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Has Multiculturalism Failed in Europe?

Last Thursday, French president Nicolas Sarkozy joined the chorus of leaders from across Europe and denounced multiculturalism as a failure and the cause of home-grown “Islamic” terrorism. France being notoriously secular, this was no great surprise. It is not the first time that a European politician has slammed multiculturalism. This recent flame of criticism in the political sphere, however—re-ignited by Germany’s Angela Merkel and consequently fanned by UK prime minister David Cameron, Sarkozy, and more recently the deputy prime minister of the Netherlands—should not be dismissed.

Almost all of those who have spoken out against multiculturalism lately have accompanied their remarks with finger-pointing and scapegoating of a particular community.  In each case, the community happens to be both Muslim and a minority.

In last week's comments Sarkozy even makes reference to a Taliban-style Islam where all women are veiled, people are praying all over the streets, little girls are not allowed to go to school, and all imams preach violence in mosques. This is not an Islam, nor a France, that I recognize. Cameron put forth similar clichés around forced marriages and Islamist extremism in the UK.

It is this aspect of recent outcries about multiculturalism that is cause for concern. Undoubtedly, revised approaches to national identities and social inclusion are needed, but these statements singling out particular communities are not fostering feelings of belonging nor will they help build more inclusive societies.

Last week, I visited a school in North East London and listened to pupils and teachers sharing their experiences of belonging and identity. What struck me as I listened to them—Muslim, Christian, and of no faith, British and migrant—was their appreciation for living in a multicultural society, where they are valued and recognized for their differences as well as for their similarities.

It was not clear, however, that this feeling extended to a national sense of belonging: it is hard to hear a 15-year-old boy, born and brought up in the UK, talk about how he feels he might be “kicked out” of the country because of his ethnic and religious background.

In his speech on multiculturalism, David Cameron posed some questions which might be asked of Muslim organizations applying for government funding:

  • Do they believe in universal human rights—including for women and people of other faiths?
  • Do they encourage integration or separatism?

Maybe it is time to turn these questions around and ask what governments can do to make sure multiculturalism can help societies thrive.

Update February 22, 2011: Note that the clip subtitle contains a mistranslation: At 3.51', it states that Sarkozy is saying "we are a Catholic country"; the correct translation is "we are a secular country." (Thanks, Thomas!)

Update November 15, 2011: The video clip has been removed from this post as it is no longer publicly available on YouTube.

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