Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 April 2011
Issue No. 1044
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Is multi-culturalism dead in Europe?

The challenge to multi-culturalism in Europe, for some, is just Islamophobia by another name, writes El-Sayed Amin Shalabi*

Last fall, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pronounced the death of multi-culturalism in Germany. A group of former German ministers and members of parliament who were visiting the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs at the time were of the impression that Merkel was addressing the conservative wing in her own party. However, her statement reverberated not only through German society but also across the whole of Europe.

Lewis Gropp, a journalist who specialises in religious and cultural affairs issues, agreed that Merkel's statement was intended as a concession to the conservative grassroots in her party. However, he strongly disagreed her verdict, which he maintained had no basis in reality. "Multi-culturalism," he writes, "means nothing more than the functioning coexistence of various cultures within a community, which means that multi-culturalism is in fact a universal, timeless concept. And in a globalised world, this concept is more valid than ever before as there is no longer such a thing as an ethnically homogeneous society or nation." Nevertheless, Gropp took the occasion to remark upon mounting xenophobia in Germany. He drew attention, in particular, to the recently published Germany is Doing Away with Itself, by ex-politician and Deutsche Bank board member Thilo Sarrazin, which claimed that the high rate of immigration into Germany was leading to a dangerous civilisational decline and, in the process, spoiling the high-quality German gene pool.

Gropp found this attitude nothing less than "shameful", especially given that "Germany owes its rise as one of the world's most affluent nations not least of all to the hard- working Turkish immigrants that were lured here beginning in the 1960s. Without them, Germany would not be the rich country it is today." That the high rate of immigration posed an integration problem was, of course, undeniable. However, he stressed, the problem was mainly a socio-political one, not a religious or genetic one. It is noteworthy, in this regard, that former Minister of Interior Wolfgang Schöuble stated earlier last year that Islam was a part of Germany. The message was reinforced by new German President Christian Wulff in his 3 October 2010 speech on Germany Unity Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the reunification of Germany in 1990. However, Wulff subsequently came under heavy criticism both from within his party and from the general public, reflecting, in the words of Gropp, "a prevailing perception that he was undermining Western cultural values".

The immigration controversy in Germany resurfaced more recently following the appointment of Hans-Peter Friedrich as the country's new minister of interior. On the day he took office, he triggered widespread anger and anxiety amongst politicians, church leaders and representatives of the Muslim community when he declared, "Islam is not a key part of the German way of life," and that "the notion of Islam as an essential part of Germany can not be supported by history at any point." The Lutheran bishop of Berlin, Markus Dröge, expressed his shock at how some politicians singled out Islam in discussions of how to integrate Germany's diverse communities. "We have a way of life -- it is democratic, open and based on dialogue and human rights," he said. Lamya Kaddor, chairwoman of the Liberal-Islamic Union in Germany, was incensed. She described the new interior minister's remarks as "a slap in the face of Muslims," adding: "Such statements are not only politically and historically wrong, I think they are dangerous as they could undermine the progress between Muslims and Christians that previous interior ministers had encouraged." The flare-up in the integration controversy coincided with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent visit to Germany. Addressing a predominantly Turkish audience, he said, "I say yes to integration, but no to assimilation. You should definitely integrate with German society, but we are against assimilation."

Undoubtedly prompted by the controversy in Germany, European Union President Herman van Rompuy warned of rising tides of racism and ultra-nationalism in Western European countries. Although he did not specifically mention Muslims or Islam, it was clear that he was referring to mounting Islamophobia. He attributed the growth in anti-democratic populist and ultra-nationalist forces in European Union countries to feelings of insecurity and changes in ideological value systems, and held that the anxiety bred of such feelings led to "the apprehension of others" and to "the fear of 'enemies' within our borders and beyond our borders". British Prime Minister David Cameron broadened the controversy in his speech to the European Council on 5 February 2011, in which he addressed radicalisation and Islamic extremism. True, he was careful to stress that "Islamist extremism and Islam are not the same thing," and he emphatically refuted claims that Islam and the West are irreconcilable and other such civilisational clash rhetoric. The people who air such claims "fuel Islamophobia", he said. "I completely reject their argument. If they want an example of how Western values and Islam can be entirely compatible, they should look at what's happened in the past few weeks on the streets of Tunis and Cairo."

However, Cameron then proceeded to criticise "state multi- culturalism": "Under the doctrine of state multi-culturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values." He proceeded to speak of what he calls a "hands-off" tolerance of such behaviour, which, he claims, combines with the lack of vision to propel some young Muslims to search for something to belong to and believe in. "This can lead them to extremist ideology," he said, adding: "For sure, they don't turn into terrorists overnight. What we see is a process of radicalisation."

The alternative to "multi-culturalism" in Europe, according to Cameron, is to build stronger societies and identities. The key towards this end is "a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism." He explained: "A passively tolerant society says to its citizens: 'As long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.' It stands neutral between different values. A genuinely liberal country does much more. It believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens: 'This is what defines us as a society. To belong here is to believe in these things.'"

To many observers, this was Cameron's most important speech since coming to power. While it echoes Merkel, as well as Sarkozy, it went further in its appeal to European governments to apply "less passive tolerance" and "much more active, muscular liberalism". It was a speech that conveyed a strong warning. Britain will no longer officially promote Islamic organisations "that are showered with public money despite doing little to combat extremism".

Islamic organisations in the UK were quick to condemn Cameron's speech. Speaking on behalf of the Muslim Council of Britain, a major recipient of government funding for projects aimed at fighting terrorism, its assistant secretary- general, Faisal Hanjra, described the speech as "disappointing". "Again, it just seems the Muslim community is very much in the spotlight, being treated as part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution," he said. In like manner, a spokesperson for a leading Muslim youth organisation in the UK accused the British prime minister of "feeding the hysteria and paranoia about Islam and Muslims". He cautioned that this singling out of Muslims would only drive Muslims and non-Muslims further apart, which his organisation would not allow.

* The writer is executive director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 1044 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Economy | Region | International | Opinion | Readers' corner | Press review | Culture | Features | Living | Sports | People | Cartoons | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map