Multiculturalism in Europe
BIOG. | PAPER
A Europe of Diversity
Speech by Mona Sahlin, Minister for Democracy and Integration issues, Ministry of Justice, Sweden ( read in her absence by Dr Eugene Rogan )
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would first like to thank you for the invitation to speak here today, and the organisers for having taken the initiative for this important conference.
There is an expression that goes "you can't put the clock back". It could not be put back before either, and actually it has never been possible to put it back, but changes can come and go more or less permanently, and perhaps it is quite true that in many ways, particularly with relation to immigrants, ethnicity and refugees, Sweden and Europe have changed radically over the past 30-40 years.
One of Sweden's politicians, Juan Fonseca, described this succinctly in the run-up to an election by wearing a T-shirt with the slogan: "Sweden isn't what it used to be – and I am part of the difference".
An apt example of the way in which Sweden has changed is to compare it with the year 1910, when 20 per cent of all Swedes lived in the USA. Today, people from over 200 countries live in Sweden. Twenty per cent of those currently living in Sweden were born in another country or have at least one parent who was born abroad. This is a higher proportion than in the USA and by far the highest of all the countries in the EU.
These changes have taken place in just a few decades, and today I would like to discuss this transformation from the point of view of integration and multiculturalism, and to present my ideas on the role of politics in this process of change and development.
My search motor on the Internet gives over 291 000 hits for the term "multiculturalism". If I look for "multiculturalism in Europe", I will find more than 62 400 hits. On the other hand, if I search for the Swedish translation of Multiculturalism, I get only 470 hits.
From this, you can deduce at least two things. The concept of "multiculturalism" is a widespread one, one that is used in Europe, but also to a considerable extent, outside Europe. Despite this, it is hardly used at all in Sweden.
We can also safely say that "multiculturalism" has become a much debated and controversial term, particularly among researchers and politicians. A lively – and polarised – debate is underway on whether "multiculturalism" as a basis for policy is a condition enabling the ethnic and cultural diversity that exists in today's societies to function, or whether, on the contrary, it risks contributing to serious tensions and conflicts.
In its recent annual report – for 2001 – the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in Vienna writes about the debate on the multicultural society. It describes how the term "multicultural society" has become "the controversial buzzword" in many of the EU member states. Bitter debates have exposed the existence of diametrically opposed viewpoints. In the view of the EUMC, the term has come to represent what is almost a slogan not only between and within political parties, but also in the debate in society and between different groups of society.
According to the report, the debate on the "multicultural society" has been bitter for a number of reasons, among them uncertainty about the meaning of the term. Some people interpret the concept as though it contained a threat to "one's own side", others see it as something positive. These debates often lead to polarisation.
In the Swedish discussions, two different interpretations of the term are most common.
Sometimes, the concept is used purely descriptively, to describe a society in which people from many countries live. In this sense of the word, it is fairly uncontroversial. Most societies are – and will increasingly become – multicultural, in this sense of the word.
But often it is used normatively to describe a model for a desired relationship between the state and individuals or groups of individuals with an ethnic background other than the dominant or traditional ethnicity of a country's people.
However, even when used normatively, the term has many different connotations. Interpreted in its broadest sense, it is usually believed that traditions and customs, at any rate in principle, must be accepted even if they conflict with the views and rules of the host country.
If one were to draw a scale of different countries' approaches towards ethnic and cultural diversity, one could say that this broad interpretation of multiculturalism would be at the far end of the scale. At the opposite end of the scale is the view that assimilation should be the objective – where the ideal is a uniform, homogenous, "host country" culture, which the immigrant should be forced to adopt.
The debate on multiculturalism can thus be described as a question of one's approach to assimilation or integration.
This debate is naturally not a new one. Let me give an example of someone who contributed to it at an early stage. Roy Jenkins, previous British Home Secretary who has recently died, maintained as early as 1966 that the prevailing ideology of assimilation must be replaced with equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity. This was regarded as very radical then – it has been said that his statement was an unusual and bold example of a time, to the effect that differences between people could be a positive thing. And I believe that this statement in its simplicity reflects the way in which many countries now have come to regard diversity and integration.
