Scarcely ten miles away from Munich, the former concentration camp at Dachau still casts a tenebrous shadow. It was here where the words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' greeted thousands of prisoners, many of which would end up in the infamous gas chambers.
That the British Prime Minister David Cameron chose these surroundings to deliver his speech on multiculturalism in Britain a fortnight ago - and its failures, according to him -, could be thought to be at best, crass and careless and at worst, downright offensive, given the cuts the coalition government over which he presides is introducing in the UK. That the main target of his address was the Muslim community is also confusing, as only a few weeks before, a member of his own party, Baroness Warsi was complaining to all and sundry that Islamophobia had finally 'passed the dinner table test'. Either Mr Cameron is planning to throw a dinner party, had no intention whatsoever of inviting the co-chairman of the Conservative Party to it and instead of coming clear about it opted for a veiled approach, or the Tories are not talking to each other.
So, multiculturalism is finished. समाप्त. Bitmiş. Terminado.
Except that from where I'm sitting the view is rather different. Let me take you on a tour of my neighbourhood.
Our first stop is the market. Purely because it's a famous one. Long hailed as one of the obligatory stops for visitors not just from other parts of London, but also outside it, like Essex, this is a place steeped in history. The stock is plentiful, the prices reasonable and the quality of the products good. This market has seen no shortage of immigrants, from Cockneys in the 70s to Somalis today. Let me stand in the middle of the piazza, I close my eyes and what do I hear? Probably about seven or eight different languages, except for English, in less than five minutes. And that includes my mother tongue, Spanish, too. I open my eyes and what do I see? A Kurdish fishmonger. An Iraqi guy who sells suitcases. A Trinidadian man who runs one of the many clothes stalls in the indoor square. The woman from whom I buy my son's hair gel regularly is from Ghana. The voices of many of the fruit'n'veg vendors betray their London origin: "Free for a poun'! Free apples for a poun'! Come and take yer free apples for a poun'! A poun' for free apples, for a pound'! You aw'right, luv? How's it goin', mate'. I count three butchers' in about three hundred yards; one of them sells halal meat. It's usually full.
If I step outside the market and walk down the main thoroughfare, I will have, on my right hand side, the hairdresser's where, every three months or so, I have my hair done. It's run by a Nigerian woman from the Calabar region. Further down the road I spot two or three Turkish kebab shops and a bit further ahead our local community house. Its tenants include a Tamil organisation, a Caribbean association and a Bangladeshi forum. Whenever I am in the mood for a Proustian madeleine - and not of the involuntary kind - I pop by the Polish deli. It stocks all the products I used to enjoy as a kid when most of our imports still came from the former Eastern socialist bloc.
So, is multiculturalism working or not? It depends on what you're looking for and what you'd like your answer to be. If you're seeking disharmony and enmity, you'll find it in plenty of places, like the aforementioned market. I once saw one of the fruit'n'veg sellers give a Muslim woman a dressing-down on account of her lack of linguistic skills. By the same token, if you want to make a case for multiculturalism, spend an hour in the in-shops and you'll see a lot of people from various nationalities and speaking different languages getting on well with each other.
It is true that in his speech in Munich, Cameron was very specific about who he was addressing: those non-violent Muslim groups in Britain that, according to him, were apparently somewhat ambiguous about British moral values. But the downside was that in using the word 'multiculturalism', he somehow tarred all migrant communities with the same dirty brush.
It is daunting, even at the best of times, to move to a new country. Regardless of whether you arrive at it in the back of a lorry or on a Cubana flight, the reality of upping sticks and settling down in a foreign land can be traumatic. It's natural then, that immigrants tend to stay in their own comfort zone. They gravitate towards areas where they can speak in their own language and eat their traditional food. One of the tasks for the host nation is how to welcome and benefit from these new arrivals. There're also duties and responsibilities for the newcomers, though, namely, how to integrate and adopt the laws and rules of their new home. For that to happen several mechanisms must be in place, such as: language courses (fundamental in the process of integration), acknowledgement of the immigrant's culture and at the same time awareness of and respect for the host country's own values and way of life. Another aspect to consider is the influence some institutions will have on immigrants and how they will make their settling down process easier, for instance, schools, libraries and community centres. Politics plays an important role as the language used very often by politicians when discussing migration borders on the zenophobic. We want to feel that we're not a burden but an asset, especially for the economy. It is this latter element that complements my list of mechanisms that must work in unison if, as a society, we're to take advantage of immigrants' input. In difficult economic times, like the ones through which we're going now, our contribution is fundamental. Most immigrants I've met, and I include myself in that large group, want to work. Through our taxes we ensure that we have access to free education and free health care.
