40m2 deutschland

This is an essay about multiculturalism in Europe that I wrote for the latest issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, which has a series of features on ‘The Trouble with Race’.



Thirty years ago, many Europeans saw multiculturalism – the embrace of an inclusive, diverse society – as an answer to Europe’s social problems. Today, a growing number consider it to be a cause of them. That perception has led some mainstream politicians, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to publicly denounce multiculturalism and speak out against its dangers. It has fuelled the success of far-right parties and populist politicians across Europe, from the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands to the Front National in France. And in the most extreme cases, it has inspired obscene acts of violence, such as Anders Behring Breivik’s homicidal rampage on the Norwegian island of Utøya in July 2011.

How did this transformation come about? According to multiculturalism’s critics, Europe has allowed excessive immigration without demanding enough integration – a mismatch that has eroded social cohesion, undermined national identities, and degraded public trust. Multiculturalism’s proponents, on the other hand, counter that the problem is not too much diversity but too much racism.

The truth about multiculturalism is far more complex than either side will allow, and the debate about it has often devolved into sophistry. Multiculturalism has become a proxy for other social and political issues: immigration, identity, political disenchantment, working-class decline. Different countries, moreover, have followed distinct paths. The United Kingdom has sought to give various ethnic communities a more equal stake in the political system. Germany has encouraged immigrants to pursue separate lives in lieu of granting them citizenship. And France has rejected multicultural policies in favour of assimilationist ones. The specific outcomes have also varied: in the United Kingdom, there has been communal violence; in Germany, Turkish communities have drifted further from mainstream society; and in France, the relationship between the authorities and North African communities has become highly charged. But everywhere, the overarching consequences have been the same: fragmented societies, alienated minorities, and resentful citizenries.

As a political tool, multiculturalism has functioned as not merely a response to diversity but also a means of constraining it. And that insight reveals a paradox. Multicultural policies accept as a given that societies are diverse, yet they implicitly assume that such diversity ends at the edges of minority communities. They seek to institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes – into a singular, homogeneous Muslim community, for example – and defining their needs and rights accordingly. Such policies, in other words, have helped create the very divisions they were meant to manage.



Untangling the many strands of the multiculturalism debate requires understanding the concept itself. The term ‘multicultural’ has come to define both a society that is particularly diverse, usually as a result of immigration, and the policies necessary to manage such a society. It thus embodies both a description of society and a prescription for dealing with it. Conflating the two – perceived problem with supposed solution – has tightened the knot at the heart of the debate. Unpicking that knot requires a careful evaluation of each.

Both proponents and critics of multiculturalism broadly accept the premise that mass immigration has transformed European societies by making them more diverse. To a certain extent, this seems self-evidently true. Today, Germany is the world’s second most popular immigrant destination, after the United States. In 2013, more than ten million people, or just over 12 percent of the population, were born abroad. In Austria, that figure was 16 percent; in Sweden, 15 percent; and in France and the United Kingdom, around 12 percent. From a historical perspective, however, the claim that these countries are more plural than ever is not as straightforward as it may seem. Nineteenth-century European societies may look homogeneous from the vantage point of today, but that is not how those societies saw themselves then.

vivre au paradis

Consider France. In the years of the French Revolution, for instance, only half the population spoke French and only around 12 percent spoke it ‘correctly’. As the historian Eugen Weber showed, modernizing and unifying France in the Revolution’s aftermath required a traumatic and lengthy process of cultural, educational, political, and economic self-colonization. That effort created the modern French state and gave birth to notions of French (and European) superiority over non-European cultures. But it also reinforced a sense of how socially and culturally disparate most of the population still was. In an address to the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857, the Christian socialist Philippe Buchez wondered how it could happen that ‘within a population such as ours, races may form—not merely one, but several races—so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed as below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.’ The ‘races’ that caused Buchez such anxiety were not immigrants from Africa or Asia but the rural poor in France.

In the Victorian era, many Britons, too, viewed the urban working class and the rural poor as the other. A vignette of working-class life in East London’s Bethnal Green, appearing in an 1864 edition of The Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the era, was typical of Victorian middle-class attitudes. ‘The Bethnal Green poor’, the story explained, were ‘a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact.’ Much the same was true, the article suggested, of ‘the great mass of the agricultural poor’. Although the distinctions between slaves and masters were considered more ‘glaring’ than those separating the moneyed and the poor, they offered ‘a very fair parallel’; indeed, the differences were so profound that they prevented ‘anything like association or companionship’.

Today, Bethnal Green represents the heart of the Bangladeshi community in East London. Many white Britons see its inhabitants as the new ‘Bethnal Green poor’, culturally and racially distinct from themselves. Yet only those on the political fringes would compare the differences between white Britons and their Bangladeshi neighbours with those of masters and slaves. The social and cultural differences between a Victorian gentleman or factory owner, on the one hand, and a farm hand or a machinist, on the other, were in reality much greater than those between a white resident and a resident of Bangladeshi origin are today. However much they may view each other as different, a 16-year-old of Bangladeshi origin living in Bethnal Green and a white 16-year-old probably wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, and support the same football club. The shopping mall, the sports field, and the Internet bind them together, creating a set of experiences and cultural practices more common than any others in the past.

