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.