Shehryar Sheikh, our News Editor, discusses the role of Multiculturalism in modern Europe. Make sure to grab a copy of the next issue of The Tribe on Monday morning to find out more!

A beginner’s guide to the age-old debate

In 2010, Angela Merkel announced that multiculturalism had ‘utterly failed.’ In 2011, David Cameron followed suit, stating that ‘the doctrine of state multiculturalism, [has] encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.’ So what is this problematic (if well-intended) idea? What are its origins, its criticisms and its defences? As it turns out, multiculturalism is a little less cut and dry than these leaders’ statements would have us believe.

In the aftermath of World War II and the defeat of fascism, ideas about social and cultural purity declined. This occurred at the same time as decolonisation and economic factors prompted large-scale migration from the developing world to Western nations. Around 20 years after immigrant countries such as Canada had adopted multicultural policies, some European states also began to implement them. These nations included Sweden, the UK, and initially Holland.

Multiculturalism as a state policy is underpinned by the idea that ethnic/religious communities deserve recognition, alongside that normally granted to individuals, based on the belief that heterogeneous societies are better than homogenous ones. Autonomy is accorded to groups to run their own schools for example, exemplified by the large number of non-Christian faith schools across Britain. One of the most divisive concepts that multiculturalism espouses is that certain communities be made exempt from what had previously been the regular application of the law. Exemptions from existing animal rights regulations for Muslims and Jews to access sacrificially produced halal and kosher meat, and the heated arguments caused by the effort to ban circumcision in Denmark serve to illustrate just how contentious this can be in practice.

Broadly speaking, there are two main opposing schools of thought in Europe regarding multiculturalism. Before discussing them, it is necessary to note the difference in context between nations formed and fundamentally defined by historic immigration, such as the US or Canada, and the European states, in which a dominant and established host population has received immigrants from elsewhere. In the first case, mainly European settlers from various nations have, (through the dispossession and quite often slaughter of indigenous populations) established nations in which virtually everyone is of foreign extraction. Within these countries, multiculturalism is easier to defend – in the melting pot, everyone is an immigrant some generations removed, and so privileging one culture over another can seem unjustified. In Europe itself, existing nations with distinct cultural and religious heritages have experienced mass migration relatively recently, and the focus on integration is naturally more pronounced. Whilst countries like France or the UK have a long colonial legacy that contributed to post-WWII mass migration, and are therefore expected by some to accommodate their non-European minorities’ cultures to a degree, the same history is not true of other nations, such as Sweden, where 27% of the population is of full or partial foreign descent today.

Multiculturalism in Europe has been marked by a bitter debate over the integration of non-European minorities, and particularly Muslims, into Western society. Opponents of multiculturalism have gone as far as to argue that it is in fact the ‘racism of the anti-racists’, established by progressive governments but in effect chaining people of foreign-origin to their roots. Pascal Bruckner, a French writer, upholds Western liberal values as inherently superior, the highest state of human achievement, and considers the Enlightenment the legacy not just of Europe but of all mankind. Bruckner accuses advocates of multiculturalism of paternalism by ignoring, in his view, practices by Muslims that are no longer acceptable in wider society, allowing them to remain backward. Even farther to the right, some such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali have condemned certain communities (in Hirsi Ali’s case, the Islamic community in Europe) as being fundamentally different to, and therefore incapable of integration, into European society. This view can end up encouraging rather than tackling segregation. The superiority of Western liberal values is used to frame this argument, and yet it is those exact values – tolerance, pluralism, inclusivity and individual freedom of choice chief among them – that are sometimes undermined. The fixation on Muslims also overlooks other communities and other factors, such as the fact that multiculturalism can create a space for linguistic plurality.

11082542_1094561227227610_5555030090023835291_nBradford, one of the most heavily Pakistani and segregated parts of Britain today

Directly contradictory to this is the view of those such as the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka, who argues that respecting cultural expression is in fact a basic requirement of a true Western liberal society. Kymlicka and likeminded people believe that forcing cultural uniformity, such as by restricting dress codes (the ban on Burkinis on French beaches offering a good example) undermines freedom of choice and self-expression, the bedrock of free Western societies. They also see it as contributing to, rather than tackling, segregation in immigrant communities. Kymlicka does advocate freedom of speech, a restriction on grievously harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, and the right for members of minority communities to leave them freely without facing physical backlash. As optimistic as this is, in practice the multicultural model employed by Britain has sometimes contributed to a deeply distressing situation in parts of the country, with former PM Cameron having singled out Oldham and Bradford as highly segregated cities that have becoming breeding grounds of right-wing resentment and extremism.

There is no panacea to Europe’s woes about integration and multiculturalism. As the continent ages and fertility rates remain below replacement levels, immigration will continue. The migration crisis has created further issues in this regard. Recently, former French president Sarkozy declared that ‘Once you are French, your ancestors are the Gauls.’ This brought to mind a discussion I had with a French Arab some time ago. She was genuinely surprised that non-white people in Britain responded with the names of their hometowns, rather than that of their parents’ and grandparents’ home countries, when asked where they were from. ‘In France, you would always say you were from Senegal or Morocco, even if you were born in Paris.’ Coupled with the alienation felt by many non-European origin communities from Marseilles to Paris, this anecdote seems to indicate that a hard integrationist model does not always work. On the other hand, a detailed survey showed that while 83% of Muslims in (de facto) multicultural Britain say they are proud of their country, a relatively large 23% support the application of Islamic law in areas with large Muslim populations. This seems to point to the need for a new approach.

Whatever future Europe charts for itself vis-a-vis multiculturalism, some basic truths must be acknowledged. The ethnically non-European and Islamic communities are here to stay – ‘repatriation’ would strike at the core of the values even the European right-wing claims to be defending. Constant demonising and fear-mongering by far-right movements and certain media outlets contributes to the alienation of a growing share of the population, the tax-paying workers of the future on whom the economies of Europe will increasingly depend in years to come. However, multiculturalism can contribute to segregated and economically backward communities that are sometimes out of sync with Western values. Bearing this in mind, Europe can’t (and shouldn’t) allow the settlement of a large, unlimited number of newcomers without first considering the clash of cultural values and challenges in terms of integration that result from rapid demographic change. How the continent responds to the growing ethnically non-European communities within its borders, and indeed how these communities respond to the continent, will be a defining question in years to come.


Shehryar Sheikh