It may seem like America's political system is more racially polarized than most other democracies. But the toxic animosity has gripped Europe as well, as rightwing leaders define Muslim immigrants as a source of instability and threat. When U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron declared the end of multiculturalism in Britain earlier this month, he juxtaposed the country's political ideals of racial and religious plurality against an angry rising tide of economic anxiety and resurgent nationalism.
Multiculturalism, as Cameron defines it, has kept British citizens from having an open conversation about the dangers of "radical Islam." In other words, if you're too nice, the extremists will step all over you.
Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We've failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We've even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.
So, when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from someone who isn't white, we've been too cautious frankly--frankly, even fearful--to stand up to them. The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don't want to, is a case in point. This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. And this all leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and something to believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology. Now for sure, they don't turn into terrorists overnight, but what we see--and what we see in so many European countries--is a process of radicalisation.
Buried inside the condescending coded language may be a valid point: perhaps many in Britain don't know how or are afraid to express views on sensitive issues around political extremism (a feeling that's pejoratively referred to in the U.S. as "political correctness"). Cameron rightly recognizes the alienation of many Muslim youth. But by emphasizing the gulf between "good" and "bad" forms of Islam--citing stereotypes of gender oppression as proof of social inferiority--he draws a false dichotomy between two imagined monoliths.
For many in Cameron's audience, the real problem is not "political Islam" so much as it is a deep sense of economic insecurity and unemployment--and the desire for a scapegoat. This tension is rising across Europe--peaking in the example of Greece, where politicians embroiled in economic crisis want to erect a European Union border fence that would make the U.S. Border Patrol blush.
Nonetheless, the public response to Cameron's speech showed the potential ripple effects of careless words in a charged political climate. The event coincided with an anti-Muslim street rally in Lutonled by the notorious right-wing movement English Defence League. The Guardian reported:
Some of crowd were jubilant, saying that Cameron "had come round to our way of thinking". Paul Bradburn, 35, from Stockport, said Cameron was "coming out against extremism".
Not everyone on the right is embracing the "with us or against us" canard. Lady Warsi, Conservative Party chair, drew praise when she spoke frankly about stereotypes peddled through the media and political circles.
Warsi said that people were fed up of "the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media", adding that Muslims are too often baldly characterised as either moderate or extreme.
"It's not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of 'moderate' Muslims leads. In the factory, where they've just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: 'not to worry, he's only fairly Muslim'. In the school, the kids say 'the family next door are Muslim but they're not too bad."
Cameron's message wasn't original. It was in keeping with a trend spreading across many Western liberal democracies. His brand of cultural chauvinism is gaining political currency across Europe, alongside a populist anger that's growing as the EU economy remains embattled.
Last October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the "failure" of multiculturalism as a social integration policy in Germany. Countries like Switzerland and Sweden have also shifted steadily toward the right, often under the credo of defending the secular state against Islam. Even quotidian emblems of Muslim life are easy targets for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who last year moved to restrict the wearing of the Muslim veil in public (and lately has come under fire for trying to expel Roma communities and cozying up with the Tunisian dictatorship).
Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell has written on the question of cultural pluralism as a double-edged sword in European political thought since the 18th century. Historically, he contends, many right-wing thinkers have disingenuously championed "cultural relativism" in order to promote fierce nationalism based on "blood and soil." These days, Europe's political mainstream is embedded with a form of liberalism that, to social commentator Slavoj Zizek, marks "a clear passage from direct barbarism to barbarism with a human face."
Respectable savagery translates well here in the U.S. Remember "multiculturalism" was also the object of Michelle Bachmann's famous warning to fellow Americans in 2008:
There is a movement afoot that's occurring and part of that is whole philosophical idea of multi-cultural diversity, which on the face sounds wonderful. Let's appreciate and value everyone's cultures. But guess what? Not all cultures are equal. Not all values are equal.
And one thing that we're seeing is that in the midst of this violence that's being encouraged by Al Jazeera and by the jihadists that's occurring, is that we are seeing that those who are coming into France--which had a beautiful culture--the French culture is actually diminished. It's going away. And just with the population of France they are losing Western Europeans and it's being taken over by muh...by a Muslim ethic. Not that Muslims are bad. But they are not assimilating.
The denouncement of multiculturalism is a backhanded cheer for monoculturalism, and a clever pivot to the far right under the credo of national security. Just as the bromide of post-racial America has been used to conceal inequity, European leaders have waved the post-multicultural wand in hopes of demarcating cultures according to nationalist ideology.
A modern society incorporates multiple cultures that constantly dialogue and clash with one another. To shrug off that principle is to erode the core of cultural democracy. Erasing the troublesome differences at the social margins may be comforting at first, but it also shrinks down your world, until eventually even you find yourself on the outside.