“The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History”

“The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History”
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A book by Rita Chin 

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: A European country encourages working-age men from beyond Europe to migrate to its major cities, where they are to provide the largely manual labor needed to catalyze and then sustain an open-ended economic boom. The country in question does not confer citizenship upon these foreign workers, given the (ostensibly mutual) understanding that they are sojourners, not immigrants. For the same reason, it provides little assistance of the sort that would ease their cultural acclimation. However, the men eventually do receive permission to send for their wives and children, given the government’s hope that this will stave off romantic relationships on their part with local women, a phenomenon that could result in their wanting to stay. Having thus facilitated the creation of a community (or communities) of foreigners in its midst, the European host country tarries for decades before acknowledging the permanence of the situation and grappling with its ramifications.

The above shortsighted approach, with slight variations, was pursued by several western European states after World War II, as Rita Chin demonstrates in “The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History.” In addition to relating how these countries came to include large communities of non-Europeans within their borders, Chin’s book examines the differing ways they (belatedly) attempted to manage both cultural diversity and integration. Last but not least, the author explains why such efforts, despite their dissimilarities, are now widely written off as the failure of a single approach called multiculturalism. Her focus on government policy admittedly results in scant coverage of immigrant groups themselves and near-total disregard of the native-born, often working-class communities that resented their growth and eventually threw their weight behind right-wing political parties. Nevertheless, “The Crisis” provides an indispensable account of multiculturalism understood as two things: the fact of demographic diversity and strategies for dealing with such a phenomenon.

Click here to read long excerpts from “The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe” at Google Books.

Chin, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, is an expert on Germany, the subject of her two earlier books. Here, she delves into the history of several European countries’ experience with immigration, paying particular attention not just to Germany, but Britain, France and the Netherlands. Today, each of these states is home to millions of people of non-European origin, the majority of them Muslim. This demographic transformation was powered by governments encouraging an inflow of purportedly temporary “guest workers” for economic reasons, but also by two politico-historical factors. The first was both Britain’s and France’s recognition that maintaining their colonies in an age of decolonization would entail granting colonial subjects the right to make their way to the metropole. The second, which followed inevitable decolonization, was a moral responsibility on the part of Britain, France and the Netherlands to those former colonials who had served them loyally and who for this very reason were rendered vulnerable in newly independent states. Chin sums it all up thus: “The twin concerns of empire and labor … drove the emergence of multicultural societies.”

When governments later tried to stem the influx of migrants-cum-immigrants, complications arose. If the economy was on the upswing, big business would balk. And if the announced date for the start of a stricter policy was well into the future, the interim would witness an uptick in arrivals by panicky overseas former subjects or guest workers’ families. At times, immigration law became a political football; measures tightening entry requirements would take effect—but then get softened or even scrapped altogether by a new governmental administration.

All this was not without social consequences. Unfortunately, however, Chin skims over the buildup of resentment among ordinary people who opposed mass migration; before the 1980s, they pop up here only to commit acts of violence or register small electoral gains. When the author finally turns to the subject of anti-immigrant views in earnest, it is to discuss mainstream politicians jumping on the bandwagon in the late ’80s and ’90s, and to try to pick apart their arguments.

As mentioned, many of the immigrants to Europe were Muslim. Yet they often hailed from countries with distinct cultures and languages. At first, these differences were appreciated by their hosts. But a couple of jolting developments would change that.

“With the onset of the Rushdie and headscarf affairs in 1989 … these previously distinctive national groups were recast as part of an ethno-religious monolith,” Chin remarks. This took place across Europe, given the continental waves generated by Iranian ruler Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for the murder of Salman Rushdie (who lived in Britain, where local Muslims held mass demonstrations demanding his novel “The Satanic Verses” be banned), and the ripples caused by a minority of French Muslim girls refusing to remove their headscarves in public schools. The 9/11 atrocity in the U.S. and the string of terror attacks by extremist Muslims on European soil in the years since have only reinforced the impression of a monolith. (Chin neglects to mention this, but it hardly helps that al-Qaida and the Islamic State, whose European members or devotees were behind most of these outrages, comprise Muslims from virtually every nationality.) Many native Europeans have come to collapse disparate Muslims into a single putatively unassimilable entity, and to find proof of multiculturalism’s failure in the repeated instances of friction with, or violence by, Muslim immigrants or their descendants.

