The Sarrazin Debate Germany Is Becoming Islamophobic

Thilo Sarrazin's comments about Muslims have triggered outrage in Germany and abroad, but have met with willing listeners among the general public. His rhetoric is slowly bringing about change in Germany, transforming it from a tolerant society into one dominated by fear and Islamophobia.
Von Erich Follath
Is Germany becoming more Islamophobic?

Is Germany becoming more Islamophobic?

Foto: ddp

The Pied Piper of Hamelin knew how to fight the plague. He knew catchy, seductive tunes and was successful against the scourge with his unconventional methods. But because society paid him no tribute and refused to pay him the wages he had been promised for his service, he decided to take a radical step and lure away the children of Hamelin. In doing so, he destroyed the very community he had once set out to save.

It is unclear when and why Dr. Thilo Sarrazin , 65, the child of a doctor and a Prussian landowner's daughter, who supposedly did a decent job during his time as finance minister for the city-state of Berlin and who had unusual ideas, became a seducer. Did he see himself as a future chancellor, and was he bitterly waiting in the wings to be nominated by his Social Democratic Party (SPD)? Would he have preferred to become the CEO of Deutsche Bank instead of "merely" a member of the executive board of Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank? Does he relish the role of agent provocateur and popular guest on German talk shows? And is he truly worried about the absurd concern that Germany is "doing away with itself" -- as the title of his new book claims -- by tolerating too many foreign influences in its society?

Opinions may differ among those who seek to interpret Sarrazin's behavior.  The important thing is that he is someone who has gone from being a tough-talking, audacious politician and anarchic prankster (see quote gallery) to a racist anti-Muslim who makes up nonsense about the genetic basis of intelligence and the "German-Jewish origins of intelligence research." Those ideas have prompted him to voice his concerns over Germany's "cultural identity" and "national character," and to blame Muslim immigrants and their supposed non-culture for all the problems of integration -- ignoring the fact that both the immigrants and the host country have a responsibility.

"We," he says, referring to German society as a whole, are unavoidably becoming less intelligent because Muslims, who Sarrazin characterizes as being unwilling to integrate, alien and cognitively challenged, are producing the most children in Germany. Sarrazin magnanimously allows that there are, of course, exceptions in the Islamic world, perhaps a few intelligent Turks here and there. But his views essentially eliminate the need to even address the issue of a controlled immigration policy, of which Sarrazin himself has been such a vehement proponent in the past. Sarrazin, in one of his typical turns of phrase, said that Muslims ought to "disappear." From that point of view, integration is unimaginable, possible only through death -- which is naturally also one way to solve the problem.

Selective Statistics

The respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper called Sarrazin's book an "anti-Muslim dossier based on genetics." Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted with irritation. Stephan Kramer, the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, suggested that the author consider joining the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD).

The interior minister of the city-state of Berlin, Ehrhart Körting, a member of the SPD, expects the book to trigger legal action over hate speech. "Thilo is currently drifting away," he says. "He always had a fondness for statistics. But in the integration debate he uses only those statistics that fit in with his image of the enemy."

Christian Gaebler, who is head of the SPD in the Berlin neighborhood of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, where Sarrazin is registered, said: "Enough is enough. Should Mr. Sarrazin not go willingly, we are initiating proceedings to throw him out of the party. We will carefully analyze his book and discuss the issue at our next state executive board meeting on Sept. 6."

Sarrazin's rhetoric has even triggered outrage abroad. In France, the daily newspaper Le Monde called him a "racist provocateur." But the widespread rebuke among politicians and in the media (his fellow bankers have remained eloquently silent on the controversy) is only one side of the coin. Sarrazin's theories, in the form of excerpts from his book and quotes published in SPIEGEL, the tabloid newspaper Bild and the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, have also found willing listeners within a highly anxious population. In fact, they almost have majority appeal.

Socially Acceptable

The Turkish-German writer and sociologist Necla Kelek made a speech at the presentation of Sarrazin's book on Monday in which she defended his ideas. Kelek is a fan of Sarrazin and has won several awards in Germany, bestowed by people who -- like her -- see all the problems of the world as being caused by Islam.

