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.


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Consider the case of Germany. Merkel’s claims were perhaps the least weighty, but her words point to a growing conviction among some Germans that Muslim immigrants are inassimilable. Merkel’s attack was as vague as it was opportunistic. She regretted that the German “tendency had been to say, ‘let’s adopt the multicultural concept and live happily side by side, and be happy to be living with each other’” and concluded that this attitude had not produced results, as if she had thereby identified policies that could be changed. Her real meaning was made clear by the presence of Horst Seehofer next to her on the podium. Seehofer, the Bavarian state premier and Merkel’s coalition partner, has called for curtailing immigration.

One poll showed a third of Germans believed the country was ‘overrun by foreigners.’

Merkel’s speech followed a series of anti-Muslim public statements by high-placed German officials. In June 2010 then-Bundesbank member Thilo Sarrazin published a book in which he accused Muslim immigrants of lowering the intelligence of German society. Although he was censured for his views and dismissed from his central bank position, the book proved popular, and polls suggested that Germans were sympathetic with the thrust of his arguments. One poll showed a third of Germans believed the country was “overrun by foreigners.” A few months earlier, in March, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble waded in to say that Germany had been mistaken to let in so many Turkish workers in the 1960s because they had not integrated into society.

At least the finance minister pointed to a real German policy, one that encouraged low-paid laborers to relocate to the country and rebuild it. But Merkel’s notion that the German government had promoted a multikulti society (as distinct from celebrating colorful Kreuzberg or a Turkish star on the German soccer team) ignores the brunt of German immigration policy, which, until 2000, denied citizenship to those workers, their children, and their grandchildren. In other words, the government and many, perhaps most, Germans had not hoped, as Merkel claimed, that everyone would live side by side. Rather, the hope was that “they” would just pack up and leave.

In this sense Germany has largely followed its longer-term policies for dealing with diversity: German federal and state governments have historically denied that immigration could be of value and maintained a policy of limiting citizenship only to those who could demonstrate German descent. But Germany may also follow the public-corporation model it has arranged with Christian and Jewish groups. A proposed Islamic public corporation would have the legal status to obtain government funding for mosques and would serve as a legitimate overseer of materials selected for Islamic religious education. This promising policy goal, not yet achieved, would recognize and support Islam in accordance with long-standing German principles governing religious diversity, not on grounds of multiculturalism.


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In contrast to Germany, Britain has promoted multiculturalism as an explicit policy, but not in those domains where Cameron denounced it. In his February 2011 speech, Cameron blamed multiculturalism for creating spatial divisions and fomenting terrorism. “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism,” he claimed, “we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.” Left apart, some have submitted to extremism, he argued, and some of those extremists have in turn carried bombs in the name of Islam. His solution was three-fold: ensure that any organization asking for public money subscribes to doctrines of universal rights and encourages integration, keep extremists from reaching students and prisoners, and ensure that everyone learns English.

As a diagnosis of problems of homegrown terrorism, the speech fell short. The British bombers principally responsible for the 2005 attacks in London knew English and English people well. Mohammad Sidique Khan, believed to be the leader of the bombing plot, was recalled as a “highly Westernized” man who grew up in Leeds and attended university there. Shehzad Tanweer, another of the bombers, had a similar background. According to the official report on the bombings, both men had developed jihadist convictions in Pakistan.

If these and other homegrown terrorists have problems feeling at home in Britain, it is because they do not remain in their “separate cultures” but instead become isolated individuals without a social or cultural base. In otherwise-distinct analyses of European jihadists, French political scientist Olivier Roy and American counterterrorism expert Marc Sageman each paint a picture of young men who suffer from a lack of ties with others in their communities. Roy calls them “deterritorialized”; Sageman describes a “bunch of guys” who find themselves without opportunities at home, who are considered foreigners despite being born in Europe, and who end up traveling abroad to seek out extremists. Hardly walled off in enclaves in Bradford (or Hamburg), they are free-floating, perfect speakers of English (or German) who feel themselves rejected by the people and institutions around them.

It’s not just Muslims who cut themselves off. A large percentage of British children attend schools that admit only Catholics and Anglicans.

