Whither multiculturalism?

There was an excellent column in the Globe and Mail this weekend by Margaret Wente, one of the Globe’s regular columnists. It is subscription-protected, but you may be able to access it by googling the title, “End of the multicultural myth”.

Welcome to the new millenium, in which radical Muslims are driving the global socio-political agenda. The West is stuck in a defensive posture, reacting rather than taking initiatives. Some of our most beloved notions are wearing thin:  including, as Wente points out, the multicultural ideal.

The Netherlands are leading the way — forward or backward, I’m not sure which.

Until very recently, the Netherlands was the most “progressive, liberal, tolerant nation on the planet,” according to Wente: but not anymore.

Starting this week, would-be immigrants (but not from the European Union or North America) are required to watch a video about life in the Netherlands. It includes shots of bicycles and windmills, and also of a topless woman and two men kissing. “People don’t make a fuss about nudity,” says the narrator, who also informs us that men can marry other men, and that women have equal rights.

“These are little facts we just want to give,” said one government spokesperson. But critics call the new immigration policy culturally biased and anti-Muslim. “This isn’t education, it’s provocation,” said Abdou Menebhi, who chairs a Moroccan interest group in Amsterdam. “The new law has one goal: to stop the flow of immigrants, especially by Muslims from countries like Morocco and Turkey.”

Dutch politicians deny it. But the critics are largely right. The Netherlands wants to slam the door on Muslims. The multicultural ideal has been a failure.

What has happened to bring about this reversal of values? A series of awful shocks, beginning with two murders:

of the gay politician Pim Fortuyn, who had warned about the threat of unassimilated Muslims, and then of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Muslim kids began harassing gay men and women on the streets. Instead of finding Dutch-born wives, second- and third-generation immigrants made arranged marriages with uneducated women from back home. Despite strenuous efforts at integration, Amsterdam’s school system became completely segregated.

We’ve all heard about the violence many times, but there is a second cause for alarm: the demographic trends.

Today, this little nation of 16 million people has a Muslim population of 920,000. Six hundred thousand immigrants don’t speak Dutch, and as many as 60 per cent are unemployed. Many of the foreign imams who are their main source of authority tell them they have no obligation to obey the rules of secular society. Theo van Gogh’s killer, a Dutch-born Moroccan, was so popular in some neighbourhoods that kids put pictures of him on their schoolbags. …

Islamic radicals are convinced that time and demographics are on their side. This week, Mullah Krekar, a leading Muslim supremacist living in Norway (which faces similar problems), said the triumph of Islam in Europe is inevitable. “The number of Muslims is expanding like mosquitoes,” he said. “By 2050, 30 per cent of the population in Europe will be Muslim.”

In the circumstances, Holland’s tough new immigration laws look less like discrimination than a desperate grab at cultural survival. “We demand a new social contract,” Jan Wolter Wabeke, a high court judge in The Hague, told Newsweek. “We no longer accept that people don’t learn our language, we require that we send their daughters to school, and we demand they stop bringing in young brides from the desert and locking them up in third-floor apartments.”

The new laws include tough restrictions on the practice of importing women for arranged marriages. The city of Rotterdam has passed a new “code of conduct” requiring that Dutch be spoken in public. Nationally, the burka has been banned.

Violence and demographics — these two trends are causing all European nations to reconsider the multicultural ideal:

Even before the Danish cartoon wars, attitudes had begun to harden in much of Europe. French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy says France should take a cue from the Netherlands. Some German states are now requiring would-be immigrants to take 600 hours of German-language courses. One German state has a citizenship test that asks about a person’s views on forced marriage, homosexuality and women’s rights. Another has introduced a test that asks whether the applicant believes in Israel’s right to exist.

North Americans are a little more insulated, but we cannot escape the issue that Wente has illustrated so effectively.

My oldest child begins university in September. I worry about what kind of a world my generation will pass on to him and his children.

I find climate change alarming. I worry that the human race will precipitate a global ecological crisis and try to slam on the brakes when it is too late to avoid a calamity.

And I worry about the decline of the West, as our lofty (but naive?) values are swamped by violence and demographics.

What do you think of the Netherlands’ attempts to discourage Muslim immigrants? Of its banning of burkas? Of Rotterdam’s law that people must speak Dutch in public?

What do you think of France’s schools forbidding children from wearing anything that would identify their religious affiliation? Of the citizenship test in one German state that asks about a person’s views on forced marriage, homosexuality and women’s rights?

