The slow death of multiculturalism in Europe

October 28, 2010

Has multiculturalism run its course in Europe? If one takes a picture of
certain European countries today and freezes it, that would be the
logical conclusion.

The European right is thriving on anti-immigrant attitudes and is likely
to continue to reap the benefits in the short term. But there are forces
that are sure to keep multiculturalism alive whether we like it or not.

Take Germany as an example. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said bluntly
that Germany has failed to integrate large immigrant communities. The
complaint is that most Turks and Muslims who came to Germany in the
1960s to jumpstart the German economy after World War II have not
integrated into German society. They kept their language, religion and
most of their cultural habits. Instead of blending in, they created
their own parallel societies.

But is it logical to conclude that multiculturalism is dead because
certain European countries have failed to integrate their minority
communities? First of all, what some European countries present as
multicultural policies have very little to do with multiculturalism.
Again Germany is a case in point. German governments welcomed Greek,
Italian, Portuguese and Turkish workers in the 1950s and 1960s and
treated them as “guest workers.” But it never occurred to them that
these so-called guest workers were also human beings with social and
familial needs just like any other people. As a result, the German
governments made very little or no effort in creating a social and
political environment for them to integrate.

But it would be a mistake to think this is only a matter of policy. The
deeper issue is how culture and multiculturalism are understood in the
German context. “Multiculturalism” as a term has largely negative
connotations because “Kultur” in German means something rather different
than culture in French and/or English. Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler and
Thomas Mann used Kultur to denote the intellectual, spiritual, artistic
and religious values of a society. For many German thinkers in the 19th
century, civilization, which meant European civilization, was a sign of
decadence and loss of cultural purity. Culture, by contrast, meant
something more profound, something to be found in the Geist of a nation.
Given this definition of culture, how is any non-German-born person
supposed to participate in the German culture?

Besides these critical issues, what is the alternative to
multiculturalism? Forced integration? Assimilation? Walls of separation?
Or a complete halt of all immigration? The last option, which is the
never-ending political talk of all right-wing political parties from
Berlin and Paris to Washington, is not an option at all. The reason is
that the economic realities of globalization, the current state of labor
force and demographic trends in Europe make it impossible to stop

The age of cultural purism has ended. Europeans need to wake up to this
simple fact. As Fernand Braudel, the prominent French historian of
civilization, said: “The history of civilizations, in fact, is the
history of continual borrowings over many centuries, despite which each
civilization has kept its own original character. It must be admitted,
however, that now is the first time when one decisive aspect of a
particular civilization has been adopted willingly by all the
civilizations in the world…”

Instead of mourning the loss of an imaginary cultural heritage, we need
to articulate a new definition of culture. This definition will have to
be based not on some abstract notions and traits but on a deep sense of
social and filial empathy, a sense of reaching out to others, and
enriching oneself through the discovery of the other. An ethics of
coexistence can nourish a sense of cultural empathy without alienating

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