STOCKHOLM — State-sponsored multiculturalism has failed. That proclamation by British Prime Minister David Cameron, following hard on the heels of similar renunciations of multiculturalism by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, suggests that a page is being turned in European society. But is it?

Cameron’s attack on multiculturalism minced no words. “Frankly,” he said, “we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism.”

He was not criticizing ethnic and cultural pluralism, but the idea of “state multiculturalism,” which applies different moral standards to various social groups. In the future, Cameron declared, Muslim groups that do not, for example, endorse women’s rights, defend freedom of expression, or promote integration would lose all government funding.

It is not just official multiculturalism that has failed in Europe, however; so has the multiculturalism endorsed by large parts of European civil society. Sweden, one of the most liberal countries in the world, but also one that has recently seen a surge in extremism, is a case in point.

Sweden has long been known for its lifestyle liberalism. Swedes are overwhelmingly secular and indifferent toward the Swedish church. Homosexuals have been able to register civil partnerships since 1995 and marry since 2009, and the country is one of the most radical in its understanding of women’s rights — as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can attest. Moreover, Sweden’s far-reaching freedom of expression is one reason why Assange located WikiLeaks’ servers in the country.

But Sweden’s freedom of expression was also one of the motives behind a grisly suicide attack in Stockholm in December of last year. According to a last testament left behind by the attacker, a Swedish citizen named Taimour Abdulwahab, Christmas shoppers in downtown Stockholm had to die in retaliation for “the Swedes’ support” for Lars Vilks, an artist who stirred outrage in the country with drawings of the prophet Muhammad as a dog. Vilks argued that his work was a provocation aimed at revealing the selective liberalism within the Swedish intellectual establishment — its multiculturalism, one could say.

The Stockholm suicide bombing was not the first act of violence linked to Vilks. Two young men were recently sentenced to prison for trying to set fire to the artist’s home. During a lecture at Uppsala University last summer, a mob attacked Vilks, a professor of art history, while crying “Allahu akbar.” The then 64-year-old artist was head-butted, but escaped serious injury thanks to heavy police protection.

What is remarkable is not just the violence and threats against Vilks — anyone who doubts the determination of Islamist extremists in Sweden should watch the YouTube clip from that lecture — but also the reaction from the otherwise radically secular Swedish establishment. A number of influential Swedish intellectuals and politicians have directed their harshest criticism against Vilks, not against those who have called for censorship and even incited violence.

Only a few of the country’s newspapers and political magazines published Vilks’ drawings. Like murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the British novelist Salman Rushdie before him, Vilks was criticized by liberals and the left for causing unrest with his art. In this respect, Vilks’ work must be regarded as having succeeded in exposing moral double standards — no matter what one thinks of the drawing itself.

In Sweden, just as in similarly liberal Holland and Denmark, rightwing populists have profited from liberals’ failure to stand up for their values. The Sweden Democrats (SD), a party with roots in the country’s white-supremacist movement, entered Parliament for the first time in September 2010, with the support of 5.7 percent of the Swedish electorate. The SD has sought to position itself as the sole defender of gays and Jews in the face of intolerance stoked by large-scale Muslim immigration in the past two decades. Swedes who stand far from the SD’s original platform are apparently willing to be represented by a party that until recently was full of neo-Nazis.

Thus, the lack of “muscular liberalism” in one of the world’s most liberal countries has paved the way for both Islamists and rightwing populists. Europe’s leading politicians have spoken out, and now it is time for European civil society — its newspapers, critics, curators, academics, and publishers — to declare the failure of multiculturalism and show some courage in defending the values they claim to embody.

Paulina Neuding is the editor in chief of Neo magazine.© 2011 Project Syndicate

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