Multiculturalism: War or Peace?

15:23 19.08.2013 • Armen Oganesyan , Editor-in-Chief, International Affairs

The concept of multiculturalism cannot be credited narrowly to Europe, considering that Canada, Australia, and the US have decades-long records of putting the design into practice. There are bumps on the road in all cases – the US, for example, has to grapple with concerns over the looming demographic imbalance as the Hispanic part of the country's population grows – but the  trio appears to do well enough when seen against the turbulent European background. The parallel existence of the mushrooming   ghettos and enclaves in the multicultural Europe alongside the traditional majority is marred with recurrent conflicts and a sense of permanent tension. As a result, Sarkozy, Merkel, and Cameron have to admit, in various ways but in a concert seldom seen otherwise, that “multiculturalism is dead”.

In fact, multiculturalism drew plenty of critical invectives from the outset. Former German chancellor and an outspoken opponent of the doctrine Helmut Schmidt warned already in 1992 that turning Germany, France, and Great Britain into recipients of massive immigration flows would cause their respective societies to erode away and explained that, even though certain ethical foundations for multiculturalism might actually exist, the idea was impractical under the conditions of democracy and individual freedoms. Schmidt's view apparently became even stronger in more than a decade, the point he made in a 2004 interview to Die Zeit being that “a multicultural society was  intellectuals' illusion”.

Switzerland seems to be the only country in Europe to boast harmony and stability within a multicultural framework, but the Swiss confederation took centuries rather than decades to acquire its current shape and, importantly, represents a synthesis of congenial European cultures. The latter circumstance should prompt a look at multiculturalism from a wider perspective, in which the key questions are how “culture” and “civilization” interact within a multicultural context and whether the conflicts we witness in Europe (and elsewhere) are “clashes of civilizations” or, rather, clashes of cultures.  Next significant question – are those in the European political class who think of a multicultural society as an end in itself, not as a step in the development of their original societies, heading in the right direction? – can only be answered if the “civilization vs. culture” dilemma is diligently resolved. 

At birth, every civilization builds its founding narrative around specific notions of eternity and purpose of existence  (individual and beyond) to gradually cast them into societal forms which, in part due to inertia, continue to define the human existence ages later. In essence, today's conflict cannot be read as rivalry between religiously opposite civilizations as in the epochs of the Crusades and the Reconquista. Instead, the clash involves civilizations of structurally opposite types – the tradition-based ones and those belonging to the emerging global and postindustrial realm. Post-industrialism and post-modernism unlocked the rise of a novel civilization which spurred its own architecture of culture, concepts, and standards, and those are increasingly hard to reconcile with the traditional European legacy.

Following A. Toynbee, Russia's theologian Rev. P. Florensky  highlighted in his Cult and Culture the religious gnosis  generally underlying the phenomena of culture and civilization. Beyond doubt, the majority of nations derived the foundations of their civilizations from a particular religious belief, and many steadfastly trace them back to the source. At the moment, the Muslim world stays in the phase of religious cohesion and is electrified as ever by its common convictions, but the European civilization is living through the era of division between traditionalism oriented towards Christian values and the galloping post-modernism. The internal split leaves the European civilization weakened and lukewarm as the apostasy within it deepens and the overall inertia prevails.

The above does not mean that Europeans no longer eye culture through the religious prism, though. A researcher studying migration remarks that a symbolic barrier sets the followers of Islam apart from the rest of the population, and that, moreover, the perceptions linked to this particular gap override any divisions or sense of commonality of other nature. The culture clashes thus become identity clashes.

It should be noted that the Christian world similarly isolated itself from that of Islam in the Middle Ages. Switching to the language of identities, we indirectly acknowledge the fact that  we deal with civilizational differences already loaded with antagonisms. Europe's soul-searching undermines its positions in the duel and, for a faction of Europeans, appears to be a capitulation at the face of the escalating cultural invasion. 

It contributes to the intensity of the conflict that Europe's centers of decision-making on migration policy steadily drift from national capitals to the globalist Brussels. The Lisbon treaty handed to the EU the supranational authority in regulating migration flows and integrating the newcomers community into the very European societies which not long ago handled the issue in their own ways. In contrast to Europeans, migrants almost automatically equate Europe's creed and its culture to which, given its sweepingly modified condition, they can't but react with alienation and outrage.

In the light of the above, one is tempted to bracket Europe's traditionalists and Muslims. V. Monakhov wrote in Otechestvennye Zapiski: “The Muslim presence in Europe translated into an unexpected configuration of alliances and ideological watersheds. It transpired that the value-based divisions stem from the secularization of European societies and from the specific culture engendered by the process. With religion uncompromisingly confined to the private sphere, the  materialistic and recklessly consumerist culture easily captured the center stage. The dilemma that thus came into being is the choice between consumerism and hedonism on the one side and the culture rooted in religious ideals on the other. It makes perfect sense that on many occasions speakers for Vatican appealed to Muslims as natural allies against materialism”.

The truth is that the activity is essentially talk and that any such alliances would be inherently unsustainable. On the empirical level, immigrants feel that the Christian Europe surrendering miserably under pressure from the makers of the new world reneges on its role of the great monotheistic neighbor of Islam and slides into primitive paganism, materialism, or atheism. It should be born in mind to what extent politics, legislation, and daily lives in the world of Islam are interwoven with religion and the Quran to realize that Muslims interpret the historical process of secularization literally as the Christians' betrayal of their own God. The perception among the migrants, therefore, is that the message “A plague on both your houses” can be addressed to both European camps – the conservatives and the modernists – for either failing to hold their own or attempting to destroy the traditional lifestyles of Europeans and Muslims alike. Turkish premier R. Erdogan famously urged the Turks in Germany to brush off illusory alliances in the name of their original identity and to avoid being absorbed by the host society which, in the meantime, naively engaged in emigration debates.

An acquaintance of mine, a well-educated person and a practicing Muslim, once told me with a thinly veiled grudge: “The Muslim collaborationism during World War II is cited a lot to justify deportations, as if there were no collaborationists who were Russian, Ukrainian, etc. You know, there was the Muslim unit - the Caucasian Native Mounted Division - fighting on the Russian side in World War I, and Central Asia's Teke Türkmenleri, the Tatars of the Crimea, and others were absolutely loyal to the Tsar who knew he could rely on them”. I replied that the reason was that the wartime slogan in the pre-communist Russia used to be “For faith, the Tzar, and the homeland!”, with religion significantly placed first in the triad. Faith meant different things for various nations, with due respect for the religions of others, and the arrangement guaranteed the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims in the country, as well as their mutual respect. The Soviets suppressed religion and imposed their official ideology on the country which crumbled the moment the ideology stopped being enforced.

Speaking of ideology, the collapse of multiculturalism in Europe casts a long shadow over the universality of liberal values as such. If multiculturalism apparently does not work for democracies, societies across the world – with their wide range of identities, cultures, etc. - must think twice before subscribing to it.

There is no single law to describe the forces of attraction and repulsion between civilizations, and the patterns of inter-civilizational relations are specific to countless historical and other circumstances. Nevertheless, it can be taken for granted  - and that is for profound reasons – that individuals and societies are much more likely to be respected and viewed as credible partners by others if they are genuine loyalists of their own civilizations and cultures.

Toynbee wrote in his magnum opus A Study of History: “A schism in the souls of human beings will be found to underlie any schism that reveals itself on the surface of the society...The active alternative is an effort  at self-control in which the soul 'takes itself in hand'”.


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