A similar historical amnesia plagues discussions surrounding immigration. Many critics of multiculturalism suggest that immigration to Europe today is unlike that seen in previous times. In his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, the journalist Christopher Caldwell suggests that prior to World War II, immigrants to European countries came almost exclusively from the continent and therefore assimilated easily. ‘Using the word immigration to describe intra-European movements’, Caldwell argues, ‘makes only slightly more sense than describing a New Yorker as an “immigrant” to California.’ According to Caldwell, prewar immigration between European nations differed from postwar immigration from outside Europe because ‘immigration from neighboring countries does not provoke the most worrisome immigration questions, such as “How well will they fit in?”, “Is assimilation what they want?” and, most of all, “Where are their true loyalties?”’

Yet, these very questions greeted European immigrants in the prewar years. As the scholar Max Silverman has written, the notion that France assimilated immigrants from elsewhere in Europe with ease before World War II is a ‘retrospective illusion’. And much the same is true of the United Kingdom. In 1903, witnesses to the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration expressed fears that newcomers to the United Kingdom would be inclined to live ‘according to their traditions, usages and customs’. There were also concerns, as the newspaper editor J L Silver put it, that ‘the debilitated sickly and vicious products of Europe’ could be ‘grafted onto the English stock’. The country’s first immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act, was designed principally to stem the flow of European Jews. Without such a law, then Prime Minister Arthur Balfour argued at the time, British ‘nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we should desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come.’ The echoes of contemporary anxieties are unmistakable.

in this world

Whether contemporary Europe really is more plural than it was in the nineteenth century remains subject to debate, but the fact that Europeans perceive it to be more diverse is unquestionable. This owes in large part to changes in how people define social differences. A century and a half ago, class was a far more important frame for understanding social interactions. However difficult it is to conceive of now, many at the time saw racial distinctions in terms of differences not in skin colour but in class or social standing. Most nineteenth-century thinkers were concerned not with the strangers who crossed their countries’ borders but with those who inhabited the dark spaces within them.

Over the past few decades, however, class has diminished in importance in Europe, both as a political category and as a marker of social identity. At the same time, culture has become an increasingly central medium through which people perceive social differences. The shift reflects broader trends. The ideological divides that characterized politics for much of the past 200 years have receded, and the old distinctions between left and right have become less meaningful. As the working classes have lost economic and political power, labour organizations and collectivistic ideologies have declined. The market, meanwhile, has expanded into almost every nook and cranny of social life. And institutions that traditionally brought disparate individuals together, from trade unions to the church, have faded from public life.

As a result, Europeans have begun to see themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Increasingly, they define social solidarity not in political terms but rather in terms of ethnicity, culture, or faith. And they are concerned less with determining the kind of society they want to create than with defining the community to which they belong. These two matters are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must take both into account. But as the ideological spectrum has narrowed and as the mechanisms for change have eroded, the politics of ideology have given way to the politics of identity. It is against this background that Europeans have come to view their homelands as particularly, even impossibly, diverse – and have formulated ways of responding.



In describing contemporary European societies as exceptionally diverse, multiculturalism is clearly flawed. What, then, of multiculturalism’s prescription for managing that supposed diversity? Over the past three decades, many European nations have adopted multicultural policies, but they have done so in distinct ways. Comparing just two of these histories, that of the United Kingdom and that of Germany, and understanding what they have in common, reveals much about multiculturalism itself.

One of the most prevalent myths in European politics is that governments adopted multicultural policies because minorities wanted to assert their differences. Although questions about cultural assimilation have certainly engrossed political elites, they have not, until relatively recently, preoccupied immigrants themselves. When large numbers of immigrants from the Caribbean, India, and Pakistan arrived in the United Kingdom during the late 1940s and 1950s to fill labour shortages, British officials feared that they might undermine the country’s sense of identity. As a government report warned in 1953, ‘A large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken . . . the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached.’

brick lane 2

The immigrants brought with them traditions and mores from their homelands, of which they were often very proud. But they were rarely preoccupied with preserving their cultural differences, nor did they generally consider culture to be a political issue. What troubled them was not a desire to be treated differently but the fact that they were treated differently. Racism and inequality, not religion and ethnicity, constituted their key concerns. In the following decades, a new generation of black and Asian activists, forming groups such as the Asian Youth Movements and the Race Today Collective, acted on those grievances, organizing strikes and protests challenging workplace discrimination, deportations, and police brutality. These efforts came to explosive climax in a series of riots that tore through the United Kingdom’s inner cities in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

At that point, British authorities recognized that unless minority communities were given a political stake in the system, tensions would continue to threaten urban stability. It was in this context that multicultural policies emerged. The state, at both the national and the local level, pioneered a new strategy of drawing black and Asian communities into the mainstream political process by designating specific organizations or community leaders to represent their interests. At its heart, the approach redefined the concepts of racism and equality. Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights but also the denial of the right to be different. And equality no longer entailed possessing rights that transcended race, ethnicity, culture, and faith; it meant asserting different rights because of them.

