Muslim Integration Germany's Pseudo Culture War

A debate on the integration of Muslims is raging in Germany. But the middle ground is missing from the discussion. It's time to stop throwing verbal darts and take a realistic look at the country's Turkish minority.

By Charles Hawley

On Sunday, 20,000 Muslim Germans demonstrated for peace and against terror on the streets of Cologne.

On Sunday, 20,000 Muslim Germans demonstrated for peace and against terror on the streets of Cologne.

Germans are good at this sort of thing. Make a controversial statement, and then sit back and watch as the newspapers, television stations, radio, intelligentsia and politicians whirl themselves into semi-hysterical fits, each attempting to one-up the other. And once the debate -- and the related violence -- in Holland about the (non) integration of its Muslim population got going with the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh three weeks ago, it was clear that Germany would fall all over itself to scrutinize its own 3.2 million-strong Muslim population.

And it has. Computer keyboards across the country are smoking as editorialists pontificate on the pros and cons of multiculturalism. Over the weekend, 20,000 Muslim Germans -- mostly Turkish -- took to the streets of Cologne in an anti-terrorism demonstration. Politicians of all stripes this week are offering up platitudes, demands and warnings and a general consensus is slowly emerging that integration of Muslims in Germany just isn't working.

But this current discussion isn't just a measured exchange of opinions among politicians and between Germany's Christians and Muslims. It is heated, bordering on unhelpful, and on the verge of becoming poisoned. On top of that, a word has been reintroduced into the debate that says volumes about how far along Germany is in integrating its mostly-Turkish Muslim population: "Leitkultur," a word that made headlines five years ago and means "dominant" or "guiding" culture.

German culture "destroyed by foreigners"

The word -- sample sentence courtesy of Joerg Schoenbohm of the conservative Christian Democrats in an interview with DER SPIEGEL -- is used like this: "In the Middle Ages, ghettos were founded to marginalize the Jews. Today, some of the foreigners who live with us here in Germany have founded their own ghettos because they scorn us Germans. Those who come here have to adopt the German Leitkultur. Our history has developed over a thousand years.... We can't allow that this basis of our commonality be destroyed by foreigners."

The radical imam and "hate preacher" Metin Kaplan was deported by the German authorities in October.

The radical imam and "hate preacher" Metin Kaplan was deported by the German authorities in October.

Leaving aside, for a moment, the obvious problems in Germany of making claims to a long and glorious history and the reactionary views of Schoenbohm, the term Leitkultur does have its advantages. It very nicely, for example, highlights the problems with the current debate about the integration of Germany's Muslim minority. Namely, the word Leitkultur very quickly radicalizes the debate and simplifies it so that only the immoderate fringe ideas get air time.

The discussion in Germany currently looks like this: On the one hand, you have leading politicians -- normally measured in their statements -- turning into populists. Opposition leader -- and potential candidate for chancellor in the 2006 elections -- Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democrats announced over the weekend that the multicultural society in Germany has "dramatically failed." Her sidekick Edmund Stoiber, head of Bavaria's Christian Social Union and failed 2002 candidate for chancellor, said we have to "defend the Christian tradition of our country." Even Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder jumped into the affair over the weekend by expressing sympathy with the idea of banning headscarves for schoolteachers in German public schools.

On the other hand, German newspapers and magazines are full of stories about radical Muslim preachers -- imams -- who call European civilization the culture of infidels. A good example is the radical imam Abu Katada (now in jail) in England who said the only contact one can have with unbelievers is through "the sword and blood."

In other words, each side in the debate is taking the position that it has the superior culture. The concept of Leitkultur, it seems, isn't just a German one.

The integration project needs work

Problems with integration, of course, do exist. There are a number of radical imams in Europe -- and in Germany. Turkish "ghettos," with large populations of Turkish immigrants who have shut themselves off from Germany, don't speak German and don't share the German and European worldview, also exist. And clearly, countries like Germany, Holland and France have the right to defend their cultures against radicalism -- even, as German Minister of the Interior Otto Schilly has suggested, to the point of expelling radical imams.

But the public debate needs to be taken back from the populist and the radical voices that have so far dominated it. Do we really know, for example, that the majority of Turks in Germany are happy to live apart from their German neighbors as many would have us believe? What about Turkish-German family structures? One hears they can be abusive and restrictive, but is that really true? And then there's the headscarf debate. Isn't the presence of Turkish-German teachers in German schools, no matter what they are wearing, a sign that some integration is taking place?

After all, the demonstration in Cologne shows that not all Muslims share radical ideas. Indeed, more and more second and third generation Turkish-Germans are becoming active in German politics, the arts and in occupations from laborers and restauranteurs to lawyers and doctors.

The new severity of the government, as revealed in Schroeder's speech over the weekend, is fair. In addition to questioning the headscarf and warning against a "war of cultures," Schroeder also said that immigrants "must clearly and unambiguously commit themselves to our legal system and to our democratic rules of the game. We must demand that our readiness to integrate newcomers is reflected in a willingness to integrate among those who come to us."

But the public debate in Germany -- and in Europe -- needs to be brought back to the middle and needs to conducted on the basis of the realities that exist in Germany. Above all, the word Leitkultur needs to go.


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