There are some things that are simply not easily or widely discussed in immigration debates in the United States and abroad, and the virtues of multiculturalism are among them. I have called them taboo immigration topics not because there are explicit prohibitions against discussing them, but because in all the myriad contemporary American immigration policy debates it is very rare to find any discussion of them. The silence is not accidental.
The importance of multiculturalism in helping new immigrants to adapt to their new countries has been unassailable conventional wisdom, and government policy, in Europe for over a decade. It has also been a rallying cry for "post-national" theorists in the United States who see traditional efforts to help new immigrants become Americans riddled with cultural hubris that begins with the very idea of American exceptionalism.
For these reasons, British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent address is truly a taboo-shattering speech. In it, he publically disowned what has been Great Britain's major policy stance toward immigrants every since the "Parekh Report" Commission on the Future of Multi-ethnic Britain, was published in 2000.
"State multiculturalism has failed, says David Cameron", reads the BBC headline, and his speech is even more direct. It was delivered at a European conference on domestic and international security issues, but his views on the origins and development of ethnic and religious separatism go to the heart of Western societies' approaches to integrating new immigrations into their national communities.
In discussing the roots of Muslim radicalism, Cameron says:
"In the UK, some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practised at home by their parents whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries.
But they also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values... hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology.
I also believe we should encourage meaningful and active participation in society, by shifting the balance of power, away from the state and to people.That way common purpose can be formed, as people come together and work together in their neighbourhoods. It will also help build stronger pride in local identity so people feel free to say yes, I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu, I am Christian but I am also a Londonder or a Berliner too.
It's that identity – that feeling of belonging in our countries that is the key to achieving true cohesion." [emphasis added]
It will be tempting to dismiss Cameron's speech as the pandering of a conservative political leader to rising distrust of immigrants and immigration. This accusation has been made before. In some people's minds it is the "racism and anti-immigrant sentiments" that must be the focus of any inquiry.
But David Cameron is the second major European leader to express these sentiments. In October 2010, speaking to a meeting of young members of her Christian Democratic Union party, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said of Turkish "guest workers": "We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn't stay, but that's not the reality." She then went on to say, "Of course the tendency had been to say, 'let's adopt the multicultural concept and live happily side by side, and be happy to be living with each other'. But this concept has failed, and failed utterly."
Ms. Merkel said, "The question is how we deal with this question. Integration is a central issue because the number of young people in this country with an immigrant background is increasing, not decreasing."
She's right and the question she raises has implications for every country with large numbers of new immigrants, and that includes the United States.
Next: "Multiculturalism in the U.S.: Cultural Narcissism and the Politics of Recognition"