The Cultural Contradictions of Multiculturalism

STOCKHOLM – State-sponsored multiculturalism has failed. That proclamation by British Prime Minister David Cameron, following hard on the heels of similar renunciations of multiculturalism by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, suggests that a page is being turned in European society. But is it?

Cameron’s attack on multiculturalism minced no words. “Frankly,” he said, “we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism.” He was not criticizing ethnic and cultural pluralism, but the idea of “state multiculturalism,” which applies different moral standards to various social groups. In the future, Cameron declared, Muslim groups that do not, for example, endorse women’s rights, defend freedom of expression, or promote integration would lose all government funding.

It is not just official multiculturalism that has failed in Europe, however; so has the multiculturalism endorsed by large parts of European civil society. Sweden, one of the most liberal countries in the world, but also one that has recently seen a surge in extremism, is a case in point.

Sweden has long been known for its lifestyle liberalism. Swedes are overwhelmingly secular and indifferent toward the Swedish church. Homosexuals have been able to register civil partnerships since 1995 and marry since 2009, and the country is one of the most radical in its understanding of women’s rights – as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can attest. Moreover, Sweden’s far-reaching freedom of expression is one reason why Assange located WikiLeaks’ servers in the country.