The Strange Death of Multiculturalism

An ideology which holds that people from different cultures must live in separate communities within a country, should not take an interest in each other and must not criticise each other is both wrong and unworkable. Of course, multiculturalism’s more thoughtful advocates never imagined that a cultural community could or should substitute for a political community. They believed that so long as everyone abided by the law, it was not necessary for citizens to have a single hierarchy of values.

The ideal of multiculturalism at home was echoed with an ideology of cultural relativism abroad, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This evolved stealthily into a form of moral racism which held that white Europeans deserved liberal democracy but that people of different cultures had to wait for it. African dictators might do dreadful things but somehow they did not meet with condemnation from many European intellectuals, for criticism implied cultural arrogance.

The Netherlands, where I was born, has perhaps been divided by the debate over multiculturalism more than any other country. The murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh two and a half years ago by an Islamist assassin has incited a wrenching debate about the country’s entrenched culture of tolerance and easy access for asylum-seekers.

Long before the arrival of Muslim guest workers in the 1960’s and 1970’s Dutch society was in a sense ‘multicultural’ in that it was already organised into Protestant, Catholic, liberal and socialist “pillars,” each with its own schools, hospitals, TV stations, papers and political parties. When guest workers from Morocco and Turkey became de facto immigrants, some began to champion the creation of an additional Muslim pillar.