"Multiculturalism has failed," said British Prime Minister David Cameron last weekend in Munich. If anybody thought they had read those words before, it is because they have. Many times. Last October German Chancellor Angela Merkel (sitting onstage with Mr. Cameron when he gave his speech on Saturday) said the same. Finally, Europe’s mainstream party leaders seem to be realizing what others have long noticed: Multiculturalism has been the most pernicious and divisive policy pursued by Western governments since World War II.
Multiculturalism is a deeply misunderstood idea. That was one of the reasons for its political success. People were led to believe that "multiculturalism" meant multiracialism, or pluralism. It did not. Nevertheless, for years anybody who criticized multiculturalism was immediately decried as a "racist."
But the true character and effects of the policy could not be permanently hidden. State-sponsored multiculturalism treated European countries like hostelries. It judged that the state should not "impose" rules and values on newcomers. Rather, it should bend over backwards to accommodate the demands of immigrants. The resultant policy was that states treated and judged people by the criteria of whatever "community" they found themselves born into.
In Britain, for instance, this meant that if you were a white English girl born into a white English family and your family decided to marry you against your will to a randy old pervert, the state would intervene. But if you had the misfortune to be born into an "Asian-background" family and the same happened, then the state would look the other way.
In 1984, a British school principal named Ray Honeyford politely suggested in an article in the Salisbury Review that it might be a good idea if students at his state-funded school were able to speak English and did not disappear to Pakistan for months at a time. The result was a siren of accusations of "racism," which willfully ignored his arguments and precipitated the end of his career.
In his speech in Munich, Mr. Cameron rightly focused on the problem of home-grown Islamic extremism. He stressed several preliminary steps—among them that groups whose values are opposed to those of the state will no longer be bestowed with taxpayer money. It is a symptom of how low we have sunk that ceasing to fund our societies’ opponents would constitute an improvement.
But this is a first, not a final, policy. The fact is that Britain, Germany, Holland and many other European countries have nurtured more than one generation of citizens who seem to feel no loyalty toward their country and who, on the contrary, often seem to despise it.
The first step forward is that from school-age upward our societies must reassert a shared national narrative—including a common national culture. Some years ago the German Muslim writer Bassam Tibi coined the term "Leitkultur"—core culture—to describe this. It is the most decent and properly liberal antidote to multiculturalism. It concedes that in societies that have had high immigration there are all sorts of different cultures—which will only work together if they are united by a common theme.
The Muslim communities that Mr. Cameron focused on will not reform themselves. So the British government will have to shut down and prosecute terrorist and extremist organizations, including some "charities." There are groups that are banned in the U.S. but can and do still operate with charitable status in the U.K. Clerics and other individuals who come from abroad to preach hate and division should be deported.
Will Mr. Cameron manage to do any of this? There is reason to be skeptical. In the wake of the 2005 subway and bus bombings in London—attacks carried out by British-born Muslims—Tony Blair announced that "the rules of the game are changing." They then stayed the same.
It is possible that Mr. Cameron will show more political courage. If he does, he will undoubtedly be lambasted by the defenders of multiculturalism. He will also become a leader of significance. If he doesn’t, then future generations may well associate him with Munich. But it will not be for Saturday’s speech. It will be with a previous prime minister who also went to that city and who returned with an honor that proved deeply temporary.