Cameron used his speech to argue for his “Big Society”—policies of state divestment from welfare predicated on the belief that if people have to work together to survive they will gain a stronger sense of being British. But whatever the merits of this approach to British social ills, it has little to offer individuals who already consider themselves discarded by those around them.

So Cameron got it wrong when it comes to homegrown terrorism. What did he have in mind when he spoke of “state multiculturalism”? Multicultural policies in Britain today mainly concern how state schools handle their diverse clientele: teaching cultural and religious studies curricula, offering halal meals to Muslim pupils. Behind these specific policies is the notion, generally accepted in Britain, that the cultural and religious traditions of each pupil should be positively recognized. These politics find one salient expression in a commissioned white paper by the political theorist Bhikhu Parekh, whose 2000 book, Rethinking Multiculturalism, asks: in a multicultural society, how should the state balance legitimate claims to diversity with the need to “foster a strong sense of unity and common belonging among its citizens”? This is precisely Cameron’s concern, but Parekh voices it as a justification for educational multiculturalism. Parekh argues that recognizing the traditions held by religious and ethnic communities through multicultural school curricula provides a psychologically sound basis on which to construct an inclusive national identity. (His view comes close to claims made by another political theorist, Will Kymlicka, who argues that maintaining cultural heritage is of psychosocial importance in the development of a liberal citizen.)

There is controversy in Britain about schooling and the isolation of cultural minorities, but spatial segregation of immigrant communities was a product of South Asian settlement patterns in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s, not state multiculturalism. When men (and, later, families) moved from Pakistan and Bangladesh to Britain, they brought whole lineages and villages along with them, reproducing their old linguistic and religious networks in urban British neighborhoods. The result was a chasm separating Asian and white communities, and in some cities this absence of interaction and understanding spiraled into hatred and unrest. In the spring and summer of 2001, riots pitted Asians against whites in the northern cities of Oldham, Burnley, and Bradford. Today, these cities remain highly segregated. Their schools reflect, and exacerbate, the problem. Pupils remain sorted into largely white and largely Pakistani or Bangladeshi schools. As one head teacher at a 92 percent Pakistani primary school said in a report released on the tenth anniversary of the riots, “Some of our children could live their lives without meeting someone from another culture until they go to high school or even the workplace.”

The combination of religion and schooling contributes to this segregation, but not in the way that Cameron’s speech suggests: it’s not just Muslims who’ve cut themselves off from the rest of society. Across Britain a large percentage of children go to schools that only admit students who regularly attend a Catholic or an Anglican church. In sharply segregated Oldham, 40 percent of secondary schools are of this type, and they draw from a largely white population. This religious divide is increasing due to the addition to the school scene of state-supported “faith academies,” mainly Church of England and Catholic schools. Whereas in the United States government support for religiously exclusive schools would be judged as excessive entanglement of the state with religion, British ideas of public life start from the premise that religious communities are legitimate and socially important sources of citizen education, and thus deserving of state aid.

So if state multiculturalism exists in 2011, it would be found in broadly accepted principles about the role of state support in promoting diverse kinds of schools. These policies can have segregating effects, but they are also current Tory policies. Cameron and his Party don’t like to bring them up in other contexts, though; they are not in the business of attacking Christian schools.

On the whole, then, it seems that accommodation of immigrants in Britain has taken the usual course for that nation. The methods applied to distinct religious groups that predate Islam on the Isles have been extended to the newest arrivals.

British ideas of public life start from the premise that religious communities are legitimate sources of citizen education.

Cameron’s policy proposals were on a wholly different topic: he paid special attention to reducing the degree of toleration afforded Islamic groups with extreme views. Here one might join with the prime minister in finding that certain Islamic groups ought to have their public activities curtailed. The most frequently cited example is the Hizb ut-Tahrir, who reject participation in British politics and urge British Muslims to prepare themselves for the coming of the Islamic state, to be created somewhere in the world in the not-too distant future. This, however, does not concern the validity of recognizing cultural diversity but rather the degree to which the state ought to allow extreme or intolerant public speech, the same issue that arose thanks to the Danish cartoons controversy and that regularly figures in laws against Holocaust denial.


