governments need to make sure that they are not asking too much from the immigrants, and they must not intrude on the right to self-determination of religious communities. At the same time, immigrants who move to the country need to accept or at least acknowledge the traditions and practices of the host society. Civic commitment and participation is vital. As one German MP put it, “Islamic values and beliefs don’t pose an obstacle to integration. Totalitarianism however does.” If governments continue to be insensitive to strong religious and cultural traditions, they will only isolate minority groups further. In some ways, it can also be argued that the “Islamization of Europe” is an over exaggerated fear as religious extremists behind attacks are not representative of the population as a whole. Many second and third generations of immigrants are fully integrated into society and naturally see themselves as “European” (Pew Study 2011). At the end of the day, democratic values appeal to everyone, including minorities, so there is no real conflict between retaining one’s cultural and religious identity and becoming a part of mainstream society. Integration does not require assimilation; rather, it is about equal opportunity, mutual tolerance and constant interaction among distinct social identities and cultures. Multiculturalism, at the policy level, is still relevant, and more liberal forms of civic integration need to be combined with it to create greater social cohesion and harmony.
Moosavi, Leon. “Muslims are well-integrated into Britain- but no one seems to believe it”, Accessed December 3, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/jul/03/muslims-integrated-britain
Solvay, David. “The Problem with Multiculturalism”, November 21, 2012, Accessed December 3, 2012. http://frontpagemag.com/2012/david-solway/the-problem-with-multiculturalism/
Muslims in Europe: Promoting Integration and Countering Terrorism, Congressional Research Service, September 7, 2011. Accessed December 3, 2012.