Consider the case of Birmingham, the United Kingdom’s second most populous city. In 1985, the city’s Handsworth area was engulfed by riots sparked by a simmering resentment of poverty, joblessness, and, in particular, police harassment. Two people died and dozens were injured in the violence. In the aftermath of the unrest, the city council attempted to engage minorities by creating nine so-called umbrella groups – organizations that were supposed to advocate for their members on matters of city policy. These committees decided on the needs of each community, how and to whom resources should be disbursed, and how political power should be distributed. They effectively became surrogate voices for ethnically defined fiefdoms.

The city council had hoped to draw minorities into the democratic process, but the groups struggled to define their individual and collective mandates. Some of them, such as the African and Caribbean People’s Movement, represented an ethnic group, whereas others, such as the Council of Black-Led Churches, were also religious. Diversity among the groups was matched by diversity within them; not all the people supposedly represented by the Bangladeshi Islamic Projects Consultative Committee, for example, were equally devout. Yet the city council’s plan effectively assigned every member of a minority to a discrete community, defined each group’s needs as a whole, and set the various organizations in competition with one another for city resources. And anyone who fell outside these defined communities was effectively excluded from the multicultural process altogether.

The problem with Birmingham’s policies, observed Joy Warmington, director of what was then the Birmingham Race Action Partnership (now brap), a charitable organization working to reduce inequality, in 2005, is that they ‘have tended to emphasize ethnicity as a key to entitlement. It’s become accepted as good practice to allocate resources on ethnic or faith lines. So rather than thinking of meeting people’s needs or about distributing resources equitably, organizations are forced to think about the distribution of ethnicity’ (personal interview for my book From Fatwa to Jihad). The consequences were catastrophic. In October 2005, two decades after the original Handsworth riots, violence broke out in the neighbouring area of Lozells. In 1985, Asian, black, and white demonstrators had taken to the streets together to protest poverty, unemployment, and police harassment. In 2005, the fighting was between blacks and Asians. The spark had been a rumour, never substantiated, that a group of Asian men had raped a Jamaican girl. The fighting lasted a full weekend.

handsworth songs

Why did two communities that had fought side by side in 1985 fight against each other in 2005? The answer lies largely in Birmingham’s multicultural policies. As one academic study of Birmingham’s policies observed, ‘The model of engagement through Umbrella Groups tended to result in competition between bme [black and minority ethnic] communities for resources. Rather than prioritizing needs and cross-community working, the different Umbrella Groups generally attempted to maximize their own interests.’

The council’s policies, in other words, not only bound people more closely to particular identities but also led them to fear and resent other groups as competitors for power and influence. An individual’s identity had to be affirmed as distinctive from the identities of those from other groups: being Bangladeshi in Birmingham also meant being not Irish, not Sikh, and not African Caribbean. The consequence was the creation of what the economist Amartya Sen has termed ‘plural monoculturalism’ – a policy driven by the myth that society is made up of distinct, uniform cultures that dance around one another. The result in Birmingham was to entrench divisions between black and Asian communities to such an extent that those divisions broke out into communal violence.



Germany’s road to multiculturalism was different from the United Kingdom’s, although the starting point was the same. Like many countries in western Europe, Germany faced an immense labour shortage in the years following World War II and actively recruited foreign workers. Unlike in the United Kingdom, the new workers came not from former colonies but from the countries around the Mediterranean: first from Greece, Italy, and Spain, and then from Turkey. They also came not as immigrants, still less as potential citizens, but as so-called Gastarbeiter (guest workers), who were expected to return to their countries of origin when the German economy no longer required their services.

Over time, however, these guests, the vast majority of them Turks, went from being a temporary necessity to a permanent presence. This was partly because Germany continued to rely on their labour and partly because the immigrants, and more so their children, came to see Germany as their home. But the German state continued to treat them as outsiders and refuse them citizenship.

German citizenship was, until recently, based on the principle of jus sanguinis, by which one can acquire citizenship only if one’s parents were citizens. The principle excluded from citizenship not just first-generation immigrants but also their German-born children. In 1999, a new nationality law made it easier for immigrants to acquire citizenship. Yet most Turks remain outsiders. Out of the three million people of Turkish origin in Germany today, only some 800,000 have managed to acquire citizenship.

Instead of welcoming immigrants as equals, German politicians dealt with the so-called Turkish problem through a policy of multiculturalism. Beginning in the 1980s, the government encouraged Turkish immigrants to preserve their own culture, language, and lifestyle. The policy did not represent a respect for diversity so much as a convenient means of avoiding the issue of how to create a common, inclusive culture. And its main consequence was the emergence of parallel communities.

fear eats the soul

First-generation immigrants were broadly secular, and those who were religious were rarely hard-line in their beliefs and practices. Today, almost one-third of adult Turks in Germany regularly attend mosque, a higher rate than among other Turkish communities in western Europe and even in many parts of Turkey. Similarly, first- generation Turkish women almost never wore headscarves; now many of their daughters do. Without any incentive to participate in the national community, many Turks don’t bother learning German.