Yet what of European countries’ efforts to come to grips with multiculturalism before concerns about Muslims (both reasonable and overblown) led to the stigmatization of all things multicultural? Britain, the author notes, took the lead. This was in the 1960s, and occurred partly in response to discrimination against Afro-Caribbeans and Indo-Pakistanis. Interestingly, the Netherlands (with its Moroccan and Turkish populations) would later adopt an approach resembling that of Britain. “Both divided immigrants into ethnic minority groups,” Chin observes. “Both treated these groups as homogenous and separate. Both identified community representatives and enlisted them as interlocutors while encouraging ethnic minority groups to maintain separate identities.”

West Germany, on the other hand, took longest to adapt. After decades of relying on the local companies that hired foreign workers to tend to their needs (or not), the government made a tentative foray into this territory in the late 1970s—only for an electoral setback shortly thereafter to scuttle the project. It wasn’t until the late ’90s that a now unified Germany undertook citizenship reform, thereby “offering Turks and other guest workers a legal path to national belonging.” Notably, in the intervening two decades, local government picked up the slack. Chin pinpoints West Berlin Mayor Richard von Weizsäcker as a trailblazer. “In 1981, [he] created the post of ‘commissioner for foreign affairs’ to spearhead a city-based effort to incorporate guest workers and their families into German society. This office was the first of its kind at the local level and became a model for similar positions in other West German cities.”

Meanwhile, “French efforts to deal with ethnic and cultural diversity … operated within national integration policies that required the systematic effacement of differences” between immigrants (most of whom hailed from North or West Africa) and native French. As such, Chin considers it supremely ironic that in 2011, then-president of France Nicolas Sarkozy echoed the rhetoric of his British and German counterparts (Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor Angela Merkel, respectively) that multiculturalism had failed.

She’s right, of course, but the deeper implication of this consensus in Britain, France, Germany, and—to a lesser extent—the Netherlands is a lot more disturbing than ironic.

Forget about the many iterations of multiculturalism, the fact that French policy wasn’t even multicultural in the first place, and even embarrassingly simplistic perceptions of Muslims as an undifferentiated mass. The sad reality is that, for all their divergences in approach, “race relations” in Britain, “pillarization” in the Netherlands, “insertion” in France, and what the author terms “willful neglect” in Germany on the federal level (along with more solicitous local initiatives) have done little to bridge economic, educational and social gaps between immigrants and native Europeans. Everybody from mainstream political parties to immigrant communities to the ascendant right wing seems to agree on this point. What does such a conclusion portend for multiculturalism as a whole?

Chin concedes that in any given country, discarding a specific policy officially named or informally dubbed “multiculturalism” may be justified. “But the basic fact,” the author reminds the reader, “is this: the multicultural populations that exist in Europe are not going away.” (Emphatically true—moreover, their numbers have just been augmented by the large-scale arrival of Syrian refugees and others.) As such, it is imperative to arrive at a modus vivendi that allows for continued cultural and religious pluralism. This vital admonition courses through both the introduction and conclusion to “The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe.” For her part, Chin is loath “to prescribe a specific form of multiculturalism that might serve as a cure-all for an enormously complicated politics.” That’s too bad. Yet she insists, as well she should, that whatever the strategies settled upon, a careful balance must be struck on two levels: between cultural specificity and national belonging, and between communal expression and individual dissent. Otherwise, we had better brace ourselves for “ideological violence and … the specter of social apartheid.”

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