Saturday, October 23, 2010

COMMENT: Tim Soutphommasane on multiculturalism in Australia

Tim Soutphommasane is one of the few regular opinion writers for The Australian who is not certifiably mad. He has penned an interesting comparison between Australian and German multiculturalism in response (it seems) to angela Merkel's statement at one of her Party's gatherings that multiculturalism has "utterly failed".

(From my limited knowledge of German history, the last time multiculturalism failed there was when Germany's political leadership decided that people from certain undesirable backgrounds should be rounded up and shot or gassed or have nasty medical experiments performed upon them. Yep, nothing like a good dose of Western European Enlightenment philosophy.)

Merkel's conclusions about German multiculturalism are ... well ... perhaps a little premature. There's no point saying your failed at something before you've even tried it.

... in the German case, pronouncing any death of multiculturalism is somewhat misleading. If Merkel had meant multiculturalism in policy terms - public recognition of cultural differences in settlement and citizenship policies - it made little sense to say that it failed. Germany hasn't practised an official multiculturalism.

Indeed, much of the German difficulty in integrating its Turkish Muslim population can be explained by its lingering ethno-cultural, blood-and-soil (blut und boden) view of national identity.

When West Germany took in Turkish nationals beginning in the 1960s to fill labour shortages, it treated them as guest workers who were to go home once their work was done. The Turks weren't regarded as immigrants who would become future citizens.

It wasn't until 2000, for example, that German nationality law adopted the principle of jus soli, allowing those born in the country to parents without native ancestry to claim citizenship.

What makes all this even more interesting is that a few million Turks and Kurds are described collectively as "Muslims". I mean, what the ...? Has Germany suddenly discovered it is officially Christian? Is German and/or European identity defined by religious affiliation? Does Europe need a few more non-Christian migrants to shake it out of its pre-Enlightenment intellectual stupor and into the 21st century?

And the Australian branch of the Tea Party shouldn't keep pointing to Europe on these issues.

We shouldn't draw the wrong lessons from Europe. There is multiculturalism and there is multiculturalism.

Then again, perhaps all that is required is a name change.

A cultural diversity in which communities end up living in isolation from one another isn't an ideal that should appeal to anyone. But such failure often comes about because of not enough attention to integration, as in the case of the Germans, or because of rigid attempts to assimilate all difference, as in the case of the French. When it is the fault of official policy, it is because government fails to place diversity within limits.

Yet another multiculturalism in practice is possible. A liberal multiculturalism that aims to ensure a national identity can speak for all citizens regardless of their background - that is still worth defending. We just may have to call it something else now.