At the same time that Germany’s multicultural policies have encouraged Turks to approach German society with indifference, they have led Germans to view Turkish culture with increasing antagonism. Popular notions of what it means to be German have come to be defined partly in opposition to the perceived values and beliefs of the excluded immigrant community. A 2011 survey conducted by the French polling firm Ifop showed that 40 percent of Germans considered the presence of Islamic communities ‘a threat’ to their national identity. Another poll, conducted by Germany’s Bielefeld University in 2005, suggested that three out of four Germans believed that Muslim culture did not fit into the Western world. Anti-Muslim groups, such as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or Pegida, are on the rise, and anti-immigration protests held in cities across the country this past January were some of the largest in recent memory. Many German politicians, including Merkel, have taken a strong stance against the anti-Muslim movement. But the damage has already been done.



In both the United Kingdom and Germany, governments failed to recognize the complexity, elasticity, and sheer contrariness of identity. Personal identities emerge out of relationships – not merely personal ties but social ones, too – and constantly mutate.

Take Muslim identity. Today there is much talk in European countries of a so-called Muslim community – of its views, its needs, its aspirations. But the concept is entirely new. Until the late 1980s, few Muslim immigrants to Europe thought of themselves as belonging to any such thing. That wasn’t because they were few in number. In France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, for example, there were already large and well-established South Asian, North African, and Turkish immigrant communities by the 1980s.

ae fond kiss

The first generation of North African immigrants to France was broadly secular, as was the first generation of Turkish immigrants to Germany. By contrast, the first wave of South Asian immigrants to arrive in the United Kingdom after World War II was more religious. Yet even they thought of themselves not as Muslims first but as Punjabis or Bengalis or Sylhetis. Although pious, they wore their faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab, let alone a burqa or a niqab (a full-faced veil). Most attended mosque only occasionally. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all- encompassing philosophy. Their faith defined their relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.

Members of the second generation of Britons with Muslim backgrounds were even less likely to identify with their religion. The same went for those whose parents were Hindu or Sikh. Religious organizations were barely visible within minority communities. The organizations that bound immigrants together were primarily secular and often political; in the United Kingdom, for example, such groups included the Asian Youth Movements, which fought racism, and the Indian Workers’ Association, which focused on labour rights.

Only in the late 1980s did the question of cultural differences become important. A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated and ‘westernized’ than the first turned out to be the more insistent on maintaining its alleged distinctiveness. The reasons for this shift are complex. Partly they lie in a tangled web of larger social, political, and economic changes over the past half century, such as the collapse of the left and the rise of identity politics. Partly they lie in international developments, such as the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, both of which played an important role in fostering a more heightened sense of Muslim identity in Europe. And partly they lie in European multicultural policies.

Group identities are not natural categories; they arise out of social interaction. But as cultural categories received official sanction, certain identities came to seem fixed. In channeling financial resources and political power through ethnically based organizations, governments provided a form of authenticity to certain ethnic identities and denied it to others.

Juventude em Marcha

Multicultural policies seek to build a bridge between the state and minority communities by looking to particular community organizations and leaders to act as intermediaries. Rather than appeal to Muslims and other minorities as citizens, politicians tend to assume minorities’ true loyalty is to their faith or ethnic community. In effect, governments subcontract their political responsibilities out to minority leaders.

Such leaders are, however, rarely representative of their communities. That should not be a surprise: no single group or set of leaders could represent a single white community. Some white Europeans are conservative, many are liberal, and still others are communist or neo-fascist. And most whites would not see their interests as specifically ‘white’. A white Christian probably has more in common with a black Christian than with a white atheist; a white socialist would likely think more like a Bangladeshi socialist than like a white conservative; and so on. Muslims and Sikhs and African Caribbeans are no different; herein rests the fundamental flaw of multiculturalism.



France’s policy of assimilationism is generally regarded as the polar opposite of multiculturalism, which French politicians have proudly rejected. Unlike the rest of Europe, they insist, France treats every individual as a citizen rather than as a member of a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group. In reality, however, France is as socially divided as Germany or the United Kingdom, and in a strikingly similar way.

Questions surrounding French social policy, and the country’s social divisions, came sharply into focus in Paris this past January, when Islamist gunmen shot 12 people dead at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and four Jews in a kosher supermarket. French politicians had long held multicultural policies responsible for nurturing homegrown jihadists in the United Kingdom. Now they had to answer for why such terrorists had been nurtured in assimilationist France, too.

