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Multicultural Society: An Indian Perspective

Immigration, integration and reimagining multiculturalism.

December 19, 2015

Immigration, integration and reimagining multiculturalism.

The notion of a multicultural society developed rather steadily and imperceptibly in the 20th century.

It was bolstered by continuous waves of immigration to the United States in the early part of the century and particularly in Europe, by the rather uncomfortable post-WWII social legacy of toxic ethno-nationalism.

During the economic boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, European governments opened their doors wide for cheap labor from neighboring regions of northern Africa and Turkey, so did the Commonwealth countries of Canada, UK and Australia from their lesser colonial cousins.

Wracked with guilt after the two world wars, many European nations adopted a rather laissez-faire model of society. They frequently bent over backwards to accommodate – but not integrate – these newcomers.

If anything, religious and ethnic identities were allowed a free play because of the fear that to ask immigrants to accept values of their host society might be considered an act of cultural aggression. This of course was to be strictly avoided in post-war Europe.

Differences or separations?

Over time, this lazy, passive experiment with multicultural co-existence somehow congealed into lofty conventional wisdom.

However, the essence of a multicultural society is its emphasis on differences rather than on commonality, the very antithesis of assimilation.

Originally, it might have been a noble and even valuable idea to provide space and time for newcomers to adjust and to regain their self-esteem – and eventually join the mainstream.

But that was only intended to be a tactical and temporary aim. As a perpetual social condition or as an entrenched philosophy bestowed with virtue in its own right, multiculturalism has proven to be deeply problematic. Too easily, it has triggered segregation, suspicion, fear and eventually conflict.

To be clear, my criticism of multiculturalism as it currently exists in the West is not an endorsement of the extreme views of the European or American populist far right — the LePens and Trumps of the world. Nor does this critique blame any particular group or promote exclusion. Quite the opposite.

It is, rather, a case for a more conscientious, active understanding of multicultural co-existence, precisely to defuse such tensions on the side of both the hosts and the newer arrivals. And it has become undeniable that there are tensions to be defused.

A look at the trends

Some numbers may be useful here. Among more than half of the OECD countries, the foreign-born population currently ranges from about 3% to 28%, depending on the country.

The United States, still the primary destination for immigrants, has a foreign-born population of 46 million, or almost 15% of its total national population, of which as many as 11.3 million are illegal immigrants.

Globally, illegal immigration continues at a high rate despite the risk of deportation or severe physical harm, and nearly 500,000 illegal crossings were caught in 2014 along the U.S.-Mexico border alone.

In some countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, nations that have taken conscious efforts to attract educated categories of migrants to make up for declining fertility rates amongst locals, the percentage of foreign-born is even higher: 20% to 28% in 2013.

According to the United Nations, there are currently more than 231 million international migrants around the world, including refugees. This is roughly equivalent to 46% of the population of the European Union.

This unrelenting and wide contact between various cultures of the world has failed to foster any sense of togetherness or collective spirit.

A lack of real integration

In most places, more than five decades of sustained and planned immigration have at best produced a sterile form of cohabitation that is bereft of soul. At worst, it has created a profound sense of cultural intrusion among host societies.

Forget about admiration for or learning from each other, encounters between host societies and newly arrived cultures have even been remarkably devoid of prescience.

One example is the practice in many European nations, particularly Nordic countries, of showering immigrants with a surfeit of welfare benefits while refusing to guide them towards the cultural mainstream. In the process, this needlessly creates a vicious cycle of dependency and silent alienation.

The growing estrangement between host and guest populations has been further fanned by the natural concentration of immigrants in just a few urban areas in every country.

Concentrated demographic disruption

That clustering alone has altered the demographic profile of every major OECD city rather dramatically. Vancouver has changed much more than Canada in recent decades, Los Angeles much more than the United States and Melbourne much more than Australia.

Nowhere is this demographic shift more emotionally simmering or more publicly visible than in Europe, which for the first time is well on its way to becoming a multi-religious continent instead of being uniformly Christian.

This change is sharpest in France and Germany, where the Muslim population has noticeably increased in the past two decades. By 2050, at least one in ten Europeans will be Muslim, according to Pew Research estimates.

Even Russia has experienced widespread and continuous inflow of Muslim migrants from Caucasia and Central Asia since the breakup of the Soviet empire, in addition to its native-born Muslim population.

Despite the recent nationalist emphasis on Russian Orthodox Christianity, Russia is expected to be 15% Muslim by 2040, according to Pew.

A number of notable geopolitical events since 9/11 have widened the divide between Islam and the West, and underscored the fragile nature of multicultural societies.

The European establishment has been particularly challenged and numbed by the terror attacks in Madrid, London and Paris and the consequent discovery of a virulent strain of homegrown fundamental Islam.

