Three myths of immigration

May 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

By Kenan Malik

1 ‘European nations used to be homogenous but have become plural because of mass immigration’

It is a claim that might appear to be common sense. After all, immigration has transformed Western European societies, and many seem to be riven by the kinds of cultural and religious conflicts that were rare in the past – from the controversy over The Satanic Verses to the debate about whether women should be allowed to wear the burqa. In fact, most European nations are less plural now than they were, say, a hundred years ago. The reason we imagine otherwise is because of historical amnesia and because we have come to adopt a highly selective standard for defining what it is to be plural.

Consider France. At the time of the French Revolution, less than half the population spoke French. The historian Eugene Weber has shown how traumatic and lengthy was the process of what he calls ‘self-colonisation’ required to unify France and her various constituent populations. These developments created the modern French nation. But they also reinforced in the elite a sense of how alien was the mass of the population. [..]

The social and intellectual elite in France, far from viewing their nation as homogenous, regarded most of their fellow Frenchmen not as ‘one of us’ but as racially alien, and so inferior that they stood below the ‘most inferior savage races’ and were ‘beyond cure’. The concept of ‘race’ today is so intertwined with the idea of ‘colour’, and of the distinction between Europeans and non-Europeans, that it is often difficult to comprehend nineteenth century notions of racial difference. For nineteenth century thinkers, race was a description not so much of colour differences as of social distinctions. The lower classes were, in their eyes, as racially different as were Africans or Asians. The ‘Other’ were not peoples who came from without; they lived within the nation, and were part of it. […]

There is nothing new, then, in plural societies. From a historical perspective contemporary societies, even those transformed by mass immigration, are not particularly plural. What is different today is the perception that we are living in particularly plural societies, and the perception of such pluralism in largely cultural terms. The debate about multiculturalism is a debate in which certain differences (culture, ethnicity, faith) have come to be regarded as important while others (such as class, say, or generational), which used to be perceived as important, have come to be seen as less relevant. The real question, then, is not about how to manage uniquely plural societies, but about why we imagine that contemporary societies are uniquely plural.

2 ‘Contemporary immigration is different to previous waves, so much so that social structures need fundamental reorganization to accommodate it’

In his much-lauded book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe the American writer Christopher Caldwell suggests that prior to the Second World War immigrants came almost exclusively from other European nations and so were easily assimilable. ‘Using the word immigration to describe intra-European movements’, Caldwell suggests, ‘makes only slightly more sense than describing a New Yorker as an “immigrant” to California’. Muslim migration, in particular, Caldwell sees as a form of colonization. ‘Since its arrival half a century ago’, Caldwell argues, ‘Islam has broken – or required adjustments to, or rearguard defences of – a good many of the European customs, received ideas and state structures with which it has come in contact.’ Islam ‘is not enhancing or validating European culture; it is supplanting it’.

Caldwell is deeply hostile to multiculturalism. Many multiculturalists, too, however, see postwar immigration as different from previous waves, and demand major changes to social structures to accommodate those differences. The British sociologist Tariq Modood, for instance, suggests that the new immigration requires a new ‘equality encompassing public ethnicity’. This means an ‘equality as not having to hide or apologise for one’s origins, family or community, but requiring others to show respect for them, and adapt public attitudes and arrangements so that the heritage they represent is encouraged rather than contemptuously expect them to wither away.’ Both multiculturalists and their critics, then, view new immigration as distinct from old immigration and as demanding major social surgery. Multiculturalists see this as positive, or at least as an acceptable necessity. Their critics see it as an intolerable problem. Both are wrong. […]

3 ‘ European nations have adopted multicultural policies because minorities have demanded them’

The irony of multicultural policies is that they were imposed not because minority communities demanded that their differences be recognised but because it was useful for policy makers that they were. The question of the cultural difference of immigrants has always preoccupied the political elites. It is not a question, however, that, until recently, has particularly engaged immigrants themselves.[…]

It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 80s that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated and ‘Westernised’ than the first generation, is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its ‘difference’. This in itself should make us question the received wisdom that multiculturalism has been a response to minority demands and an accommodation to their unwillingness to integrate. […]

What is true of Britain is true also of many other European countries. In France, for instance, the irony is that, for all the current hostility of the French state to Islam, and to public displays of Islamic identity, such as the burqa, for most of the postwar years, while migrant workers were defiantly secular, successive governments regarded such secularism as a political threat and attempted to foist religion upon them, encouraging them to maintain their traditional cultural identities. […]

The myth that multiculturalism was a response to minority demands gets cause and effect the wrong way round. Minority communities did not force politicians to introduce multicultural policies. Rather, the implementation of multicultural policies helped entrench the politics of identity within minority communities and shaped the desire to celebrate one’s culture identity.


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