Making Sense of Immigration: Why Multiculturalism Is at Odds with Integration

When it comes to immigration, we are, essentially, faced with two conflicting options: multiculturalism and integration.

Neither the stop immigration policy of the far right nor the open borders policy of the far left is tenable. Some immigration is obviously desirable, and host societies must deal with it in a way that is fair to all concerned. Unregulated mass immigration is clearly incompatible with this aim.

Nor is it helpful to confuse migrants—people who move from one country to another in order to find better living conditions—and refugees—people who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster. Such politically expedient conflations can be found on both the right and the left.

When we are talking about immigration, we are talking about human beings who have agency and react to incentives as individuals. To judge them collectively—as oppressed victim groups who can do no wrong (far left) or as aggressive invaders who can do no right (far right)—is counterproductive. Such sweeping judgments promote divisive identitarianism, be it in the form of parallel societies (the reality of multiculturalism) or authoritarian ethno-nationalism. The result, in both cases, is segregation rather than integration.

The underlying motivations of right and left, however, couldn’t be more different. The identitarian right sees the riches of Western nations as a manifestation of an inherent superiority, which must be defended, while the identitarian left frames existing disparities as social injustices resulting from colonial oppression and exploitation (neither is correct). Those holding the latter view tend to be in favor of open borders and multiculturalism.

Though often conflated, multiculturalism and integration are, in essence, two opposing approaches to immigration. Multiculturalism, as distinguished from multiracialism (people of different ethnicities living together in the same society, sharing the same basic cultural values), is based on cultural relativism: all cultures are equal, and no one from one culture may criticize another. In other words, the so-called dominant culture of the host society—a particular, constitutive set of values, principles and practices—is just one of many cultural identities on offer and has no more right to assert itself than the rest. In short, integration is largely optional. In fact, multiculturalism disincentivizes integration. This has a number of ramifications.

Multiculturalism, thus defined, is inherently self-defeating, especially if it involves large numbers of people from cultures where multiculturalism itself is not a value and who therefore have no problem asserting their own dominant monoculture. Expansive parallel societies, complete with their own internal justice systems (in violation of the democratic principle of legal equality, one law for all), are a consequence of multiculturalist policies which naively assume that immigrants, regardless of how illiberal their culture of origin may be, will automatically adopt liberal cultural values such as secularism, sexual equality and individualism.

As polls of Muslim communities in Great Britain, a country with a long tradition of liberalism, have repeatedly shown, this has not been the case. According to one study, 52% of those questioned disagreed with the statement homosexuality should be legal, compared with only 5% of the general public. “Nearly a quarter (23%) supported the introduction of sharia law in some areas of Britain, and 39% agreed that ‘wives should always obey their husbands,’ compared with 5% of the country as a whole.” In addition, British Muslims’ views of Jews are anything but favorable. Another study found that “A case of female genital mutilation (FGM) is either discovered or treated at a medical appointment in England every hour.” This amounted to 8,656 cases between 2015 and 2016 alone.

Cultural relativists who downplay the problem and celebrate diversity and cultural enrichment should read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s spine-chilling account of her own circumcision in her book Infidel. The Somali-born writer and activist, who later fled to Holland, relates that those she thought “would care about the suffering of Muslim women,” namely the supposedly liberal left, “appeared blinded by multiculturalism, overwhelmed by the imperative to be sensitive and respectful of immigrant culture, defending the moral relativists” (original emphasis).

To quote Sam Harris: “Some ideas really are worse than others. And the idea that all religions, cultures, and belief systems are equal is one of the worst of them all.” Yet this is precisely the idea underlying multiculturalism, which needlessly puts women, children and minorities within minorities, such as Muslim homosexuals, at risk.

Implicit in this idea is the belief that there are no cultural behaviors that immigrant groups need to change in order to advance in their new environments. Rather, it is the host society that must change to prevent such groups from failing. This belief is based on the largely unexamined assumption that social disparities are invariably the result of external conditions, such as systemic racism or Islamophobia in the host society, rather than internal (i.e. cultural) traits. This assumption, which reflects a patronizing attitude known as the soft bigotry of low expectations, can easily be tested by examining the same cultural groups in different environments, especially in places where they constitute the majority. Seldom are such places centers of freedom, progress and prosperity.

As Thomas Sowell repeatedly demonstrates in Discrimination and Disparities, culture, rather than discrimination, is often the deciding factor in whether or not a particular immigrant group or ethnic minority advances. The stories of Asian and Jewish immigrants to the United States who have been successful despite severe discrimination and persecution are cases in point—as is the fact that black immigrants economically outperform US-born blacks as well as Hispanic immigrants, by a significant margin. Within this group, South America-born blacks even have a higher median household income than the average American. This is not to deny the reality of racial prejudice and discrimination. It demonstrates, however, that racial discrimination is not the whole story, since the groups in question are all black.

