Commentary by Ian Buruma
The Strange Death of Multiculturalism

Enlightenment values are sometimes used in a very dogmatic way against Muslims – but the real reason for defending Enlightenment values is that they are based on good ideas, and not because they are "our culture," says Ian Buruma

Street scene, London West End, Great Britian (photo: dpa)
Tectonic shifts - In the face of a continually rising Muslims population, Europe's multiculturalism and culture of tolerance are under pressure

​​An ideology which holds that people from different cultures must live in separate communities within a country, should not take an interest in each other and must not criticise each other is both wrong and unworkable.

Of course, multiculturalism's more thoughtful advocates never imagined that a cultural community could or should substitute for a political community. They believed that so long as everyone abided by the law, it was not necessary for citizens to have a single hierarchy of values.

The ideal of multiculturalism at home was echoed with an ideology of cultural relativism abroad, especially in the 1970's and 1980's. This evolved stealthily into a form of moral racism which held that white Europeans deserved liberal democracy but that people of different cultures had to wait for it. African dictators might do dreadful things but somehow they did not meet with condemnation from many European intellectuals, for criticism implied cultural arrogance.

Dramatic transition of Dutch society

The Netherlands, where I was born, has perhaps been divided by the debate over multiculturalism more than any other country. The murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh two and a half years ago by an Islamist assassin has incited a wrenching debate about the country's entrenched culture of tolerance and easy access for asylum-seekers.

Long before the arrival of Muslim guest workers in the 1960's and 1970's Dutch society was in a sense 'multicultural' in that it was already organised into Protestant, Catholic, liberal and socialist "pillars," each with its own schools, hospitals, TV stations, papers and political parties. When guest workers from Morocco and Turkey became de facto immigrants, some began to champion the creation of an additional Muslim pillar.

But at the moment that multiculturalism's advocates were making this suggestion, Dutch society was undergoing a dramatic transition. With secularization taking hold, the traditional pillars began to break down.

Enlightenment values against Muslim orthodoxy

photo: Ian Buruma
Ian Buruma

​​Moreover, fierce attacks on Muslims started to come from people who, raised in deeply religious families, had turned into radical leftists in the 1960's and 1970's. From defining themselves as anti-colonialists and anti-racists – champions of multiculturalism – they have become fervent defenders of so-called Enlightenment values against Muslim orthodoxy. These people feared the comeback of religion; that the Protestant or Catholic oppressiveness they knew first-hand might be replaced by equally oppressive Muslim codes of conduct.

But their turn away from multiculturalism is not what prevented the emergence of an "Islamic" pillar in Dutch society. The main problem with this idea was that people from Turkey, Morocco, and the Arab countries, some deeply religious and some quite secular, and all with perceptible animosities towards each other, would never have agreed on what should constitute such a pillar.

In any case, it is now too late to create such a pillar. With the earlier pillars having collapsed, the emergence of a new one would bring about a situation where an increasingly integrated majority would be negotiating with a minority, thus perpetuating its isolation in the process.

"Liberal democracy and Islam are reconcilable"

Whether Europeans like it or not, Muslims are part of Europe. Many will not abandon their religion, so Europeans must learn to live with them and with Islam. Of course, this will be easier if Muslims come to believe that the system also works to their benefit. Liberal democracy and Islam are reconcilable. Indonesia's current political transition from dictatorship to democracy, although no unqualified success, shows that this is achievable.

Even if all of Europe's Muslims were Islamists – which is a far cry from reality – they could not threaten the Continent's sovereignty and, by the same token, its laws and Enlightenment values.

Of course, there are groups to which Islamism appeals. The children of immigrants, born in Europe, sense they are not fully accepted in the country where they grew up, but neither do they feel a special bond with their parent's native country. Islamism, besides offering them an answer to the question why they do not feel happy with the way they live, gives them a sense of their self-worth and a great cause to die for.

In the end, the only thing that can truly damage European values is Europe's response to its non-Muslim majority. Fear of Islam and of immigrants could lead to the adoption of non-liberal laws. By defending Enlightenment values in a dogmatic way Europeans will be the ones who undermine them.

"Our" values against "their" values

Our laws prohibiting incitement to violence and insulting people for reasons of their religion are sufficient. Further constraints on freedom of speech – such as anti-blasphemy laws or, indeed, those laws that make Holocaust denial punishable – go too far.

But this doesn't mean that we should not weigh our words with care. We should distinguish carefully between different kinds of Islam, and not confuse violent revolutionary movements with mere religious orthodoxy. Insulting Muslims simply on the basis of their faith is foolish and counterproductive, as is the increasingly popular notion that we must make sweeping pronouncements as to the superiority of "our culture." For such dogmatism undermines scepticism, the questioning of all views, including one's own, which was and is the fundamental feature of the Enlightenment.

The trouble today is that Enlightenment values are sometimes used in a very dogmatic way against Muslims. They have become in fact a form of nationalism – "our values" have been set against "their values." The reason for defending Enlightenment values is that they are based on good ideas, and not because they are "our culture." To confuse culture and politics in this way is to fall into the same trap as the multiculturalists.

And it has serious consequences. If we antagonize Europe's Muslims enough we will push more people into joining the Islamist revolution. We must do everything to encourage Europe's Muslim to become assimilated in European societies. It is our only hope.

Ian Buruma

© Project Syndicate in cooperation with Dziennik, Poland, 2007

Ian Buruma (born December 28, 1951) is an Anglo-Dutch writer and academic. He was born in the Hague, the Netherlands, to a Dutch father and English Jewish mother. He has held a number of editorial and academic positions, and has contributed numerous articles to the New York Times Book Review. Since 2005 he resides in New York. Ian Buruma's most recent book is A Murder in Amsterdam.

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