Europe's leaders seemingly have awakened from a long slumber to discover that state-sponsored multiculturalism threatens the fabric of their societies. Their somber conclusions should cause reflection by Americans about the potential threats to national identity here and how educational institutions could play a constructive role in preserving our shared values.
Many well-meaning people still think that multiculturalism is synonymous with pluralism, or a healthy respect for diverse cultures and languages. Unfortunately, multiculturalism is too often used as a derisive ideology seeking to replace Western values and institutions and to transform society on terms dictated by immigrant cultures and belief systems. Much of liberal academe encourages or even actively promotes that brand of multiculturalism.
Islamic extremists have made abundantly clear how destructive separatism can be in inciting clashes of civilizations, as hearings in the House Homeland Security Committee will seek to document, beginning Thursday.
Of course, it is wrong to ascribe hateful motives to most Muslims, who are themselves diverse in their nationalities and interpretations of Islamic law. But it could be dangerous to Western society to ignore the threat posed by radical strains of multiculturalism. In declaring recently that "multiculturalism has failed," British Prime Minister David Cameron took a perfectly reasonable first step toward defunding separatist groups that are avowed enemies of the state.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy sounded even more dire tones than Mr. Cameron, asserting that immigrants must embrace a national community: "We have been too concerned about the identity of the person who was arriving and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him," he argued.
Demographics offer a partial explanation for differing levels of alarm. France has far and away the highest concentrations of Muslims in Europe - as much as 10 percent of the population. Islam is now the second-largest religion in that country.
Though it has been the target of homegrown terrorism, Britain has proportionately one of Europe's smallest Muslim populations - less than 3 percent. As for the United States, Nevada is the only state where Muslims constitute as much as 2 percent of the population. However, Boston College professor Peter Skerry has noted, "In specific metropolitan areas such as Detroit, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Muslims represent a large and visible minority."
Moreover, the Muslim population in the United States is growing and "now rivals Jews as a percentage of the population."
But focusing exclusively on numbers or on the Muslim presence ignores another major problem: the poor record of programs and policies to integrate immigrants of a variety of faiths and ethnic backgrounds into a common culture and language. In fact, certain laws and regulations already in place - many of them adopted with the surge of Hispanic immigration in mind - can be described fairly as government-mandated multiculturalism:
c The $7 billion federal Head Start program, which provides child-development services to disadvantaged families, requires that only "culturally and linguistically appropriate" services be offered. Staff members are to speak and respect the home languages and cultural backgrounds of all the preschoolers. Given that almost a third of children in Head Start speak a language other than English (some 140 languages in all), the mandate is both vast and expensive.
c The state of Illinois mandates bilingual education, even for 3- and 4-year-olds in public preschool. These segregated programs prevent children from gaining critical English-language skills and contribute to harmful cycles of linguistic isolation.
There are approximately 5 million linguistically isolated households in the United States, where all adults have difficulty with English, and the number continues to rise, especially among Hispanics. Yet most of the nation's public-school bilingual-education programs produce more dropouts than proficient English speakers.
c Widely used textbooks increasingly are depicting Islam in the most favorable possible light, even to the extent of redefining jihad- the "holy war" rallying cry of terrorists - as a noble struggle against oppression, and glossing over the illiberal implications of strict application of Islamic law (Shariah), most notably the subjugation of women.
Historically, public schools have performed one of their greatest services in unifying a nation of immigrants, linguistically and culturally. If the emphasis of government programs remains on fostering differences rather than unity, then America may find itself in the kind of multicultural mess that exists in major European nations.
Bob Holland and Don Soifer are policy analysts with the Lexington Institute.
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