Has multiculturism failed?

Every now and then – especially in Europe, it seems, – someone in a prominent position on the public stage announces the death of multiculturism.

In 2004, the former head of England’s now defunct Race Commission, Trevor Phillips, said multiculturalism belonged to another era and the fact that Shakespeare is not taught is bad for immigrants. The Archbishop of York also railed against the concept as being un-English and called for the celebration of St. George’s day as a symbol of the English identity.  This week it was German Prime Minister, Angela Merkel. Merkel who was speaking to a meeting of younger members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party at Potsdam near Berlin, said “multikulti” had “utterly failed”. Commentators such as Philip Oltermann in The Guardian said it was likely that Merkel was actually talking to Germany’s “4 million-strong Muslim population” – meaning she was keeping in line with the rising tide of anti-Islamic sentiment over the last decade and the increase of secular fundamentalism in European nations as opposed to the ideals of secularism that sought separation of Church and state. Formal equality in modern nation states seems to most often than not, always protect the majority population to the detriment of minorities.

After 9/11, one of the first reprisal killings was of a turban-wearing Sikh in Arizona, who was mistaken as belonging to the group which perpetrated the 9/11 incident. Sikhs due to their appearance have since been a target of hate and bias crime and discrimination. In the aftermath of terror events like 9/11, there is a tendency – rational or not – to make immigrants or those who appear different to become more like the host society so their differences do not threaten the masses. But often the distinction between assimilation and integration becomes blurred at too high a cost. At UNITED SIKHS we have fought against unfair rulings that threatened the Sikh identity – such as our globe-spanning Right to Turban and Right to Kaakars campaigns. In our work, some Sikhs have been turned away from everyday places like Social Security offices, been humiliated or discriminated during airport security screenings because of their appearance and for wearing articles of faith, like kirpans. This is why respecting others’ religious identities is important and should not be waved away in a single motion by the statement that multiculturism has utterly failed.

Multiculturism is too complex to die completely, anyway. It remains in the form of tolerance of other cultures. As Amnon Rubenstein, said in an article in the New York Sun in 2006, it is a part and parcel of a democratic norm, in which the “other” is accepted. But as a concept that entitles different cultures and religions to equal treatment, it may well be dead and buried.

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