It is often claimed that there are some five million Muslims in France— supposedly the largest Muslim community in western Europe. In fact, those of North African origin in France, who have been lumped into this group, have never constituted a single community, still less a religious one. Immigrants from North Africa have been broadly secular and indeed often hostile to religion. A 2006 report by the Pew Research Center showed that 42 percent of Muslims in France identified themselves as French citizens first – more than in Germany, Spain, or the United Kingdom. A growing number have, in recent years, become attracted to Islam. But even today, according to a 2011 study by Ifop, only 40 percent identify themselves as observant Muslims, and only 25 percent attend Friday prayers. Those of North African origin in France are also often described as ‘immigrants’. In fact, the majority are second-generation French citizens, born in France and as French as any voter for the Front National. The use of the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘immigrant’ as labels for French citizens of North African origin is not, however, accidental. It is part of the process whereby the state casts such citizens as the other – as not really part of the French nation.

la noire de

As in the United Kingdom, in France, the first generation of post–World War II immigrants faced considerable racism, and the second generation was far less willing to accept social discrimination, unemployment, and police brutality. They organized, largely through secular organizations, and took to the streets, often in violent protest. The riots that swept through French cities in the fall of 2005 exposed the fractures in French society as clearly as had those that en- gulfed British cities two decades earlier.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, the French authorities took a relatively laid-back stance on multiculturalism, generally tolerating cultural and religious differences at a time when few within minority communities expressed their identities in cultural or religious terms. French President François Mitterrand even coined the slogan le droit à la différence (the right to difference). As tensions within North African communities became more open and as the National Front emerged as a political force, Paris abandoned that approach for a more hard-line position. The riots in 2005, and the disaffection they expressed, were presented less as a response to racism than as an expression of Islam’s growing threat to France. In principle, the French authorities rejected the multicultural approach of the United Kingdom. In practice, however, they treated North African immigrants and their descendents in a ‘multicultural’ way – as a single community, primarily a Muslim one. Concerns about Islam came to reflect larger anxieties about the crisis of values and identity that now beset France.

A much-discussed 2013 poll conducted by the French research group Ipsos and the Centre de Recherches Politiques, or cevipof, at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (known as Sciences Po) found that 50 percent of the French population believed that the economic and cultural ‘decline’ of their country was ‘inevitable’. Fewer than one-third thought that French democracy worked well, and 62 percent considered ‘most’ politicians to be ‘corrupt’. The pollsters’ report described a fractured France, divided along tribal lines, alienated from mainstream politics, distrustful of national leaders, and resentful of Muslims. The main sentiment driving French society, the report concluded, was ‘fear’.

In the United Kingdom, multicultural policies were at once an acknowledgment of a more fractured society and the source of one. In France, assimilationist policies have, paradoxically, had the same result. Faced with a distrustful and disengaged public, politicians have attempted to reassert a common French identity. But unable to define clearly the ideas and values that characterize the country, they have done so primarily by sowing hostility toward symbols of alienness – by banning the burqa, for example, in 2010.

Instead of accepting North Africans as full citizens, French policy has tended to ignore the racism and discrimination they have faced. Many in France view its citizens of North African origin not as French but as Arab or Muslim. But second-generation North Africans are often as estranged from their parents’ culture and mores – and from mainstream Islam – as they are from wider French society. They are caught not between two cultures, as it is often claimed, but without one. As a consequence, some of them have turned to Islamism, and a few have expressed their inchoate rage through jihadist violence.

la haine 1

At the same time, French assimilationist policies have exacerbated the sense of disengagement felt by traditional working-class communities. The social geographer Christophe Guilluy has coined the phrase ‘the peripheral France’ to describe those people ‘pushed out by the deindustrialization and gentrification of the urban centres’, who ‘live away from the economic and decision making centres, in a state of social non- integration’, and have thus come to ‘feel excluded’. The peripheral France has emerged mainly as a result of economic and political developments. But like many parts of the country’s North African communities, it has come to see its marginalization through the lens of cultural and ethnic identity. According to the 2013 Ipsos-cevipof poll, seven out of ten people thought there were ‘too many foreigners in France’, and 74 percent considered Islam to be incompatible with French society. Presenting Islam as a threat to French values has not only strengthened culture’s political role but also sharpened popular disenchantment with mainstream politics.

In the past, disaffection, whether within North African or white working- class communities, would have led to direct political action. Today, however, both groups are expressing their grievances through identity politics. In their own ways, racist populism and radical Islamism are each expressions of a similar kind of social disengagement in an era of identity politics.



Multiculturalism and assimilationism are different policy responses to the same problem: the fracturing of society. And yet both have had the effect of making things worse. It is time, then, to move beyond the increasingly sterile debate between the two approaches. And that requires making three kinds of distinctions.

First, Europe should separate diversity as a lived experience from multiculturalism as a political process. The experience of living in a society made diverse by mass immigration should be welcomed. Attempts to institutionalize such diversity through the formal recognition of cultural differences should be resisted.

Second, Europe should distinguish colorblindness from blindness to racism. The assimilationist resolve to treat everyone equally as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories, is valuable. But that does not mean that the state should ignore discrimination against particular groups. Citizenship has no meaning if different classes of citizens are treated differently, whether because of multi- cultural policies or because of racism.