Radical clerics in Europe have had a field day in recruiting adherents for global jihad. To the shock of an increasingly secularized continent, religious identity seems to have trumped national, community and social bonds.

All these have acted as a major wakeup call. There is a growing sense of alarm over immigration and demographic imbalance in Europe, a debate that continues to be constrained by an unspoken post-WWII fear of being branded as racist or xenophobic.

However, no amount of diplomatic blandishments can hide the fact that – whatever the solution might be – immigration, integration and identity have now become deeply contentious, pressing and broad public concerns.

The United States is a country founded by immigrants and its national consciousness is burnished with the ideal of welcoming the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Even there, a major theme is now the notion that immigration is a threat to community values and identity.

Of course, America would hardly be the economic and military superpower it is today without its huge waves of immigrants from the 19th century onwards. These people toiled and built the vast infrastructure of roads and railways or helped expand America’s frontiers and tame the Wild West.

Or, what about those thousands of scientists or engineers who fled war-torn Europe in the 20th century and who gave America its overpowering lead in technology, innovation and patents?

As a matter of curious fact, many establishment conservatives in the Wall Street Journal vein have over the years actually made a case that immigration is essential to rejuvenating American national purpose.

Pulling back the welcome mat

And yet, despite this overarching legacy, the welcome mat for foreigners is getting shakier and smaller every minute, culminating in strong public opposition to a recent immigration reforms package that would effectively legalize 5.6 million undocumented Mexican workers and several million undocumented people from other parts of the world.

In recent polls, nine of every ten Americans think that immigration is a serious problem, and more Americans are perhaps wary of foreigners now than at any time in history.

Economic benefits of migrants

On both sides of the Atlantic, the growing anti-foreigner backlash is stoked much more by cultural fears masked as economic anxieties.

On economic terms alone, there is enough evidence to suggest that immigration is, and usually has been, a net plus for the expansion and competitiveness of the host economy.

Setting aside legal migrants, illegal migrants in the United States contribute almost 9% to the GDP of the country. They keep labor costs low in sectors like hotels, construction, meat, poultry and farming.

In fact, if all undocumented migrant workers in America packed up and left, the effect would be dramatic. There would be dislocation, work stoppage and a big price increase for a variety of daily products or services.

The same economic logic holds true for Europe, a continent that is only now beginning to come to terms with its declining demography. Europe needs farm workers, construction hands, janitors, truck drivers and nurses. It needs them all in the hundreds of thousands.

And yet Europe is moving to further close, not open, its borders. A strong majority in the United States and nearly every EU country supports tougher restrictions on immigration.

A shifting debate

Worse, a bolder vocabulary is being used to express this sentiment. Terms such as “salad-bowl separatism” or “ethnic enclaves” are now commonly found in public commentary, and are signs of just how charged the air has become.

All these developments point to a broader but rather poorly articulated debate on the definition of citizenship, identity and community.

Recent events have intensified this soul searching in many countries, even producing a surprising degree of convergence across the political spectrum, a rare agreement between the political Left and Right.

What is citizenship?

What does it mean to be a citizen of a country? There is belated recognition that citizenship is a precious blend.

It includes a number of tangible and intangible ingredients, a mix of rights, privileges, responsibilities, obligations and multi-layered social contracts between the individual, state and society.

Citizenship is a status that must be earned, not merely acquired in due time by those who choose to locate or work in a specific place. Much more than the capacity to vote or own property, it is linked to a sense of common national identity and values.

This view is supported by conservative political theorist Samuel Huntington on the one hand and by dyed-in-the-wool liberals, like Guardian columnists Hugo Young and Polly Toynbee, on the other.

These, and other writers including William Plaff and Georgie Anne Geyer, endorse the simple idea that a nation is strengthened by, and is morally correct to protect and promote its core cultural values because these are what nourish community bonds and democracy.

We can no longer ignore the public’s fears

Globalization has got a lot of people feeling hugely lost because of its lack of common experience, shifts in migrating populations, dislocation of jobs and a host of disruptive encroachments in our life. People feel either they have no identity or too many blurred ones.

Many committed internationalists of course repeatedly intone the mantra of how the world has nothing to be scared by either cultural or human encounters.

But however irrational or wrong, the fear of identity loss, of feeling your way of life slipping away without your acquiescence or even preparation, is very real and very widespread.

The real puzzle is why social, business and media elites seem to be tuned into a frequency so completely different from most people.


Postwar Europe bent over backwards to accommodate, but not integrate, newcomers.

Five decades of immigration produced a sterile cohabitation bereft of soul.

A bolder vocabulary is now being used to express support for immigration controls.

Citizenship is a mix of rights, privileges, responsibilities, obligations & social contracts.

However irrational, the feeling of culture slipping away is very real and very widespread.