Monoculturalism is dead: multiculturalism has yet to come

21 February 2011
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In Germany, conservatives criticize a pastiche of multiculturalism to justify authoritarian policies and deflect attention from decades of neglect, argues Claus Leggewie. Failure to recognize Muslims as part of society is to risk repeating an historical mistake.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit once said that he knew the ’68 movement in Germany had won by a comment from a conservative colleague: “It doesn’t work with the Muslims, they harass their women.” We’ve been hearing for years that multiculturalism has failed, and now the German chancellor — who, incidentally, could only become chancellor because ’68 and ’89 did work — has added her voice to the chorus. Gender equality a success, integration of immigrants a failure?

Despite the flak it’s coming in for at the moment, multiculturalism lives and will prevail. As the one to import the term “Multikulti” to Germany (I titled a book after Don Cherry’s eponymous band in 1990), allow me to explain not only what Cohn-Bendit, but also liberal conservatives like Heiner Geissler, meant by it. Not, namely, as Angela Merkel recently put it, in front of an audience of cheering young Christian Democrats: “Now we’ll do a bit of multikulti and live side-by-side and everyone’s happy.” Anyone who has read the original arguments and the numerous subsequent studies knows that multiculturalism was not demanding arbitrariness or the Sharia, but rather the republican integration of diversity.

That included abandoning an utterly antiquated law on nationality, adopting forwards-looking social and employment policy, guaranteeing religious freedom as stipulated in the constitution, and a whole range of educational initiatives. The problems today indicated by terms such as “parallel society” and “schooling failure” were predicted by the advocates of multiculturalism pretty exactly. It was they who were the realists.

The addressees of their criticisms and suggestions were Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union and parts of the Social Democratic Party no less hostile to immigration. Those parties practiced exactly what Kohl’s successor Merkel is today blaming on multiculturalism: school classes taught in the mother tongue, Hodjas flown in from Turkey, precarious employment conditions and civil rights abuses. It was only possible to “live side-by-side” despite these things because there was a delusion that, having earned a bit of money, guest workers would go home to their families. Pure fantasy.

Now the chancellor is getting cross in order to detract attention from at least twenty years of failed immigration and integration policy, for which her party is to blame. The CDU resembles parents that complain about their teenage children, forgetting that they were the ones responsible for their upbringing. And because it was the CDU (and not some multiculturalist party) that let things slip, it is now proposing authoritarian measures against people who “refuse” to integrate, measures whose effectiveness no one believes in.

Despite outdoing even the US with its unregulated immigration during the 1990s, Germany has long been a net country of emigration. Not least because people educated in Germany are now “returning home”, as it were, with good qualifications. That is hardly surprising given the blatant bad temperedness of a country, which, with panic-titles like Thilo Sarrazin’s recent Germany abolishes itself, veritably scares off new immigrants. But who is going to fill the hundreds of thousands of vacancies for engineers and skilled workers? Who will care for today’s multikulti-baiting blogger when he gets old?

“The broken relationship between state and society is impairing the creative potential of our society and preventing us carrying out the tasks facing us at the local and global level. We waste time with ill-tempered passivity and have better things to do with our lives, our country and humanity.” This text ought to be familiar to Angela Merkel: it belongs to the founding statement of the Neues Forum, the East German opposition movement of 1989. It is no less valid today.

The result of the Sarrazin debate is that society is now mobbing immigrants and supposed multiculturalist fantasists. It seems as if the refusal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to integrate Jews into the everyday life of German society is going to be repeated, only this time it will be secular Islam that those who rant on about “Christian-Jewish culture” — of all things — fail to recognize. Anyone who declares Islam to be a foreign body in the West, without differentiating, serve the cause of Islamists, who claim exactly the same thing.

German Leitkultur instead of multiculturalism: that would be unconstitutional. It may be that the norms of western democracy stem from particular traditions, for example the Christian-Jewish one. However they can’t be allowed to merge with these and be used in the cultural war against other traditions.

Regardless of how much occident the Christian Democratic Union projects into its programme, the multicultural everyday will continue to develop. That includes its unpleasant aspects, which no one is denying. And with its better aspects it will hopefully attract talent to Germany, talent that an ageing majority is busy scaring off. Multiculturalism bashing — how boring! It’s time to stop the scaremongering and pursue a policy that doesn’t drape itself in statistics and sound bites. A policy that is calm, friendly and progressive at the same time.

Published 21 February 2011

Original in German
Translation by Simon Garnett
First published in Süddeutsche Zeitung 10.11.2010 (German version); Eurozine (English version)

© Claus Leggewie Eurozine

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