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The slow death of multiculturalism in Europe

Source : Ibrahim Kalin | Today's Zaman
28 Oct 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 immigration.

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 anyone.