When Angela Merkel speaks, the world should listen. The German chancellor leads a nation that has experienced nearly uninterrupted economic growth for six decades; it has developed a reputation for doing what is right for Europe and the world. History also shows, for better and for worse, Germany's power in the marketplace of ideas. For all of these reasons, Mrs Merkel's recent description of the German attempt at multiculturalism as "absolutely failed" is cause for concern.
Mrs Merkel may have been responding to the changing views of her constituents. A Berlin-based think-tank released polls last week that revealed a rise in racism in Germany over the past year "in all social groups and in all age groups, regardless of employment status, educational level or gender". In one of their polls, more than a third of Germans believed their country to be "in serious danger of being overrun by foreigners".
The respondents were most likely to conflate "foreigners" with Muslims, who comprise a majority Germany's post-war immigrants. While explicitly racist views remain verboten in much of Germany, suspicion of Islam appears to be far more acceptable and can serve as a cover for subtle but deeply seated prejudices. Some 60 per cent of Germans, for instance, believed that the practise of Islam should be restricted. Perhaps more revealing, suspicion of Muslims was more prevalent in the more homogenous parts of Germany.
It is not only in Germany where those with less exposure to different cultures are more likely to feel threatened by them. Those who call the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Arizona their homes may share little but a propensity to fear outsiders and their influences. Both Islamic radicalism and western xenophobia are, in part, responses to globalisation. The handiwork of bigots and extremists does not mean, however, that multiculturalism has failed.
It is true that not every nation or faith is the same. The more interconnected the world becomes, the more important it is to learn about each other, including about our differences. But rather than pronouncing multiculturalism dead or describing it as a threat to national or religious identities, it must be understood as a common work in progress. Multiculturalism is unlikely to result in absolute success, but abandoning it would be an absolute failure.