x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Failure is not an option for multiculturalism

Integrationism and multiculturalism may be opposed strategies, but in fact every country with any level of immigration employs a mixture of the two.

Multicultural society, the German chancellor Angela Merkel declared in a speech to the CDU last Saturday, has " utterly failed". It was a striking remark which has been widely discussed over the past week, though rarely with much attention to what it may have meant. 

Commentators have tended to hear in it a blanket rejection of culturally mixed communities, reacting either with despair or triumph depending on their place on the political spectrum. "Merkel has got the point," wrote Melanie Phillips in an exultant piece for Britain's conservative Spectator magazine. "All over mainland Europe, a few shoes are belatedly - maybe too late - starting to drop".

This, unfortunately, is true. At any rate the boot of state is coming down on European Muslims. Phillips cites with approval the bans of burqas and minarets in France and Belgium and Switzerland, extreme legal expressions of monocultural belligerence. But tough talk about making immigrants learn German and accept "Christian values" notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that Merkel will pursue such a course.

German industry badly needs foreign labour, as the nation's labour and economy ministers recently explained. In practice that means Turkish people. Last month Merkel insisted that mosques "will become an ever more present feature of our landscape". Whatever alternative to multiculturalism she may have had in mind, the demuslimification of Germany surely wasn't it.

Merkel's comments come at a difficult time for Europe, of course. Deep in recession, countries all over the continent have experienced an upsurge in reactionary opinion and policy, especially regarding Muslim and Roma communities. Last week France passed laws that allow its government to strip foreign-born citizens of French nationality and repatriate citizens of other EU nations for a variety of crimes including "illegally occupying land", a condition clearly aimed at driving away the nomadic Roma. In Britain the Islamophobic English Defence League continues to attract headlines.

But the politics of blame often dominates public discourse in hard times. Merkel's own coalition government - an alliance of the CDU, the CSU and the Free Democratic Party - is at an all-time low in opinion polls. Riding high, by contrast, is Thilo Sarrazin, a former central banker who in August published a bestselling book called Germany Does Itself In. Sarrazin's book claimed that Germany was being made "stupid" by Muslim immigrants. If one hears a dog whistle blowing through Merkel's remarks, one needn't strain for the baying it seeks to silence.

The fact is, there are only two basic alternatives to multiculturalism. One is to get rid of the people from different cultures, to drive them away. Besides being morally objectionable this option isn't feasible for Germany because of its confessed need for immigrants. So what's left? Not a clear-cut alternative so much as a shift of emphasis.

Multiculturalism as a doctrine of cultural inclusivity is often contrasted with integrationism. That is the melting-pot model, whereby all are welcome yet home-country loyalties are subordinate to the new national identity. Thus, in the classic example, one is always American above all.

Integrationism and multiculturalism may be opposed strategies, but in fact every country with any level of immigration employs a mixture of the two. They insist on local standards in some domains and make allowances for difference in others. It could hardly be otherwise: living together forces us to steer between the two approaches.

And so for Angela Merkel to say that one of them has "failed" is perplexing. Failed in which areas? And what does she plan to do about it? One suspects - and hopes - not much. Given Germany's situation it is unlikely that Merkel has any drastic new agenda. More probably she hoped to appeal, ambiguously and noncommittally as possible, to an electorate that had turned ugly. Undignified as that may be, it would mean it is too soon for triumph or despair in any quarter.