Tuesday 19. October 2021
#137 - April 2011


The political critique of ‘multiculturalism’


‘Multiculturalism’ is a vague term and an easy target - but what is being commended as the remedy?


The increasing cultural and ethnic diversity of European countries has sometimes provoked bitter reactions, embodied in the rise of extremist parties in countries, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, previously regarded as bastions of liberalism. It has also led leading politicians such as Angela Merkel and David Cameron to criticise what they each call ‘multiculturalism’. That concept, and the political responses to it, deserve reflection.


The Critique


Neither leader is attacking either immigration or Islam as such. In October, 2010 Chancellor Merkel was concerned to repudiate the attack - on Turkish and Arab immigrants and on Muslims as such - voiced by the prominent politician and banker Thilo Sarrazin (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-08-31/weber-to-debate-next-sarrazin-move-as-merkel-slams-unacceptable-remarks.html). In doing so, she declared that ‘attempts to build a multicultural society’ have utterly failed’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11559451).


As she explains: Germany had welcomed guest-workers at a time of full employment and economic growth, not expecting them to stay. People began to imagine an implausible situation in which people of different cultures would live happily but ‘side by side’. (The spacial image suggests her concept of multiculturalism: self-contained groups existing together but with minimal interaction.).


Immigrants, she insists, are welcome in Germany. But they ‘need to do more, for example to learn German’. This common sense advice seems too banal to support her argument. As temporary guest workers become ‘immigrants’, their children will usually learn German. What seems absent is any sense that the host culture equally preferred the ‘side by side’ model, avoiding engagement. To propose adaptation in one direction only is to counter ‘multiculturalism’ with ‘monoculturalism’.


It must be added that a speech by the President of the German Republic, also made in October 2010, was far more open than Mrs Merkel: ‘Valuing diversity and closing divides in our society - that's what safeguards us from illusion and promotes true cohesion’ (http://www.bundespraesident.de/en/-,5.669130/Speech-by-Christian-Wulff_-Pre.htm). ‘Cohesion’, President Wulff recognises, demands a commitment on all sides.


Mr Cameron’s speech (http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/speeches-and-transcripts/2011/02/pms-speech-at-munich-security-conference-60293) was made in February 2011, significantly in the context of a security conference. His primary target was terrorism in what he takes to be its dominant form, extremist Islamism (as opposed to Islam, ‘the religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people’). ‘The ideology of extremism is the problem; Islam emphatically is not’.


A range of factors may provoke extremism, he accepts, but the primary cause is alienation, ‘a question of identity’. Young extremist Muslims reject the ‘staid’ Islam of their parents, but also find it hard to identify with Britain. Then comes the central claim: ‘Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.’


As remedy, Mr Cameron commends ‘a much more active, muscular liberalism’, of which the determining values are ‘freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality’.  ‘This is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things’.


Mrs Merkel criticises a popular illusion (‘We kidded ourselves’), Mr Cameron what he strangely calls a ‘state doctrine’. Although both blame, at least rhetorically, the host culture (for naiveté in one case and merely passive tolerance in the other) Mrs Merkel’s true target is those who will not assimilate to the host culture, whereas Mr Cameron’s is the cultural enclave of ‘extremism’.


Reflections on the critique


If Mrs Merkel’s position is inherently conservative, Mr Cameron’s - though he claims to be opposing ‘muddled thinking’ - is confused. He characterises ‘our society’ by its professed values, but extremist Islamism by its most destructive practices.


A ‘value’ is not some ‘thing’ lying around that anyone could pick up. It is simply ‘that which is valued’. Is it true, an observer might ask, that ‘British values’ are most accurately described in terms of their noblest declared ideals, or that the sum of such ideals comprises ‘British culture’? Of course it is not false that most Britons value democracy, the rule of law, etc. But neither daily life in Britain nor its government’s common practice is constituted, or even dominated, by these values: they blend with a quite different set of aspirations typical of political and economic modernity: such as national sovereignty, individual freedom, economic growth, competitive success in trade. In tough cases (circumstances which best disclose underlying priorities) pragmatism tends to override idealism. One example will suffice, among many possible ones. In 2006, a UK government office’s investigation (into an alleged bribe of $60 million connected with one of Britain’s largest-ever arms contracts, $43bn, with Saudi Arabia) was halted because ‘the national interest’ was involved.


More generally, the values named by Mr Cameron are broadly shared across the EU - but practical UK politics is nevertheless by resistance to any closer union within the EU.


Over a long history, most Christians, including the more devout, have learned to operate within this civilisational system of modernity, while striving to preserve some degree of spiritual freedom towards it. If ‘radical Islam’ has become a political problem, it is because it rejects not Mr Cameron’s ‘values’ as such, but the cultural matrix in which they are set and (almost inevitably) deeply compromised.


A historian might add a second observation. For centuries, European powers imposed their rule and their cultural ideals as normative (for example through structures of empire). Perhaps Europe is now suffering a mild panic attack that it, too, is not immune from being culturally colonised. Dominant cultures tend to guard jealously their self-ascribed supremacy. However, no transcendent vision or values can be located within a single culture: as Christians may put it, the Gospel needs to be inculturated within all cultures, just as it contains elements that are ‘counter-cultural’ everywhere.


‘Multiculturalism’ as described by Mrs Merkel and Mr Cameron is indeed futile, since by definition it rules out serious mutual engagement and learning. But the authentic alternative cannot be one of rejecting the incomer, like a body rejecting an alien, transplanted heart. The notion of interculturalism seems more fruitful, presuming the mutuality that ‘multiculturalism’ denies.


In any case, it is people - not ‘cultures’ - who meet, interact and learn from each other: each person, each national or ethnic group, is inhabited by a complex structure of cultural practices and of moral and spiritual ideals. Both the practices and the ideals are always under pressure from individual and group egoism, as well as from the globalising economic and political forces that threaten all local identities. Ultimately, every person and every collectivity simultaneously embodies both identity and relationship: to assert either whilst implicitly rejecting the other is incoherent.

Frank Turner SJ


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