In the 1990s multiculturalism was a magic word and an expression of political correctness. Today it is a swear word. Even the Council of Europe, writes the Financial Times, has joined the chants of various, mainly conservative, heads of state, including David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, “warning that it poses a threat to security” because it encourages the development of parallel societies—or so the secretary-general of the council as quoted by FT.COM. The message of Merkel et co is not as blunt and bigot as that of Thilo Sarrazin, former board member of the German National Bank turned bestseller author with an anti-Islam book concerned about Germany’s future and Jewish genes, but it comes close. Now, even the recent uprisings in the Arab World are used (or is it not more correct to say, abused) to illustrate the legitimacy of bashing multiculturalism. Because, or so the argument goes, multiculturalism entails the risk of “diluting” our democratic values. Wow. Talk about a reversal if ever there was one.
Serious scholars of multiculturalism have always acknowledged its inherent problems, and there is a long literature in the social sciences about its congruence with social liberalism. Will Kymlicka is among those who believe it is possible to reconcile multiculturalism and democratic citizenship even through the recognition of minority rights. Brian Barry, who died in 2009, advocated a more cautious approach when negotiating exceptions for minorities. None, however, questioned multiculturalism as either a fact or a norm and a value.
Why is it suddenly so fashionable to engage in multiculturalism bashing? Is it really because we have only now become aware of the difficulties entailed in multicultural integration? I doubt it. It is rather that some stand to gain—or so they think—from adopting such positions. The share of extreme right-wing voters has stabilized during the last decade at comparatively high levels. At the same time, there is growing disaffection among the traditional voters of the right and the left and an increase of both swing- and non-voters. Against this background, political parties have decided to (ab)use multiculturalism to mobilize their voters—those who have established themselves firmly in the middle class and ideology and who ‘dislike’ those below more than those above.
Pulling multiculturalism down the podest is bad politics and bad policy—and as bad as placing it on the podest in the first place. Societies are de facto multicultural. They always were. The confrontation between more and less traditional lifestyles is nothing new. For most of us, it is enough to think about our grandparents to understand what that means—even with respect to dress code (including the use of a head scarf). We should instead be discussing integration policy. And rather than always pointing our finger to the many who ‘did not make it’, grow instead aware of the many who did.
Migration is more often a difficult and traumatic experience than a pleasurable one. It takes guts to leave one’s country, learn a new language, familiarize with a foreign environment and the customs of its people. If you do this because you need money, then it is sad. If you are on your way because you are persecuted, it is tragic. Under these circumstances, integrating requires effort and is a process. It is more or less difficult depending on the person, his/her educational background and cultural capital. In this equation, the host society is one important facilitating or inhibiting factor. Those who are not convinced might like to try living for one year in the country of their dreams, albeit not as tourists or students.