Multiculturalism was supposed to be the ideal middle ground where immigrants could adapt to a country's norms and values while maintaining their culture and traditions. Today, different countries are trying to find the right "mode" of conversation with immigrants and where within the society to have that conversation.
In 2006, European politicians dealt multiculturalism numerous public blows, which the media was only too happy to cover. Multiculturalism, policymakers essentially said, has failed to adequately integrate immigrants and their descendants.
Since the late 1990s, Europe's emphasis on strict integration policy has increased: learn our language, our history, our culture, and live by our laws and values. The UK, which didn't require a citizenship test until 2005, fully implemented the test this year, and Germany's regional governments introduced tests on top of the 600-hour, federally mandated language courses.
However, the Netherlands has taken the hardest line. As of March 15, prospective immigrants from nearly every country (EU and Western countries excepted) must take and pass a "civic integration exam" at one of the country's 138 embassies before they can be issued a visa.
Included in the exam's optional study packet is a controversial DVD entitled "Coming to the Netherlands." The two-hour video shows prospective immigrants what they can expect, including men who kiss each other and women who go topless at Dutch beaches (an edited version is available in countries where such material is banned). The message: Anyone offended should not come.
In Denmark, the Jyllands-Posten daily newspaper placed itself in the middle of the multiculturalism debate by publishing satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in September 2005. The reason? Free speech was perceived to be under threat, and the newspaper took it upon itself to teach Muslims a lesson in Danish democracy. In response this winter, Muslims in the Middle East boycotted Danish products and set fire to Danish flags and embassies. Back at home, tensions increased between Muslim Danes and Danish society, hurting rather than helping integration.
Debates about Muslim women's dress — the burqa in the Netherlands and the veil in the UK — reinforced the assimilation theme.
Nor were dyed-in-the-wool assimilationists the only ones to jump on that bandwagon. Indeed, Jack Straw, former foreign secretary and current leader of the House of Commons, angered some British Muslims when he said in October, "Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers, people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able to pass the time of day. That's made more difficult if people are wearing a veil. That's just a fact of life."
Even in Canada, which has a deep commitment to immigration and where multiculturalism is a 20-year-old policy and an entrenched value, doubts have begun to surface. On the one hand, Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam, highlighted Canada's multiculturalist reputation when he chose Ottawa as the home of his new research center on pluralism.
On the other, skeptical voices began to resonate after the arrests of 17 Canadians who were accused of plotting terrorist attacks. Veteran Canadian journalist Larry Zolf had some Canadians nodding in agreement when he wrote in June that multiculturalism is a trap and that "only through assimilation and integration in a Canadian melting pot will ethnic groups like the Muslims find peace for themselves and for their children."
Zolf may as well have been addressing U.S. audiences, many of whom would readily subscribe to his statement.
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