I entitled this post, Whither multiculturalism. But perhaps I should have spelled it wither.


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. snaars
    Mar 20, 2006 @ 09:27:00

    There does seem to be a threat to multiculturalism here, but I reject Wente’s thesis that multiculturalism is a failure. I suggest that the essence of the conflict is a tension between principles of tolerance and moral rights. We must promote the former, but not at the expense of the latter.

    Tolerance is a necessary ingredient for multiculturalism. The downfall of multiculturalism happens when populations become intolerant. This could happen through immigration, as pointed out in the article, or it could happen from within a population over time.

    But tolerance alone is insufficient for multiculturalism. I could tolerate my religious zealot of a neighbor, and one morning he might just come over and brain me with a club. His “culture” wins, and my “culture” is gone. No multiculturalism.

    Multiculturalism will only work if my neighbor accepts my moral rights such as the rights to life, liberty, etc – and I accept his. (I’m sure other ingredients are necessary too – equal opportunity, education, protection under the law, etc. – but these don’t seem to bear directly on the issue at hand.)

    The video about the Netherlands is a great idea. It’s telling immigrants, “Look, these are some of the kinds of people you will have to live with if you move here. This is who we are. If you cannot tolerate this, then you are coming to the wrong place.” I hope that the video works as intended.

    As for the issues of enforcing language and dress, legilators would do better to uphold moral rights and promote tolerance and diversity rather than conformity.

    These events are disturbing, but I don’t think we are seeing the last nails being hammered into the coffin of the multicultural ideal. I have hope that it can still win out.


  2. Q
    Mar 20, 2006 @ 11:28:00

    I expect I’ll come back and respond to your comment in greater detail, but for now I just want to press you on one point. You write,

    As for the issues of enforcing language and dress, legilators would do better to uphold moral rights

    I think you need to look at language and dress from a woman’s perspective. (Yield to your anima, Snaars!)

    Language and dress are moral issues, if they are used to insulate you from the wider society and keep you socially and economically dependent on your husband and male relatives.

    I used to live in a part of Ontario with a large “old-order” Mennonite population. Many generations after they first moved to Canada, the women still speak only German. It creates conditions where injustices against women can proliferate.

    The burka is the same sort of thing. If people don’t interact with you, it’s hard to develop a social support network outside of your immediate family. As a result, you have nowhere to go if you’re beaten or suffer other kinds of repression.


  3. Mary P.
    Mar 20, 2006 @ 13:34:00

    Snaars beat me to my primary point. I don’t see the video itself as discriminating against any group – though it should be shown to ALL would-be immigrants, not just certain ethnic groups.

    The video displays the culture they are considering entering. If it is a culture that is morally repellant to them, they should look elsewhere to live. Seems reasonable.

    What is unreasonable is to flee one country, for whatever reasons, and then try to recreate it in the place you flee to.


  4. J
    Mar 20, 2006 @ 20:46:00

    I’m not much in favor of multiculturalism. To some extent, multiculturalism is a good thing, but on the other hand, diversity is always achieved at the expense of unity. Multiculturalism reinforces differences rather than draws people together based on their similarities. I think that’s…well…problematic.

    So I sympathize heavily with the Dutch resistance to immigration, and with their desire to have their language spoken in public places. To me, that seems completely reasonable. And I totally support the video (which is not the same as saying I support the values represented in the video, but that’s a different issue).

    I think you need to look at language and dress from a woman’s perspective.

    Yes, but what about the women who want to wear burkas? Certainly some women are coerced into it, but banning burkas doesn’t help anything if it prohibits the right of religious expression to those women who think it is morally important. I’m with snaars–the problem of oppression needs to be addressed some other way.


  5. Mrs.Aginoth
    Mar 21, 2006 @ 08:15:00

    I don’t believe multiculturalism has ever worked – not in the way the term has been used over the past couple of decades anyway. It is not possible for diverse and often opposing cultures to succeed unchanged within a single society.

    I am in favour of the Dutch video – if someone is immigrating they should be aware of the the rules of the country they wish to live in. if they can not live within those rules, why are they going there? However,
    I am not convinced about legislation rgarding dress & language – language because historically it hasn’t ever worked, it just creates ghettos, and dress because I don’t think it’s the gov’s job to tell people what to wear in a free society.

