Analysis The End of Feel-Good Multiculturalism

The searing debate over a "Leitkultur" or "leading culture" in Germany, fuelled by the conservative opposition, is an empty one. The German government long ago parted ways with multicultural idealism -- and it has taken many, perhaps surprising, steps to integrate the country's foreign and Muslim populations.

By Carsten Volkery

The state of immigrants in Germany could be summed up this week in three words uttered by a prominent member of the government. Loosely translated into 2004 English, his comment goes something like this: "Coziness is so yesterday." Indeed, the federal government is now showing a "new firmness" in its insistence that immigrants be integrated into society. And as his chief witness, he can just cite Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who talked up the issue in a controversial speech this weekend. In Germany, he warned, there can be no "cultural war" or "parallel societies," and he has demanded a greater willingness among immigrants to integrate into German society.

Both domestically and abroad, Schroeder's speech has raised quite a few eyebrows. The Italian newspaper La Republicca wrote that the chancellor had broken a "taboo of the Left." And the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung detected a change of heart in the government camp.

At the same time, the position in the German government, comprised of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, isn't exactly new. Schroeder's choice of words may have been harsher than in previous speeches, but in reality the statements are more or less commonplace. The Social Democrats' spokesman for domestic policy, Sebastian Edathy, described the recent outbreak of the discussion as "superfluous." The issue of immigration, he said, "is a non-stop debate and our position has been clear for years." Whoever comes to Germany has to observe our constitution and learn German -- otherwise they aren't going to find much in the way of tolerance, he said.

Even the leftist Green Party has renounced a naive interpretation of the term multicultural. "The word multicultural is hardly used anymore," says Katja Husen, the party's parliamentary spokeswoman for women's issues. "It sounds so playful, but integration is no game." Quotes like this are mainstream thinking amongst Green Party leaders. "We don't want multiculturalism if that means that anyone can do whatever they want," says Omid Nouripour, a member of the party's national board. And those Green politicians who do continue to use the term, like national party chairwoman Claudia Roth, generally do so to describe Germany as an immigrant nation.

But the conservative opposition Christian Democrats have been less inclined to give up their image of an old Bogeyman. The murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh several weeks ago prompted the latest wave of verbal attacks. Since the event, the parties have declared multicultural society a "failure" and have tried, by using the term Leitkultur, or leading culture, to push themselves to the forefront of the debate. They tried using the term four years ago, unsuccessfully, as then- Christian Democratic Union parliamentary group leader Friedrich Merz threw the word into the political arena. Nobody had any idea what German Leitkultur was or what it should look like. The wishy-washy plan caused more confusion than clarity and got mothballed in the end.

CDU promotes 'Leitkultur'

The Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) deputy chairman, Wolfgang Schaeuble, still considers the term to be unsuitable, but his party friends have once again run roughshod over him. Now the party wants to submit a motion in parliament demanding that all foreigners living in Germany commit to the "peaceful, democratic Leitkultur." The motion is expected to be a central issue at an upcoming CDU party conference.

But the Union isn't really going anywhere with its attacks against the "multicultural society" of the Social Democrats and Greens. By passing Germany's first immigration law earlier this year, the coalition government proved it is addressing the problem of foreign newcomers. It's a stark contrast to the government of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, which refused for ideological reasons to recognize Germany as a country of immigration. Under the new law, which goes into effect in January, provisions are made for mandatory language courses and other forms of integration aid.

Lale Akguen, a Social Democrat parliamentarian of Turkish origin, has dismissed the Leitkultur debate as "cheap populism" on the part of the opposition Union parties. And German Interior Minister Otto Schily, an influential member of the Social Democrats, has said he doesn't want to force a debate on the issue. He's dismissed the talk over a "Leitkultur" as "feeble-minded." And Franz Muentefering, who is head of the Social Democratic Party, warned that "there's a short distance between the concepts of 'foreign' and 'dangerous'," and pleaded for a de-escalation of the debate.

Government calls for more integration aid

No one in government disputes the fact that, in quite a few places, integration is still deficient. But corresponding measures are planned that will deal with them. "Language is most important," says the Greens' Nouripouri. The Greens' Husan takes it a step further saying the government should be able to fine immigrants who are unable to speak German, "but only when there are sufficient language courses available."

As the next step, Nouripour is calling for classes on Islam in German schools so that the task of educating Muslim children about their religion isn't left up to sermonizers at the mosques. The Greens are also calling for German universities to provide training for future imams and the creation of an umbrella organization that represents all Islamic groups in the country so that the government will have point of first contact. The Social Democrat Muentefereing, meanwhile, says children of foreigners should be given obligatory language testing.

The government's commissioner for integration, Marieluise Beck, told the conservative daily Die Welt that by strengthening the country's naturalization program, better integration could also be promoted. "The naturalization of the first generation of immigrants must be promoted in the legal foundations," the Green Party politician said.

At the end of the day, the Leitkultur debate could have an undesired side-effect as it did four years ago. 2000, when the term first surfaced, became a decisive year for German immigration policy. "That year, more happened than in the 15 years that preceded it," said Akguen. It was the year the country introduced the concept of jus solis -- the tenet that German citizenship is determined by the place a person is born rather than by their blood. Chancellor Schroeder created a Greencard program for foreign researchers and then-President Johannes Rau stated in a seminal speech that he wanted to be a president who represented all of the people living in Germany.

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