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What Europe can learn from the civil rights movement

This week, we have heard a lot of talk about multiculturalism and the fact that it is really not working in Europe.
 Linda S. Wallace

This week, we have heard a lot of talk about multiculturalism and the fact that it is really not working in Europe.

What we haven’t heard is a good explanation of what multiculturalism is and is not. Bear with me as I give it a shot.

Imagine a nation where Christians live in one part of town and Muslims in another. Now, imagine that the Christians hold most of the power, money and influence and make the laws. This is multiculturalism, as currently defined by many European nations. In America, we call it by a different name: segregation.

So when I hear European leaders complaining that multiculturalism isn’t working, I am inclined to agree with them. Segregation didn’t work well here either. It marginalizes minority populations resulting in stereotypical images, decreased work opportunities and resentment and fear.

When fear strikes, typically it shows itself as an equal opportunity killer, a heart-breaking lesson learned by Norwegians last week after Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing Christian who sought to save his nation from “multiculturalism,” was arrested by the Oslo police for killing 76 people in a bombing and mass shooting.

European tensions over immigration have been building for some time. Last month, the Dutch government announced it would abandon the long-standing model of multiculturalism that has encouraged Muslim immigrants to create a parallel society within the Netherlands. Earlier, British Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech in Munich, rejecting what he called “the doctrine of state multiculturalism.”

Even Germany, which is sensitive about discussing national identity in light of the horrors of the Holocaust, joined in. Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a much-publicized speech last year in which she said multiculturalism, known as the “multikulti” concept, has failed utterly. She prefers that Muslims blend into Christian society, even if it means giving up cultural customs to fit in.

In Europe, leaders like to frame this mandate to Muslims as integration. In America, the mandate has a negative connotation: assimilation. Remember, when the majority group holds power, it gets to control language and decide whether words or ideas are good or bad.

Here’s what Merkel actually said: “In the early 1960s we brought the guest workers to Germany. Now – they’re living with us....Of course the multicultural approach – living side by side, being happy with each other – this approach has failed...utterly. That is why integration is so important, those who want to participate in our society, must not only comply with the law and follow the constitution, but above all, must learn our language.”

Merkel is right to ask immigrants to learn the language and follow the rule of law. No argument there, but only if the laws are fair or just. That needs to be part of the European dialog on multiculturalism and “national identity.” Segregation in America led to a series of laws and public policies that marginalized African Americans and made it more difficult for them to advance in society or earn living wages. Many of the Turkish “guest workers” invited into Germany now find themselves in much the same situation.

Germans are less tolerant of Muslims than their western European neighbors and many feel threatened by Islam, according to a survey by the University of Muenster. It found that 34 percent of Germans in the west of the country and 26 in the East think positively of Muslims. In comparison, 62 percent of Dutch, 56 percent of French, 55 percent of Danes and 47 percent of Portuguese hold positives attitudes about Muslims.

Moreover, they held stereotypical views of Muslim neighbors. Only eight percent of West Germans and five percent of East Germans say that Islam is peaceful. When asked what they associate with Islam, more than 80 percent of those surveyed in all five countries say gender discrimination, 70 percent say fanaticism, 60 percent say violence, and 50 percent say bigotry.

Surveys that track beliefs based upon unsupported opinions and biases – rather than evidence, research or fact – are all too familiar.

Complex cultural issues require complex thinkers who are able to manage their own cultural filters, tolerate cultural ambiguity, frame dialogs in a neutral manner, speak to multiple audiences simultaneously, forge compromises and understand their history and that of minority groups.

Truth, like onions, usually comes in irritating layers. We have to peel away the filters, assumptions, and biases to get to the tasty stuff. Sometimes the process is so difficult it makes us cry.

Still, as objective bystanders, Americans are obligated to ask whether multiculturalism failed Europe, or European leaders failed multiculturalism.

(Linda S. Wallace, The Cultural Coach, president of Memphis-based Linda S. Wallace Communications and author of the Cultural IQ blog. Visit http://www.thecultural coach.com/ for more information.)

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