Why 'Multi-Kulti' Is Failing in Europe

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Multiculturalism just doesn't work in Germany, according to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Speaking to the youth association of her Christian Democrat Union party (CDU), she said that the "multi-kulti" concept that "we are now living side-by-side and are happy about it ... this approach has failed, utterly." Merkel described this as living in "parallel societies" similar to the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco or the Little Italy in Philadelphia.

Merkel's comments were made a day after Horst Seehofer, the Christian Social Union (CSU) premier of Bavaria, told the same assembly that "multiculturalism is dead." Earlier this month, a poll found that a third of Germans viewed immigrants as welfare cheats, and former Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin claims in his recent book (Germany Is Abolishing Itself) that the inability of immigrants to integrate contributed to the economic decline of Germany.

Resentment directed at immigrants typically increases during periods of high unemployment as people look for scapegoats and simple explanations for economic frustrations. In its most pathological form, it becomes xenophobic nationalism. Extremists find it even easier to create a "we" versus "they" if the outsiders are culturally, religiously or racially different.

Many Americans share Merkel's views and some find similarities between Germany and the U.S. In the past decade, pundits such as Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs, and even the late Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington, decried multiculturalism as a threat to the American mainstream culture. They blamed illegal Mexican immigrants for refusing to "assimilate" and trying to create separate societies where only Spanish is spoken and, even worse, where they would retain their Mexican national loyalty and identity.

Multiculturalism has never meant "separatism" in the U.S. It means pluralism where homeland ethnic, religious and cultural identity can be kept in the larger context of the American mainstream. One can be a hyphenated American - an Asian-American, Muslim-American, Italian-American, Irish-American or African-American. There is no need to give up one identity when both can be kept. This reflects America's roots in mass immigration from all over the world.

The situation in Europe is very different. Mass immigration, especially from non-European cultural backgrounds, was never compatible with the European nation-state, which was based on ethnic and cultural homogeneity, including language and state-supported religion. In the U.S., only about one percent of the population - Native Americans - can make the claim that "we were here first." Everyone else comes from immigrant ancestry, and many initially settled in ethnic communities where they shared a common ethnic identity and continued to speak the language of their homeland. In fact, the civic culture of the U.S. can be said to be based upon the psychological need Americans have for a sense of brotherhood and unity in such a diverse society. This need may be greater than in many countries in Europe because the U.S. has always been a "nation of immigrants." Regardless of national origin, ethnicity, race or religion, everyone is an "American" - even if hyphenated.

These "parallel societies" and ethnic communities in America were never permanent homes for future generations. They were way stations where immigrants could usually find cultural and even economic support as they transitioned into the mainstream dominant culture. Even today, "Little Odessa" near Coney Island is a transitional home for many Russian immigrants in New York. And there are more Lebanese in Chicago than the entire population of Beirut.

Immigrants who began their American sojourn in these "parallel societies" were often very successful. For example, Asian-Americans who may have started in a Chinatown or Koreatown on the East or West coast have the highest per capita income and level of education of any ethnic or racial group in the U.S. today.

Few immigrants in the U.S. have remained in their "parallel society" and retained their traditional homeland culture across generations, and those that have are often viewed as aberrations. There are perhaps a quarter of a million Amish in Pennsylvania but they pose no threat to the overall American culture except when an automobile gets into an accident with a horse-drawn buggy on the open highway.

Although immigrants might not speak fluent English, they need not as neighbors, friends and co-workers speak the home language. However, they expect their children to go to the public schools where they are taught in English, to study diligently, to leave the ethnic community and go to a university, and to get a good job so they can contribute to the family and enable others to pursue higher education. Public schools and universities play a vital role in the acculturation of immigrants to the U.S.

Mobility - physical and economic - is a central part of the American immigrant experience. The average American moves roughly 14 times in a lifetime. Very few will die in the same city where they were born. This is also true of immigrants. A Chinese son in a public school may eventually date an Irish-American girl. They may marry, move from Chinatown in New York to a high-tech job in Austin, Texas, and have children who cannot speak Chinese. In fact, about a third of the children of Asian immigrants who are born in the U.S. marry non-Asians, and a third of Hispanic immigrant children born in the U.S. marry non-Hispanics. This is true of most immigrants. These are not "parallel societies."

Chancellor Merkel and others claim that immigrants refuse to assimilate, when what they really mean is "acculturate" - the accusation that they refuse to learn English in the U.S. or German in Germany. Almost all American immigrants want their children to learn all aspects of the American culture, including English. In fact, it is unnecessary to make English the official language in the U.S. because immigrants are learning English much more quickly than in the past. It used to take three generation for immigrants to exclusively speak English, but this is no longer true. For example, less than half the children of Hispanic immigrants who are born in America can speak Spanish.

In Paris, there are generations of Algerians who speak fluent French and yet remain locked within their Algerian parallel society. The past's racial riots in Paris involved mostly second- and third-generation Algerians protesting their lack of economic, political and social inclusion in the French society. Turks in Germany often maintain their language across generations and even bring brides from Turkey to marry the sons of Turkish immigrants.

In Europe, the per capita income of Arab, North African and Muslim immigrants is lower than the average French or German citizen. Yet in the U.S., it is higher than the average American.

In the Netherlands, there has long been a practice of segregating religious and ethnic groups. Catholics, Protestants and Jews have their own schools, hospitals and neighborhoods. More recently, Moroccan and Turkish immigrants who are also Muslims have their schools, their hospitals and their communities. It was what Americans would describe as "separate but equal." This prevents the mixing of groups and it prevents the children of immigrants from leaving their parents' ethnic and religious communities as they do in the U.S.

To be a successful multicultural democracy is not easy. The U.S. has struggled to overcome slavery, its treatment of Native Americans and various anti-immigrant movements that have flared since its founding. It has not been without considerable social conflict and political turmoil, but the U.S. has made a multicultural society work. "Multi-kulti" may be failing Europe because it in truth hasn't really been tried.

Theodore Couloumbis is vice president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and professor emeritus at the University of Athens, Greece; Bill Ahlstrom is an executive at a US multinational; Gary Weaver is professor at American University’s School of International Service; these views are their own.
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