Debating Multiculturalism

Jan Rath is a Professor of Sociology, Director of the Institute for Ethnic and Migration Studies (IMES), and Head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, and European Chair of International Metropolis.


In the summer of 2010, the world championships for men’s national football teams took place in South Africa, the country that prevailed over apartheid after many years of painful struggle. Spain won the tournament, but the revelation was Germany. Although Germany has historically fielded one of the most successful national teams, the calculative and unimaginative way the team used to play did not always receive much appreciation. Throughout the 2010 tournament, however, Germany impressed spectators by playing an attractive, aggressive style of football. After the rousing 4-1 victory over England, the German national Sunday paper Welt am Sonntag exclaimed, “With courage and strength the German footballers were knocking on the gates to heaven. The happy ending for the midsummer fairy tale is getting closer.” The team, interestingly enough, represented the new, multicultural Germany. Five players were born outside of Germany, one had dual German-Ghanaian nationality, and several others were second-generation immigrants of Nigerian, Spanish, Tunisian, and Turkish origin. Christian Seifert, CEO of the German Football League, was jubilant: ‘[Germany] is a multi-cultural society where people come to, where people live, where people love to be, and the national team as you see it is very different compared to former days.”

Later that summer, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a public statement saying that the attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany had ‘utterly failed’. Her comments came amid an intense debate about immigration and multiculturalism or, to be more precise, the death of “Multikulti”. The debate first heated up in August when a former Social-Democratic senator and senior official at Germany’s central bank, Thilo Sarrazin, published a book with the provoking title Deutschland schabt sich ab or Germany Does Away with Itself. He stated that “no immigrant group other than Muslims is so strongly connected with claims on the welfare state and crime.” These immigrant groups are unwilling and incapable of integrating into the mainstream, which according to Sarrazin was due to their genetics. Many people were appalled to hear such statements 65 years after WWII and accused Sarrazin of racism and anti-Semitism; nevertheless, the senator had already sold more than one million copies of the book.

Furthermore, various surveys showed that approximately one third of the German population believed the country had been ‘overrun by foreigners”. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant political parties—initially Die Republikaner, later Die Freiheitt—had been carving out a niche in the German electoral market, while mainstream parties—the Christian-Democrats in particular—had become anxious about their position. Why would a country that so enthusiastically embraced multiculturalism during the World Cup condemn it so loudly less than three months later?  So much for the midsummer fairy tale.

Germany is apparently hesitant about the issue of immigration and the consequent ethnic and religious diversity. But Germany is not the only country to experience such angst; we are witnessing similar situations in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. In various ways and with different levels of openness, governments in these countries had welcomed immigrants and even invited them to settle and establish their own institutions. However, these nations recently shifted gears to embark on restrictive immigration policies and tougher integration policies, placing increasing emphasis on native norms, values and behavior and on disciplining the “other people”. This “new realism”, moreover,  fiercely criticized the leadership of ethnic and religious immigrant minorities and the native advocates of multiculturalism..  The political leaders felt obligated to respond to the smoldering discontent among parts of the native white population and to the plethora of populist, anti-immigrant parties that had so successfully won the hearts of the discontented. In countries like Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands, these parties even managed to become part of or closely associated with the ruling government. Although bigots, racists, fascists, and neo-Nazis gravitate to these radical parties, it would be too simple to say that each and every supporter is a neo-Nazi in disguise. 

What is happening in Europe nowadays, then? Is Europe taken hostage by a bunch of twisted political entrepreneurs who have lost their minds, forgotten the lessons of 1933-1945 and the Holocaust, and who are trying to gain political influence by trampling on immigrant ethnic and religious minorities? Or is it that Europeans have been too naive with regard to accepting individuals and groups from countries that are, or are seen as, culturally distant from the imagined national centers? Or should the current political mood be seen as a reaction to the politics of obstinate, left-wing lunatics and prophets of boundless multiculturalism?

Easy answers do not exist. In practice, things are much more complicated than popular profundities suggest, and a wider perspective is needed to fully comprehend the current developments.

First of all, we are still dealing with a distinctly European situation. The rise of populist political movements that capitalize on anti-immigrant, anti-multicultural and anti-government sentiments, religious fundamentalism, and narrow-minded nationalism can also be observed elsewhere. Take the United States for an example. The recent immigration enforcement legislation in Arizona, the rise of the Tea Party with their swipes at minorities, and some of the November 2010 election campaigns only serve to demonstrate that Europe is not alone. Australia, a country once notorious for its White Australia policy, shifted to multiculturalism in the 1970s, but had already abolished its unconditional embrace of multiculturalism by the 1990s. Since the 1990s, Australia has been advocating the idea of a “shared national identity” though with a high appreciation of the Anglo-Celtic heritage. Canada too has treasured the public acceptance of ethnic and religious differences and support of cultural pluralism as a core element of its identity since the early 1970s. It however hit the limits of multiculturalism and the call for what is euphemistically known as “reasonable accommodation” today resounds loudly in the public sphere. It is unarguably true that these “classical countries of immigration” are relatively more inclined to accept immigration as ordinaryand therefore are not shocked when newcomers constitute their own ethnic enclaves.. Even so, as far as there is a cultural backlash, it exists worldwide not just in Europe.

Secondly we are still witnessing a rise of concerns about immigration and cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity. As early as in 1968, the British Conservative leader Enoch Powell made a controversial speech in which he warned against the “rivers of blood” due to what he saw as the continued unchecked immigration from the Commonwealth to Britain and the “race-relations problems” subsequent to that. His speech with its open appeal to racial hatred was declared “evil” at the time, but it inspired Margaret Thatcher, who became prime minister shortly afterwards, to use the gist of his argument for her immigration and race-relations policies. By adopting a strong position against immigration, Thatcher was able to lead her Conservative party to defeat the National Front.