'Banal, benign diversity is the best we can hope for'

November 24, 2006

Multiculturalism is being fiercely debated at universities. A workshop, held by Oxford's Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, looked at why European governments have dropped references to cultural diversity in their policy vocabularies; why public intellectuals and politicians have criticised "too much diversity"; and whether a backlash against cultural difference is sweeping Europe, resulting in "neo-assimilationist" policies - giving immigrant populations the stark choice: become like us or go home.

Delegates showed that many European countries displayed the same historic pattern: immigrants are initially welcomed by a tolerant democratic society that adopts policies that encourage minority groups to retain their own identity. But, as the immigrant population grows, the society becomes fragmented. Tensions arise after an economic downturn when the immigrant underclass, invariably with lower educational attainment, shows the highest levels of unemployment and becomes the biggest burden on the welfare state. A backlash follows with a call for tighter immigration policies and better integration of the immigrant population. And politicians who call for "foreigners" to be more like "us", win elections.

According to Patrick Simon, a researcher at the Institut National d'Etudes Demographiques: "The French model of integration has failed" despite condemnation of discrimination in the workplace and proclamations of equality. In Denmark, according to Ulf Hedetoft of Aalborg University, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in 2003 that the "medieval forces" of Islam would not "find fertile soil in Danish society".

Switzerland, according to Gianni s'Amato of Neuchatel University, may be the most international country in Europe (33 per cent immigrants) but it has the most nationalist outlook: "The Swiss think, 'my village is my country'."

Ralph Grillo of Sussex University says that the current attitude of many Britons to multiculturalism is illustrated by an utterance on a website by an unnamed professor. "Multiculturalism is not couscous, it is the stoning of adulterers."

By the new millennium, reservations about multiculturalism cut across the UK political spectrum. In 2002, David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, condemned "an unbridled multiculturalism that privileges difference over community cohesion".

Since September 11, 2001, says Grillo, multiculturalism has signalled separateness and problems. But he is more optimistic than some.

British society, Grillo expects, will encompass varying degrees of cultural diversity and fragmentation and will include threatening events such as riots, which will fizzle out. Banal, benign diversity is the best we can hope for.

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