28 May

Multicultural Prospects in the Age of Migration

Posted By Politybooks

First posted 28th October 2010

Multiculturalism is an utter failure and ethnically diverse groups do not enjoy living side by side. At least that’s the assessment of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, expressed in a speech to the youth wing of her own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) earlier this month. Merkel argued that when Germany encouraged foreign workers into the country to tackle labour shortages in the early 1960s, it was assumed that, ‘… they won’t stay and that they will have disappeared again one day. That’s not the reality’. Without giving specific reasons why multiculturalism is deemed to have failed, Merkel’s comments are just the latest in a wider European backlash against multicultural ideals. 

In August, Bundesbank executive Thilo Sarrazin’s book, Germany is Digging its Own Grave, told us that foreigners were breeding rapidly and turning Germans into strangers in their own country; that Muslim migrants were closely linked to criminal activity and dependency on welfare; that many Arabs and Turkish people ‘have no productive function other than in the fruit and vegetable trade’; and that Turkish and Kurdish migrants have a high level of ‘congenital disabilities’ which leads to failure in the state school system. His disparaging views were denounced by many, including Angela Merkel herself. In a recent opinion poll, some 30% of Germans also thought that the country was overrun with foreigners who should be sent home if unemployment was rising. Such criticisms of immigration and multiculturalism are not restricted to Germany.

In July, French MPs voted to ban the wearing of the burka or niqab in public places, following a passionate and divisive public debate about foreign cultures and French political ideals. Immigration was also a key issue in the May 2010 British General Election, with then Prime Minister Gordon Brown becoming embroiled in a row after describing a voter who merely raised the issue of immigration as ‘a bigoted woman’. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom won 9 seats in 2006 but 24 in 2010 on a larger share of the vote than the main party in the previous coalition government, the Christian Democrats. Wilders declared: ‘More security, less crime, less immigration, less Islam – this is what Holland chose.’ Wilders is currently on trial for inciting racial hatred.

But what is meant by multiculturalism that provokes such strong reactions? The answer is not at all clear. In sociology, multiculturalism is generally taken to mean that minority cultures should not be expected to exist in private whilst the majority culture is taken as the public norm, but that the majority and minorities should participate on equal terms. Not to do so risks damaging the self-esteem of those from minorities and making peaceful coexistence less likely. Bhikhu Parekh (2000) argues that we all benefit from multiculturalism as it brings cultures into dialogue with each other, expanding the horizons of us all. In this sense multiculturalism is not simply cultural pluralism – the existence of numerous different cultures within a society. Cultural pluralism describes most societies around the world over a very long time period. However, multiculturalism is, in reality, a political issue of state policy. Should states encourage and promote multiculturalism as the best way to achieve social solidarity? [For UK views on the meaning of multiculturalism, see this article.]

Angela Merkel’s comments were targeted at Turkish migrant workers who were invited to Germany on the basis of a ‘guestworker’ model of immigration. This model granted certain limited rights for migrants which fell short of full citizenship, and it is this model that created the expectation of short-term residency. But of course, when people move across national boundaries to find work, they have to create lives for themselves, make new friends, have children and settle into and contribute to their new communities. Merkel is aware of the positive contribution of migration. In the speech she noted that migrants have brought necessary skills and knowledge that have been beneficial and that they shouldn’t be blamed for not immediately speaking German. But she also said that, ‘… the demand for integration is one of our key tasks for the times to come’. If the demand for integration means assimilation of minorities into a dominant German culture, then it would mark a move away from multiculturalism.

Our globalizing world is producing an age of migration (Castles and Miller 2003) in which national boundaries have become more permeable and many more people move around the world for work, leisure and business. But one unsettling issue arising is how to marry the diversity of cultures with a universal commitment to a single set of national laws and rules. From the examples above it is clear that, in Europe at least, the debate on multiculturalism has become dominated by the discourse of ‘Islam vs The West’, which can be found in theories of an inevitable ‘civilizational conflict’ centring on people’s identification with their own cultures.

In this guise, resistance to the supposed ‘Islamification’ of Europe has settled at the heart of our multicultural debate and the main reason for this is a growing Islamophobia – the prejudice against and exaggerated fear of Muslims and Islam. In turn, this owes much to the terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam by al-Qaeda and associated groups in Europe, the USA and elsewhere over the last 15 years or so, as well as the restrictions on civil liberties introduced to curtail them. But unless the debate on multiculturalism can be lifted out of this very narrow focus, into broader discussions of how best an inevitable cultural pluralism can be successfully managed to the benefit of all, then older and very simplistic notions of integration and assimilation are likely to continue gaining ground.

Chapter 16 on ‘Race, Ethnicity and Migration’ covers a lot of ground on multiculturalism and migration. There is a discussion of migration and ‘the underclass’ on pp. 504-7, and for Islam see pp. 736-7 and pp. 754-7. A long-term perspective on migration and population movements is useful and this can be found in Chapter 4, Part One, ‘Types of Society’.

For more in-depth discussions of multiculturalism, legislation against the veil, and questions of immigrant citizenship, you might be interested in the following short books:

Multiculturalism, Tariq Modood; 

Veil: Mirror of Identity, Christian Joppke; and

Citizenship and Immigration, Christian Joppke.


97807456 3288 9           97807456 4351 9          9780745642345_thumb


Castles, S and Miller, M. J. (2009) The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World, 4th Edition (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan). Web materials here: http://www.age-of-migration.com/uk/index.asp

Parekh, B. (2000) Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).