After years of benign neglect, leaders face need to weave better ethnic ties
By Jonathan Eyal
LONDON: When British Prime Minister David Cameron told a summit of European leaders earlier this month that his country's decades-old experiment with multiculturalism only encouraged ethnic communities to live segregated lives and failed to contain Islamic extremism, he faced the usual outcry.
The Labour opposition swiftly accused him of 'writing propaganda' for far- right racist groups. And British Muslim organisations complained that their religion is, yet again, unfairly associated with violence.
But Mr Cameron's speech did spark off a wider European debate. Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that his country's policies of tolerating separate racial identities will stop. From now on, he told France's minorities, 'if you come to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is the national community'.
Chancellor Angela Merkel made similar remarks late last year when she admitted that Germany's attempt to integrate its immigrants through multiculturalism had also 'failed utterly'.
The reasons for this disenchantment are not difficult to find. Multiculturalism - or the notion that a country would be enriched by allowing each community to maintain and develop its own culture, lifestyle and value system - was taken on with little debate by European governments during the 1960s, when waves of new immigrants of different skin colours and religions started arriving.
Some European leaders assumed that multiculturalism was just a temporary phase, before different races assimilated. Others, however, understood it as a permanent concept. Whatever the scenarios, the new migrants were very much left on their own - with little done in school or elsewhere to foster a sense of identification with the mainstream community, its outlook and values.
As a result, the children of the first Turkish 'guest workers' in Germany found themselves adrift, neither German nor Turkish in outlook. Many lived in mono-cultural enclaves such as the Kreuzberg area of Berlin. In France, the peripheries of the capital Paris are largely populated by former immigrants from North Africa. In Britain, the typical immigrant from Pakistan is likely to live in areas where at least a quarter of the residents are also of Pakistani descent, despite the fact that Pakistanis make up just 4 per cent of the country's overall population.
The separation is also mental. Sections of mainstream communities in Britain or France, for example, look askance at some practices associated with the minority communities from South Asia and Africa whenever reports of forced marriages and 'honour killings' in the name of tradition hit the headlines.
Yet, paradoxically, new technology actually promotes segregation. It is now perfectly possible for a family in Britain to watch TV programmes in, say, Urdu, all day and to lead its entire life without speaking a word of English.
What is more, the sense of alienation continues to grow, even among minority members born and bred in Europe. As Britain's Commission for Racial Equality reported: 'Alarmingly, young people from ethnic minorities are twice as likely to have a circle of pals exclusively from their own community as were older ethnic minority folk.'
Alienation often breeds contempt towards others. British police are now grappling with gangs of youth of Pakistani origin who have turned to grooming white English girls for sexual exploitation, because these girls are seen as 'fair game'.
While the problems of social alienation have gone on for a while, what has most recently focused minds - and served as a wake-up call - has been the terrorist attacks and the fears of home-grown terrorism associated with segments of Europe's Muslim minority community.
The reasons Muslims are less integrated into European societies remain hotly debated. Clearly, the fact that most of them hail from remote, poor countries did not help. Nor did the fact that many Islamic preachers in Europe come from the Arabian peninsula, with their own strict interpretations of Islam. Economic exclusion also hampered integration.
Still, none of this explains why the Chinese and Indians - many of whom also came to Britain with nothing but their clothes - are now performing much better than Pakistani Muslim immigrants in both education and jobs. And poverty is not the real reason for terrorism: Most of Britain's suicide bombers were the sons of middle-class parents.
In his recent speech, Mr Cameron rejected the idea that Islam is synonymous with violence: 'The ideology of extremism is the problem; Islam, emphatically, is not.' Nevertheless, he went further than any previous European leader by claiming that even Muslims who reject violence should be regarded as extremist if they espouse hostility towards broader Western liberal societies.
Being neutral is no longer enough for Europe's governments, he argued. 'A genuinely liberal country does much more', by actively promoting freedoms of speech, worship and the rule of law. 'It says to its citizens: This is what defines us as a society. To belong here is to believe in these things.'
In short, the challenge is no longer one of managing ethnic relations, but of upholding values which are non-negotiable.
Mr Cameron's speech signals a new approach to the large number of Muslim community groups that deal with the British government.
In the past, such groups were given financial aid - despite the fact that many opposed government policies such as equality for women - provided they persuaded young Muslims to keep away from violence. Now, Mr Cameron has vowed that they will no longer be 'showered with public money' unless they espouse individual rights and encourage integration.
In this regard, he has also spotlighted another aspect of multiculturalism as practised in Europe: Whereas there is little tolerance for nativist right-wing groups, extremist elements among minority groups have taken advantage of European governments' live-and-let-live attitudes towards their communities to push their radical agenda, whether it be their treatment of women or public support of violence against the state.
For Mr Cameron, the job of integration faces several hurdles, not least creating a shared national identity. No European school would introduce a pledge of allegiance. Even the requirement to fly the national flag on public buildings is often derided as 'fascist'. Former prime minister Gordon Brown's efforts to foster a sense of 'Britishness' were not taken seriously. And school teachers have resisted the introduction of civic education in the curriculum.
Mr Cameron's government also risks adding to racial segregation through its promotion of faith-based schools. Parents of all religions rush to enrol their children in these schools, partly because they are often better than their state-run alternatives.
But not everything taught there enhances racial harmony. A British TV station recently conducted secret filming at a Muslim school in Birmingham hailed by government inspectors for its 'contribution to promoting tolerance'. It found that the school's pupils were taught that Hindus drink cow urine, that disbelievers were 'the worst of all people', and that British society was under 'the influence of Satan'.
This may have been an isolated incident. Nevertheless, it is a reminder that European governments are paying a price for their years of benign neglect. By failing to come to grips with the thorny issues of managing inter-ethnic relations, Mr Cameron and other leaders in Europe are now having to confront the resulting fissures.
[To a lesser extent here in Singapore, we have migrants with their own cultures, values and norms, e.g. from China. They can be more kiasu than Singaporeans, more monolingual, less integrated. They may not see Singapore as a home, but as a farm or a factory.
But keeping to the point, it is interesting that just after the quote from LKY about Muslims being harder to integrate, we have all these comments about self-segregated, non-integration of Muslims. ]