Taken in isolation

Drawing by Niyaz Karim

After decades of espousing a doctrine of multiculturalism and national diversity, Western societies are discovering that they have stifled themselves with their own ideals.

In simplest terms, where is the borderline between tolerance and the preservation of those values that turned Europe into a pilgrimage site for millions of immigrants?

Even more bluntly, why can women walk in London or Washington, D.C., in full Muslim dress, called the niqab, and this will be defined as tolerance, while walking in a tank top in many Middle East capitals is forbidden out of “respect for national tradition”?

That is certainly a simplistic angle; in reality, the problem is more expansive, namely, whether it hasn’t been an egregious mistake for Westerners to show infinite tolerance toward other identities while letting their own be diluted. Aren’t those foundations and values under threat, which shaped the very identity of Western society, a society that is so attractive and, at the same time, to some, repulsive?

Multiculturalism will be one of the topics of the Yaroslavl Global Policy Forum this September. While the United States hasn’t confronted the issue as acutely as, say, Europe, different aspects of multiculturalism and the co-existence of various societies will likely become very important to Americans over the next decade.

Following France and Switzerland, Germany and Great Britain are beginning to recognize their conundrum.

Last fall, Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged the utter failure of multiculturalism in Germany. In February, speaking at the Munich Conference for International Security, British Prime Minister David Cameron also lamented “the doctrine of state multiculturalism,” under which Europeans “have encouraged different cultures to live “separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.” In his words, instead of providing “a vision of society” to which other communities wish to belong, Europeans “have tolerated” even those who live “completely counter” to Western values.

Europe is increasingly coming up against extremism, not in hazy far-off regions, but at home, within its borders. Cameron said that many “point to the profusion of unelected leaders across the Middle East and say, ‘Stop propping these people up and you will stop creating the conditions for extremism to flourish.’ But this raises the question: If it’s the lack of democracy that is the problem, why are there so many extremists in free and open societies?”

A number of explanations can be given as to why many new immigrants do not integrate into Western societies, triggering a backlash of xenophobic feelings. One factor is the entrenched social infrastructure of Europe that complicates quick assimilation. Another involves an unspoken sense of national superiority that results in a condescending attitude toward immigrants -  “By letting you in and allowing you to live and work, we have granted you a great favor.” The same bias exists in Russia toward emigrants from former Soviet republics who cannot obtain legal status and work.

Immigrants have long been an intrinsic part of any strong, prosperous power. They realized all the hardships that a new homeland conceals even as they aspired to a new life, and were equipped to endure and overcome them.

Now, for the first time in history, newcomers enjoy all the privileges Western society offers, including welfare entitlements. Yet they also have every opportunity to preserve their former way of life.

Investigating the flow of emigrants from Latin countries to the United States, Samuel Huntington wrote in his book “Who are we?” that this is the first wave in American history without the need to learn English or embrace an American lifestyle. This is not just because of the number of immigrants, but the technology that allows constant contact with immigrants’ homelands.

The result is paradoxical. Twitter, phones and television enable some to live apart from society. The alienation of ethnic communities grows as they are no longer compelled to assimilate.

Respect for minorities’ rights is an essential part of democracy. Those who are different from most, whether ethnically, sexually or politically, must feel free and secure. Recently, this respect has turned more into a demand that new minority groups be allowed to live apart: A certain path is cleared so that they don’t feel obliged to learn a new language. They can invite their relatives, even those who will receive welfare benefits when they can’t, or refuse to find a job. And women are allowed to become isolated at home in their narrowly defined traditional roles.

The Western world has a considerable number of residents who remain foreign in their values with no respect, nor responsibility, toward their new home.

Ongoing turbulence in the Middle East could ignite a refugee crisis in Europe. As many as 2 million refugees could flee, causing new concern about the ability of institutions to cope and the willingness of these new Europeans to embrace a Western lifestyle. It again begs the question: Can the interlinked world avoid a “clash of civilizations,” and if so, at what price?

Svetlana Babaeva is the bureau chief of RIA Novosti in Washington, D.C.  

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