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Equalities and Diversity Summer School

clps2The following is the transcript of a presentation on the Questioning the European ‘Crisis of Multiculturalism’ project given at the Edge Hill University Centre for Local Policy Studies Summer School on July 1 2009.

What exemplifies the ‘crisis’?
The last few days have provided us several neatly packaged examples of the type of thing that passes as emblematic of the by-now almost undisputed ‘fact’ that multiculturalism in Europe is in crisis.

In the UK, Gordon Brown has announced what was quickly dubbed as a ‘British homes for British workers’ scheme. Under this, what have been described as ‘local’ British people waiting for local social housing will be given preference over ‘outsiders’ .The terms of this proposal pit the ‘deserving’ over the ‘undeserving’ in the barely veiled implication that the divide between the two is culturally defined.Commentators have been quick to point out that the policy is an attempt by a flailing New Labour regime to respond to the threat of the BNP in their traditional stomping ground. But, as Gary Younge noted yesterday also, it would be short-sighted to see this type of policy proposal as originating uniquely with the far-right.

Rather, it very much fits with what, in the first decade of the 21st century, has become a predominant political message across the board: that ‘too much diversity’, to cite David Goodhart,  is responsible for much of Europe’s social ills, and that the policy that enabled ‘diverse groups’ to indelibly transform European societies – multiculturalism – must now be overturned.

A second example comes from France. President Sarkozy has proposed making the wearing of the burkha and niqab illegal, ostensibly because it is degrading to women and offends French secular values.

These examples from the last week illustrate the main points that we want to outline:

1.    That the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ needs to be understood as a European (western) phenomenon which is also a highly mediated one.
2.    That debates about the end of multiculturalism do not have a stable object of critique. Speaking about the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ is a way of not speaking about a range of other things. These ‘things’ are often to do with the mainly political and economic sources of inequality and social unrest that blight European societies. But they are also to do with a constant need for Europe to define what it is, a project that has for centuries been accomplished by contrasting it to what it is not. This was easier in the days of global European hegemony under colonialism but has become increasingly difficult in a postcolonial era increasingly defined by globalization.
3.    That the notion that multiculturalism is in crisis and the solutions being posed to this calamity (e.g. integration, cohesion) are part of a wider culturalisation of politics.

A mediated European crisis
The fact that the European ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ is a mediated one is made particularly clear by the example of the French opposition to the burkha.

It was not before France passed a law in 2004, effectively banning Muslim women from wearing the hijab in public institutions, that calls for a debate into what, in 2007, Jack Straw called a ‘visible sign of separation’ began elsewhere.

In 2007, the Irish police (Garda) refused to allow a Sikh recruit to wear his turban. This was followed closely by a school refusing to allow Muslim girls to come to lessons wearing the veil. While the Irish government eschewed a French-style headscarf ban, it cited the need to learn the lessons of other countries.

Here, like elsewhere (I’m thinking of Sikhs murdered in the US following 9/11), the turban and the hijab are conflated as orientalised tropes of difference. This demonstrates how brown skin and headgear have become markers of an incommensurable difference that is named ‘Islam’ but which targets a host of different-looking ‘others’.

Sarkozy’s recent proclamations on the burkha have led Irish politicians to call for an ‘honest debate’ on the role of Islam in Irish society and incited a question on last weekend’s BBC Question Time, demonstrating the slipperiness of the slope from the specifics of hijab-wearing to the generalisation of Islam (read Muslims) as posing a problem for society.

So, announcements of crisis, debates about diversity, and discussions of the place of minorities (most notably Muslims) in our societies are increasingly driven by two things:
1) media spectacles and events, and
2) mediated statements, reports and thinktank futorologies.

These circulate around Europe and are used to bolster arguments against immigration and for the curbing of undesirable diversity.

An example of the first is the Danish cartoons controversy. The cartoons first published in the Jyllands Posten were reproduced by newspapers across Europe in solidarity with the Danes who were seen as scapegoats for unjustified Islamist outrage.