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Although French President Nicolas Sarkozy attacked le multiculturalisme, more often French politicians use the term “communalism” (communautarisme). This refers not to the North American philosophy of communitarianism, although that takes its lumps sometimes as well, but to everyday practices and attitudes that reject “living together” in favor of “living side by side.” Usually Britain is the negative example, though of late the French have been blaming themselves for this supposed deficiency as well.

But communalism is no more precise an object of denunciation than is multiculturalism. In Le Monde on March 16 of this year, the new Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, said that high unemployment among those who come to France from outside the European Union proves “the failure of communalisms” because those immigrants tend to clump together by culture and doing so keeps them from getting jobs. He acknowledged that people chose where to live, that the state did not put them there, but argued, “We have gone too long in letting people group together in communities.” Guéant suggests that what has been going on is a state multiculturalism of inaction without specifying how the state could break up existing communities.

A few pages later in the same issue, a columnist analyzed the American “Galleon affair,” a case of financial fraud involving financiers from India, as an instance of communalism because these men, who held degrees from Harvard and Wharton and worked at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, had common national origins. Now, these immigrants did get jobs, great ones. Apparently communalism of one sort is the key to success, albeit illicit success, while communalism of another sort explains high unemployment rates. A cynic might add that if working in small incestuous groups defines communalism, then France, with its unusually small set of industrialists serving on interlocking boards of major companies, its exclusive school system, and marriage practices designed to preserve the elite, is among the most communalist of nations.

In any case France has never undertaken state multiculturalism. Although some officials have decried the politics of the “right to a difference” that marked several years at the beginning of François Mitterrand’s presidency in the 1980s, those politics could hardly be called multicultural. Some instruction in “languages of origin” was provided, but this was intended to facilitate the eventual “return” of immigrants and their children. Other sources of aid provided tutoring and training, and current policies direct additional money to school districts with large numbers of pupils “in difficulty.” At the same time, the French state has provided free language classes to immigrants, assistance to groups seeking to build mosques, and practical accommodations to allow the preparation of halal meat in abattoirs. State support for and control of religious groups is, despite the rhetoric of strict state-religion separation, a long-term feature of French policy. More than a century after France’s 1905 law of church-state separation, the state pays for the upkeep of older religious buildings, gives tax breaks to religious groups, and hires teachers for private religious schools (most of them Catholic).


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Blaming multiculturalism for social ills is a Dutch national sport. Yet, as the University of Amsterdam sociologist Jan Willem Duyvendak has written, the Netherlands has never pursued state multiculturalism or the preservation of minority cultures. Instead it has pursued two sets of policies, one aimed at maintaining the long-standing commitment to the political peace, the other at achieving the integration of minorities.

The enduring Dutch preference for compromise is embodied in the polder model—a reference to working together to build dykes, a bit like Tocqueville’s American “barn-raising.” Historically this meant that people were loath to criticize unassimilated immigrants. Dutch cultural practices thereby favored the unofficial continuation of a multicultural social reality, where people were free to continue to speak their own languages, worship in their own ways, and so forth. This kind of “live and let live” social habit was the Dutch solution to religious conflicts during a period of relatively intense religious belief and practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It gave rise to a quasi-official model of “pillars”: religious networks and institutions within which each Dutch man or woman was presumed to remain.

For the Dutch right, attacking Islam is a psychologically useful way of reworking their own heritage.

This social conception of keeping the religious and political peace by separating people according to religion subtended policies of creating and financing religious schools. Although the pillar structure had come apart before major Muslim immigration was underway in the 1970s and ’80s, a psychological residue persisted, dictating that each religious group should ignore the particularities of the other. Far from accepting or recognizing the other’s validity, this attitude promoted bare tolerance, civic acceptance of the right to the existence of Catholics, Protestants, and for that matter, gays and pot-smokers. Condemnation was constrained to the home or the pulpit. So while Dutch policies and norms favored a diverse society, they took no part of what is today thought of as multiculturalism, with its efforts to reach beyond toleration toward appreciation.

