British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Chancellery in Berlin / The Prime Ministers Office / Flickr(cc)
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.
MIT Press / Cloth / $14.95 / April 2012
In the United States and in Europe, politicians, activists, and even some scholars argue that Islam is incompatible with Western values. In Blaming Islam, John Bowen uncovers the myths about Islam and Muslim integration, with a focus on the histories, policy, and rhetoric associated with Muslim immigration in Europe, the British experiment with sharia law for Muslim domestic disputes, and the claims of European and American writers that Islam threatens the West.