Recently I attended a seminar about migration issues at the Institute of Policy Studies, IPS, in Islamabad. Several of the speakers distinguished between multiculturalism and diversity. They seemed to agree with the German Leader Angela Merkel and the British PM David Cameron, both of who said that multiculturalism has failed. There is less integration between foreign immigrants and the locals than they had hoped for, and there are sometimes conflicts between immigrant groups and indigenous groups. They may be of different backgrounds but most of the time when they hold demonstrations, it is because they all want better jobs and improvements in quality of life. They want a greater share of common resources and more inclusion. Many of those who ‘stand on the barricades’ are frustrated and disappointed with their new homelands; they offer their participation, not only to get more, but also to give more. That should be taken positively.

The term multiculturalism has been used in Europe to describe the changing cultural composition of the populations. From being relatively homogenous populations with few immigrants in the 1960s, European countries now have people from 50 or 100 different countries, in addition to their old minority groups. In most European capitals, a quarter or a third of the inhabitants come from foreign countries, and a large proportion comes from developing countries. In addition, many have migrated internally from rural areas and other towns to the capital and other larger cities.

Up to five or six percent of the citizens in the ‘new’ Europe are made up of Muslims. Most are active worshippers, who also argue for the importance of religion in society, and indeed for Islam. It is a fact too, that Muslims help revitalize various faith groups, if discussions are managed well. Such discussions will have to consider the role of religion in society in general, especially in societies where the overwhelming majority is non-Muslim. Dogma and traditions should be discussed and interpretations adjusted to the societies in question. The secular European countries and the often sedate churches have had difficulty discussing and including other religions in society. But they would all argue for religious freedom as a human right and defend the rights of any group to worship.

This is happening at a time when the main religion in Europe, Christianity, is statistically on the decline even though religion may exist in many non apparent forms: sometimes as a cultural convention or a sub-surface value system. In Scandinavia for example, over three-quarters are members of what is now termed the peoples’ church, which was earlier a state church. It would therefore be a shallow analysis to conclude that the Nordics have no religion.

In Christianity’s recent history, orthodox and liberal groups debate issues and learn from each other. If they disagree, that is usually done respectfully. We should also remember that most religious debate is within each religion, not between religions. Even so, in Europe and elsewhere, there is a need for developing strong interfaith dialogue between religions. Since Islam is the largest ‘new religion’ in Europe, it is important that it be included in society in a way that is acceptable to all. That is the responsibility of both the majority and minority groups.

It is important that Europe encourages cultural and religious diversity, and that common understanding for the principles of various (religious, political, ideological) groups is created. When speakers at the IPS seminar I referred to above talked about diversity, they mentioned compartmentalized pockets, where people live in ‘parallel worlds’ with little contact with each other. Some speakers thought there would be more separate groups of this kind in the future. This segregation will not work in anybody’s interest. To the extent that such pockets exist, (and they do), we must integrate them into mainstream society. But it must be done in a multicultural and diverse way, where the larger society and sub-groups find mutual benefits from integration.

I lived in East Africa for over fifteen years and then went on to take up an international post in Washington. There I found it important to stress that I wasn’t only Norwegian, I was also Kenyan. Now, after living for over a decade in Pakistan, I never fail to mention my Pakistani identity as well when I am asked where I belong. This is the beauty of a multicultural world.

It is not only immigrants who live in separate pockets in society. Even in their home countries many groups and classes live entirely different lives, excluded from each others’ worlds. Domestic help and their children in wealthy houses live in a world with little resemblance to that of their employers. They live behind the same main gate but will be worlds apart. In the future, we must change the structures that sustain such disparities, in Pakistan and in the West. This is the most important task in the years to come.

We have the knowledge and skills to make this change, but we lack the political will; focusing time and again on the wrong sets of issues. In hindsight, I cannot quite understand why we didn’t seek better and a more diverse integration of immigrants into Europe. We gained from their labour and skills, but we didn’t really appreciate enough that the newcomers enriched the cultures and lands they entered into, including in religious fields.

Until now, the efforts have been half hearted. We tried to make immigrants become like the people of the lands they moved to, but that is not real integration. Real integration is respectful and inclusive of distinct natures, cultures and world-views. Still, multiculturalism has not failed in Europe; it just hasn’t been tried hard enough. We must hurry to do that and we must hurry to create greater opportunities and equality for all. Most of all, we must cherish diversity.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.

Email:atlehetland@yahoo.com