The horrific slaughter of 85 people by the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik has surely closed the door on Europe’s multiculturalism experiment. Media reports indicated that Breivik was opposed to multiculturalism and Islam. However, in the immediate aftermath of killings, it was difficult to distinguish between the Western media’s rant against Islam and Muslims and Breivik’s abhorrent views. Europe’s tirade against multiculturalism and its failure to accommodate Muslims is not new.
Earlier this year, David Cameron launched a devastating tirade against 30 years of multiculturalism in Britain. He warned that multiculturalism was incubating extremist ideology and directly contributing to home-grown Islamic terrorism. He said, “We have failed to provide a vision of society [to young Muslims] to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values. All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and believe in can lead them to extremist ideology.”
Cameron is not the only European leader critical of multiculturalism. In October 2010, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, unequivocally declared: “The approach of saying, ‘Well, let’s just go for a multicultural society, let’s coexist and enjoy each other,’ this very approach has failed, absolutely failed.” Merkel’s remarks came soon after Thilo Sarrazin’s diatribe against multiculturalism. In August 2010, then a board member of Germany’s central bank, Thilo condemned multiculturalism and claimed Germany’s intelligence was in decline because of Muslim immigrants. Elsewhere in Europe, boisterous voices are reverberating in the corridors of power warning about dangers of multiculturalism. And all too often, Muslim adherences to Islamic values in Western societies are cited as demonstrative examples of the failure of multiculturalism.
The rallying cry against the concept of multicultural societies extends beyond European shores. On September 28th, 2010, Australia’s former Prime Minister John Howard said, “This is a time not to apologize for our particular identity but rather to firmly and respectfully and robustly reassert it. I think one of the errors that some sections of the English-speaking world have made in the last few decades has been to confuse multiracialism and multiculturalism.” He further added that some sections of society have gone too far in accommodating Muslim minorities.
In America, the daily assault on multiculturalism by conservatives and other right wing politicians is polarizing American communities and is accentuating tensions between Americans and Muslims. The plan to build a mosque close to ground-zero is just the latest manifestation of this struggle. Clearly then, multiculturalism as envisaged by its proponents has failed to deliver what it was supposed to do, i.e., protect groups or communities against intolerance and discrimination perpetrated by society or dominant groups.
Concepts like multiculturalism and diversity signify that in liberal democracies coexistence can be fostered between different groups without the erosion of their respective identities or cultural norms. However, these concepts although widely employed in the lexicon of modern political philosophy are not new. Rather they are derived from one of the main pillars of Western liberal political thought called pluralism. Like other Western concepts, the origin of pluralism is firmly rooted in birth of secularism. Back then, some philosophers were incensed at the manner by which various Christian denominations were forced to assimilate and conform to the standards and virtues mandated by the papacy.
They endeavored to safeguard the religious practices of such groups by campaigning for greater tolerance and leniency to be shown to them by the rest of society and other dominant groups. Initially, this meant that such groups were spared physical punishment and financial penalties. However, they were barely tolerated, and were subject to torrents of racial abuse, extreme discrimination, and forced exclusion from different facets of society. For instance, they were denied employment, precluded from educational institutions, suffered from restrictions on travel movements, etc.
But as time passed, other thinkers sought to extend the boundaries of pluralism and pressed for weaker groups to be granted greater opportunities to express their religious and cultural identity in all aspects of societal life, besides the designated areas of worship. In some cases, the thinkers managed to convince the state to extend protection against persecution of a group’s cultural identity and race, and remove impediments to employment previously barred. Hence over the centuries, the concept of pluralism underwent progressive elaboration by Western philosophers and thinkers, as well as selective application by Western States. Despite numerous revisions and reviews, divergent views over pluralisms meaning, its applicability and value to society still persist. Some advocate that pluralism should be limited to a mere tolerance of a group’s cultural identity and nothing more. Others equate pluralism with the right for diverse groups to freely express and celebrate their cultural identity without fear and restrictions imposed by society or dominant groups.
Towards the middle of the last century, the labor crisis in Europe spurred an influx of immigrants to European shores. Attempts by Europe to absorb people from numerous diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds posed a number of challenges to the cohesiveness of their respective societies—chief amongst them were housing, marriage, education, health care, welfare benefits and employment. Tensions frequently surfaced between the indigenous populations and the immigrants, as both competed for limited resources. During this period, several thinkers and a handful of politicians criticized the inability of Western governments to assimilate immigrants. They suggested alternative solutions to preserve social cohesion based on pluralism, and advocated cultural diversity under the guise of integration.
In 1966, Roy Jenkins, a British politician, presented a new pluralistic vision for Britain. He said, “ I do not think we need in this country a ‘melting pot’ which will turn everybody out in a common mould, as one of a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced vision of the stereotyped Englishman… I define integration therefore, not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, coupled with cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.” This became known as Jenkins formula and was widely employed by policy makers to establish guidelines and laws for multiculturalism.
In the next 40 years, pluralism or multiculturalism—as it came to be widely known—was introduced in almost every aspect of life; so much so that indigenous populations perceived immigrants and other minority groups to enjoy greater benefits than themselves. Subsequently, relations between the host and immigrant communities rapidly deteriorated, many questioned the wisdom behind multiculturalism, and some even went as far as calling for its abolition. Therefore, even before the events of September 11, 2001, multiculturalism which was coveted as a panacea for social cohesion was an abject failure.
Multiculturalism or pluralism is whimsical idea that is conceptually flawed and unworkable in practice. This is because pluralism encourages groups to promote their cultural identity irrespective of their political influence or financial strength. Naturally, the strongest group uses its political prowess and financial muscle to persuade politicians to define legislation, which vigorously defends and endorses their culture and values at the expense of other groups. Additionally, the most powerful group manipulates the media and the educational establishments to actively promote its culture, which leads to widespread acceptance amongst the indigenous population. In this way, the strongest group’s culture becomes indistinguishable from the state’s culture. Weaker groups find themselves culturally squeezed, discriminated against, and in conflict with the state. Such groups are coerced by both the state and society to dilute their cultural identity to fit in. Those groups that refuse to temper with their cultural identity are ostracized and consigned to live in ghettos. In extreme cases, they are expelled from the host nation, like what happened to the Roma gypsies in France.
What the Norwegian incident illustrates is that the preoccupation of mainstream society to stigmatize Muslims has provided ample opportunity for other marginalized groups to implant their ideas and attract new recruits to their detestable ideologies. One must wonder, how many other homegrown right-wing extremists lurk in European cities waiting to pounce against their governments and fellow citizens, whilst politicians struggle to replace multiculturalism with other fad ideas like assimilation, and integrations that will no doubt lead to the same result.