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'Failure' of multiculturalism

Gavin Hewitt | 11:05 UK time, Monday, 18 October 2010

In a speech to young members of her party, Chancellor Merkel at the weekend broke a taboo. She said multiculturalism had "utterly failed".

Up until now mainstream politicians have largely shied away from "identity politics". No longer. The German chancellor was explicit. "This multicultural approach, saying that we simply live side-by-side and live happily with each other has failed. Utterly failed."

Kurdish women in Berlin, 21 Sep 10

To understand this intervention it is worth scrolling back a few weeks. Over the summer the former Bundesbank member Thilo Sarrazin caused a storm of protest with his book Germany Abolishes Itself. His comments about Jews and genetics meant that his views were immediately condemned and he eventually had to resign from the bank.

But the main argument in his book was that Islam did not fit comfortably with Western values. He packed audiences and his book has sold over a million copies. Suddenly Germany was discussing how well its five million Muslims had integrated.

Then the German President, Christian Wulff, stepped into the argument. "Islam," he said, "has become part of German culture". It was right, the president said, for the Muslim religion to be taught alongside others at German schools.

The reaction was not what he may have imagined. The paper Bild splashed a headline asking "Mr President, why are you sucking up to Islam?" Polls suggested the public did not share the views of the president. Of those polled 66% rejected the president's view that Islam was part of Germany. Other politicians began speaking out. The conservative Bavarian Interior Minister, Joachim Herrmann, said "Germany does not want to integrate Islam but to retain its own cultural identity".

This has been the message that has enabled anti-immigration and overtly anti-Muslim parties across parts of Europe to enter mainstream parties.

The Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders visited Germany and according to reports told a large audience that "we do not deserve to become strangers in our own land". There was loud applause.

Angela Merkel has decided that the argument cannot be left to those parties. She told her audience at the weekend that "immigrants are welcome... they must learn the language and accept the country's cultural norms".

Gradually across many parts of Europe the old concept of multiculturalism is being challenged. That had allowed new arrivals to essentially live within their own communities without taking steps to integrate into their new societies. The problem was that separate parallel communities sprang up.

What politicians like Angela Merkel want is for closer integration, for newcomers to take on Germany's "cultural norms". In her view, it is no longer just enough to arrive and to cling to the values and customs of the country they have come from. She is not promoting assimilation, but she is suggesting that newcomers "have obligations" and need to do more to become "German" or "European".

The new thinking is less to celebrate what makes societies different and more what binds them together. The Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, spoke of the need for Turkish migrants in Germany to speak German "fluently and without an accent".

Many migrant communities are understandably wary of "identity politics" and would argue that the barriers to integration often come from society itself, which makes it difficult for them to find jobs. Some in Germany have pointed out that the funding to help migrants learn German has been cut.

But - after the economy - the issue of immigration in country after country is influencing the outcome of elections and mainstream politicians are starting to pay attention.


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