Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Multiculturalism a tough global challenge

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If a shared sense of identity and citizenship is a sign of health, then NZ can take heart. Photo / Paul Estcourt
If a shared sense of identity and citizenship is a sign of health, then NZ can take heart. Photo / Paul Estcourt

So multiculturalism has "failed, absolutely failed", according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is dead, declared another German politician. Did I hear "I told you so" from the xenophobes who claimed all along that multiculturalism was doomed to failure?

The crowing may be a little premature. The trouble with multiculturalism is that it seems to mean different things to different people.

For Merkel, "multikulti" is the idea that "we are living side by side, and are happy about it". (Which implies, I think, that multicultural nirvana was meant to happen naturally.)

For others, multiculturalism is that ill-defined policy which holds that a single country can accommodate new and disparate cultures peacefully and equitably, even when certain aspects of those cultures clash fundamentally with its own cherished traditions and values.

The former seems an increasingly distant liberal fantasy, and the latter a recipe for resentment and discord.

Europe is in retreat on both fronts. It's calling time on what a British security thinktank has called its "misplaced deference to multiculturalism".

Disenchantment with multiculturalism isn't new. In 2006, the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, told immigrants they should "conform ... or don't come here".

Yet Germany's problems with its nearly three million Turkish Muslims seems to have little to do with multiculturalism. Most of the Turks are "guest workers" or their descendants who were welcomed from the 1960s and 1970s to fill Germany's labour shortages. As Merkel has admitted, they were expected to go home one day.

Erol Ozkaraca, the German-born son of a Turkish immigrant, told the BBC, "Germany has never been a multicultural society. The concept of multiculturalism was never given a chance here.

"These politicians say: 'They don't speak German, they don't want to be part of German society and they have their own structures.' But I ask: Where are the courses where we can learn German? Where is the help to integrate us?"

It seems fairly obvious that most Germans had never regarded the Turkish migrants as Germans - and since a shared sense of citizenship and identity is a basic requirement of a successful multicultural society, it doesn't seem at all odd that Germany's approach hasn't been successful.

Living in a multicultural society isn't easy, and most people, according to Robert Putnam, the political scientist and Harvard public policy professor, tend to "hunker down" and become more distrustful in the face of increasing diversity.

Putnam's research confirmed that immigration and diversity pose challenges for community cohesion - but these, he argued, could be overcome by collective effort and public policy which fostered a shared sense of citizenship and obligation.

"Our great achievement of human civilisation is our ability to redraw more inclusive lines of social identity. [The American] national motto - e pluribus unum - reflects precisely that objective - namely to create union out of diversity."

However we define multiculturalism, the challenge for multicultural societies remains the same: How do we get along despite our differences? What does it take to become a successful multicultural country? And how do we find the right balance between integration and diversity?

Blair said that the July 2005 suicide bombings in London, carried out by British Muslims, had thrown the concept of a multicultural Britain into "sharp relief". While multiculturalism should be celebrated, it had to be accompanied by a duty to share "essential values - belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage". "Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain Britain," Blair said.

"So conform to it, or don't come here. We don't want the hate-mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed. The right to be different. The duty to integrate. That is what being British means."

Where does that leave us? I'd like to think our version of the multicultural society is just as respectful of difference, and inclusive, without being overweeningly deferential.

What does being a New Zealander mean? We're still working it out. But if a shared sense of identity and citizenship is a sign of multicultural health, then we can take heart.

The fact that so many people objected a few weeks ago to Paul Henry's limited definition of a New Zealander is a good sign. What matters isn't the definition so much. It's that we can all see ourselves in the picture.

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- Herald on Sunday

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