The month of October has been extraordinarily busy for me, which is why I had to take a break from my blog. I don’t want to replicate the kind of term paper assigned to school children—“Everything I did during my vacation”. But I find my topics as they come to me. Last week I posted some reflections stimulated by a conference in early October at Georgetown University about religious freedom and foreign policy. The reflections in this post were the result of a stay in Germany later in the month. I gave two lectures about religious pluralism, both in Hamburg—one at the Academy of World Religions at the University of Hamburg, the other at St. Petri, the largest Lutheran church in the city. (I didn’t ask whether any counter-position is implied against St. Pauli, the famous red-light district originally linked to the large shipping industry.) Both events were very much over-shadowed by the mass migration crisis engulfing many European countries, and Germany in particular, ever since Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the German borders to unprecedented numbers (800,000 expected by the end of the year, with no end in sight).The Academy, directed by Professor Wolfram Weisse of the Faculty of Paedagogical Sciences, has two major activities: theological and philosophical dialogue between religious communities, and empirical research about religious diversity in a number of European cities. There were interesting workshops about the effects of religious pluralism, capped by a very well-attended public meeting which showcased the “Hamburg model” of inter-religious relations, which is quite distinctive. The state government of Hamburg, which is both a city and a state of the Federal Republic, made a series of formal agreements (the Catholic term “concordats” was used) with most of the major religious communities. Those communities not yet accorded status can follow a legal process to obtain it. This gives them a number of rights, especially in the matter of the religious education of children. The right of parents to choose the religious education of their children is guaranteed by the German constitution. Generally classes are given by the respective denominations. The “Hamburg model” is unusual in that children of all denominations attend religion classes together. The different religions are taught objectively, with time for questions and discussion; specific worship and indoctrination by clergy take place outside the school. The program has been controversial, but so far all parties are willing to watch and see how it develops.The mayor of Hamburg gave a lecture on the history of church/state relations in the city, which has a proud cosmopolitan tradition as a member of the Hanseatic League, an early precursor of capitalist globalization. Then the mayor shared the platform with representatives of the religious communities that had signed a “concordat” with the state: a Protestant bishop (the only woman in the group), a Catholic bishop, a representative of the Jewish community (not wearing a skullcap, but sporting a truly patriarchal white beard), a Muslim representative and an Alevite (a group derived from Shi’a Islam, considered to be heretical by mainline Sunnis). After each had made basically laudatory statements, there followed representatives of groups not yet accorded official recognition: a Hindu in a business suit and a Buddhist monk in saffron robes, and finally (to make the embrace cosmic) a man claiming to represent secularism. The mayor told these last three to feel free to apply for the official status they wanted—the legal process was in place.There was no explicit discussion of the current migration crisis, but the whole atmosphere expressed what the media have been calling the new German “welcoming culture”. This was even more explicit at St.Petri Church, where the new pastor is a woman who studied Judaica at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The two major German churches, Protestant and Catholic, have been in the forefront of welcoming the migrants, and mobilizing resources and volunteers to offer practical help. I encountered a brief scene on the street which could be seen as a sign of hope that this mass of distressed humanity can indeed be integrated: three teen-age girls walked by, Turkish in appearance, one wearing a Muslim headscarf, two having uncovered hair. They were animatedly conversing, in German. There certainly is hope, but hope for all-embracing integration have been disappointed before. I remember an outbreak of inter-religious and inter-ethnic solidarity after several years of brutal warfare between Algerian insurgents and white French citizens in the streets of Algiers. Arabs and white colons were embracing, dancing together, and joining in singing the Marseillaise. Soon thereafter the French gave up and Algeria gained independence (one may add, with less than happy results).There is no doubt that a genuine democratic culture has emerged in Germany. It matured earlier in what used to be West Germany but it has developed, if somewhat less robustly, in the ex-Communist east. The Nazi past has indeed been overcome/bewaeltigt, not only in the official rhetoric of the government but in the consciousness of the great majority of ordinary people. It is very likely that the memory of this past has been a factor in the current “welcoming culture”. Since the Holocaust has been the most horrific crime of the Third Reich, the presence of Jews in