At the same time, governments developed a series of policies aimed at promoting the advancement of minorities through provision of schoolteachers who spoke their languages (principally Arabic and Turkish), construction of local councils that would advise the government on how best to foster integration, and special funding to provide additional tutoring and support at schools heavily attended by the children of immigrants. By the end of the twentieth century these policies had been changed to focus more on skills training and teaching in Dutch, but the goal of state policy continued to be, as it had always been, that of promoting integration. In the Netherlands, as in France, financial aid was targeted to schools with many poor students, who happened to descend from recent immigrants.

The attack on these policies and attitudes has focused on values attributed to Muslims or to Islamic doctrine. In 1991 parliamentary opposition leader Frits Bolkestein criticized the government for failing to defend Western values of free speech and equality against Islamic views. He used the case of Islam to launch a broader attack against the political elite and their way of papering over differences (the polder model) rather than standing up for Enlightenment values against the Islam of the Ayatollahs. A rising class of populist politicians seconded this critique, among them the right-wing and openly gay Pim Fortuyn—killed in 2002 by an activist concerned about scapegoating Muslims—and the anti-Islam campaigners Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders. Their attacks on Islam were also political appeals against the elites in order to curry favor with the forgotten working classes. Polder politics, elite domination, and Islam were the common enemy, and the refusal of the leading classes to denounce non-Dutch and anti-Enlightenment Islamic values was the major evidence that things had gone wrong. As in France this admonition has been heard on the left and the right, from Social Democrats as well as from Wilders’s far-right Party for Freedom. It reflects a cultural nationalism that can appeal to the old-style populism of the right or to the universalism of the left.

In life and in death, Fortuyn focused the attack on multiculturalism even more narrowly as an attack on Islamic intolerance of sexual diversity, and in particular, of gay lifestyles. Fortuyn personified a secularist, sexually open, and “tolerant” Dutch identity, against which Islam and Muslims could easily be targeted as the pre-Enlightenment other. In no other country has the issue of tolerating gays become so central and so salient a part of the critique of Islam. This line of attack was powerful because it also was a critique of older Dutch ways of doing politics and thinking about sexuality. Throughout most of the twentieth century, most Dutch people held religious views about homosexuality and women’s rights that were not too different from those now ascribed to Muslims by their opponents. Attacking Islam was thus also a psychologically useful way of reworking one’s own heritage.

Ironically, the current focus on Islam per se—Wilders compared the Qur’an to Mein Kampf and seeks to have it banned in the Netherlands—has distracted the far right from policies about minority achievement and language learning. The focus now is on the acceptability in the Enlightenment West of the pre-Enlightenment Muslim. And yet the right continues to attack Dutch multiculturalism because it remains rhetorically useful to link the cultural critique of religion to a populist critique of past elites.


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Blaming multiculturalism, then, is useful because it is both vague and misdirected. It would be much harder for Cameron to acknowledge that British racism, immigration trajectories, foreign policy, and faith-based schools have made major contributions toward minority isolation than it is to say: we got it wrong, now let’s get it right, let’s all be British. Islam provides a soft target for aspiring cultural nationalists. It is easier for Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen of the right-wing French National Front to decry Muslims praying in the street than it is to make room for adequate mosques. And across Europe, it is easier to point to the irresponsible statement of a foreign imam and say that Islam is the problem than to figure out how Muslims, like practicing Catholics and Jews before them, might best construct the cultural and religious institutions they need to be at ease in their new (and not so new) countries.

One can, and should, refute these misdiagnoses and at the same time give due credit to policies promoting integration within each of these societies. Speaking the language of the country and gaining job skills are the keys to becoming a productive citizen. France made free French courses part of its “integration contract” in 2003; with its 2005 Immigration Act, Germany began providing free German lessons to people granted work visas. When most Islamic religious officials are recent immigrants, it makes good sense to offer them instruction in the language, law, and politics of their new country of residence. These are policies of integration rather than assimilation; they are perfectly consistent with the promotion of equal respect for all religions and cultures.

Blaming multiculturalism ties the package together: it discredits a foreign element—Islam—and it identifies the fifth column that let it in, those past proponents of multiculturalism. That it misreads history is beside the point. It makes for effective, albeit irresponsible, populist politics.