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The Monitor's View

Merkel on failed German multiculturalism: Other countries should listen up

German leader Angela Merkel bluntly says the 40-year experiment to integrate Turks and Germans has failed. But she's not abandoning the idea of assimilating immigrants in Germany. And neither should other countries, including the United States.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / October 18, 2010



What boosted the story of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the top of Google News early this week was her frank admission that multiculturalism has failed in Europe’s most populous country. Specifically, she was talking about the integration of Muslim Turks into German society – a failure with a 40-year history.

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But another, equally important part of her remarks needs highlighting – not just in Germany, but also in the United States and other countries struggling with immigration issues. Her point was not to give up on integration, but to try to figure out how to better assimilate immigrants.

“The question is how we deal with this question,” Ms. Merkel said, in talking about Islam to a group of young German conservatives over the weekend. “Integration is a central issue because the number of young people in this country with an immigrant background is increasing, not decreasing.”

In Germany, as in other developed countries, an aging population requires immigrants for economic survival. For reasons of national prosperity, social cohesion, and something as idealistic as advancing the community of mankind, immigrants must eventually become part of the seamless fabric of their new home country – different colors but the same cloth.

That’s not the case in Germany – and elsewhere. The Turkish community, first invited in 1961 to Deutschland as factory guest workers, lives largely apart in separate enclaves.

About 4 million Turks reside in Germany – the largest non-German immigrant community – but many of them haven’t mastered the German language, have low skills in a high-skill economy, and rely on the welfare system for support.

A third of Germans believe that foreigners “come to abuse the welfare state,” and that Germany is in danger of being “overrun” by immigrants. This is according to a recent survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, an arm of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party.

An American could make similar observations about the Hispanic community – even though its culture is Christian and has deep Western roots. Various studies show Mexican immigrants have weaker English proficiency, lower skills, and lower incomes than other immigrant groups.

Third- and fourth-generation Mexican-Americans don’t achieve the full integration of descendants of Europeans, a 2008 study by the University of California Los Angeles found. Most become fluent by the second generation, but many do not graduate from college and continue to live in Hispanic neighborhoods.

Children of Mexican immigrants assimilate down, into a lower-income, less-educated subculture, finds Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor.

To get at Merkel’s question of “how” to encourage integration, one has to look at the causes of the integration challenge. Part of it lies with the immigrant groups themselves – not in their race or genes, but in their shared culture, values, and experiences.

For instance, Latin America, while heavily influenced by the West, is still underdeveloped when it comes to education. And Islam sets itself apart – and above – with its own sharia law. This puts the onus on such immigrant groups to express a greater willingness and make a greater effort to join their new culture.

But host countries have their responsibilities, too. In allowing higher concentration of immigrants from one culture over a prolonged period, they support the very enclaves they wish to discourage.

By bending too far to accommodate immigrants – say, with bilingual everything, as in the US – or by being too rigid about the assimilation process – such as banning the burqa, as in France – they likewise exacerbate apart-ness, either in fact or by creating resentment.

And of course, if a country such as Germany considered its Turkish guest workers as temporary visitors, it should not be surprised that these individuals do not feel welcome to participate fully in society.

Different circumstances call for different approaches, but the assimilation question must be answered, and not dodged – no matter what the country.

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