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October 19, 2007

Multiculturism as a Failed Cure

One country that tried to heal divisions only made them deeper, as Hoover senior fellow Paul Sniderman discovered. By John Crace.

The best ideas often have the most unpromising beginnings. Toward the end of the 1990s, at a conference in Italy, Paul Sniderman had just finished presenting his findings on immigrant minorities from East Europe and Africa when a delegate stood up to ask him a question. “He was only about four sentences in when I realized there was a huge gap in my research and that I didn’t have a clue what the answer was,” he says.

The question that left him speechless was this: if, as Sniderman argued, people didn’t distinguish between minorities in their prejudices—those who were systematically hostile to one were likely to be systematically hostile to another—how did he reconcile this with the fact that there were clearly hierarchies of minorities?

Later that afternoon, at a different seminar, the same person asked him another question that was almost as tricky. Again, Sniderman had no hiding place. “I couldn’t escape the fact that I had clearly made a big mistake,” he says. Many academics might have adopted a policy of damage limitation, before sloping off to lick their wounds in private. Sniderman did something rather different. He invited his conference nemesis—a Dutchman named Louk Hagendoorn—to collaborate on a research project to find out the answers he didn’t have.

This turned out to be the best decision Sniderman ever made. Sniderman, a senior Hoover fellow and Stanford political-science professor, and Hagendoorn embarked on a study of Muslim minorities in the Netherlands. “We were very lucky,” he says, “because we began our research before anyone was aware there was a problem, before September 11, and well before the murders of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and the gay right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn. This meant there was a purity to our work that wouldn’t have been there if we had been merely reacting to events. We were getting a snapshot of a society before it could be distorted by outside events.”

According to their research—just published in a book, When Ways of Life Collide (Princeton University Press)—deep divisions between locals and Muslim immigrants existed much earlier than anyone had previously suspected in the tolerant, democratic Netherlands.

“There was this feeling,” Sniderman says, “that because the Dutch government was so openly committed to pursuing a policy of multiculturalism, and because there had been no trouble between Muslims and the Dutch, then that policy must be working.

“Yet we discovered something quite different. While any society will always have its fair share of bigots, we also found that governmental multiculturalism made the problem worse. By arguing that all groups in society should be allowed to live according to their own beliefs and customs, they were encouraging people to see themselves as different from one another. And not just a little bit different, but fundamentally different. So it fostered a them-and-us attitude to politics.”

At one level, this is all very obvious. The more value you attach to questions of identity, the more reaction you are likely to get, with the result that people who don’t normally care very much about ideas of national identity can be provoked into extreme attitudes. But there are ironies and nuances at work. For one thing, Dutch policies of multiculturalism had their origins in racism rather than liberalism. The idea that minorities should maintain their traditions stemmed from the belief that their presence would be only temporary and that sooner or later they would be going “back home.” So the idea that multiculturalism might backfire shouldn’t be quite as shocking as it seems.

But what also emerges from this study is the thinness of the line between difference and prejudice. “We found that views typically held by otherwise tolerant Dutch people—that Muslims treated women badly and were too authoritarian with their children—were counterbalanced by Muslim attitudes towards the Dutch,” says Sniderman. “Muslims believed the Dutch were disrespectful towards women and failed to discipline their children properly. So this wasn’t about prejudices held by religious fanatics on both sides; it was a genuine conflict of values between two communities. It was the focus on these differences, through the pursuit of multiculturalism, that tipped the balance towards prejudice in some cases.”

Sniderman is too cautious to generalize from his data, but he will concede there are parallels that can reasonably be made between Britain and the Netherlands, particularly in regard to faith schools. “The Dutch always pursued a segregated education policy of different schools for Protestants and Catholics,” he says, “and it seemed obvious for them to apply the same principles for Muslims.

“Yet the evidence proves this hasn’t worked. The biggest predictor of integration and social mobility in the Netherlands is the ability to speak Dutch, and kids at Muslim schools are not learning the language as well as students in other schools. The result is that second-generation Muslim immigrants are actually becoming worse off than their parents, a situation that can only cause more problems. And if the British government continues to promote faith schools, it could well find itself in a similar predicament.”

Yet Sniderman does not reckon that trying to enforce a national British identity is the answer, as it also keeps the focus firmly on similarity and differences. So what is the solution? “Ah,” he says carefully, “I’m in the knowledge business, not the wisdom business. So I’m not really qualified in this.

“But it doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about it, and what I have come up with is this: Western governments should learn to chill out a little more. They should have more belief in the strength of liberal democracies. They’re a great deal less fragile than they imagine. They should legislate less for how they want people to feel, and more on the things that really matter, such as educational opportunity.”

John Crace writes for the Guardian (U.K.).

This essay appeared in the Guardian (U.K.) on July 3, 2007. © Guardian News & Media Ltd.

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