If the above structures are in place, the pluses of multiculturalism will outnumber the minuses. However, at present, the government headed by the same person who gave that speech in Munich is applying scythe-style sweeping cuts to most services that directly or indirectly benefit immigrants. For instance Esol (English for speakers of other languages) provision will see a reduction of up to 32 per cent this year. This cruel measure will isolate even more members of communities that are already quite passive in terms of integrating into British society. There's even an ironic twist in this decision to cut funding to Esol. Many colleges had been specially earmarked to deliver Esol courses as a direct route to British citizenship. Now they won't be able to. Who said the British Prime Minister didn''t have a sense of humour?
Libraries face a very uncertain future with many put down for closure. I have lost count of all the times I've seen immigrant families in my local 'temple of knowledge' with their little ones reading books in their own language. On many occasions I've seen the same parents, who a couple of years before could not articulate one word in English, reading a book in the language of Shakespeare to their children. So much for Mr Cameron's criticism of multiculturalism.
But I can't lay all the blame at No 10's door. The liberal left must take part of the flak, too. That also means yours truly. Because most of the time, when discussing multiculturalism, progressive folks speak in a way that might come across a tad bit patronising. Read journalist Madeleine Bunting's riposte to Cameron's speech and you'll see what I mean: "Multiculturalism is dead, long live multiculturalism. It's not a slogan that slips easily off the tongue, but it's the only one that seemed to capture the bizarre dissonance of a media abuzz with David Cameron's speech in Munich on the failed policies of "state multiculturalism" and my Saturday morning shopping in Hackney's Ridley Road in east London. Dozens of nationalities jostle for the best vegetables, dresses, blankets and cookware. The air is full of the smell of Turkish bread and African salted fish, the stalls are heaped with yams and chilis. The street traders' banter is littered with the Cockney endearments of love and darling. No one is dewy-eyed about this kind of London – there is too much poverty for that – but for all its many shortcomings, there is something extraordinary about how Britain has accommodated this hyper-diversity." Madeleine's description of her regular Saturday shopping outing is not that different from my own experience at the market near my house. But dig further and this is what you will find.
Both Madeleine and I praise immigrants' contribution to UK society in terms of cuisine and groceries. We enjoy the Turkish kebab shop and often order a takeaway from an Indian restaurant. I go to an African hairdresser's to have my hair done whilst Madeleine jostles with the rest of her neighbours for the best of vegetables. But all the jobs described before are menial. We can't discuss multiculturalism in terms of representation in the media and Parliament, because there's very little. That's a mitigating factor for both Bunting and me, though, in that turbans and saris are hardly ever seen on telly unless someone is discussing the Asian experience or talking about Bollywood movies. Black faces are conspicuous by their absence unless the subject to debate centres on knife crime or troubled youth.
And that's the real problem. The multicultural experience comes with a high price attached to it. If you're Bangladeshi and you're willing to slave your hours away working in a hot kitchen preparing curries for the Kaffee Klatsch set, you're welcome. But the minute you want to stray into the territory usually dominated by middle-class, middle-aged white men, then questions will be asked and eyebrows will be raised. No wonder Madeleine and I enjoy the UK's multicultural vibe so much. Everyone seems to know their place.
That David Cameron chose to criticise multiculturalism at a time when his government is making it difficult for immigrant communities to integrate is a bit rich, coming as it does from someone who has plenty of millionaires in his cabinet. But that we, on the progressive, liberal side, have not got many arguments to counteract beyond praising immigrants' cuisine and batik-dyed clothes shops, is equally embarrassing. The only way to prove that multiculturalism has worked and continues to work in the UK, is by flagging up our contribution to British society in all areas, even if those areas remain off-limits for many people from ethnic minorities. Let's start with a trickle until we have a flow. That way the likes of Cameron will probably have second thoughts before slagging off a process that started centuries ago. After all, there's never been a fixed British identity. This country's culture and economics have been enhanced by accepting the reality of community pluralism.
Last, a message for our Prime Minister. Next time you're planning to scapegoat an entire group of people, i.e., immigrants, please, make sure that you choose a less controversial backdrop, Herr Cameron.
Next Post: ‘ Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts’, to be published on Wednesday 23rd February at 11:59pm (GMT)
Image taken from Cultural Geography Blog