Why Europe is turning away from multiculturalism

Britain joined Germany and France in questioning Europe's approach to multiculturalism, saying that it no longer works for other cultures to live 'apart ... from the mainstream.'

John Stillwell/AP
On the same day British Prime Minister David Cameron criticized multiculturalism, Britain’s anti-Islamic English Defense League held its biggest rally in which protesters in Luton, England, chanted ‘Muslim bombers off our streets.’

British leader David Cameron, in the midst of epic budget cuts, is backing a radical shift in his country's famously open model of social integration. At a security conference in Munich Feb. 5, he closed ranks with French and German leaders, saying the "doctrine of multiculturalism" has failed in a Britain that encourages "different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream."

As in France and Germany, Mr. Cameron's declaration seems aimed at one group – Muslims. More precisely, it taps a growing public concern in Europe about those from Islamic backgrounds who are increasingly numerous and becoming a permanent part of Europe's social fabric. In Britain and across the Continent, that unease is fueling right-wing parties but also influencing mainstream electorates worried that Europe is losing its traditional identity.

In Munich, Cameron distinguished Islam from extremism. To the international audience there, including US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, he said Muslim clerics must adhere to a list of principles that constitute British identity – gender equality, democracy, and pluralism – to participate in state affairs.

Most controversially, he said many Muslim groups that act as intermediaries with the larger society are insufficiently straightforward and take public money while pushing concepts of worldwide sharia (Islamic law) and jihad that radicalize youths.

A setback to better relations?

In Britain, Muslims complain Cam­eron is singling out their faith. Some experts worry his approach may reverse modest but significant gains in improved relations since the national shock in 2005 when Muslims who were born in Britain bombed the London transit system. Cameron's new tack, they say, could give comfort to jihadi recruiters.

"This mixes multiculturalism and integration with the wider issue of terrorism and extremism in a way that tarnishes Muslims and blames the entire community," says Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, one of Britain's largest Muslim organizations.

"In the trenches, among those Muslims who deal directly with the street, Cameron's message undermines their credibility and damages the trust needed for them to help, to sit with kids in mosques and homes," says Jonathan Githens-Mazer, director of the European Muslim Research Center at the University of Exeter. "It looks like a double standard. It is very difficult to see what Cameron thought he would achieve with that speech."

Is multiculturalism 'dead'?

Last summer French leader Nicolas Sarkozy said multiculturalism was dead as the French cracked down on immigrants, Gypsies, and crime. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said shortly after that "multi-kulti" had failed amid a national debate sparked by a racially loaded bestseller written by German bank official Thilo Sarrazin that criticized Arabs.

In January, the only Muslim woman in the British Parliament and a member of Cameron's Cabinet, Baroness Sa­yeeda Warsi, said anti-Muslim sentiment had "passed the dinner-table test" to become socially acceptable. Ms. Warsi says the devotion of observant Muslims is often parlayed in the popular mind into extremism. Her views meet plenty of resistance. "Paranoid nonsense," remarked David Goodhart, founder of Prospect magazine in Britain and a columnist for The Guardian.

Marianne Le Pen, new leader of France's far-right National Front party, offered Cameron "congratulations" in a Feb. 9 front-page article in the Financial Times. She said his views marked a shift in European thinking toward positions the National Front "has held for 30 years."

British multiculturalism dates to colonial times, when Britons abroad identified locals they felt would make good subjects. Yet since the late 1980s, following the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his novel "The Satanic Verses," that model has been in flux. After 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings, Britain's laissez-faire multiculturalism has been under fire.

'Londonistan' was characterized as a place to talk jihad and hear heated sermons. Britain responded with policing, counterintelligence, and community-building. Fiery religious leaders were silenced, though a respected association of mullahs was formed along with new institutional ties. The Muslim community was coming awkwardly out of the shadows.

"They went from invisible to talking at the table on Downing Street in a matter of years," says one official involved with the effort. "Yes, they made some mistakes, but they also made some progress."

"Cameron seems all about undoing the thoughtful work the previous government did in local communities," says Jonathan Laurence, author of "The Partial Emancipation: Europe's Muslims and the Geopolitics of Islam in the West" and a political scientist at Boston College.

"Other religious groups meet regularly with the state," Professor Laurence says. "But if the government now chooses only those who sound like mainstream British politicians, that creates an empty shell of representation and harms some very needed trust, especially among young Muslims."

The roots of Cameron's opinions

How to avoid naiveté about violent jihadi cells in an open society while not stigmatizing millions of patriotic British Muslims is the key issue.

Many of Cameron's ideas seem shaped by think tanks like Quilliam, led by two former jihadis, who argue that while many Muslim outreach groups profess nonviolence, they tacitly accept jihad and reject shared British values. "The ideology of nonviolent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists; they disagree only on tactics," the group said in a report last year.

In Munich, Cameron argued that many British terrorists were "initially influenced by what some have called 'nonviolent extremists,' and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence … if we are to defeat this threat, I believe it is time to turn the page on the failed policies of the past."

Quilliam provided a list to British intelligence services that claimed the Muslim Council of Britain and other well-known entities and mosques were suspect. Critics say the list is a smear job. David Lambert, cofounder of Scotland Yard's Muslim Contact Unit, said the list "demonizes a whole range of groups that in my experience have made valuable contributions to counterterrorism." Quilliam also put the Scotland Yard unit on the list, accusing it of extremist ideology.

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