The intolerant legacy of multiculturalism

Germany’s angry debate about immigration has its roots in the multiculturalist emphasis on difference.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
Germany Correspondent

Topics World

Speaking recently to young conservative members of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany’s attempt to create a multicultural society had ‘utterly failed’. Not long before, Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian state premier and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), had argued that Germany should block the entrance of migrants from ‘alien cultures’, such as Turkey and the Middle East.

While Merkel’s comments raised a few eyebrows, it provoked little criticism. Seehofer, however, was accused of being a controversialist and of pandering to the right-wing. This is peculiar, because Merkel’s statement also alluded to the idea that certain cultures are not easily compatible with the ‘German way of life’. She suggested Germany should be more assertive in demanding integration from immigrants. The fact that there was so little criticism of the chancellor shows how defensive old-style multiculturalists have become.

Merkel’s statement is only the latest contribution to a vociferous debate about the merits of a multicultural society. Germany seems to have split into two groups with apparently different views on the nature of modern Germany. This became clear when German president Christian Wulff said, during his October speech to commemorate German reunification, that Islam had become a part of Germany. While supporters of multiculturalism saw this as an affirmation of reality, arguing that immigrants had the right to demand that their cultural and religious differences be recognised and respected, others thought that Wulff was selling out on German values. While some see diversity as a positive thing, then, others use it to make a case against immigration.

However, because it is framed in terms of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ multiculturalism, the debate about immigration in Germany is very narrow. Multiculturalism was not something which developed as a response to the reality of diverse communities forced to live together. Rather, it was a policy imposed on society from above. As such, it represented neither an acceptance of immigration nor a symbol of openness and tolerance. It was the product of measures instituted by national governments and local authorities to diffuse the pressure imposed upon them by immigration.

This can be understood best by looking at the contradictory nature of immigration in post-war Germany. Originally, immigration from Turkey began as a result of economic necessity. While the influx of labour was welcomed, there was, from the outset, considerable unease as to what impact this influx might have on German society. This unease increased as the economy began to stagnate and it dawned on people that many immigrants were not going back home but had come to stay.

As these tensions increased, policymakers sought both to channel and restrain, not only immigration itself, but also the immigration debate. Any nationalist rhetoric was of course unwelcome, as Germany was trying to shake off its Nazi past. Racial concepts of what it meant to be German and the open delineation of cultures were no longer acceptable. So instead, politicians embarked on a new ‘twin track’ strategy in response to what they saw as a growing problem. On the one hand, they imposed increasingly restrictive immigration controls, specifically designed to exclude Turks and other non-Europeans. (By the 1980s, new immigration from Turkey was possible only for young children or wives of Turks already based in Germany.) On the other hand, parallel to this, policymakers pioneered a new strategy of making immigrant communities feel part of society.

This was the birth of multiculturalism. It was based on a whole new industry of professionals and integration specialists who organised consultations, set up social work programmes for immigrants and their children, gave out special awards for achievements in the field of immigration, organised street festivals, opened community centres, and so on. Millions of euros were spent on projects and organisations in the multicultural field. This helped promote the idea of Germany as a tolerant nation which not only accepted but also actively embraced ‘cultural diversity’.

In today’s debate, with opportunists such as Seehofer emerging from the back benches to propagate anti-Turkish sentiments, the era of ‘controlled tolerance’ may now appear almost paradisiacal by comparison. It is hard not to sympathise with the old multiculturalist ideal of ‘unity in difference’ in today’s increasingly hostile climate.

Yet it is important to see that the idea of ‘alien cultures’, which are apparently not compatible with German society, was always at the very core of multiculturalism itself. Firstly, the linking of immigration, social work and integration implied that social problems arose from the presence of these allegedly culturally distinct peoples within German society. Hence, it was not the rise of unemployment and the closures of traditional industrial workplaces which were perceived as the main problem, but immigrants themselves – immigrants who could no longer be integrated into the workforce and who began, in part, to rely on Germany’s social security system.

Moreover, the multiculturalist ideal did not seek to overcome differences. Its advocates never pleaded for a truly open Germany and certainly never propagated equal rights for everyone. Rather, multiculturalism was used to diffuse anger created by immigration by celebrating cultural differences – and thus it placed division rather than equality at the centre of its ideology. That is, different peoples should have the right to express their identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles.

The problem here is not so much that people shouldn’t have been allowed to practice their own cultures. It was that this approach made equality between people of different origins seem positively undesirable. Different rights for different communities became the only logic of the time – as Merkel now puts it, the ‘multikulti’ concept according to which people would happily ‘live side-by-side’.

After years of multiculturalist stereotyping, it is no wonder that most Germans today feel that Turks are indeed quite a different set of people. It is also no wonder that many Turks in Germany feel that they have no other identity except that of their own ethnicity. Multiculturalists divided people along ethnic lines long before Seehofer began doing so.

Given its legacy, it is good that Merkel has spoken out against multiculturalism. The problem, however, is that she appears unable to replace the old consensus with a more positive, new vision. So while it is useful that the political debate is opening up, so far this has not led to a call for more liberalism or for more freedom (such as the freedom of movement for migrants). Instead, it has gone hand-in-hand with a growing pessimism with regard to the future and Germany’s ability to integrate its biggest immigrant group.

Perhaps it is only when we begin to separate our political and social problems from the issue of immigration that the new, post-multiculturalist debate will become truly constructive, and worthy of a country which still likes to view itself as tolerant.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl is an economist working in Berlin. She is also a journalist for the German magazine Novo and is speaking in the Battle of Ideas satellite debate Immigration: the more the merrier in Berlin on 11 November.

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Topics World


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