Originally Published in the National Post: Thursday, April 26, 2007
ROME – In Tuesday’s National Post, my colleague Jonathan Kay wrote something of an obituary for multiculturalism, arguing that if the values of multiple cultures are alien to the settled history of Canadian values, then the whole project endangers, not enriches, Canadian society.
It is a more difficult argument to make in Canada, because entrenched in the constitution is the idea that multiculturalism itself is a fundamental Canadian value.
That’s not the case here in Italy. The history of Europe’s nation states has been a messy matter of shifting borders and fluid identities, but in general the principle has been that states do have national characters. How to accommodate a multicultural reality within a national identity is necessarily asymptotic; it can never quite be done completely. A gap always remains. How big that gap is, and whether it should be narrowed or not, constitutes a major theme in contemporary European politics.
The good burghers of Herouxville, Que., were roundly mocked earlier this year when they published their advice to potential (apparently Muslim) newcomers, helpfully pointing out that stoning was not an acceptable punishment for adultery. From the perspective of English Canada, in which the national dimension of the state is deliberately underplayed, the Herouxville manifesto was seen as narrow-minded and bigoted. Yet it was not an accident that it appeared in Quebec, where la question nationale is the principal preoccupation of the state. And Herouxvillians might be surprised to discover that Italians are exploring some of the same territory, albeit with, as one would expect here, rather less clumsiness and rather more flare.
The Italian Interior Minister, Giuliano Amato, unveiled on Monday the grandly-titled â€œCharter of Values of Citizenship and Integration,â€ which is, as in Herouxville, generic in style, but addressed to Muslim immigrants in substance.
For the time being, the charter simply serves to guide the work of the interior ministry, but is proposed to the national parliament as something that an immigrant might have to sign when becoming a citizen. Signor Amato is not some wild-eyed xenophobe from the extremes of Italian politics. He is a minister in Romano Prodi’s centre-left government, having been proposed for president of the Republic last year. He has already served twice as Italy’s prime minister.
The charter gets right to the cultural and religious point, noting that â€œItaly has evolved against the horizon of Christianity, which has permeated its history and, with Judaism, has prepared an opening to modernity and the principles of liberty and justice.â€ The charter’s language is all the more bracing given the gyrations Europe put itself through just a few years ago to avoid mentioning Christianity in the drafting of its ill-fated constitution.
The document goes on to describe the fundamental values of Italy, including the dignity of the person, the equality of men and women, the duty of solidarity (by which is meant the right to social assistance and health care) and the obligation to attend school. Marriage is defined as â€œstructurally monogamousâ€ and polygamy defined as â€œcontrary to the rights of women.â€ Italy is characterized as a â€œlay state founded upon the recognition of full religious liberty,â€ and it is specified that all forms of violence instigated by religion are forbidden. The right to change one’s religion is enumerated, and newcomers are instructed that their clothing is to be freely chosen, with the proviso that the face may not be covered. It is not the letter of Herouxville, but the spirit is not hard to recognize.
It would be hard to imagine a federal minister in Canada speaking in such terms, let alone proposing such guidelines, or a potentially obligatory charter. And given the proudly progressive post-war history of Europe â€“ the charter explicitly mentions that Italy stands against totalitarianism â€“ it is all the more striking that the multicultural ideal should be so enervated.
Yet in a Europe of declining birthrates and increasing immigration â€“ the same situation that prevails in Quebec â€“ the change in the nation has now become a chief concern of the state. It may be true that multiculturalism as an aspiration is dying in Canada. The burial is already underway in Europe.
Â© National Post 2007