Monday, March 13, 2006

Integration or multiculturalism (E)

My entry for the Nico Colchester Journalism Fellowship 2005 - organised by the Financial Times, The Economist and The Economist Intelligence Unit. Didn't make it through the selection though ;)

From Melting Pot to Bitches’ Brew ?

Amidst political uncertainty, economic crisis, ageing populations, and immigration waves, Europe finds itself tackling the problem of cultural pluriformity. How to deal with diversity ? The question has taken center stage in the debate over the future of Europe. As it turns out, the alchemist Melting Pot, rather than gold seems to have churned out a devilish concoction that is getting all parties twisted.

On the national level, different member states have developed different approaches to the matter of diversity. France, for one, has always been adamant about integrating that postmodern ‘Autre’ into the mainstream of French tradition. The current ban on the display of religious symbols in public office, the islamic headscarf in particular, is consistent with their stance on assimilation. The Dutch and the British on the other hand, have always had a much more complacent view about cultural differences, and have tended towards coexistence under the banner of tolerance and respect. In general, one could draw an imaginary line across the middle of Belgium – the country is aptly equipped for such divisionary tactics - and split Europe into a multicultural north and a more integrationist, essentially French-speaking enclave to the south.
That much for what has been lovingly called ‘old Europe’. Newer Europe arguably takes a different look at the problem. Southern countries such as Spain and Portugal have had fairly little problems with immigrant minorities, because there were and are hardly any there. Until recently, the level of economic development in the southern rim of Europe was such that migrants prefering the buck to the bang ventured upward into the colder regions of the union.
Chances are however, that soon these sun-splashed lands will have to deal with an inverse migration from the north, given the hordes of ever-older pensioners that will be set free over the next two to three decades as the baby boomers gradually take leave from active society. Learning a foreign language and investing in service industries will likely turn out to be a lucrative bet for those countries in the south.
The newest members, coming in large part from the eastern and central parts of Europe, have other views still. Many of them have only recently been set free from Soviet dominion and are eager to reassert long lost national identity. Their position in the debate is somewhat exotic, in that their speech is infused with the pressing need to redress historic wrongs. Such rewinding of the clock risks neglecting the complexities of Europe’s contemporary cultural mix, and goes against the general – be it ambiguous – thrust towards transnationalism.

The realities in the field are much more complex of course than the general distinctions made above. According to Patrick Ireland, lecturer at the University of Houston, Texas, and author of a recent study of public policies regarding immigrant integration in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, various policies are pursued at the local, regional and national levels all at once. Across the board, approaches seem to oscillate between what he terms structural policies (access to jobs, health care, education and housing) and political-cultural policies (aiming to engage immigrant groups in both informal and formal decisionmaking networks) on the one hand, and assimilation versus diversification on the other. Most, so Ireland finds, fall somewhere in between both dyads, and resort under what he describes as “liberal multiculturalism”.
Other researchers, such as Marco Martiniello, head of the Belgian Centre d’études de l’ethnicité et des migrations at the University of Liege, compound the problem of multiculturalism with linguistic and historical divides that run through many European countries. He mentions the Basque case in Spain, the Northern League in Italy, as well as the Corsicans in France, to name but a few. Intensely inspired by David Hollinger’s study of ‘the diversification of diversity’, Martiniello champions a so-called “post-ethnicity” that would go beyond a mere pluralism in favour of a dynamic, interchangeable and freely chosen multiplicity of affiliations.
From a transnational, European perspective, this may sound like a worthy goal. The question nonetheless remains how to get from our LAT (living apart together) reality to the lofty ideals of wishful thinking. Regarding just that, everyone agrees Europe lacks a consistent and unified approach. But the times, they are a’changing...

Continental Europe’s migrant community consists in large part of muslims of Moroccan or Turkish descent. Given the West’s problems with a core group of islamic fundamentalists, outbreaks of mutual hatred in various countries and increasing pressure to welcome Turkey into the European Community, positions in the debate are slowly converging. Take Holland for instance. With regard to multiculturalism, the Dutch are said to be lax, lean and willing to bend. But the 2002 killing of the rising political star Pim Fortuyn, has severely stiffened the spine. Fortuyn’s death, plus the 2004 slaying of Theo Van Gogh, an outspoken filmmaker, and the intimidation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a feminist muslim member of Parliament, have pushed Holland to a much more restrictionist approach, in all areas of society and on all levels of decision making. Similar developments, to varying degrees of intensity, are happening in Denmark, Belgium and even the UK. Europe, the French will be happy to notice, is looking to Paris for guidance and counseling.
Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of specific assumptions at the heart of any assimilation strategy, the approach does have its merits. From the part of the host, assimilation requires the definition of a basic rule set that operates as a point of reference. For the guest, this rule set marks the playing field for political action and participation. Writer Tariq Ramadan’s concept of a ‘European islam’ indicates that immigrant communities are ready to take up responsability. But as suggested by the deeply problematic canyons of social flats that besiege France’s historic city centers, assimilation can not just be a matter of pinning people to their obligations. Equally, if not more, they must be allowed to exercise the rights inherent in the rule set. Otherwise, deadlock looms.


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