Finally, Europe should differentiate between peoples and values. Multiculturalists argue that societal diversity erodes the possibility of common values. Similarly, assimilationists suggest that such values are possible only within a more culturally – and, for some, ethnically – homogeneous society. Both regard minority communities as homogeneous wholes, attached to a particular set of cultural traits, faiths, beliefs, and values, rather than as constituent parts of a modern democracy.

my beautiful laundrette

The real debate should be not between multiculturalism and assimilationism but between two forms of the former and two forms of the latter. An ideal policy would marry multiculturalism’s embrace of actual diversity, rather than its tendency to institutionalize differences, and assimilationism’s resolve to treat everyone as citizens, rather than its tendency to construct a national identity by characterizing certain groups as alien to the nation. In practice, European countries have done the opposite. They have enacted either multicultural policies that place communities in constricting boxes or assimilationist ones that distance minorities from the mainstream. Moving forward, Europe must rediscover a progressive sense of universal values, something that the continent’s liberals have largely abandoned, albeit in different ways. On the one hand, there is a section of the left that has combined relativism and multiculturalism, arguing that the very notion of universal values is in some sense racist. On the other, there are those, exemplified by such French assimilationists as the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who insist on upholding traditional Enlightenment values but who do so in a tribal fashion that presumes a clash of civilizations.

There has also been a guiding assumption throughout Europe that immigration and integration must be managed through state policies and institutions. Yet real integration, whether of immigrants or of indigenous groups, is rarely brought about by the actions of the state; it is shaped primarily by civil society, by the individual bonds that people form with one another, and by the organizations they establish to further their shared political and social interests. It is the erosion of such bonds and institutions that has proved so problematic – that links assimilationist policy failures to multicultural ones and that explains why social disengagement is a feature not simply of immigrant communities but of the wider society, too. To repair the damage that disengagement has done, and to revive a progressive universalism, Europe needs not so much new state policies as a renewal of civil society.


The images are all from films about immigrant life in Europe. From top down: Tevfik Baser’s 402 m Deutschland; Bourlem Guerdjou’s Vivre au Paradis; John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs; Michael Winterbottom’s In This World; Sarah Gavin’s Brick Lane;  Rainer Fassbinder’s Angst Essen Seele Auf (Fear Eats the Soul); Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss; Pedro Costa’s Juventude em Marcha; Sembene Ousmane’s La Noire de…; Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine; Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette. The cover image is of public housing for asylum seekers in Berlin (© Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters) and is from Foreign Affairs.


  1. Edward Mortimer

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay. Timothy Garton Ash, Kerem Oktem and I reached broadly similar conclusions in our 2013 pamphlet “Freedom in Diversity: Ten Lessons for Public Policy from Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the United States” If I have a criticism it is that you tend to treat multiculturalism as if it were a coherent and consistent body of thought. We decided not to use the term because we felt it meant too many different things to different people.

    • Thanks (though the link is broken, btw). I agree that multiculturalism is not ‘a coherent and consistent body of thought’, but it is difficult to write an essay about multiculturalism without actually using the term :-).

  2. “Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights but also the denial of the right to be different. And equality no longer entailed possessing rights that transcended race, ethnicity, culture, and faith; it meant asserting different rights because of them.”

    That’s the dilemma that haunts any culturally diverse civilization; it is actually prior to the collapse of assimilationist hopes that cultural diversity will recede in the blending of a ‘melting pot.’

    In America, this hope was sustainable as long as immigrants abandoned adherence to their home cultures for largely economic purposes. Diversity was largely understood as regional differences, e.g., the differing flavors of culinary habits in the Southwest vs. those in New England – obviously harmless and easily negotiable. Only the Deep South seemed to assert attitudes antithetical to the assimilationist hope. But I think many thought that as its economy improved, even this could be overcome.

    By the end of the 1960s, it was clear that such hopes were simply naive. The assimilationist Civil Rights movement evolved into the multi-cultural (and confrontational) Black Power movement. Some immigrant ethnicities refused assimilationism because of their faith that they would return to their ‘home’ countries once politics there had altered – e.g., the Cuban immigrant population in Florida, many of whom saw themselves as refugees until Castro could be deposed. Finally of course, the ’60s saw a ‘cultural revolution’ that celebrated difference and diversity unquestioningly.

    Better informed by history, one can now raise the question if it isn’t a mistake to think that cultural diversity is a problem that can be solved. It may only be a problem that a society has to learn to live with. India has been culturally diverse for many centuries. Over those centuries, many governments, different kinds of governments, have found ways to deal with that diversity that have allowed most of the people there to get on with the business of life on a daily basis. But when ethnic communities have come into direct competition – as is inevitable – conflict has ensued. That may also be just something we need to learn to live with, dealing with more egregious conflicts legally and, occasionally, with force.

    • The historical shifts of which you talk are more complex than you suggest. Contemporary immigrants, even Cubans, are far more assimilated into American society than were, say, those at beginning of the last century. Then, many new immigrants spoke their own language, read their own newspapers, ate their own food and lived their own lives. In 1923, for instance, the Polish community alone, as David Hollinger points out in his book Postethnic America, published 67 weekly newspapers, 18 monthlies and 19 dailies. And part of the reason that ‘the assimilationist Civil Rights movement evolved into the multi-cultural (and confrontational) Black Power movement’ was not merely the desire to be different but also the resistance of mainstream American society to equal rights.

