Multicultural education

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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison says that the traditional culture of Western Europe is being challenged by ever increasing immigrant populations.

(Robison) A short time ago both houses of the French parliament voted overwhelmingly to ban religious symbols from their schools. Specifically banned will be “oversized” crosses and Jewish skullcaps. But everyone clearly understands that the real target of the legislation is headscarves; those scarves favored by devout Muslim women and of course frequently worn by Muslim girls.

France has approximately 5 million Muslims roughly 10% of the population. They are mostly from North Africa and especially from Algeria, a former French colony.

My guess is that most French politicians would have preferred not to be confronted with this issue. It is one of those issues that looks simple but isn’t and this new French law is not going to be the end of it. Far from it. Other European nations are watching closely because most of them are faced with similar choices.

These and related issues loom large on the European horizon. The underlying facts are demographic. All over Europe, birthrates continue to fall. Within a few years there simply will not be enough Europeans to fill the jobs required to keep these complex economies healthy. That means looking elsewhere for labor, for people who are willing to do the work. And that means mostly North Africa, where birthrates are high and economies relatively week. In other words, in North Africa there are plenty of people who need jobs.

North Africa is to Europe what Mexico is to the United States. It is Spain and Morocco; France and Algeria; Italy and Tunisia; and, only slightly different, Germany and Turkey.

And so more and more of the European workforce, especially in what are referred to as entry-level jobs, will come from people who are racially, ethnically, culturally and religiously different in substantial ways from their host populations.

For the most part, European countries are ill equipped to address the issues. The American civil rights movement may seem to offer a model but not really.

And so in France, the multicultural dilemma takes the form of a law banning headscarves in schools. But this is only the beginning

I grew up in the deep South before the civil rights movement which came during my early adulthood. The point of that personal remark is that for me it was a participatory experience. But I can attest to a deep belief on my part and on the part of my friends that we were on the right side of history. We were part of change that was necessary and it was also good.

As I watch European politicians struggling with their multicultural challenges, I do not sense any comparable conviction. They feel caught between irreconcilable demands; caught between having to accommodate growing and increasingly vocal minorities while needing to portray themselves to the majority as protectors of long standing cultural norms.

There are few satisfying answers. Nor will there be.

The French headscarf issue is the news today. But stay tuned. Versions of these challenges are going to be central to European domestic politics for a long time to come and most of it will be as contentious as the American presidential election on which we are now embarked.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is President of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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