Defining Ideas

Multiculturalism Uber Alles?

Monday, December 13, 2010
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Image credit: 
Barbara Kelley

Muslim immigration has caused contemporary democracies on both sides of the Atlantic to struggle with questions about the character of Western political communities. Specifically, should nations depend on some degree of cultural cohesion—a common language, history, and values that citizens would share—or is multiculturalism more valuable? What kind of cultural integration is possible for Muslim immigrants? This is a question that Germany has been debating recently.

In Western Europe, immigration involves populations largely (but not exclusively) from the Muslim world, especially Turkey, North Africa and South Asia. As heated as the immigration debate sometimes becomes in the U.S., the cultural differences between Latin Americans arriving in the U.S. are much smaller than those of Muslims arriving in Western Europe. Add to this the U.S.’s established history of assimilating immigrants, which is much less part of the national narratives of European countries, and it becomes evident that integrating immigrants into Western European countries is no easy matter.

German Multiculturalism
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

The issue of Muslim immigration is exacerbated of course by post 9/11 concerns about terrorism: the point is not that all Muslims are terrorists (a silly and wrong assertion), but that some alienated immigrant youth can grow susceptible to jihadist recruitment, leading to "home-grown terrorism." Some European countries have reacted to the rise of Islam in Europe in controversial ways: the plebiscite against minaret construction in Switzerland is one example, and the debates over banning the burqa in France and in Belgium are another.

The philosophical struggle Western Europe faces over immigration, Islam, and national identity has come to a head in a particularly instructive way in Germany, which is where, after all, 9/11 leader Mohammed Atta studied engineering and underwent his radicalization.

In Germany, October 3 is a national holiday, the "Day of German Unity," celebrating the end of the post-Cold War division of West Germany and East Germany. Delivering a formal address in Bremen on the twentieth anniversary of the unification this past October, the current Federal President of Germany, Christian Wulff, naturally chose unity as his theme and insisted on the urgency of overcoming the divisions in contemporary German society caused by Muslim immigration.

The Federal President of Germany, Christian Wulff, thinks that Islam is a part of Germany’s heritage, the same way Christianity and Judaism are.

Wulff’s very political speech displayed a careful even-handedness, criticizing those who harbor prejudices against immigrants, while also calling on immigrants to learn the German language and to respect German values. Yet one passage in Wulff's address set off a firestorm of criticism and for good reason: "Above all we need a clear position: an understanding of Germany that does not limit membership to a passport, a family history or a faith, but that is more broadly defined. Christianity belongs undoubtedly to Germany. Judaism belongs undoubtedly to Germany. That is our Christian-Jewish history. But Islam too now belongs to Germany."

Protests were particularly vociferous in the ranks of Wulff's own conservative party. Had the president intended to claim that Islam has defined German identity as much as Christianity and Judaism have done? Such a cultural claim would be unacceptable to most Germans; it would also be wrong. Yet a more generous reader could understand Wulff as merely asserting that all citizens, regardless of faith, have an equal claim on the state and the rights it guarantees. The problem then was a rhetorical slippery slope: no one could object to Wulff's denunciation of prejudice, nor to his insistence that German citizens of Muslim faith have all the rights of other German.

But Wulff moved beyond these important and incontrovertible principles by suggesting that Islam has become a defining component of German identity on par with the "Christian-Jewish history." At that point, his effort at political correctness went dangerously beyond mere tolerance to a strained and untenable claim about Germany’s traditions and culture. Christianity and Judaism have roots in Central Europe stretching back to the Roman Empire, and they both contributed to the formation of German culture. But Islam?

This objection came from a rather unexpected quarter, a prominent German historian, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, whose life work has been devoted to studying Germany's difficult departure from pre-democratic social and political forms and its path to the eventual establishment of a modern democratic culture and polity. Wehler is hardly a conservative. On the contrary, he is a left-liberal advocate of democratization. But precisely for that reason, he is all the more an opponent of the multiculturalism and cultural relativism that threaten to undermine equality before the law.

Wehler is also a professor of history who is not afraid to give the president a failing grade:

What the President says is historically wrong. Islam is not a part of Germany. We participate in the western, Christian-Jewish culture. The President did mention that, but his next sentence is misleading. For centuries, Islam was an enemy of this Europe. Islam did not become part of the culture or the social life of Germany, regardless of whether you look at law, politics or constitutional thought.

If the President simply meant to underscore the importance of integration, he had chosen his words poorly, since—for Wehler—the historical questions have a very contemporary urgency:

The great achievement of the high middle ages was the separation of religious and worldly power. The separation of Church and State is a fundamental fact in the West. This is the opposite of conditions in Muslim countries. We have to defend the advantage of our political culture ferociously.

