If you read English-language news, you could be forgiven for thinking that Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel recently came out strongly against multiculturalism and immigration. You could be forgiven, but you’d be wrong! The incident makes me wish once again English-language journalists would gain an understanding of the language and history of the countries from which they report instead of presenting international news as if they were nothing but an extension of some national debate. So, what’s the story? Most English-language reporting drawing on an Agence France-Presse bulletin got it wrong in at least two ways:
- The headline “Multiculturalism has failed” is an incorrect translation of “Multikulti ist absolut gescheitert” because “Multikulti” is not “multiculturalism.” Germany has never had a policy of multiculturalism and the idea continues to be that migrants integrate into a dominant German culture. “Multikulti” could best be described as “flower power with diversity.” So, Merkel is saying that she doesn’t like the idea of everyone doing their own thing in all kinds of diverse ways and be happy. And who wouldn’t agree that “be happy” is a great motto for a party but maybe does not offer much guidance when it comes to thinking about an equitable and productive framework for living together in a diverse society?
- In the same speech, Merkel also repeated something much more amazing, and something, the English newspaper reports I have read chose to ignore completely: the assertion that Islam is now part of Germany! That statement was first made by German President Christian Wulff during the celebrations to mark 20 years of German reunification a few days earlier.
Anyone who knows anything about German politics and German views of the nation would have to recognize President Wulff’s speech as extraordinary. Most conservative German politicians find it hard to even acknowledge the fact that there is immigration into Germany. The mantra “Germany is not an immigration country” continues to define the nation. So, for the president to say that he is the president of everyone who *lives* in Germany (rather than “everyone who *is* German”) is extraordinary – and for the chancellor to repeat it a few days later is even more so!
The statement that “multikulti is dead” has been part of German political rhetoric for at least a decade. Not because they’ve tried it but because it makes good old divisive political rhetoric. Merkel, like all conservative German politicians, is walking a fine line between avoiding the sceptre of the unspeakable right and pandering to her party’s conservative sensibilities. Treating that pandering to conservative sensibilities, which is not new at all, as if it were new, while ignoring the new acceptance of diversity, and particularly Islam, by the conservative mainstream that is evident in the speech is ignorant or worse.
Focusing on the fact that Chancellor Merkel said “multikulti has completely failed” while ignoring that she also accepted diversity and particularly Muslims as a legitimate part of the imagined German nation is some pernicious form of overlooking the forest for the trees. A sentence spoken by a foreign politician has been taken out of the immediate context of the relatively minor party speech where it occurred and it has also been taken out of the wider historical and political context of the debate about migration and diversity in Germany.
Reporting this sentence misinforms and misleads the reader about contemporary German politics. However, it contributes to the national debates into which it is inserted by suggesting that if “it” doesn’t work “over there,” “it” can’t work “here,” either. Except that “it” is not the same thing.
The Sydney Morning Heralds’ web edition additionally ran a poll together with their report about the speech: “Do you agree with Angela Merkel that a multicultural society can’t succeed?” Apart from the fact that I don’t think it matters much what Sydney Morning Herald readers think about the internal politics of another country, if they had done their homework and listened to her whole speech in the original and placed it in its context, the poll question would have been something like this: “Do you agree with Angela Merkel that we are kidding ourselves if we keep saying living in a multicultural society is happy bliss but that the facts of life are such that we’ve got to make living together work?”
If this is the best international English-language journalism can do with a story from a country as well-observed as Germany and a language as widely-spoken as German, I don’t even want to think about the quality of some of the other stories we are being dished up from around the world …