The affair opened a debate, not about the nature of European Islamophobia – the cartoons linked the prophet Mohammed to suicide bombing – but about the primacy of freedom of speech, interpreted both as unidirectional – i.e. Europe’s freedom to critique others – and as a uniquely western/European value that has been eroded by ubiquitous ‘political correctness’.

An example of the second is the recent Civitas report on the introduction of elements of Sharia law in Britain (it is against). Rowan Williams’s tentative statements on the same topic were already picked up across Europe as an example of the ‘madness’ of unbridled multiculturalism, which the UK is – by now wrongly – seen as the supreme example of.

The extent to which these examples and others, most notably the 2005 riots in the French banlieues, are mediated – reproduced and translated to fit local contexts – means that they often take on a mythical status that no longer has (if it ever had) any relationship to reality.

For example, as demonstrated in Christopher Caldwell’s provocatively titled – Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Can Europe be the Same with Different People in it? – there is a belief (which he also seems to share) that multiculturalism has “left natives feeling like second-class citizens.” Whereas the belief may be felt, it cannot be argued that white people have really become second class citizens in Europe. Nevertheless, Caldwell cites a British report into white people’s feelings of powerlessness in the face of hegemonic minorities which no doubt can be used to justify anti-multiculturalist backlashes elsewhere.

Mythical or not, however, the mediated nature of the notion of crisis also helps us to see why it has such power. The circulation of stories, reports, spectacles and events of societal rupture apparently caused by too much diversity constructs what we are calling the ‘circuits of belief’ that uphold the ever-deepening belief that radical measures are needed to roll-back multiculturalism’s power to destroy the mythical homogeneity, tolerance and peacefulness of Europe as a whole or in it national parts.

Hence, it is the discursive power of crisis – and in particular the crisis of multiculturalism which deals in the currency of belonging, identity and entitlement – that we are most interested in.

Crisis of multiculturalism as euphemism
Most of the commentary on the idea that multiculturalism is dead has taken the debate at face value. This has led to even staunch critics of state multiculturalist policies, who spent years noting its essentialising drive, defending multiculturalism as being preferable over cohesion and integration.

On the other side, everyone from out-and-out racists, to liberal commentators to some feminists, secularists and gay rights activists has accepted the notion that multiculturalism poses a real threat to something that is variably known as European, national, or on a good day universal, values. These things are usually named as tolerance, democracy, respect for the rule of law, and freedom of speech.

Whatever side of the fence you sit on, we believe that it is not particularly beneficial to take the argument about the crisis of multiculturalism at face value if we want to understand it. So we have not been interested in normative debates about, for example, reconciling religious particularism with liberal values or whether or not Sharia law could be introduced in some form.

Rather, the debate over multiculturalism needs to be understood as a vehicle for animating and mediating a range of less concrete negotiations about belonging and legitimacy in a Europe that is looking increasingly inward in its quest to make sense of itself.

More than anything else, the crisis of multiculturalism can be seen as one instance in a series of debates and prescriptions that postcolonial, post-immigration Europe has set itself in the effort to cope with living with difference.

In this sense, it is a way of not talking about race – race being understood here as a uniquely western means for encapsulating irreconcilable human difference (rather than biology, skin colour etc.).

It is because modern Europe – in particular after the Holocaust and colonialism – has been unable to reconcile itself to the centrality of the structuring idea of race to its very foundations that successive generations have sought solutions in assimilation, multiculturalism, interculturalism, and now diversity and integration.

Race has always been about difference per se. This is what multiculturalism and the reification of something we called culture, but which often followed racial lines, also tried to cope with. The new challenge to multiculturalism and the ascent of diversity is also a way of damage controlling a difference that is racially marked: the rhetoric of crisis naturalises and fixes cultural differences as a problem.

The ultimate solution to this problem is to do away with the source of difference – the BNP’s response. The liberal version is to integrate it. The notion of integration as a solution to the problem caused by the fact of multiculture (rather than multicultural policy) allows for the return of a racial Europeanness mediated through discussions of values, civilisation, secularism/Christianity, liberalism, Enlightenment, and so forth.