Cultural integration, which Wehler supports, is difficult enough, and it should not be impeded by offering an olive branch to sharia–but that is precisely what Wulff's statement seemed to suggest.

The debate over Wulff's October 3 speech took place in the context of a wider controversy in Germany. In August, Theo Sarrazin, a Social-Democratic (center-left) member of the board of the Bundesbank, published a controversial book, "Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab" (Germany is dismantling itself). The book warned of the consequences of immigration. Some of its extreme phrasing provoked outrage, and in September, Sarrazin was forced to resign from the bank. But the book touched a cultural nerve and generated widespread support.

Then in October, less than two weeks after Wulff's speech, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Multikulti—the dismissive German diminutive term for multicultural policies—had failed. In the underlying debate, two distinct themes are intertwined: the scope of future immigration to Germany—how many immigrants should be allowed in, especially in the context of high unemployment—and the relationship of the immigrant communities to the host culture.

Will German Muslims become more "German," or will they remain ensconced within immigrant ghettoes?

There is widespread perception that Muslim immigrants, far from integrating into the German environment, are self-segregating into a parallel society, with little chance to assimilate into the majority culture. Matters are made worse by Germany’s welfare-state, since low-income immigrants receive considerable public assistance and represent a significant burden on the state budget. There is a growing sense in Germany that welfare support should be linked more tightly to expectations of integration, including German language acquisition.

Aspects of the debate are defined by a specifically German context: the very large Turkish minority, the shadows of the Nazi past (leading to a national reluctance to insist that a foreigner adopt German culture), and the high welfare state subsidies. Of course what happens in Germany is important in its own right: the German economy is the foundation of the European Union, and Germany has been a reliable ally to American foreign policy. Yet the ideas that animate the German immigration debate—and its debate over Islam—are pertinent in the United States as well.

For instance, on one extreme, we find the assertion in Germany that Islam is not only incompatible with the Western cultural tradition, but that it is necessarily hostile to it. From this point of view, Muslims represent a threat, either through retrograde values (gender inequality) or through terrorist violence. This camp is legitimately described as Islamophobic. One of the ironies is that the Islamophobes—westerners who fear Islam—are in basic agreement with the jihadist radicals: both see Islam as incompatible with Western values.

Second, a more moderate position, held for example by Chancellor Merkel, involves a recognition of the economic necessity of some regulated immigration, coupled with the insistence that immigrants integrate into mainstream culture. For this center-right camp, the core challenge involves the integration process: will German Muslims, over a couple of generations, become more "German," or will they remain ensconced within immigrant ghettoes?

Third, liberals like the historian Wehler or the German-Syrian political scientist, Bassam Tibi, emphasize the democratic values of modern society. Tibi has dubbed these values the Leitkultur or defining culture—by which he does not mean the culture of German literature and the arts, but the bedrocks of modernity: equal rights, the dignity of individuals, the rule of law, and the separation of church and state. Immigrants are welcome, but society should insist that they accept these cultural principles.

Fourth, large swaths of the center-left remain mired in the multiculturalism of the late twentieth century. Many European countries continue to be burdened by guilt for their colonial pasts, a guilt which facilitates multiculturalism. For Germany, another factor reigns supreme: the burden of the Nazi era makes Germans unwilling to insist that immigrants give up their own culture and assimilate. Multiculturalism turns out to be a way for Germans to avoid standing up for a common national identity. For adherents of this relativist viewpoint, Wehler's progressive insistence on the priority of the western political tradition seems antiquated, while Merkel's call for integration can, strangely enough, be judged to be repressive.

Finally, on the far left, one finds the strangest position of all. Progressive thinkers and activists, who typically support full gender equality, gay rights, and unrestricted lifestyles, while opposing established religion and traditional values, display an uncritical affinity for fundamentalist Islam, with its retrograde gender roles and restrictive lifestyle. For these progressives, extremist Islam has come to represent the new Communism, whose vision of repressive equality and terrorist violence functions as the contemporary form of anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism.

There are important parallels in the debates over immigration and religion in Germany and the United States. In both countries, conservatives are predisposed to value national traditions, appreciate religion's place in the public sphere, and link responsible immigration policies to expectations of integration. Meanwhile, the left—though it otherwise tends to be dismissive of national traditions and religion—casts aside most of its progressive values and leaps to the defense of Islam, whether at the Ground Zero mosque or in parallel debates in Europe.