The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on October 20, 2010
Germany and its Muslims

I spent all of last week in Frankfurt at the one-hundreth anniversary of the German Society for Sociology, giving the opening lecture on Monday and participating in a seminar on Friday. A great honor to be sure, but on accepting the invitation I had not fully visualized the dubious thrill of spending an entire week with some two-thousand sociologists. I found a few other more or less interesting things to do, but I also watched television and read a lot of newspapers. Although I had known about some of this, I was amazed by the omnipresence of Islam in the German media.
There has been an enormous echo of the book about Muslim immigration by Thilo Sarrazin, which I discussed in an earlier blog entry. It has now sold over a million copies, a staggering figure in German publishing—certainly more than enough to compensate Sarrazin for any loss of income due to his forced resignation from his position at the central bank. A process is now under way to expel him from the Social Democratic Party, but he has become a pivotal political figure. The cultural and political establishment was at first unanimous in attacking him. Angela Merkel, the federal chancellor, made a derogatory comment about the book, and Christian Wulff, the newly elected federal president, obviously with the book in mind, made the lapidary statement that “Islam belongs in Germany.” The reaction in non-elite public opinion has been very different. A majority of Germans polled voiced agreement with Sarrazin, and polls also showed a sharp increase in animosity against Muslims. For example, a slim majority said that Muslims should be “constrained” in the public worship of their faith.
Not surprisingly, some politicians are now beginning to swing toward public opinion. Most dramatically, Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union (the Bavarian regional affiliate of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union), said that there should be no more immigrants from “other cultural areas”—clearly meaning no more Muslims. But perhaps the most explosive support of the Sarrazin side in the debate came from the federal minister of family affairs, one Mrs. Van der Ley (a member of Merkel’s CDU, and appropriately the mother of several children). She said, in a quite non-polemical tone, that attention should be paid to the persecution of “German children” in schools were Muslim students are now a majority, adding that this was happening more and more. [Incidentally, the language here is noteworthy. On both sides of the debate, Muslims are cited as a group distinct from “Germans”—disregarding the fact that many of the Muslims were born in Germany, certainly most of the children cited by Van der Ley, and that many of them are now German citizens. Even the most fervent opponents of anti-Muslim views accuse the latter as being guilty of Auslaenderfeindlichkeit—“hostility to foreigners”.]
Van der Ley’s comment has now been impressively supported by a film showing, precisely, the persecution of “German” (that is, non-Muslim) children in a school in Essen, where a majority of the students are of Turkish or Arab descent. I saw an extensive debate about the film on Germany’s Channel One, with the participation, among others, of Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin, and the deputy head of the CSU. Wowereit, who is openly gay, said that not only Muslims but gays and lesbians were routinely persecuted in schools, along with Jews and Roma (aka Gypsies)—there cannot be many of those in German schools today—thus greatly enlarging and defanging the debate by putting it in the context of general victimology. Significantly, one of the two producers of the film also participated—a quiet, pleasant woman, who emphasized that she was not anti-Muslim, but that here were facts that should not be ignored. A segment of the film was shown during the debate—a scene in the school yard. Muslim boys and Muslim girls gathered separately in the yard. A small group of “German” girls was huddled on the edge of the yard. On camera, though timidly, they told a story of constant harassment. They were insulted as “Nazis,” “potatoes,” “sluts.” They were threatened with violence. They maintained that the teachers were afraid to interfere.
The film in its entirety was recently shown on television (I did not see it, beyond the one segment). Its contention has also just been confirmed by the book of a juvenile court judge, who describes cases that came before her—a story of recurring aggression by Muslim youth against “infidels.” Both the film and the book have fueled the public debate. An article on October 15 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (the prestigious, moderately right-of-center newspaper) made the point that such aggression is nothing new, but that until now it has been politically incorrect to discuss it in public. It told the story of a boy who, twenty years ago in Berlin, was afraid to walk home from school for fear of being attacked by Muslim fellow-students. The difference is that majority-Muslim schools are no longer rare in urban areas and, given the demographic trajectory, are going to become less and less rare. The FAZ article took up the title of the judge’s book—The End of Patience. It suggested that the whole discussion of Islam in Germany should not proceed under the category of freedom of religion, but under the first three articles of the German constitution, which prohibit violations of human dignity, gender inequality and discrimination of the ground of ethnic origin.