Nor are race and culture inseparable, as far-left and far-right identitarians would have us believe. When immigrants, irrespective of skin color, adopt the cultural values that have allowed their host society to advance, they stand a better chance of getting ahead in that society, especially if their own culture has an objectively poor track record. Yet this is precisely what multiculturalism disincentivizes by framing autochthonous achievement as privilege—to the detriment of all concerned. A lack of shared values diminishes trust, reducing social capital (the real source of wealth), weakening the social fabric and further isolating immigrant communities.

So, what’s the alternative if both multiculturalism and ethno-nationalism are off the table? Integration. This requires a certain degree of cultural assimilation on the part of each individual immigrant, and a certain degree of openness on the part of the host society. This, in turn, requires incentives, both positive and negative, and raises three fundamental questions. First, how do we define the culture we want immigrants to integrate into? Second, how many immigrants can feasibly become integrated within what time span? Third, which immigrants are most likely to integrate well into their host societies?

It is naïve to believe that the rate and nature of immigration don’t matter. Integration is obviously easier when the number of immigrants is relatively small. Likewise, skilled immigrants from cultures that are similar to that of the host society are, as a rule, better suited to integration.

Is there such a thing as a Leitkultur (guiding culture)—to use a term coined by the Syrian-born German political scientist Bassam Tibi—which immigrants must follow in order to integrate into society? And if so, what does it consist in? First of all, Leitkultur does not imply a monoculture. It simply implies that there are widely shared cultural values and principles at the core of each society, holding together the social fabric. One cannot fully partake in a society without adopting its core cultural values and principles. Nor can society function without them.

This requires that we consistently define and assert our values and principles, which are themselves subject to rational scrutiny (which is itself a cultural value). Western society is based on Ancient Greek philosophy, Roman law, the Judeo-Christian tradition and Enlightenment humanism. If there is one guiding principle that epitomizes our liberal tradition it is that “no idea is above scrutiny, and no people are beneath dignity,” as the British counter-extremism activist Maajid Nawaz—himself the son of Pakistani immigrants—puts it.

If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:


  1. I can’t think of an exclusionist national policy that hasn’t been directly driven by fear, nor can I think of one where the fear hasn’t been completely unfounded and based heavily on discriminatory stereotypes and generalizations. From Normans to blacks to Jews to Japanese-Americans.

    I notice a pattern in the two of Ambrosch’s articles I’ve read, and that is a strong tendency to emptily reject positions out of hand with such epithets as “naive” and “absurd” which strikes me as not only closed-minded, but particularly rather tautologically dogmatic: it is, because it *just is.* Not to mention intellectually dishonest. How can you have a discourse when rule 1 is to reject all alternatives to a manufactured duality (one end of which is a readily ignited strawman)?

    I’d be curious to see a discussion about *why* an open border is automatically necessarily bad for a society. This presupposed a sort of “meta-property” statism, where the people who are in a place *now* are the sole possible demographic for a given territory of land, and thus any alteration to that demographic is a destruction of said society (this presumes, too, that there is only one such valid society for a place).

    One would be hard-pressed to identify either a nation or a modern state that hasn’t been molded by it’s very varied ethnography. Britain isn’t just Celts and Angles but also Normans and Dutch and what not. Spaniards were once Moors. Italians were once Goths. For better or worse, Peruvians were once Incans. And so on.

    There’s no universal rule of static societies. This is a completely arbitrary yardstick. And I don’t see anywhere that the author ever explains why it is treated as essential, as some universal truth that is unquestionable.

  2. Great piece, Gerfried – thanks. To my mind, humanism, or even better, sentientism – could help with that guiding moral culture. https://areomagazine.com/2018/10/07/humanism-needs-an-upgrade-the-philosophy-that-could-save-the-world/ Using evidence and reason should help us find commonality because we all share the same reality and all have the ability to reason consistently. Hopefully we can also agree to suffering and increase flourishing of sentient beings. There’s still plenty of room for disagreement / taste / interpretation – but evidence, reason and compassion could be a strong shared foundation?

  3. What I took out of this article, in sum (and as a Canadian), is that multiculturalism is actually good, it’s just the Muslims that mess it up.

    1. Parts of Canada certainly have difficulties resulting from resistance to integration in other immigrant groups as well. Somali immigrants to Canada are mostly Christian, for example, and Somali community leaders, have repeatedly and publicly sought help for problems that are endemic to their semi-isolated communities within Canada. As well, the neighbouring, “mainsteam” communities feel the repercussions and fallout from these chronic issues within these barely integrated Somali enclaves.

