Is Multiculturalism Europe's New Taboo?

Norway's domestic terrorist is the most extreme example of Europe's assault on immigrant culture.

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Decades of simmering distrust that so many Europeans had felt toward immigrants from the Muslim world turned into a sort of low-wave hysteria with all the violence of the first five years of the 21st century. Ten years after 9/11, right-wing anti-immigrant parties have made gains in nearly every European nation. And of course, an economic collapse, like the one in 2008, traditionally breeds hostility toward outsiders.

Throughout the tumultuous last decade, mainstream European leaders, even those just right of center, made a point of saying that the problem was not Islam itself or Muslim culture. The enemies were extremism, fundamentalism, fanaticism. But then a curious thing happened. Multiculturalism suddenly joined the other isms and became a dirty word for mainstream European leaders.

Multiculturalism: such a harmless word, such a benign concept. I remember when European politicians talked about multiculturalism as something to be encouraged, even celebrated. It wasn't that long ago. So when did multiculturalism turn into something that national leaders in the proudly democratic, border-blurring European Union refer to, disdainfully, as an experiment gone wrong?

Actually, it began 10 months ago, in October 2010, during a speech in Potsdam, Germany.

"The approach of saying, 'Well, let's just go for a multicultural society, let's coexist and enjoy each other,' this very approach has failed, utterly failed," Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, declared to an audience of young activists in her conservative political party, the Christian Democratic Union.

"We are a country," Merkel said, "which at the beginning of the 1960s actually brought foreign workers to Germany, and now they live in our country." She continued: "We kidded ourselves a while. We said, 'They won't stay; someday they will be gone.' But this isn't reality."

Germans understandably resent being automatically associated with some of the last century's darkest days, but still -- to hear the leader of the nation that gave the world the Holocaust speak about the impossibility of enjoyably coexisting with cultural outsiders, and lamenting that they didn't all just go away, gave some people the willies.

Four months later, Prime Minister David Cameron echoed Merkel, decrying the failure of what he called "state multiculturalism" in Britain, giving the once benign concept an Orwellian twist.

If, as these heads of state claim, multiculturalism leads to separatism and self-segregation, what is the antidote? Naturally, Merkel and Cameron believe that people who choose to live in their countries should learn the language, accept freedom of speech and worship, equality of the sexes. But what else? What does it mean to adopt the values and customs of a nation? Does assimilation make extremism impossible?

One of London's July 7 terrorists grew up over his father's fish-and-chips shop, loved cricket and spoke English with an accent as thick as Michael Caine's. It didn't stop him from blowing himself up and taking a bunch of his fellow citizens along with him.