For example, Christopher Caldwell again talks about the fundamental erosion of what he calls ‘the essence of Europe’.  By doing so, he is both setting up the idea of a unified and homogeneous Europe that ignores the differences and antagonsims that exist across the continent, and pitting it against an enemy – in this case Islam and/or Muslims – which is equally racially construed.

In other words, the notion of crisis of multiculturalism barely covers up the race-thinking that its proponents – such as Caldwell – are trying to give voice to.

The Culturalisation of Politics
This leads me to the final part of our argument: that the crisis of multiculturalism is unable to get out of the cultural mire that it has itself identified as being the problem.

Part of the reason why arguments such as that of Caldwell or Goodhart in the UK, or Oriana Fallaci in Italy, Alain Finkelkraut in France or countless others are given such purchase is because they are coherent with an overall culturalisation of politics in which culture can be brought in as both problem and solution.

In The Expediency of Culture, George Yudice writes that “culture is being invoked to solve problems that previously were the province of economics and politics.”

He is right: In our neo-liberal and increasingly securitised societies the possibility for ordinary peope to participate in setting the political agenda has all but become impossible due both to the criminalisation of activism and protest and the lure of consumerism.

Culture has entered into this space as an easy shorthand for making sense of complex social, economic and political situations, such as inequality in housing, education and healthcare, unemployment, migration and so forth.

This I think sheds some light on why cohesion rather than equalities is emphasised as a solution in the UK today, as Stuart pointed out yesterday.

Ensuring equality requires legal mechanisms, retraining, and ultimately a shift in the political culture and social relations. Cohesion is less hardnosed. It is said to be about promoting a feeling of sharedness that is never really defined.

Of course, it can never be wholly defined because that would defeat the purpose. It would be impossible then to shift the goalposts of cohesion and integration – as is constantly being done in the lived-experience of those who are told to integrate – if we were to say that there is an end-point at which one has truly integrated or become socially cohesive.

The claim that there is a lack of social cohesion and the need to promote it would stop being a rhetorically powerful political device.

In other words, the culturalisation of politics is particularly potent because it is both the expression and the disavowal of racism.

On the one hand, by naming the problem as one of culture, we are saying that there are groups in society – most obviously today Muslims – who are conceived of as culturally (read racially) homogeneous and who disrupt our (fictional) societal unity. The similarities between this and classic racist arguments are easy to appreciate.

On the other hand, however, by naming the problem as cultural, or in particular religious or linguistic, we distance ourselves from the charge of racism.

As Martin Barker already observed in The New Racism in 1981, culturalist racism replaces geneticist arguments about biological difference  with ones about cultural incompatibility. Therefore, what is experienced as racism becomes mere commonsense in the mouths of immigration ministers or liberal commentators.

But where this has gone a step further since Barker wrote in the 1980s is that it is no longer possible to ‘out’ culturalism as a form of racism. There has been an almost wholesale acceptance that we are post-race and that pointing out the incompatibility, for example, of ‘European tolerance’ with Islam or with too many immigrants is a neutral statement to make.

However, addressing the problems that are said to arise as a result of too much diversity politically through, for example, equalities legislation or fairer housing policies would be to admit that this is not wholly neutral. Hence, cultural solutions to cultural problems are sought, our favoured example being asking moderate imams to teach Muslim youth not to become radicalised as was proposed some years ago by the erstwhile Jackie Smith.

Quite simply, to admit to the underlying problems of local racism and global anger at the unjust foreign policies of western governments would be to admit that perhaps it is not the fact of diversity which has led to societies ‘sleepwalking to segregation’, if that is indeed happening.

We would have to admit that the crisis of multiculturalism argument is a symptom of a failure of politics and of political imagination out of which the tautological reasoning that sees culture as both problem and solution can emerge.

The fact is that there is no common vision of Europe to integrate into and that is most certainly no bad thing. But whether we think cohesion is good, bad or indifferent is mainly a diversion from the question that all the hand-wringing over the crisis of multiculturalism in Europe is not addressing, namely how to overcome the social, political and economic njustices that are almost exclusively borne by the poor and the racialised in our societies, and certainly not by the liberal elites convinced by the politics of fear that our (read their) way of life is under threat.

Alana Lentin