Notes From the Margins…

Europe’s ‘multicultural problem’

  • July 21, 2011
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Multiculturalism is a concept that is often criticized – and rarely defined – by both mainstream conservatives and the extreme right.    But definitions are  usually less important than the visceral condemnations of a corrupting liberal ‘ideology’ that is supposedly paving the way for the downfall of ‘our’ national and cultural identity and permeating Europe with alien – especially Muslim – cultural enclaves.

More often than not, multiculturalism functions as a code word for certain forms of cultural and ethnic diversity that the right has always found unacceptable.   Where Enoch Powell once argued that ‘the white man’ would become an endangered minority in ‘his’ own country, attacks on multiculturalism enable people with very similar views to talk about culture instead of race or ethnicity.

The more extremist voices, such as Umberto Bossi, Oriana Fallaci, Melanie Phillips et al,  depict national and cultural majorities – invariably imagined in the first person plural as some kind of unchanging historical essence –  reduced to besieged minorities by the immigrant hordes and the multicultural Trojan horse that has allowed them to take over the countries they occupy.  More mainstream politicians present multiculturalism as a threat to ‘social cohesion’ and even a cause of terrorism.

In Europe’s current age of ‘austerity’, attacks on multiculturalism provide a convenient diversionary scapegoat and a simplistic pseudo-explanation for cultural, social and  political questions that require more complicated and difficult answers.  So we can’t be surprised that  both David Cameron and Angela Merkel have joined in the chorus against ‘multi-kulti’ this year.

These developments are analysed in a lucid and very sensible article by John R. Bowen in the Boston Review.  Bowen’s central argument is that


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while it is hard to know what exactly the politicians of Europe mean when they talk about multiculturalism, one thing we do know is that the issues they raise—real or imagined—have complex historical roots that have little to do with ideologies of cultural difference. Blaming multiculturalism may be politically useful because of its populist appeal, but it is also politically dangerous because it attacks “an enemy within”: Islam and Muslims. Moreover, it misreads history. An intellectual corrective may help to diminish its malign impact.




Too right.  At a time when the backlash against multiculturalism has become a pretext for a wider assault on Europe’s new-found cultural and ethnic diversity, Bowen provides his own ‘intellectual corrective’ in a superb comparative analysis of different European approaches to multiculturalism in various countries.   You can read the whole article here.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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