The book was already at the top of the German Amazon's list of bestsellers when it was published. Every threat to eject Sarrazin from his party or his position at the Bundesbank only enhances his notoriety. But if nothing happens, he can feel all the more validated.

If Sarrazin were a lone wolf, an agitator in a desert with no supporters, he could be dismissed as a freakish phenomenon. But with his seductive flute-playing, the man now has a host of acolytes, including women of Muslim descent who ostentatiously refuse to wear a headscarf and other copycats. Shrill rhetoric is in vogue, and hysterical Islam-bashing is in full swing. Sarrazin and his fellow cynics became socially acceptable long ago.

Their efforts are having an effect, and are bringing about changes in Germany. The changes aren't sufficiently dramatic to jeopardize democracy right away, but are gradual, like a slow-acting poison. From a cosmopolitan country characterized by religious freedom, Germany is slowly becoming a state that is dominated by exaggerated fears and that exhibits the beginnings of an Islamophobic society.

Of course, these fears are not completely unfounded. Conditions in areas like Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood give rise to very real, justified concerns. There are schoolrooms where three-quarters of the students are from immigrant families, students whose German is barely good enough to get by. There are Arab and Albanian family clans that control crime syndicates and receive welfare benefits. There are phenomena like forced marriages and honor killings. In some mosques, imams are encouraging the faithful to engage in Islamist terror. All of this exists, and yet it has nothing to do with ordinary Islam and the day-to-day lives of well over 90 percent of Germany's Muslims. And yet these are precisely the kinds of things that fuel cheap attempts to create stereotypes of Muslims as the enemy.

Parallels with 19th-Century Anti-Semitism

"In no other religion is the transition to violence and terrorism so fluid," Sarrazin writes. Former FAZ correspondent and bestselling author Udo Ulfkotte, another prophet of doom, expresses similar concerns when he warns: "A tsunami of Islamization is sweeping across our continent." Dutch writer and columnist Leon de Winter, who is much celebrated in Germany and a frequent contributor to SPIEGEL, claims to have recognized "the face of the enemy" in the outlandish religion and is generally disparaging of Muslims, writing: "Since the 1960s, we have been deceiving ourselves that all cultures are equal." The journalist and writer Ralph Giordano, a moral authority in Germany, is sharply critical of new mosque construction and sweepingly characterizes Islam as a totalitarian religion.

And aren't those who tolerate totalitarianism nothing but appeasers? And haven't we seen this once before?

Potential for Violence

There is no question that there are Muslims in Germany who sympathize with Islamist ideas (which doesn't necessarily mean that they are prepared to use violence). A report by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, includes 36,270 Muslims in this group, a number that has increased slightly in recent years -- by about 9 percent since 2007. It is also undeniable that suicide bombers worldwide frequently invoke Islam -- a deplorable but not an isolated phenomenon. Every monotheistic religion, through its claim to exclusivity, contains the potential for violence.

But no one condemns Christianity as a whole when Northern Irish breakaway factions commit murder in the name of God. We don't blame all Catholics when some of them kill abortion doctors while invoking their faith. And we don't take all of Judaism to task when a Jewish terrorist named Baruch Goldstein slaughters dozens of Muslims during prayers in Hebron while invoking Yahweh.

But we do condemn Islam, whose holy book contains about as many passages glorifying violence as the Old Testament (which, unlike the Koran, does mention stoning as a punishment).

Of course, the widespread mistrust of Muslims, which has only grown in recent years, has a lot to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. It is everything but a purely German phenomenon.

'Growing Hostility' in US

In the United States, traditionally a country of immigrants, where Muslims are much better integrated into society than in Germany, the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque room near Ground Zero in New York has triggered a heated controversy. Comments by hate-mongers from Fox News and leading Republicans prompted Time magazine to conclude, in a cover story in its latest issue titled "Is America Islamophobic?" that there are signs of "growing hostility" toward Muslims. The new government in the Netherlands will be forced to tolerate the right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders, who has even proposed banning the Koran.

