Multiculturalism Revisited

The brutal murders in and around Oslo on July 22, 2011 by Anders Behring Breivik, the self-declared commander for the Knights Templar of Europe, are to be rightfully condemned, and due punishment must be accorded for his horrible crime.  But his massacre of 76 innocent people and his 1,500-page polemical diatribe -- his European Declaration of Independence, with its obsession with multiculturalism and the threat caused by the Islamic presence in Europe -- must not be allowed to prevent a genuine, rational discussion of a complex contemporary problem.

Western countries are perplexed by the problem of the current immigration of large numbers of individuals coming from different cultures, and the tension caused by their reluctance to assimilate and integrate into the larger society.  To debate the issues of immigration and the likelihood of groups becoming participants in the larger society is not racist behavior, but rather a necessary consequence of real problems.

Aware of the potential positive value of immigrants, governments along with other agencies have subscribed to a set of policies and values that has become known as multiculturalism.  They seek to diminish the difficulties the newcomers face: lack of respect, verbal abuse, and discrimination in general (and especially in housing and employment).

However desirable some of the efforts have been, both for immigrants and for their new society, it is evident that Western policies of multiculturalism have drawbacks as well as benefits.  Those policies encounter a number of intellectual and political problems.  They aim at accommodating different religious, cultural, and ethnic traditions within a society, but societies require a common culture.  The great 14th-century Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, was aware of this when he wrote that civilization arose only when there was solidarity.  Today, this idea of solidarity, and commitment to the common culture and to the basic structures and values of democratic countries, is being challenged by identity politics and by advocacy of diversity.

Multiculturalism in Western societies confers benefits on an ethnic or racial minority, enabling it to maintain its own culture.  This may lead to friction and to both physical and cultural separation from the majority of the society.  It also disparages individual rights, fragments society, and supports the politicization of group identities.  The French writer Pascal Bruckner has defined multiculturalism as racism of the antiracists.  It tends to chain people to their roots and to imprison them in an ethnic or racial definition of their group.  It may not only undermine individuality and self-reliance, but also may prevent people from liberating themselves from their own group traditions.  Celebrating differences among people has become a means of enforcing group identity.

In recent practice, multiculturalism has led to restriction rather than protection of free speech -- e.g., to laws making it a criminal offense to make critical remarks about some religious, ethnic, or national groups.  It has led in the West to tolerating minorities that are themselves intolerant.

Contemporary European politicians have understood the political problem.  Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in October 2010 declared that multiculturalism had failed in her country.  She declared that it was not a humane formula to respect other cultures, but a device to deal with immigrant workers who were still committed to the culture of their homeland, not to that of Germany.  The German state had accommodated the demands of immigrants, rather than promoting German values.  German scholars have argued that, though differences may exist, European countries need a leitkultur, a core or guiding culture which was necessary for a democratic community, concerned with modernity, secularism, and human rights. 

Political leaders in both Britain and France have been similarly troubled by recent developments.  British Prime Minister David Cameron made it clear, in a speech of February 5, 2011, that "under the doctrine of state multiculturalism we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream."  Britain had tolerated those segregated communities behaving in ways completely counter to British values.

In France, President Nicholas Sarkozy has similarly declared that multiculturalism is a failure and has fostered extremism.  France, he believes, has been too concerned about the identity of the new arrivals and not enough about preserving the identity of the country receiving them.  Sarkozy since 2003 has been responsible for two bills restricting immigration into France.  His belief is that Muslims in France must practice French Islam, not just Islam in France.  However, it is still an open question whether Muslims want to be part of French society, or prefer sharia law and traditional behavior.

The contemporary belief that all cultural groups and religions should be tolerated and have a right to self-determination or autonomy may be salutary as a general proposition, but the degree of that tolerance should be relevant both to democratic values, whether or not the principles of human rights are being observed by those groups, and also to demographic changes.  The monstrous action of Breivik may make it more difficult to criticize the multicultural practices that are promoting racism rather than eliminating it.  Yet objective observers should not be too cautious or reluctant to criticize actions or non-actions of non-Europeans.  There is no easy balance for democratic countries today between protecting their cultural values and protecting minority rights.

Michael Curtis is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University.