      More importantly, though, I am not suggesting that ‘cultural diversity is a problem’ at all. I welcome such diversity. What I am suggesting is the problem is the confusion between ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’, the perception of minority communities as homogenous and the institutionalization of cultural differences in the public sphere. And, as I have tried to show here, multicultural policies did not develop in Europe because minorities wanted to assert their differences but for far more complex reasons.

      • Kenan,
        thank you for your reply. I was painting in broad strokes. You’re quite right, the richness of the matter – that is, what makes it so interesting, beyond immediate political issues – is in the details, which are quite complex.

        I also welcome diversity. Yet I do see it as a problem, in that it presents any culture with a series of questions, as well as possible confrontations, that need to be addressed both legally and socially. However, most of such efforts are announced as ‘solutions’ to these questions and confrontations, and I think the questions remain and the confrontations will recur. If so, then whatever strategy we develop for dealing with such matters, it should be undertaken with the understanding that we are simply trying to make things better; there is no cure-all to be discovered here.

        So I guess I am agreeing with you that diversity and multiculturalism should not be confused. But I am also wondering whether multiculturalism – as a policy – is inevitable as a strategy to resolve the questions diversity poses; also whether multiculturalism need be framed a solution, or simply an effort at improvement (that can be corrected or superseded if determined a failure).

  3. Bruce Bryant-Scott

    The author fails to deal with Canada, which has the highest rate of foreign born residents of any G8 country – 20.6% – and yet multiculturalism is really not a concern or up for debate. It’s not because Canada does not have multiculturalism – it’s a sociological fact, and it is also an ideology entrenched in the Constitution (Section 27) and in various acts of both the federal state and the provinces. Oh, there are some who oppose it and see it as disastrous, but they are the distinct, declining minority. Canada’s foundation began as bi-cultural and bilingual (namely, English and French), and so the overlay of multculturalism and multilingualism was a natural progression. Assimilationism, as attempted with our aboriginal peoples, has left a bad taste in Canadian’s mouths.

    Is there racism and discrimination? Yes, but we have aggressive Human Rights Tribunals and a social culture that calls it out. Do we have some home grown lone wolves and some locally organized terrorists ? Yes, but our security forces seem able to uncover most plots and to minimize damage to the occasional individual tragedy (the Air India tragedy of 1985 and the October Crisis of 1970 being the exceptions that proved the rule). Do we have riots and demonstrations? Yes, but they are about hockey.

    On the whole, Canada is a successful multicultural state, where the incredibly popular mayor of Calgary happens to be a Muslim, you can watch Olympic hockey games in Oji-Cree, a recent former premier of British Columbia is a Sikh immigrant from India, and past Governor Generals were refugees from Haiti and China. When the nationalist Parti Quebecois government in 2014 attempted to roll back multiculturalism with a proposed “Quebec Charter of Values” they were soundly defeated in a provincial election.

    Indeed, the biggest complaint is that outside of the major urban centres Canada remains pretty “white bread” and “monocultural”. Canada is by no means perfect, but its success in peacefully receiving so many immigrants from so many cultures suggest that it is one nation that has got multiculturalism right.

  4. opalideas

    May I add a perspective from Canada? When I was in university sometime in the middle of the last century, we were considering extending our officially recognized bi-culturalism – English and French. Being a generally “nice” conversation (key word for “let’s carefully step around the sharp edges and hope that a consensus magically arises), we sort of admitted that what we call our First Nations people should be given a token seat at the table, and, oh yeah, there are the transplanted Americans, Germans, Dutch, and maybe even Italians who could be listened to for a few minutes.
    Academically, it was recognized that we had a “Vertical Mosaic”, as opposed to the USA melting pot.
    When everyone played nice (yes, same word), the old white folks in charge smiled, nodded, and allowed a dribble of funding to be applied to Canada’s multiculturalism initiatives. We even went so far as to force metrification on the majority of citizens, despite the American’s sudden abandonment of that rational, but European, process.
    This did work. There was peace, order, and good governance across the land. Well, other than among most First Nations, but that lid was held down, surreptitiously.
    The situation has become murky over the past decade. I suggest that the reason is that the various European diaspora sprinkled across our provinces were more or less satisfied to have their subsequent generations work their way into the more comfortable levels of middle class.
    Then came the impatient non-Europeans. And the Americanization of C-suite income levels.
    And overtly individual-oriented legislation, which said, in effect, you’re on your own, buddy, so grab what you can, irrespective of community or environmental interests.
    I could expand on these concepts, but I shall revert to being nice, and not bore you.

  5. Fayyaz

    When you are denied a job because of your ethnicity, color or race, it is the humiliation more than a job that creates a gaping hole in your pride and self respect that turns you into no body. This is the sad tail of many second generation immigrants who were treated as no body and many turned to religion, some to extreme version of religion, to reclaim lost identity and become some body. Even many immigrants who have good jobs, still are treated as second class citizens and the outcome is no different. Europe tried to find solutions other than addressing racism, and it was doomed to fail. The current violence and terrorism is the symptom of the same disease-entrenched racism.