In Italy, Denmark and Austria, populist right-wing parties are scoring political points with their crude anti-Islamic slogans. In Switzerland, a country with a very small Muslim population, they even managed to win a referendum to ban minarets. And in France the banlieues, low-income areas on the outskirts of major cities, are in flames because the French government can offer no solution to the lack of prospects for most Muslim youth.

In Germany, which has had at least some success in integrating foreigners, the mood against Muslims is now just as hysterical. A man like Sarrazin is applauded for behaving like a toned-down version of Wilders. But why?

Popular Scapegoat

The widespread support for Sarrazin also shows that there is potential in Germany for a party to the right of the pro-business Free Democratic Party and the conservative Christian Democrats. If Sarrazin were to establish such a party after possibly leaving the SPD, he could be expected to capture at least 10 percent of the vote. Passive, unimaginative politicians, major parties with no real integration policies and, most of all, the quarreling Islamic associations, have contributed to the possibility that the seed of Islamophobia in Germany could germinate and begin to grow when fertilized by people like Sarrazin.

The concept of Muslims as the enemy is becoming more targeted, with Islam being held accountable for many social problems, like unemployment, the supposed inundation of foreigners and deficits in education. A religion has become a scapegoat -- and a focal point for intolerance and hate.

Popular Internet sites like the German blog Politically Incorrect don't even begin to take the trouble to draw the necessary distinctions. Some of the postings on the site are indicative of this tendency to paint with a very broad brush, postings like: "Islam is a voluntary mental illness," "It is pointless to grapple with this inferior culture," and "There is only one word to describe Islam: barbaric." The anonymity of the Internet enables a boundless, blind hatred to cross the last thresholds of inhibition. Worshippers of the Prophet Mohammed are variously described as "goat fuckers" or "veiled sluts." "Dirty Muslim!" and "God-damned camel driver" are among the most popular derogatory expressions among young people today.

The Prophet Mohammed has more than an image problem. According to an Emnid poll, a majority now finds him almost as distasteful as Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who authorized Jesus's crucifixion. Some 52 percent of Germans would be opposed to one of their children marrying a Muslim or would only accept it with very strong reservations, while 46 percent would be against one of their children marrying a Buddhist and 30 percent a Jew.

'Unbelievable Hatred'

Professor Wolfgang Benz, the long-standing director of the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at the Technical University of Berlin and the co-founder of the Dachau Review with which he established research into concentration camps, now sees parallels between anti-Semitic agitators and extreme "Islam critics." "Populists in the West are responding to the image of the West as the enemy, propagated by demagogues within the Islamic world, with their own image of Islam as the enemy." They use similar tools, exploiting distorted images and hysteria. "The act of equating German citizens who are Muslims with fanatical terrorists is deliberate and is framed as an appeal to popular sentiment."

Benz sees the phobia against other cultures or minorities as a defense mechanism. An image of the enemy is constructed by means of generalization and the reduction of factual information to hearsay. A classic example is the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an anti-Semitic pamphlet written in the late 19th century, which supposedly furnished evidence of a Jewish global conspiracy. Although every detail of the text was debunked as incorrect, Russian czars and, most of all, the Nazis used it to incite the people against Jews. The text is still available today in Islamic countries that agitate against Israel. "Anyone who is -- rightfully -- indignant over the narrow-mindedness of anti-Semites must also take a critical view of the portrayal of Islam as the enemy," Benz wrote in January.

Benz has now come under sharp attack for this reasoning. He is the target of verbal abuse and even threats. "I am confronted with an unbelievable hatred," says Benz, even though he has absolutely no intention of trivializing anti-Semitism. But in today's Germany, it appears that few people are interested in taking a differentiated view.

Never Seen Again

Germany is changing. And although it is not yet a consistently Islamophobic society, a Sarrazin republic, it is certainly on its way to becoming one.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin was never seen again after his disappearance. It would, with all due respect, be an appealing thought to not hear anything from Thilo Sarrazin for a long time. However, the Pied Piper did not return the children he had abducted. Only two escaped, one blind and the other deaf. Neither of them was able to help the other children -- and so all were lost.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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