German Chancellor Angela Merkel is wrong. At a meeting in Potsdam, Merkel told young members of her own party, the Christian Democratic Union, that attempts to build a multicultural society in Gremany have “utterly failed.” A few days earlier, Horst Seehofer, who heads the Christian Democratic Union’s Bavarian sister party, told his party that “Multiculturalism is dead.” Merkel, who faces pressure from within her party to take a harder line on immigration, blamed immigrants for not doing enough to integrate into Germany, arguing in particular that they need to make more of an effort to learn German. Merkel’s remarks come just a month after German central banker Thilo Sarrazin stepped down after releasing a controversial book called Germany Abolishes Itself, arguing that Muslim immigrants make the German population “dumber” because they are less educated, rely too much on German social services, and don’t do enough to integrate into German society.
Germany obviously has a particularly nasty history of racism. But there’s no question that Muslim immigrant communities are a source of friction in Germany. With some 4 million Muslims in Germany—around 5% of the German population—it’s a serious issue. As globalization attracts large numbers of often less-skilled workers to rich countries, tension is to be expected. But while some immigrants probably could do more to get ease those tensions, Merkel is wrong to say that the problem is that they aren’t doing enough to adopt German “cultural norms.”
Merkel’s comments are part of a broad German backlash against immigration. While Sarrazin’s book was controversial, it sold over a million copies. In fact, it was probably his claim that “all Jews share a certain gene” rather than his views on Muslim immigrants that forced him to step down. As Gavin Hewitt points out, when German President Christain Wulff said that with so many Muslims in Germany Islam had become part of German culture, the German paper Bild accused him of “sucking up to Islam.” And Joachim Herrman, the Bavarian Minister of the Interior, said that “Germany does not want to integrate Islam, but to retain its own cultural identity.”
We are seeing a similar nativist backlash in the U.S. As I have written, the controversy surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero mosque”—as well as around mosques in other places—shows that many Americans see even American Muslims as foreign enemies. The Republican candidate for Senate in Nevada, Sharron Angle, has falsely suggested that sharia law had taken over two American towns—one of which it turns out isn’t even a real town.
The hostility to Muslims is just part of what I have argued is a broader tendency in the U.S. to blame our social and economic problems on foreigners and non-whites. Recently both Angle and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), who is running for reelection this year, used the same stock photo of Hispanic-looking men in ads talking about the dangers of illegal immigration. At a Hispanic Student Union event at a Nevada high school, Angle said that she she wasn’t sure the men in the commercial actually were Latinos, and accused Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) of “racial politics” for suggesting otherwise. In spite of the fact that Angle’s other ads explicitly talk about the danger posed by Mexican immigrants, Angle suggested the dark-skinned men in the ad were actually supposed to represent the danger of terrorists sneaking into the U.S. from Canada. Angle even tried to demonstrate her own obliviousness to race by telling her largely Hispanic audience that as far as she could tell some of them might be Asian. What she didn't mention was that her supporters have tried to buy ads on Spanish language television telling Hispanics they shouldn't vote this fall.
The truth is that while immigration does pose real social challenges, it’s not the reason so many Americans are out of work. It’s easy to blame people who are different from us for our economic and social problems. But it’s wrong to say, as Merkel does, that the problem is that immigrants have not done enough to adapt to us. The truth is that both here and in Germany, we have to adapt to new immigrants just as they have to adapt to life in America. What integration requires is that we tolerate the difference of others, not that they eliminate those differences. It’s not easy, but our own history shows that it can be done, and that in the long run it’s well worth the trouble.