Why European Conservatives Are Bashing Multiculturalism

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As Ronald Reagan might have said with a disapproving shake of the head, “There they go again”. Faced with souring domestic political prospects, Europe’s top three leaders have sought to stoke flagging support by telling their societies to beware of nefarious foreign influences—especially from fellow citizens from minority groups. And as dismally common anymore, Europe’s default scapegoats are its Muslims.

The current code word being used in such warnings is “multiculturalism”—and more importantly, its purported failure as a model for allowing indigenous populations of Europe to cohabitate harmoniously aside the traditions, customs, and religions of immigrants and their European-born descendants. The first leader to sound that alarm was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who played what her citizens call the “multikulti” card in October by declaring Germany’s attempt to replicate America’s melting pot had “utterly failed”. Not coincidentally, Merkel’s comments came as her ruling center-right coalition continued to develop serious cracks—fissures that partially explained falling public support of her government despite its success in producing economic growth other Europeans are envious of. Merkel’s pronouncement multiculturalism as dead also came as a poll indicated fully 30% of Germans feel their country has been “overrun by foreigners”—primarily the estimated 2.5 million people of Turkish background.

Merkel’s sortie didn’t prevent her party from being drubbed on Feb. 20 in the first of seven state elections in Germany this year. But that probably won’t dissuade fellow European leaders who took up her dissing of multiculturalism to continue their battering of  it. On Feb. 5, British Prime Minister David Cameron unleashed a veritable assault on the multiculturalism his nation has long nurtured, saying it had created “segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values”.

“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream,” Cameron said in a speech at a security conference in Munich. “We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.

Happily, Cameron’s vision of inward-turned UK minorities shunning their nation turns out to be plain wrong. A recent Gallup poll found 77% of British Muslims saying they identify “very strongly” with the country, compared to just 50% of non-Muslim Brits.

However, Cameron, too, had reasons for wanting to find something convenient to denounce. Just days earlier, official economic data showed the UK’s minimalist economic growth had reversed itself in the end of 2010 to actually shrink by 0.5% in the fourth quarter. That called into question the wisdom of the massive cuts in government spending his coalition government (and, to be fair, just about every other regime in the developed world) have carried out despite warnings such austerity was a recipe for  recession. Recent polls also show support for his Conservative-Liberal Democrat having fallen from 53% in June, 2010 to 38%, while nearly 60% of Britons say its cost cutting has been unfairly applied.

Not to be left out of a conservative dog pile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Feb. 11 also put his boots to the multiculturalism—even though France has long and loudly championed its integrationist rejection of melting pots (yet has exactly the same problems its neighbors as a result). Never mind that both social models have failed as mainstream societies have thrown up walls preventing the very assimilation of minorities—often born, educated, and raised in Europe—that political leaders keep ordering to blend in. Sarko knew who’s at fault, and (surprise, surprise) it isn’t the establishment.

“The truth is that, in all our democracies, we’ve been too concerned about the identity of the new arrivals and not enough about the identity of the country receiving them,” Sarkozy said on a nationally televised appearance—before getting to the topic he, Merkel, and Cameron were all actually talking about. “This raises the issue of Islam and our Muslim compatriots. Our Muslim compatriots should be able to live and practice their religion like anyone else … but it can only be a French Islam and not just an Islam in France.”

A irregularly observant (and thrice-married) Catholic who hasn’t studied the Qu’ran like Sarkozy isn’t the kind of expert on Islam you’d expect French Muslims would be keen on taking lessons from. So why his pontificating on Islam? A groggy economy, a scandal-prone government, and approval ratings of around 25% a year ahead of his re-election bid explain why Sarkozy, too, has good reasons for wanting an easy scapegoat to point guiltily towards. But the problem with the three-voice harmony of condemnation he joined in doing so is it seeks to deny the very real, de facto nature of multicultural societies in Europe while simultaneously looking to make it the culprit for Europe’s myriad social woes. Worse still, the clear insinuation by Merkel and Cameron (and overt stressing by Sarkozy) that Muslims are the real problem is turning “multiculturalism” into a euphemism for “Europe’s Islam problem”. (No one has been heard decrying the cohesion and relative insularity of growing Chinese communities in Europe, after all.) It aches for a return to the days when Muslims in Europe were marginalized, self-effacing immigrant shadows within society, and not the large, unapologetic pillars of it they are today. As such, it’s very dangerous populist nostalgia for something that isn’t coming back.

Proof that the real motivating gripe is that, indeed, Muslim Europeans are already integral and undeniable—but unwanted—parts of the European fabric came from Marine Le Pen—leader of France’s xenophobic, immigrant-bashing, Islamophobic National Front party. In a comment to the Financial Times applauded Cameron’s comments as “exactly the type of statement that has barred (the National Front) from public life for 30 years.” That’s a very scary endorsement that Cameron, Merkel, and Sarkozy should carefully consider, especially since Le Pen’s electoral surge has come as Sarkozy’s French conservatives have sought to borrow her Islamophobic and anti-immigrant positions—seemly endorsing them as credible as they did so.

Europe’s Muslim and other minorities are a reality that won’t go away, and must be dealt with as productively and positively as possible for all. The alternative is denying them their identity and place, embracing the likes of Le Pen instead, and laying the ground work for a clash of civilization with Europe’s Muslims, forcing them into fight they don’t want in the heart of European society.