Capitol Ideas

The Multicultural Delusion

The Arab revolt of 2011 suggests the whole subject of multiculturalism needs to be revisited.

By From the April 2011 issue

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Recently the British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in which he said that multiculturalism isn't working. French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel said much the same thing. A good deal has already been written about Cameron's remarks, which I mostly agree with. But the Arab revolt of 2011 suggests the whole subject needs to be revisited more broadly.

First, to correct a common confusion: multiculturalism means much more than the mutual toleration of different races living in one country. Caribbean natives started coming to Britain in large numbers after World War II; Indians and Pakistanis likewise. I'm not saying there were no problems with that influx, but it was manageable. The newcomers knew they were expected to adopt, or at least adapt to, British culture. One problem was (and remains) that ever increasing welfare payments tended to solidify these newcomers into an isolated and resented underclass.

State multiculturalism is more serious -- an actual (although undeclared) assault on the traditional values of a nation. This policy is now seen as a "failure," Cameron said, because some young men, following a "perverse and warped interpretation of Islam," are willing to "blow themselves up and kill their fellow citizens."

The problem at the core of the failure is that newcomers "find it hard to identify with Britain" because "we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity." More from Cameron:

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives.… 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.

Racism from whites is condemned, for example. But when "equally unacceptable views or practices" come from non-whites, "we've been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them."

The same impulse, although less advanced, is evident in the U.S. The great imperative is to pretend that Islam is like Judaism or Christianity: it's one more monotheistic religion. Nothing wrong with that, surely? Maybe, maybe not. But the reality is that Islam is treated differently. For one thing it is feared, and feared for good reasons. And that means respected. It is deferred to at every turn. Christianity is either ignored (where it is enfeebled) or denigrated (where it is not).

There could be no more dramatic confirmation of the fear of Islam than the recent Defense Department report on the murders at Fort Hood, Texas. In 2009, Major Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, screamed "Allahu Akbar!" as he opened fire at the military base, killing 12 soldiers and wounding 32 others.

Before his outburst of lethal rage, Nasan never concealed his Islamist sympathies. To fulfill Walter Reed's academic requirements, he wrote a psychiatric presentation, quoting from the Koran in support of the "painful punishment and liquidation of non-Muslims." In a lecture he accused the U.S. military of mounting a war on Islam, expressed sympathy for Osama bin Laden, and praised the motives of the 9/11 terrorists. Dorothy Rabinowitz gave these and many other details in a Wall Street Journal article in February.

Nothing Nasan said could reverse his instructors' praise. "No single word of criticism or doubt about Hasan ever made its way into any of his evaluations," Rabinowitz wrote. In the final report from various branches of the military, "not a single one mentioned radical Islam." Even today, the Defense Department "still hasn't specifically named the threat represented by the Fort Hood attack -- a signal to the entire Defense bureaucracy that the subject is taboo."

After the bloodbath, DoD continued to tread warily, its memoranda portraying the event "as a kind of undefined extremism, something on the order, perhaps, of work-place violence."

Hasan (now awaiting trial) had been treated as a star. This was not in spite of his jihadist sympathies but precisely because he had flaunted them. He thereby posed "the most extreme test of liberal toleration," and liberals (as Rabinowitz wrote) cannot allow themselves to fail any tolerance test. So they ratchet up their own toleration level to whatever height is necessary.

NOTICE THAT CAMERON MENTIONED "our values." What are they? Western intellectuals today -- and this applies on both sides of the Atlantic -- support a "content-free" democracy with these features. There will be freedom of assembly and of most speech, but it will be monitored and may be curtailed; some "views" are "unacceptable," as Cameron noted. Religion? Permitted, as long as it is strictly divorced from state power. Voting for everyone over the age of 18 is a given, "women's rights" ditto. The old idea of the "melting pot" will be decried at every opportunity. Truth, of course, is relative. You are free to believe your own truth but don't expect it to be tolerated if unacceptable views get out of hand. Those are some of the contours of today's multiculturalism. It's like a book from which all content has been removed. The late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus pointed to the problem it poses in a book called The Naked Public Square.

Speech is carefully channeled. Elizabeth Powers has pointed out that interest groups supported by the liberal intelligentsia have "effectively outlawed criticism" they don't want to hear "by rebranding it as ‘hate speech.'" Try publishing an op-ed article saying that homosexuality is immoral, for example; or that egalitarianism is an unworthy goal; or that the Muslims worship a different God.

As Cameron didn't say, the problem arises mainly because Christianity, which used to "clothe" the public square, has now been abandoned in all but name in elite circles. Church teachings today are as easily ignored as the bishops who preside over them, but who in some cases seem not to take their own preachments very seriously. Condoms, it's said, are the chief American export, and abortion our least regulated industry. Muslims who oppose American hedonism can make a strong case.