There has been discussion for some time as to whether Germany has a Leitkultur to which all newcomers should conform. The term—literally, “lead culture”—is a bit vague, but it intends to say that, in some essential way, immigrants should become culturally German. America is sometimes cited as a model case (though a widely diffused anti-Americanism makes Germans and other Europeans reluctant to see America as a model for anything). Now, suddenly, the phrase “Christian-Jewish tradition” is referred to as the source of this core German culture. [There was a long wait and I read several papers at the airport. I’m not sure now, but I think it was in the weekly Die Zeit, that an article by a Jewish writer commented sarcastically that the enlistment of Judaism in the defense of German culture comes a bit late!]
Church leaders have been relatively quiet in this debate (Catholic ones have had their hands full with the endless sex scandals), but, in an interview with the news magazine Focus, a Catholic bishop has taken on President Wulff and his, so to speak, naturalization of Islam into German culture. The article is headed “There exists a Leitkultur, Mr. President.” The author is the bishop of Limburg and answers to the impressive name Franz Peter Tebartz van Elst. He insists that the values of democracy derive from a Christian view of man, though Jews are brought in again in a key rhetorical question—“What could Islam contribute to what has already been achieved by Christianity and Judaism ?”. He goes on to say that the relation of Islam to universal human rights and the rule of law remains “unclarified.” The author of another article in the aforementioned issue of the FAZ sharply criticizes the bishop. He points out that Christianity for a long time has difficulties with the values of democracy. Suddenly now, non-believing commentators are rediscovering the allegedly Christian West—the christliche Abendland, which had been a staple phrase in the anti-Communist rhetoric of the Adenauer era. What these non-believers have in mind is not at all the Christianity (let alone the Judaism) evoked by the bishop, but the core of modern secularity—the separation of church and state.
Germany has clearly been affected by an anti-Muslim wave affecting all of Europe. This phenomenon has long expressed itself in specific political parties —in Britain, France, Italy, Austria. It has now inspired parties in countries that have always been admired as bastions of tolerance —Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden—and these parties have become significant political factors. This has not happened in Germany—at least not yet. There continues to be a strong, non-antagonistic interest in Islam—the establishment of programs in Islamic studies has just been approved at the universities of Muenster and Tuebingen. At the local level there have been many initiatives to promote inter-ethnic and inter-religious amity. To be sure, there is the aforementioned gap between elite and non-elite opinion. But I think that there is a specifically German reason why no political party focused on an anti-Muslim platform has emerged in Germany—the collective memory of the Holocaust. This is waning now, as evidenced by the recurrence of anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism. [By the way, the very fact that anti-Semites have to disguise themselves as simply critics of the state of Israel shows that the collective memory still upholds some potent taboos.] But, from left to right in the German polititical spectrum, there is a strong allergy against manifestations of racism in any form or shape. I think that this has become an important component of post-World-War-II political culture in Germany. Of course this could change—just think of what might happen in the wake of a major Jihadist act of terrorism on German soil. But, as of now, it seems to me that the debate triggered above all by Sarrazin’s book is evidence of a quite robust democratic culture—a piece of good news.

  • John Barker

    When circumstances change, it is easier for people to change their ideas than to change the circumstances. I am not hopeful about avoiding a major confrontation with Islam especially when creating a fissure appears to be the goal of Jihadists and would grant political power to assorted nationalistic extremists. We will all be damaged and degraded in such an eventuality.May God have mercy on us all.

  • http://n.a. Adam Garfinkle

    This is also my impression of contemporary Germany, gained in several trips there in recent years. But I share you sense, Peter, that it all could change, all could flip, fairly quickly were some catalytic event — like a major terror attack — to occur. The German sense of self and the world is, in my view, inherently unstable, for it seeks a moral high-ground so divorced from reality (I am thinking of its factless pacifism, which, in a blind vote for Churchill or Chamberlain a la 1938 would choose the latter every time, despite what they all know about 20th century German history) as to be untenable. There is much to admire about Germany in 2010, particularly in contrast to 1910 or 1940; but I just have this feeling, deep down, that it’s not going to last very long. Early evidence: a reinterpretation of Adenauer as having been “too soft.” That’s a very bad sign.

  • senoy

    As always an interesting commentary. I have nothing to add except that I wait with bated breath to see what the next 20 to 30 years hold for Europe.

    One of the dangers of secularization to my mind has always been that it has a diminished ability to unify disperate groups. We talk about the great melting pot of American society, but the reality is that in many ways, America is still a very segregated place. Religion has in many ways provided a tool for cultural assimilation and removing that tool from the public sphere introduces a number of problems like we are seeing now in Europe. Although perhaps I’m just a grumpy old man that mourns the loss of religiosity and looking for negatives where none exist.

  • http://www.40committee.com Thomas

    Ursula van der Ley is NOT federal minister of family affairs. She is federal labour minister. Someone who knows so many about the german society and its problems should-at least- know that. By the way many germanys think about the US as a very anti-muslim country as well. Especially because of the whole debate about the ‘ground zero mosque’. I know that this is not true because I try not to have prejudices.

  • Thomas

    Ursula van der Ley is NOT federal labour minister.
    Ursula von der Leyen is.