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Analysis: Multiculturalism may seem dead, but it’s still an ideal worth striving for

Analysis: Multiculturalism may seem dead, but it’s still an ideal worth striving for

Usually diplomatic German Chancellor Angela Merkel went all stern and Teutonic at the weekend, saying that multiculturalism had “failed utterly” in her country. She went on to state that immigrants should be made to feel welcome, but also stressed the need for greater integration, including that immigrants learn German. Given growing xenophobia in Europe, not to mention globally, immigration and multiculturalism are tricky topics to navigate, and Markel doesn’t seem to have steered the debate in an altogether savoury direction.

On Saturday Merkel had a difficult task in speaking to the youth members of her Christian Democratic Party at Potsdam. In August, former central banker Thilo Sarrazin published a book called “Germany Does Itself In”, claiming that immigrants, in particular Muslims, were making the country “more stupid”. Merkel’s intention might have been to defuse the situation by alluding to the fact that Germany needed a skilled immigrant labour force, but comments such as “We feel tied to Christian values. Those who don’t accept them don’t have a place here,” gained the most media attention, not to mention providing fuel for right-wing xenophobes.

Of course, this isn’t just a German phenomenon. Anti-immigrant, populist feeling has been spreading throughout Europe over the last few decades. By popular referendum in Switzerland, a ban on minarets was put in place. In the Netherlands, anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders gained many seats in the recent parliamentary election on the basis of outlawing immigration from Islamic countries. In Sweden, the far right party, the Sweden Democrats, has entered parliament; similarly, Austria has voted the far right Freedom Party into a coalition government.

But Islam has been present in Europe for many centuries, so what is to account for this recent surge in xenophobic sentiment? One of the reasons could be the perception of the threat of terrorism. Another, of course, could be rising insecurities owing to the “great recession”. This perceived threat of immigrants “taking away our jobs” is nothing new: the US has been pretty harsh in stopping the outsourcing jobs to India, as well, for example.

But is this perception supported by statistics? The short answer would be no. In the case of Germany, Der Spiegel magazine reports that the number of asylum seekers is only a sixth of what it was two decades ago, and the number of immigrants has not increased. Given the prediction that the German population will fall by close to 12 million by 2050, some commentators feel that the country should be doing everything it can to attract more skilled immigrants, rather than frightening them away with xenophobic rhetoric.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily the feeling on the ground. A recent survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that about a third of respondents felt Germany was “overrun by foreigners” who were exploiting the country for its social benefits. The survey shows increasingly xenophobic tendencies: About 60% of those interviewed prefer to restrict the practice of Islam, and 13% feel that a Führer, ruling with an iron fist, is what the country needs.

Even with regard to the specific fear of Islamist terror, the numbers reveal prejudice, rather than facts. A Europol report from 2009 found that 99.6% of terrorist attacks in Europe were perpetrated by non-Muslim groups, and 84.8% of attacks were by separatist groups completely unrelated to Islam.

Many commentators are not even aware of the extent of immigration in their country, or the reasons behind their economic problems. This phenomenon is termed “immigration innumeracy” – the lack of ability to reason with numbers about immigration. But the very fact that political leaders across Europe and beyond are beginning to mirror these sentiments, should serve as a wake-up call. This particular instance might be about Muslims, but any community could be the next target.

The debate on the merits of multiculturalism is a heated one. Countries like South Africa and India boast residents with a number of religions, ethnicities, regions and tribal affiliations. Yes, there are problems. India, for example, is no stranger to communal conflict, and Hindu-Muslim tensions are often rife in the country. In South Africa, the xenophobic attacks in 2008 were a reminder that there’s a vast gap between the ideals of our Constitution and attitudes on the ground.

But does it all prove that the ideal of multiculturalism has failed? Or is it rather that the people have failed to live up to an ideal still worth endorsing. And as long as there’s a wide gap between Europe, a collection of societies that is fairly homogenous (apart from these “outsider” elements) and these developing countries the “outsiders” are coming from, the issues of hatred will remain alive.

Most agree that a multicultural society leads to a broader worldview, and tends to be more open. It is only to be hoped that as new millennium continues, we can tolerate each other enough to celebrate multiculturalism, rather than see it as a threat. The alternative does seem sometimes to be a descent into a disturbing, fascist state, the precursors of which we see in Europe today. And the direction in which Angela Merkel will lead German society may just prove to be a shape of things for the wider European community to come. DM

Read more: Christian Science Monitor, BBC, The Guardian, Psychology Today.

Photo: People stand outside a fence sealing off the area around a burned out housing block in downtown Ludwigshafen, February 6, 2008. Turkish officials flew to Germany to help police investigate the cause of a fire which killed nine people, including five children, in a housing block largely inhabited by Turks.The cause of blaze in the apartment block in the western city of Ludwigshafen is unclear but the tragedy raised fears among Germany’s Turkish community of a targeted attack. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach


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