  6. This is an assumption shattering, and thought provoking post – especially for a bilingual Canadian of French descent who at least on the surface – benefited from Pierre Trudeau’s multiculturalism policies. However, having lived in 4 provinces and one territory, including a stint in Quebec, the insights articulated in this article ring true. They speak not only to my own conflicted personal experience, but to the evidence I see in this young dynamic city I live in: Calgary, Alberta. Thank you very much for the post, your additional work on your time in Canada, and for responding so eloquently to the Canadians who thought they might have been the exception to the rules, such as they might be.

  7. damon

    On what lay behind the 2005 trouble in Birmingham, I would say that any government or council policies had less to do with it than just community friction. There are a lot of new immigrants from south Asia who work in shops there and because they have grown up in India or Pakistan are going to have a different outlook to someone who has grown up in that society.
    So they work behind the counters of shops that cater almost exclusively to black women.
    The hair, nails and wigs shops etc, and I can see a possible clash of cultures or sympathies right there.
    It might be annoying to have to go and buy your personal grooming products from people you suspect don’t respect you. You get the same issues in the USA with Korean, Chinese, and now Arab businesses being the only ones in run down black neighbourhoods. Remember Spike Lee’s film ”Do the right thing”?

    Just a couple of months ago on Big Brother, black American singer Alexander O’Neal got himself into trouble by voicing his dislike for Arabs. It was because of their disrespectful attitude to African Americans in their stores in Mississippi. And Arab taxi drivers not picking up black people in New York (he said).

  8. Rebekah

    Thank you very much for this essay. It helps to sort through a very complex issue. I am concerned about the growing sense of Nationalism in Europe and the US (immigration) and we need more thoughtful and reasoned thinking such as what you are offering.

  9. Owen Glendower

    ” Some white Europeans are conservative, many are liberal, and still others are communist or neo-fascist. And most whites would not see their interests as specifically ‘white’. A white Christian probably has more in common with a black Christian than with a white atheist; a white socialist would likely think more like a Bangladeshi socialist than like a white conservative; and so on. Muslims and Sikhs and African Caribbeans are no different; herein rests the fundamental flaw of multiculturalism.”


  10. Curt LaRose

    A good overall view of the issue and the problems of multiculturism.
    One issue that you didn’t bring up though, is that there are certain parts of foreign cultures that are not acceptable to Western society and simply can’t be accepted w/ a wave of the multicultural magic wand.
    Female genital mutilation is the most glaring example that comes to mind. Honor killings, domestic violence and wearing veils to get an ID picture are also examples of “culture” that is incompatable.
    I’m reminded of the story of the British Viceroy who when told that burning wives alive on their husband’s funeral pyre was part of the Indian culture noted that hanging was part of his culture and remarked that “you build your funeral pyre and I will build a gallows next to it.”
    I think that these are real issues/problems w/ multicultarism that nobody seems to want to talk about.

  11. Dewi

    It is interesting that the recognition of the problems of ethnic groups by their religion rather than by their poverty and economic marginalisation dates in the UK from the late 1980s This was of course after the emasculation of trades unions in this country It would be interesting to see if the Government of the day also believed that recognising and dealing with religious leaders would be easier because of their inherent conservatism

  12. Reblogged this on Porcelain Flowers and commented:
    Fascinating stuff. This details some of the struggles and failures of ‘the west’ at large. Some due to goodwill coupled with naivete, others with malicious intent to dominate. The legacy of colonialism is a deep and painful one, and will continue to dictate the human story until we gain greater capacity for empathy, and deal with these deep divides in the right way–and that is certainly not by ignoring them or teaching ‘colorblindness’ as we love doing in the USA.

  13. I found this an interesting essay, but why did you entitle it ‘The failure of multiculturalism’, rather than ‘The failure of assimilation’, when you make it clear that assimilation has failed as well? The French state was hardly ‘laid-back’ on multiculturalism before 2005, given its rigorous use of the school system to inculcate secular values.

    Also, what does ‘the formal recognition of cultural differences’ mean and should it always be resisted? You mention a specific policy in Birmingham that you oppose, but what about other official recognition of difference? For example, if French state schools refuse to provide non-pork meals for Jewish and Muslim children, is that OK? Even thirty years ago, my university (Oxford) provided an option for Jewish students to sit exams on another day than the Sabbath. Is that again a formal recognition of cultural difference that should be abolished? Should governments refuse to interact with Jewish groups, because these groups are encouraging people to have a particular and exclusive identity, which according to you should be discouraged?

    I think the Jewish examples are interesting because they show that it’s not simply a recent failure of class politics that has led to cultural and identity politics. Many early twentieth-century Jews were deeply involved in left-wing politics, but that didn’t necessarily lead to them abandoning their Jewish identity. And even if they did want to escape it, their Jewish identity was also forced on them by anti-Semites. In the same way, how do ‘Muslims’ escape a cultural identity which is increasingly forced on them by hostile outsiders? The creation of cultural identity by groups and individuals don’t happen in a vacuum, but from the interaction of an in-group and an out-group. How much of people self-identifying as Muslim has come because ‘Paki’ has gradually become an unacceptable racial slur, but raging against ‘Muslims’ is often just a substitute for it by racists? German journalists with ‘Muslim’ names get sent hate-mail whatever their religious or ethnic background.

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