In Britain, patriotism is regarded by the literati as an embarrassment at best; at worst as an engine of greed, empire, and racism, now happily consigned to the past. This has left a population demoralized and lacking "any belief in its own nation," as Anthony Daniels wrote in National Review. Patriotism has been "left to the brutes" -- the kind of people who tattoo bulldogs on their biceps.

It's not that bad here of course. It's still possible to wave the flag or sing the national anthem without embarrassment. But Europe is plainly the model that guides our own intelligentsia. Multiculturalism is "the unofficial established religion of the universities," as Rabinowitz wrote.

Multiculturalists "rejoice at mass immigration because they want the culture of their own country to be diluted as much as possible," Daniels also wrote. Again the same impulse is found here, but at least we have a resistance movement. If you spend time in England, as I have lately, you soon notice the big difference is that we do have a resistance movement that is minimal or absent in England. That's why David Cameron's speech was notable. Even so, it's unlikely that anything over there will really change.

The assumption on both sides of the Atlantic has been that the incoming Muslims or homegrown converts to that faith will experience a decline of morale parallel to the Christian experience. But that doesn't seem to have happened yet.

The multiculturalist policy of "hands-off tolerance" has left "some young Muslims feeling rootless," Cameron said. Their search for "something to belong to and believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology." But the truth is that Muslims do have something to believe in and that is Islam. We are too timid to comment on it, beyond reassuring ourselves that it is a "religion of peace." Our timidity has been conspicuous, especially to the Muslims themselves.

The cultural asymmetries are striking. If the English Defense League springs up -- they held a demonstration in Muslim-dominated Luton (north of London) at the time of Cameron's speech -- the educated classes will descend on the upstarts with warnings about hate speech. The police will be summoned at the first sign of contagion. But if homegrown Islamists detonate bombs in the London Underground, as happened a few years ago, well, that means we should try even harder to be accommodating.

In short, the Muslims "have seen British values and culture close up, or at least what British values and culture have become, and they don't like them," Anthony Daniels wrote. "They are quite right not to do so."

THIS IS WHERE WE MUST turn to the Arab revolt in the Middle East, and our media response. As I write, Gaddafi is still hanging on in Tripoli but no doubt he will be gone by the time you read this. The regional upheaval does qualify as revolutionary, and I think of it as the revolt of the intelligentsia. But that is true of most revolutions, and often they don't turn out as expected. The same may be true of this one.

Nonetheless, it has been broadly celebrated by elements of the U.S. media in a way that the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe was not. Some -- the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof, for example -- have been almost giddy with excitement. On the other hand, Washington Post commentary (George Will and Charles Krauthammer) has been cautious and appropriately so. The outcome will not be clear any time soon; perhaps not for years.

What do we want to see in Egypt and elsewhere? A more broadly based government with "the proper building blocks of a free and democratic society," said Cameron. Tzipi Livni, formerly Israel's foreign minister, wrote an article for the Washington Post, outlining the desired features of "Arab democracy." She wants its future participants to "commit to" the renunciation of violence, the rule of law, equality before the law, acceptance of treaties already signed, and election monitors who guide these principles, "in deciding whether to grant parties democratic legitimacy." How all that will be arranged is unclear. Mindful of how it was foiled by Hamas in Gaza, Ms. Livni wants democracy "that cannot be hijacked for non-democratic ends."

Let us overlook the criticism that the phrase "Arab democracy" has won oxymoron contests in the past. Optimism is the order of the day. There is a first for everything. Certainly the underemployed university graduates who played leading roles in Tahrir Square really do want a democracy. And they want it content-free, on the European model. But will they get it?

Islam made enormous advances in Egypt during Mubarak's rule. We never used to see those disciplined hordes of Egyptians doubled over in worship. Their Islamists will be armed with blasphemy laws rather than hushed by "hate speech" accusations. (Britain abolished its residual blasphemy laws in 2008.) Further, I would venture to predict that same-sex marriage proposals will make little headway in the Nile Valley.

Do the Arabs of North Africa share our values? Some of our foreign policy intellectuals, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution for example, are confident that they do. He said on ABC's This Week the other day: "We need more faith in the basic values that we believe are universal and that we have to understand that Muslims and Arabs share."

Glad to hear that, Bob, and I'll make an effort to understand it. Still, I have my doubts. It's possible, of course, that having overthrown the tyrants, the Arab intelligentsia will be able to install a content-free democracy that cannot be hijacked. But when I look at the serried ranks of Muslims bent over in public prayer, their public squares look far from naked to me. Given one man one vote, how are the enlightened ones going to keep the forces of Islam, resurgent in so many parts of the world, from advancing still further in overwhelmingly Muslim countries once the secular tyrannies have been banished? 

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).