    Real multiculturalism is about compromise and convergance. Certain cultural/social rules are set by the gov (rights of the indvidual/religious observances et), and everything else is open to change (food, dress, idioms etc)

    I think we are just seeing a reversal of the failed experiment of multicuturalism, and will (I hope) return to true cultural acceptance in time.


  6. Q
    Mar 21, 2006 @ 10:01:00

    • Snaars:
    Multiculturalism will only work if my neighbor accepts my moral rights such as the rights to life, liberty, etc – and I accept his.

    I agree, of course. But I think there’s more to the issue than this.

    Multiculturalism refuses to pass judgement on cultures different from our own. But Muslim extremists are creating trouble in nation after nation around the globe.

    We’re being forced to consider the possibility that some cultures are systematically a problem; that (in this case) there’s something about Islam which condones militancy, promotes violence, and represses women; that Muslims from certain parts of the world are bringing baggage with them that we must repudiate, before they undermine core Western values.

    Even to admit that is to remove one of the pillars of the multicultural ideal. After Islam, what culture will we deem unacceptable next?

    I think that’s what Wente means by the multicultural “myth” — this notion that all cultures are created equal.

    (See also my comment to Mrs. Aginoth.)

    • Mary P.
    What is unreasonable is to flee one country, for whatever reasons, and then try to recreate it in the place you flee to.

    Well said. The West is an attractive place to live — let’s keep it that way!

    • Jamie:
    Multiculturalism reinforces differences rather than draws people together based on their similarities. I think that’s … well … problematic.

    We face that problem here in Canada: cultural diversity (including two official languages, plus a recognition of First Nations and Inuit as a community with a unique legal status) and only the vaguest idea of what we all have in common to constitute the Canadian identity.

    What about the women who want to wear burkas?

    I see that as a very difficult issue, and very pertinent re the question of whether multiculturalism is naive and unworkable.

    It’s true that many Muslim women want to wear burkas. It’s also true that they have been socialized to accept it as “for the good of” women.

    To really get a feel for this issue, consider “female circumcision“: aka clitoridectomy, aka genital mutilation.

    Many Muslim women believe it is good for a women to have this surgery, and they actively defend the practice for their daughters.

    At what point is it acceptable for one culture to pass judgement on another, and say, “your cultural norm is an abomination”? When is it acceptable for Western women to say to Muslim women, “Clitoridectomy and burkas are a curse, not a blessing — and we are going to make them illegal even though you think they’re good”?

    This goes to the core of the issue, whether multiculturalism is a viable ideal.

    • Mrs. Aginoth:
    Ultimately I agree with you and Snaars. We need to work out rational grounds on which to distinguish what practices of other cultures we’re not going to tolerate (though it is contrary to the multicultural ideal) and what practices we’re going to tolerate.

    I still think clothing is a more difficult case than anyone else is prepared to admit. Burkas are part and parcel of the subjugation and social isolation of women, which creates an environment where other kinds of repression can flourish.

    No doubt it’s more constructive to mandate education and language training than it is to outlaw the wearing of burkas. But no one should suppose burkas are just about modesty, or exclusively a question of individual conscience.


  7. snaars
    Mar 21, 2006 @ 11:52:00

    We seem to be much more in agreement than not. I empathize with you on the clothing issue. You’re right that the burkas insulate these minorities. Undoubtedly, many women desire to wear them, and others don’t.

    How many of the Jewish males in France are forced to wear kipot/yarmulkas?

    There have got to be better ways to break down social barriers, rather than legislating dress.

    It scares me. You know, I do some modeling of my fabulous bod on the side, so … nothing scares me quite so much as the fashion police.


  8. Sadie Lou
    Mar 22, 2006 @ 11:39:00

    I have so much blog-catch up to do. I’m sorry I haven’t had time to read or comment. I promise to get back in the loop as soon as I get better (I have a wretched cold and so does the baby)
    My hubby is going to look at your thoughts on that whole “different punishments in hell for different crimes/sin” thing on Ragged Glory.
    A kid in our youth group asked about it and Dan doesn’t know much about it. I told him to read your post.
    Is it cool if he usues some of your info?


  9. Q
    Mar 22, 2006 @ 14:04:00

    Hi, Sadie Lou:
    I worried at one point that you were deliberately giving me the cold shoulder. I’m glad that isn’t the case.

    Dan is welcome to use any information that he finds helpful. It would please me, in fact.


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