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The Greatly Exaggerated Death of Multiculturalism

With Tunisian refugees streaming north, Europe’s vanguard of cultural gatekeepers start to refine their message.

One immediate result of Arab revolutions in North Africa throws a monkey wrench into the “death of multiculturalism” rhetoric that has thrummed from European leaders almost like a heartbeat since last fall. Tunisians, still unemployed even with their dictator gone, have boarded boats for Italy.

Since the revolution, some 5,000 illegal immigrants from Tunisia have arrived on the small Italian island of Lampedusa. They’re fleeing the same conditions that masses of people protested before the resignation of Tunisia’s president and dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — poverty, joblessness, desperation.

“We are afraid,” one Tunisian man told Agence France-Presse over the weekend. “The revolution in January has changed nothing, absolutely nothing. We want to find a job in Europe. We are asking the Italian people for help.”

Italian officials lost no time making undiplomatic remarks. Silvio Berlusconi’s interior minister, Roberto Maroni, offered to send Italian police to Tunisia to stem the “biblical exodus” of North Africans. (The Tunisian foreign ministry “expresses its surprise at this stance and confirms that it categorically rejects any interference in its internal affairs or any infringement of its sovereignty,” according to the state news agency.)

The Tunisians may or may not realize that they’re trying to reach Europe during a season of intolerance, when leaders of its three largest nations have made politically shrewd speeches against “multiculturalism.” Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and David Cameron (from Germany, France and Britain, respectively) have all declared the end of this perilous and formless beast. Europe must not be multicultural, they’ve all said, meaning: Europe should do more to integrate its newcomers. Absolutely a good idea; but what many voters heard is that Europe should not have immigrants.

Cameron, sounding like a politician from 1999, said, “Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism.” What he meant was that liberal-minded British people shouldn’t be afraid of condemning intolerant opinions spouted by immigrants — say, hate speech by Muslim preachers. This is common sense. But his overall speech, like Merkel’s, attracted some embarrassing fans.

Marine Le Pen — daughter of the French bigot Jean-Marie Le Pen and the new leader of his far-right National Front — said vaguely, “It is exactly this type of statement that has barred us from public life for 30 years,” according to the Financial Times. “I sense an evolution at European level, even in classic governments. I can only congratulate him.”

Cameron and his Conservative party rejected the applause. “She has clearly failed to understand the prime minister’s speech,” a party spokesman told the FT.

Nevertheless, the immigrants keep coming, because Europe long ago joined the United States as the sort of place people want to go for a job. It’s a market force, and there isn’t much a politician can do.

Europe is already “multicultural,” so it’s worth remembering that cultural change works both ways. Immigrants eventually adjust. Their birth rates plummet to host-nation levels after a generation or so, a trend the German polemicist Thilo Sarrazin managed to avoid writing about. Even the ultimate symbol of nonintegration, the niqab, may have a more subtle significance than people who try to ban it seem to realize.

Raphaël Liogier, a French sociologist, argues that in some cases wearing a full veil in Europe is an individualist, “almost New Age” fashion. “In advanced societies,” he writes, “the unexpected wish of certain women to wear the niqab is one major illustration of this individualist transformation within Islam. Paradoxically, this new type of radicalism, imbued with eccentricity, has not resulted in a resurgence of Islamism itself, but rather entailed its loss of influence, in favor of a sort of depoliticized spiritualization.”

But the strongest example of European influence on the Muslim étranger are the street revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan and Iran. Proto-democracy movements, partially organized on Facebook? And the latest thing is that they might threaten Berlusconi in Rome.