The World from Berlin 'A Lesson from the Right-Wing Populists' Book'

Germany's new interior minister touched off controversy within hours of taking office when he said that Islam did not historically "belong" to Germany, causing Muslim groups to react furiously. On Monday, editorialists wonder whether the comments were inspired by upcoming elections.

A department store in Berlin's Neukölln district: Islam "does not belong to Germany," according to the new interior minister.

A department store in Berlin's Neukölln district: Islam "does not belong to Germany," according to the new interior minister.

Hans-Peter Friedrich only assumed the office of German interior minister last week. But he didn't waste much time before sparking off an emotive debate.

"To say that Islam belongs in Germany is not a fact supported by history," the politician, who belongs to the conservative Bavarian party the Christian Social Union, said in his first press conference as minister. The comment was a repeat of earlier criticism he had made of an October 2010 statement by German President Christian Wulff, who famously said that "Islam also belongs to Germany."

Representatives of Germany Muslim population were outraged. Lamya Kaddor, chairwoman of the Liberal-Islamic Union in Germany, called Friedrich's remarks a "slap in the face of Muslims."

Over the weekend, Friedrich moved to limit the damage, saying that he aimed to bring "society together and not polarize it."

But most German editorial writers on Monday reject the politician's outspoken stance. Some said his remarks were a strategic move to corner a slice of the immigration-skeptic vote, ahead of a big election year in Germany.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Islam doesn't belong in Germany? The mistake lies in the word 'belongs'. Although Islam's influence over German history was slim, you cannot say that Islam is not a part of the country now, with more than 2,000 mosques in Germany. To separate Muslims from Islam, as Friedrich does, makes as much sense as to say that Germany wants to be a world champion exporter but does not accept globalization."

"But the experienced politician's selection of such harsh words at the start of his new job as minister was clearly a calculated move. He can use his new office to lure all those sympathizers of (Islam critic) Thilo Sarrazin and other citizens who are suspicious of Islam, binding them to the conservatives. As a politician from the CSU who has previously aired similar sentiments, he is more convincing than his predecessor Thomas de Maizière (a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, the CSU's sister party). In 2011, the so-called super election year (when a total of seven state elections are being held), that fact should not be underestimated."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It would benefit the debate to finally stop using phrases like that used by the president. Islam's expansion across Central Europe is a turning point which is too important to be summed up in a 'belong/doesn't belong' dichotomy. Whoever supports the integration of Muslims in Germany -- and who would dare to express support for the alternative? -- should be interested in incorporating Islam into the law governing the relationship between church and state. If a legal format can be found which is attractive to both parties, then maybe people will no longer need to pay grudging lip service (to the idea)."

The left-leaning Berlin daily Tagesspiegel writes:

"Now Hans-Peter Friedrich has said that history does not 'support' that Islam belongs to Germany. He is right. Germans would be what they are now, even without Islam. German President Christian Wulff, on the other hand, said in his speech to mark the anniversary of German reunification that 'Islam now belongs to Germany.' Wulff is also right. No one can dispute that millions of Muslims live in Germany and influence the culture of the country."

"But the two sentences do not contradict one another. Neither Friedrich nor Wulff included a value judgement in their statements, such as: 'It is good that Islam historically did not belong/now belongs to Germany.' In that way, the current heated controversy reveals itself to be a storm in a teacup."

The left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau writes:

"The new interior minister is not a right-wing extremist but he should be careful which political tools he adopts."

"He did not address his comment to a history seminar, but rather to a press conference to mark his assumption of his new office. If he does not realize which prejudice he is playing to, he would be a very poor politician. He tried to make amends for his remarks by referring to his own Turkish relations (he has a Turkish sister in-law) and the fact he regularly participates in fast-breaking meals (during Ramadan). It is as if he has taken a lesson from the right-wing populists' textbook."

-- Jess Smee


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