Generally speaking, I believe that the broadest interpretation of multiculturalism is now becoming less accepted.
But my personal impression is also that the debate about multiculturalism and the integration issues associated with it, has become increasingly intensive in recent years, at least in Europe. During the past decade, the majority of countries in Europe have become immigration countries and most countries have made considerable efforts to promote integration. But almost consistently, the results of integration policies in practice have proved to be less positive than had been hoped for and expected. Despite well-meaning ambitions, people with foreign backgrounds are in a worse situation than others in most fields of society.
This is why, in an increasing number of capitals in Europe, intensive efforts are being made to find new methods and forms for achieving the objectives which may be old but which are still as relevant as ever: equal value, equal treatment and equal opportunities for all people, irrespective of their background. It is sometimes said that the future of the whole of Europe depends on the success of these efforts.
Among the issues that are absolutely the most crucial for Europe is the question of diversity and integration, and one expression of this is that these issues are increasingly being discussed in international organisations.
Within the Council of Europe, integration and diversity have been under discussion for more than ten years. Ten years ago, by no means all member states of the Council of Europe were prepared to see themselves as countries of immigration which would therefore need to develop policies for cultural diversity. Now all countries realise that this is essential. And although all countries' policies must be based on national conditions, the increasing number of contacts about these issues between the governments of Europe naturally means that they learn from each other. This has already resulted in growing similarities in countries' policies in this field, and in their basis on the principle of equality before the law.
The state has extensive responsibility for guaranteeing equal rights for persons residing legally in the country. And access on equal terms to the institutions of the welfare state is seen as being crucial for the success of the integration process.
This development towards greater homogeneity in the policies of different countries will certainly be intensified now that the issues of diversity and integration are being increasingly discussed within the EU.
Before I begin to describe the way in which we see these issues in Sweden, I would like briefly to give an account of some thoughts and ideas that have considerably influenced my own thinking on the subject.
As support for my arguments, I would like to make use of the British journalist and researcher Yasmin Alibhai-Brown who in her capacity as researcher at The Foreign Policy Centre in London, has published, a few years ago, the book "After Multiculturalism". In the book, she is strongly critical of policies based on the broad interpretation of multiculturalism that she claims are to be found in Britain, and which, in her opinion, lead to a division of society into static, incompatible ethnic groups which hinders people's development instead of helping to advance it.
So what is wrong with the multiculturalism that Brown sees in the UK? She gives several examples:
Her first criticism is that people no longer actually feel personally and deeply involved in policies that are based on the broader interpretation of multiculturalism. The concept does not help us to understand who we are, it says very little about our identities and how we see ourselves, since we are much, much more than our mere ethnic backgrounds. It can lead to a situation in which differences between people are regarded as more important than similarities and where these differences are made permanent in the form of "ethnic groups" and where membership of a particular group says what we "are like". People's identity is "balkanised". With this one-dimensional view of people's identity, there is a risk that society will break up into separate enclaves instead of realising how dependent we are on each other.
In addition, multiculturalism has come to be understood as "something for immigrants", something devoid of interest for citizens in general or for the country. Issues related to the multicultural society have therefore been marginalised instead of becoming an issue that involves everyone, in which everyone takes part and for which everyone must take responsibility.
Multiculturalism as an idea emerged in order to promote equal opportunities for everyone, but in practice has often proved to be an obstacle to change and to preserve inequalities, since violations of human rights have been accepted in the name of multiculturalism. Today we come into contact with each other and are dependent on each other. We must therefore recognise the conflicts existing between equality, cultural rights and individual freedoms, and take a stand on them.
Brown says further that multiculturalism, at least as it is seen in Britain, has often come to be regarded as something that "we ought to want" rather than something that we cannot afford to be without. These issues, according to Brown, are so vital that they must be brought out into the public political debate in order to get a dialogue going with the committed general public.
