They are using the European economic crisis to advocate their racist and anti-minority policies. But while economic factors are playing a role, the problem is essentially related to identity politics, self-perception and a deep suspicion about multiculturalism and its alleged misdeeds.
Once hailed as a way of celebrating diversity while securing citizens’ loyalties, multiculturalism has become suspect for its ability to hold differences together. This is particularly true in Europe, where minorities and Muslim communities have become subjects of debate among intellectuals, academics and policymakers. The public visibility of Islam in Europe, with women wearing headscarves, bearded men, mosques, Islamic centers and so on, creates a sense of suspicion and separation even before any interaction occurs.
Muslim countries have their own share in the problem. Modern nation-states including those in the Muslim world see multiculturalism as suspect because it poses a challenge to the rarified and mostly imaginary notions of national unity and political loyalty. Muslims, non-Muslims, Sunnis, Shiites, Turks, Kurds, Arabs, etc. can all become suspect in the eyes of the authoritarian nation-state whether in Europe or in the Islamic world.
Critics talk about the failure of multiculturalism to create integrated societies. Multiculturalism, they argue, runs the risk of creating parallel communities. While multiculturalist policies embrace diversity and seek to protect the rights of individuals and communities, they also give a tacit license to “voluntary ghettos.” Instead of working towards a common good, diverse groups and communities begin to develop socio-political autonomy to the point of breaking up society. Without the glue to hold things together, no aggregate of social groups can be become a society.
The critics have a point. If everything moves in parallel universes, we may end up with radical social relativism. Without a higher good towards which all human beings are expected to work, how can we expect societies to gather around a presiding idea and go beyond their individual or group interests? For Plato and his Jewish, Christian and Muslim followers, relativism was a serious philosophical error. Now it has become a major social ill. With social relativism running wild, only the powerful and the mighty decide what is defined as the norm.
But we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Multiculturalism can work, provided all groups, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or social status, feel empowered by the connections they build with the broader society. Non-discrimination is key for securing unity and coherence without imposing uniformity and regimentation.
This requires an inclusive legal system based on the rule of law that guarantees justice, freedom and equality for all citizens. But it also requires an ethos of coexistence. No matter how perfect, no legal system can guarantee social peace; it must be supported by a social ethos that inculcates a sense of respect and celebration of diversity. It also entails a re-assessment of our self-perception and attitude towards others.
In this sense, the debate over multiculturalism in Europe is not so much about other societies but about Europe itself. The burqa debate in France, for instance, is more about France than about the Muslim women’s emancipation or integration into French culture and society. The burqa controversy gives French purists a chance to define themselves against an imagined threat. This is nothing less than a search for the soul of Europe.
The same is true for the Muslim suspicion of its own minorities. Jewish and Christian minority communities in Muslim countries have lived with Muslims for centuries and shared a common cultural landscape. Yet, the nation-state still considers them suspect. Other minority groups are seen as potential threats to the national security of the state, as if a state can become “secure” by fearing its own citizens!
Just as Muslims are trapped in the dungeon of oppositional identities where they define themselves against the West as the core “other,” Europeans are stuck in a self-defeating game of defining Islamic religion and culture as their modern “other.”
Multiculturalism can still work at the national and international level, provided we prepare the conditions in which it can function. Manipulating economic grievances to advance racist policies will not make European and Muslim societies more integrated or more secure.