      There appears to be a cultural incompatibility that nobody wants to address head on. Perhaps these issues should be thought through prior to accepting tens of thousands more who will face the same difficulties, criminality, violence, and abuse.

      1. I wasn’t saying I agreed with my takeaway. It’s more that the writer seems to be making points through an American-centric spectrum, and thus, seems to have in actuality no idea what multiculturalism really means. To suggest multiculturalism can’t a country make, is to make a Canadian laugh. Only in America.

        1. Hi Aram!

          I’m a European living in Europe, and I for the most part agreed with the author of this article.

          Still, I’m quite interested to hear what you didagreed with, and would ask if you’d be interested to explain more when you say his description differs from your experience.

          1. And I’m a Canadian living in Germany. In short, it comes down to semantics. Now, a closer look at the author’s profile shows he’s from Austria originally, so I guess I can’t accuse him of having an American-centric view after all. But it does make one wonder if perhaps he’s learned the word wrong during his study of the English language. As a person learning German from an English-speaking background, I can certainly appreciate the difficulty of such things. But yes, it’s semantics, where to a Canadian ‘multicultural’ is simply what our country is. As opposed to American’s idea of a ‘melting pot’, in Canada we embrace multiculturalism as a positive force, a celebration of our differences, even as we come together as Canadians. Hence this article fails (for me) as I can’t recognize the author’s definition of multiculturalism as a negative force.

          2. @Aram says “…where to a Canadian ‘multicultural’ is simply what our country is. As opposed to American’s idea of a ‘melting pot’, in Canada we embrace multiculturalism as a positive force, a celebration of our differences, even as we come together as Canadians.”

            Where are you from in Canada where this appears true? Multiculturalism has a specific meaning in Canada and was an intentional government policy, spelled out by Trudeau Sr. It’s been loathed by many, and seemingly by whole regions of the country, from day one, and it remains a source of friction among Canadians and between Canadians and immigrant enclaves.

            1. Vancouver Island. Sure, racism exists in Canada, but in general in my experience people are as I already wrote. Where are you from in Canada that people are such douchenuggets?

        2. America not only is probably the or high among the most multicultural country/ies in the world, but also, any honest historian would be quite challenged to find a time when it ever wasn’t. In colonial times it was Dutch, English, French, Spanish, even Russian. Before that, it was Apache and Navajo and Sioux and so on. It’s never been a melting pot. I am not aware of a time where it ever was. I’m not sure why anyone was ever enamored of the idea, much less believe it ever was or ever should be a universal goal — except for those who are offended by the presence of people who don’t share their cultural norms.

          That being said… there isn’t a subculture of the US that authentically resembles it’s origin culture. Indian-Americans love Taylor Swift and Levi’s. Arab-Americans love french fries and Toyotas. Chinese-Americans love McDonald’s. And so on.

          To even paint these ethnic subcultures as non-American is a distinctly isolationist perspective. To the milquetoast white American, they are foreign, but to their compatriots in their homelands, they are Americans.

      2. Hi Phil, I’ve been reading up on Canada’s Multiculturalism Act, and not sure why you’re so derisive of it.

        Canadian Multiculturalism Act
        The 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act affirms the policy of the government to ensure that every Canadian receives equal treatment by the government which respects and celebrates diversity. The “Act” in general recognizes:

        Canada’s multicultural heritage and that that heritage must be protected.
        The rights of indigenous peoples.
        English and French remain the only official languages, however other languages may be used.
        Social equality within society and under the law regardless of race, colour, ancestry, national or ethnic origin, creed or religion.
        Minorities’ rights to enjoy their cultures.
        Section 3 (1) of the act states:

        It is hereby declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada to

        (a) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage

        (b) to recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future

  4. https://academicaffairs.ucsc.edu/events/documents/Microaggressions_Examples_Arial_2014_11_12.pdf

    Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (from Diversity in the Classroom, UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014). The first step in addressing microaggressions is to recognize when a microaggression has occurred and what message it may be sending. The context of the relationship and situation is critical. Below are common themes to which microaggressions attach.

    Examples: “There is only one race, the human race.”
    “America is the land of opportunity.”
    “Affirmative action is racist.”
    “I don’t notice people’s race.”
    “America is a melting pot.”
    “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”

    1. A lifelong friend exhibiting a slightly different skin color than mine let me know my usage of people of color was absurd and said, “White is a color, too.”

      It’s tiring to communicate whereby a mistake in words is real or imagined if oversensitivity instead of kind teaching is the response depending where a person stands.