Without going into the situation in the UK, of which my knowledge is limited, I share many of Brown's views:
If cultural differences are over-emphasised, we risk division and decay. If cultural differences are turned into an ideology, the cohesiveness of the general social community may be threatened.
There is a risk of a society in which "ethnic groups" exist in isolation alongside each other and without a dialogue between different groups.
There is a danger, in stressing the factors that separate us rather than those we have in common, that ethnic conflicts will be stirred up.
This can be illustrated in a law that forbids discrimination because of ethnic background, where the underlying principle is that it is not only persons who are Turkish or Bosnian that have an ethnic background. I have an ethnic background too. All of us have ethnic backgrounds. If we talk about gender discrimination, we often need to be reminded that it is not only women who have a gender. Men have a gender too. Everyone has a gender. And the fight for a gender-equal society is as much about men's rights and responsibilities as it is about women's. If we talk about the fight against discrimination because of sexual orientation, we must bear in mind that it is not only homosexuals who have a sexual orientation. Hopefully, we all have one!
People's cultural backgrounds are naturally important for their identities. But what is wrong with the concept of multiculturalism is that it can lead to individuals being regarded en masse, where everyone is the same, living on the same terms and with the same background.
Integration policies must be based on the rights of individuals without coming into conflict with respect for human rights, culture, values and religion. Policies must therefore largely be based on general human rights, instead of the particular interests of specific groups.
Respect for difference must not only apply to various collectives or different groups. It must also apply to individuals. Women and men, girls and boys. Human rights can never be compromised. Everyone should have the right to lead free lives, without coercion.
Differences can be respected so long that they do not contravene human rights. Our point of departure must be equal rights irrespective of cultural or religious background and for all groups to accept and respect each other within the framework of prevailing laws and human rights.
This brings me to Swedish policies on integration. Not only because these are the policies behind which my Government stands. But also because I believe that in many aspects they are based on values and views that are shared by many – but far from all – governments in Europe.
In 1976, Sweden for the first time drew up an immigration policy – a policy aimed at promoting the integration of immigrants into society. Immigrants as a group became visible in society and this created an awareness of the need for consideration to be taken to immigrants and their requirements. However, the policies pursued at that time came to define immigrants as a homogenous group, irrespective of their country of origin or how long they had resided in Sweden. By largely directing policies to immigrants as a group, "immigrantship" was placed at the centre, and thus came to be associated with "otherness". Immigration policy and the administration that was built up to deal with this policy came to strengthen the feeling of "them and us", and contributed to the alienation that many immigrants and their children in Sweden feel.
This was why, in 1997, our immigration policy came to be replaced by integration policy.
Integration policy means that formulation of the general policy should be based on everyone living in Sweden, irrespective of their ethnic or cultural background. The needs of immigrants, like those of everyone else, must be taken into account within general policies.
Compare this with the way in which the campaign was run for women's issues, gender equality and the equal rights of women and men which for many years consisted of a special, marginal project. First came economic policy, then educational policy, then labour market policy, and last came women. This was not the way to succeed in changing the real roots, the causes of this inequality and alienation. On the contrary, what is needed is to target educational policy, the economy, the judicial system, housing policy, the usual class and social questions, because all these determine how we succeed in getting everyone involved in society.
Let me quote the late Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme:
"The breeding grounds for racism can often be found in people's economic and social circumstances. That's why our strategy against racism includes fighting for full employment, economic growth and social justice. In a society where people know they can get a job and earn a living, where they feel secure as members of society and take an optimistic view of their own future and their children's future, it's hard for racism to gain any real foothold."
It may be true, as Olof Palme says, that this makes it hard for racism to gain any real foothold, but it is not enough to analyse social and economic injustices. Instead, it is essential to see the structural elements of racism, the underlying features, the quest for sameness – to see that racism goes deeper than the class society. One of the things democracy is about is breaking norms, in all areas – the norms of class, ethnicity, gender. It is about liking "otherness", about affirming values other than ethnicity and colour that these days unite a nation. It's about the fact that values such as democracy, human rights, solidarity, openness – these are what must give Sweden and Europe its identity.
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