Policy of Avoidance How Blunt Can One Be about Integration?

Bluntness and bitterness have long been elements of integration debates in Germany. But emotion often obscures an important question: Why do many ethnic groups integrate well into German society while others do not?


It took a while, but by last Thursday the controversy had finally reached a cafe on Hobrechtstrasse in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood, a place frequented by fans of the Turkish football club FC Phönix 56 Ayyildiz. A group of men with little else to do -- because they are either retired or unemployed -- usually meets there in the afternoon. The men sit in the sparsely furnished room under a ceiling fan, drinking tea from elegantly curved glasses and discussing politics over the electronic blubber of video games coming from the back room.

Servet Kulaksiz starts the conversation on Thursday. A 50-year-old early retiree, he taps his finger against a photo of Thilo Sarrazin on the cover of the Turkish daily newspaper Sabah and launches into a tirade. "The man is right. Many foreigners don't even want to become integrated here. They collect their unemployment payments, but aside from that, they do nothing."

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Photo Gallery: Germany's Endless Integration Debate
Could it really be that Sarrazin, Berlin's former finance senator, is right, after all? The man who accuses Turks and Arabs in Berlin of being, for the most part, "neither willing to be integrated nor capable of doing so," and claims that they have "no productive function, other than in the fruit and vegetable trade?"

Nevzat Çitlak grabs the newspaper from the table as he walks by. "You yourself don't believe what you're saying," he says to Kulaksiz. Çitlak has been unemployed for six years. "There aren't even any jobs for Germans in Berlin. How am I supposed to get one?" he asks. A carpenter by trade, Çitlak has been living in Berlin since the 1980s. He barely speaks German, and he is currently attending a language course. "But it won't do me any good now," he says. "It's too late." A man sitting in the back corner shouts: "What Sarrazin says is pure racism."

'Little Girls in Headscarves'

A rift runs through the home of FC Phönix 56 Ayyildiz fans, where patrons have been arguing about the same issues that have captured the attention of the rest of Germany since Lettre International, a Berlin publication targeted at intellectuals, published the controversial interview with Sarrazin, now a member of the board of the German central bank, the Bundesbank, two weeks ago.

Should Sarrazin be allowed to say what he said about the Turks -- that they are taking control of Germany in precisely the same way the Kosovars took control of Kosovo, that is, with a higher birth rate? "I don't have to acknowledge anyone who lives off the state, rejects this state, doesn't properly attend to the education of his children and constantly produces little girls in headscarves."

Are Sarrazin's remarks truly that "unspeakable" (as the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote) and "revolting" (Frankfurter Rundschau) that the Berlin district attorney's office has to become involved? Should Sarrazin be thrown out of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), as SPD parliamentarian Eva Högl demands? Or should he at least resign from the board of the Bundesbank, as the Ver.di trade union has demanded?

Social Democrats in Berlin have become used to Sarrazin's over-the-top utterances, rolling their eyes in exasperation whenever their prominent party ally lets loose yet another of his controversial remarks. He has berated civil servants ("pale and foul-smelling"), Berliners ("Nowhere does one see so many people shuffling around in public wearing track suits"), students ("assholes") and the plans to rescue German automaker Opel ("No one needs an Opel"). His remarks, which have always sparked considerable outrage, were sometimes followed by a sheepish apology. Usually the matter was quickly forgotten.

Rude and Unfair

This time, though, Sarrazin has left behind the boundaries of good taste once and for all. His comments were more than provocative, they were offensive, excessive, rude and unfair. As a Bundesbank board member, he should have been more restrained -- indeed, on Tuesday he was disciplined by the bank for his comments. Furthermore, the veracity of his cliché-ridden claims is doubtful.

But should he have held his tongue? "The social reality cannot be wiped away with outrage and silenced with the 'please don't take that tone' approach," writes sociologist and Islam critic Necla Kelek. "The whitewash peels off more quickly than it can be reapplied."

No one is offended when TV comedian Oliver Pocher spends the better part of a Saturday evening program cracking jokes about antisocial Turks. But a politician who addresses one of the country's must pressing problems with brutal openness is still violating a taboo.

But as offensive as they may sometimes be, controversial and sharply worded statements are part of democratic debate. Why not discuss integration policy? Why not ask why second-generation immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, Korea or Vietnam have managed to integrate whereas Turks continue to have difficulties.

Germany does not have a widespread problem with foreigners, but it does have recognizable difficulties with parts of its largest immigrant group, the Turks, some of whom refuse to become integrated. Stuck in their Anatolian roots, archaically organized family groups insist on the preservation of customs and traditions that are anachronistic, and not just in ambitious, up-and-coming, cosmopolitan Berlin.

Open Participation

The insistence on speaking their native language and on male-dominated family structures, the self-righteousness with which parents dominate and often destroy the lives of their daughters, and even the relatively harmless religious custom of covering a woman's hair with the headscarf -- these are all challenges to the liberal constitutional order of German society, an order based on open participation in communication and education, religious tolerance, including within the family, and, last but not least, the right of young people to pursue their own paths and freely select their life partners.

Financial expert Sarrazin isn't the only one whose reaction is one of helplessness in response to those who would refuse to change. Other experts, who have been arguing for years over the integration of German Arabs and Turks, are divided. What should Germany do about this expanding subculture? Ignore it?

Can integration only succeed if it is mutual, as Dutch sociologist Paul Scheffer believes? Is it legitimate to force foreigners to integrate into German society? Or is such forced integration an intolerant intrusion into the freedom of others, as some politicians who support multiculturalism believe? Does it signify a lack of respect for foreign cultures?

The furious response of cosmopolitan Germans to Friedrich Merz's year 2000 insistence that others should be subordinate to the German Leitkultur -- or "dominant culture" -- continues to set the tone of the debate. And a controversial speech given by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Cologne Arena in February 2008 has hardened the fronts even further. Assimilation, Erdogan told his fellow Turks in Germany, is "a crime against humanity."


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