Liberalism, Islam and Multiculturalism in Europe

In The Nation, Richard Wolin reviews some new books on Islam in Europe.

Following the November 2004 murder of filmmaker and provocateur Theo van Gogh–who was fond of referring to Muslims as “goat fuckers”–by a Moroccan Dutchman with Islamist leanings, Dutch patience with multiculturalism, already strained in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, seems to have reached a tipping point. In 1999 immigrants made up 45 percent of Amsterdam’s population. Projections suggest that the percentage will increase to 52 percent by 2015. The authors of When Ways of Life Collide: Multiculturalism and Its Discontents in the Netherlands deem the Dutch multicultural experiment to be a grand and unequivocal failure. In their view, multiculturalism and liberal democracy are fundamentally incompatible. Their argument is a relatively simple one: By encouraging “difference” among ethnic subgroups, multiculturalism ends up turning these groups into targets of resentment and thereby insuring their rejection by the majority culture. As the authors remark in mock astonishment: “No one anticipated that liberal values would be used to legitimize illiberal practices. But so they have. What other reaction could the majority have but to reject Muslim immigrants? What other conclusion could they draw but to oppose cultural pluralism and to press for assimilation?”

Yet behind such claims lies an additional, unsupported insinuation or suspicion: that Islam and liberal democracy are incompatible. As others have noted, this perspective, rather than encouraging tolerance and openness among citizens, ends up blaming the victims and pandering to majority prejudice. Moreover, it conveniently overlooks the many highly successful instances of European Muslim integration. In France, for example, it has become fashionable to speak of the rise of a successful and prosperous beurgoisie French slang for second- generation North African immigrants.)