Germany today is an important marker. There is a growing and respected Jewish community, including a sizable group of Israeli expatriates (especially in Berlin). It is easy for the descendants of German Jews to acquire citizenship and there have been many applicants (even from Israel), the attractiveness of the offer undoubtedly increased by the fact that it automatically gives the right to reside and work anywhere in the European Union. For several years now synagogues and other Jewish institutions in German cities have been given very visible police protection. The observer may have a series of reactions: First, just look at this—German armed police making sure that no harm comes to Jews! Then, the less happy thought that this protection is deemed to be necessary. But then the relative relief that anti-Semitic incidents have been overwhelmingly caused, not by native Germans, but by activists from Arab or other Muslim backgrounds. (Far-right groups in Germany, as elsewhere in Europe, have been much too busy hating Muslims to hate Jews, and some have been outright philo-Semitic. Indigenous German anti-Semitism, if anywhere, has been located on the ideological left.)Since 1945 West Germany has successfully integrated masses of migrants. Immediately after World War II there were millions of ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe. Much later and less dramatically, after the reunification with the former German Democratic Republic large numbers of people moved from its impoverished territory to the more prosperous regions in the west, enormously helped by being able to change their pretty worthless eastern marks to big fat Deutschmarks at a special exchange rate of 1:1. But both these waves of migration consisted of fellow-Germans, with whom a good measure of solidarity could be expected; the people now flooding across the border are conspicuously exotic, making the wave of sympathy all the more remarkable.Can it last? There has been much speculation in the German media about what motivated Angela Merkel to do what she did. Was the trigger the widely disseminated picture of a moved and uneasy Merkel explaining to a weeping young Palestinian girl why her family may not be granted asylum? Did Merkel’s conscience seriously kick in? After all, she is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and had recently admitted in an (uncharacteristically personal) interview that she prays before making political decisions. Her sentence upon announcing the decision to open the borders—“we will manage this!”/”wir schaffen es!”—sounds more like a confession of faith than an objective statement of fact: “Here I stand, I can do no other”.Can this policy last? Of course not. Even Germany, with all its economic capacity, cannot absorb all the masses who keep hammering at its doors. Whatever else she is, Merkel is also a politician who understand facts. She already has been forced to modify the policy—quick procedures to determine eligibility for being awarded asylum status and quick deportation (even with the help of the air force) of those not eligible. The largest group of migrants at this time are Syrians, who obviously meet the asylum criteria of persecution and immediate danger; possibly a majority of the migrants, who come as”economic refugees” from supposedly “safe” countries, are not legally eligible. At any rate, German, by its actions thus far, has accumulated enough moral capital to insist that other countries do their fair share to meet the migrant crisis.As of this writing, German public opinion is veering away from the original spontaneous welcome to the masses of migrants. There are three sectors of the public: a minority still affirming the legendary “welcome culture”; another minority vocally hostile; and a large group in the middle not firmly committed either way. I would not know how to estimate the relative sizes of the three groups. If the mass invasion continues, the second group is likely to grow, the first to shrink. Already now organized hostility is becoming louder and in places violent—arson against migrant housing, physical attacks against individual migrants and their supporters (including local politicians). Two hostile organizations already exist: the political party with the German acronym “AfD”/”Alternative for Germany”, and a more spontaneous and radical group known as “PEGIDA”/Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West”. PEGIDA began with huge demonstrations in Dresden, in the east, but its influence has spread to the west. Anti-migrant language is becoming vicious—mobs shouting that buses should take migrants directly to the gas chambers, and a demonstration spokesman deploring that “concentration camps are temporarily closed”. Such language is a direct assault on the anti-Nazi political culture of the Federal Republic since its beginning. The government, the churches, and other institutions of civil society continue to mobilize against this ideological restoration. The situation is very much in flux.Nevertheless, I would bet on the success of Merkel’s policy and the resilience of German democracy.
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German public opinion is veering away from the original spontaneous welcome to the masses of migrants. There are three sectors of the public: a minority still affirming the legendary “welcome culture”; another minority vocally hostile; and a large group in the middle not firmly committed either way.