      I see some value to the UCLA Diversity list shared which was created/authored by a few human beings contributions attempting to right wrongs but the list also shows picayune examples which defeat its purpose.

      Fuck tribes, fuck racial delineations, fuck what continents a person’s DNA is comprised…it’s more sane and meaningful to focus on kindness inside and shown to others than focusing on the shallowness of outward appearances.

      Most often, people ask where you’re from as small talk or in a respectful, complimentary way of innocent inquiry. It makes one weary to think communication has become so damn complicated like walking on a landmine if not politically correct and up-to-date on the approved things to say.

    2. “Affirmative action is racist.”

      I love how stating an obvious fact is considered a micro-aggression. Affirmative action is literally, logically, by definition, racist.

      1. It certainly can be racist, or perhaps a better term is prejudiced, especially in the forms it is most known as, but I think it is conceivable that a deliberate plan to increase proportional representation could be done without being prejudiced and still qualify as an affirmative action plan. So I don’t think it is a blanket statement. I would agree though not only that has traditionally been so, but that it is an easy trap to fall into in the interest of reaching the same goal.

        1. How is race based discrimination anything but racist? One may argue that racial prejudice can be justified in some circumstances, but affirmative action is race based discrimination. Someone will win an opportunity because of their race, while others will lose out on an opportunity because of their race.

          Perhaps you can provide an example of racial affirmative action that isn’t racist?

  5. After all the experience we have had with mass immigration in Europe, it has been proven that most of them are immigrants and not refugees.
    All this huge invasion of people has been proven that it can not be absorbed by European countries,
    not only that it endangers the existentiality of the country but it is counterproductive in all its aspects, namely cultural, religious, and its sovereignty. You just can not mix all this, it’s like oil with water. This will always bring countless conflicts making impossible any integration in society. People have to try to understand it once and for all, and not pretend to do miracles, this only induces damage or even can destroy a country immensely. And please let this be very clear, this has absolutely nothing to do with racism. It is simply not fair for the immigrant as well as for the country forced to receive them.

    1. Most of them are immigrants and not refugees, you say as a kind of verdict. Is migrating from one place to another something inappropriate? Or why did you use the word invasion as a synonym of migration? Another argument you didn’t mention although it’s a popular slogan is the documented/undocumented, legal/illegal issue. The difference between a documented and an undocumented migrant are the state institutions of their country of origin plus the inter-state agreements set by politicians. I wouldn’t judge millions by this.
      Unfortunately, religious groups are profiting immigration to gain influence and Christians fight hand in hand with Muslims against secularism – and against integration. From a certain point of view against culture as well, if I intend culture like a dynamic, ever changing system in continuous interaction. Multiculturalism works better without the community leaders since their income depends on the segregated community.

    2. What do you mean by “existentiality of the country?” What even is that? Is a state defined by its demographics? It’s heritage? I think a state is defined by its borders, its laws, and its government, not by the ethnic makeup of it’s people. Not in this day and age, that’s for sure. If that’s even remotely true, well, then, we need to start breaking countries up into multiple states, because already most modern countries aren’t even remotely homogenous even *before* you factor in immigration. Is a Bostonian in the same culture as a Georgian? As a Texan? As a Californian? As a Montanan? Good gracious no. Perhaps then US states should be allowed to put controls on their interstate transplants. After all, it’s apparently essential that societies be maintained without external influence indefinitely. (Just ask Seattle about all the Californians.)

  6. I don’t think the argument works here, because it’s unclear what your definition of integration is and how it is an ‘opposing approach’ to multiculturalism. Integration can mean a number of different things in policy terms. The work of Tariq Modood would be useful here to explore the idea of multiculturalism and integration, and how these ideas rather than being opposites are largely interconnected in practice. This is actually identifiable when you say:

    “This requires a certain degree of cultural assimilation on the part of each individual immigrant, and a certain degree of openness on the part of the host society.”

    Multiculturalism has never been about a segregated country, but rather is part of your equation: ‘a certain degree of openess’. The question of degree is fair, but this is where things become much too complicated for a high level discussion of concepts. We are then into the territory of social control – how do we administer a ‘Goldilocks culture’ in a society that is already culturally diverse and is ever-changing? What do we do to those people who refuse to change? The more this situation is managed and the tighter the definition of ‘core’ cultural attributes, the less use there is for carrot and the more for stick. An immigration rather than social policy approach to these issues leads you to the criminalisation of beliefs and culture.

    1. Rarely do we hear carping about how the Italians or Irish don’t share our country’s English values. Yet they maintain strong cultural identity and unique cultural attributes in religion, food, mannerism, language, and so on. Why then are Asian or South American or Middle Eastern cultures so frightening?


Leave a Reply