Saying what needs to be said ... David Cameron.

Saying what needs to be said ... David Cameron. Illustration: John Shakespeare

British Prime Minister David Cameron is no redneck member of the lunar right. On social issues, his positions tend to be liberal, in the traditional sense of the term. This makes Cameron's speech on radicalisation and Islamic extremism at the Munich Security Conference at the weekend of particular note.

When in opposition, the Conservatives were at times critical of Blair Labour's anti-terrorism legislation. But it seems that in government the Conservatives - now in coalition with the Liberal Democrats - have taken a tough-minded approach to extremism. Cameron has followed German Chancellor Angela Merkel in distancing himself from multiculturalism.

I used to be a strong supporter of multiculturalism and, at times, was critical of John Howard's apparent disdain for the concept. However, on reflection, I am coming to the view that some of Howard's critique was essentially correct and that Cameron and Merkel are saying what needs to be said in Europe.

The concept of multiculturalism worked well enough, provided it was understood that all groups within Western societies supported the system of democratic government and the rule of law that applied equally to all citizens. For the most part, this was the reality of Australian multiculturalism throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

The problem is that, particularly in western Europe, the rise of radical Islam has led to a situation where a small minority of Islamists reject the West while choosing to live within Western societies, where they enjoy economic, political and religious freedoms along with health and social security benefits.

Last October Merkel addressed the youth wing of the Democratic Christian Union at Potsdam. There has been no official release of her speech, but there is no disputing the content. Her message was simple - namely, that what the Germans call "multikulti" has not worked.

Multikulti - meaning that anyone who wanted to come to Germany could do so and that everyone living there could get on with each other - was advocated by the Greens in the 1980s and '90s and enjoyed support from the Social Democrats.

This was an example of leftist utopianism. It led to a situation where little attempt was made to inculcate new settlers with any sense of national pride or patriotism.

Merkel was also critical of German policy in the 1960s, when there was a belief that all guest workers who came to Germany would return to their countries of birth after a few years. This did not happen with the Turks. From the late 1960s Australia began taking Turkish migrants on the understanding they would become Australian citizens. The Turks proved to be successful settlers; in Germany, on the other hand, little attempt has been made to integrate Muslim immigrants into German society.

Merkel recognises German society has a right to expect those who choose to live in it will learn German and adapt to the mores of the German state. She is reported to be critical of forced marriages within some Muslim families.

Germany continues to seek - and attract - immigrants and remains an accepting society in which no radical right-wing movements have emerged, unlike some other western European nations. But Merkel has come to the view that multiculturalism, as practised in Germany, has failed. Thilo Sarrazin, the former governor of the Bundesbank who happens to be a Social Democrat, has reached a similar, if more stridently expressed, opinion.

The British Prime Minister and the German Chancellor do not agree on some issues. Yet both are pragmatic politicians who have reached their assessments on multiculturalism as a result of empirical investigation.

In his address at the weekend, Cameron clearly distinguished between Islamic extremism and Islam; his target is the former, not the latter. He criticised what he terms the "soft left" who "lump all Muslims together, compiling a list of grievances, and argue if only governments addressed these grievances, the terrorism would stop". He pointed out that "many of those found guilty of terrorist offences in the UK and elsewhere have been graduates and often middle class".

Cameron believes that the ''doctrine of state multiculturalism" has led to a weakening of Britain's collective identity. He advocates less "passive tolerance" and a "much more active, muscular liberalism". Like Merkel, he wants to "confront the horrors of forced marriage", the victims of which are girls and young women. And he wants Britain to promote "freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality". He also proclaims the need for immigrants to speak the language of their new home.

The policy matters addressed by the leaders of Germany and Britain have already been covered by Christopher Caldwell in Reflections on the Revolution in Europe and Peter Berman in The Flight of the Intellectuals. Caldwell recognises that "Islam is a magnificent religion" but makes the point that "it is in no sense Europe's religion and it is in no sense Europe's culture". Berman is critical of well-regarded intellectuals such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash who have criticised the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose life has been threatened due to her apostasy and her public campaign against Islamist extremism.

Traditionally immigrants have accepted the societies where they have willingly sought to live. This is no longer always the case, with calls for the imposition of sharia and the like.

Cameron and Merkel are correct in criticising multiculturalism and what it has become in western Europe - namely, a focus on what divides democratic societies. In Australia and the US, multiculturalism has not had such a negative effect. But it is reasonable to assume that it might do so one day unless we adopt a muscular approach to the affirmation of democratic rights.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.

twitter Follow the National Times on Twitter: @NationalTimesAU