Efforts by German President Christian Wulff and Chancellor Angela Merkel to calm the heated debate over Muslim immigration that has been raging in Germany for weeks appear to have been undermined by the governor of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, who made some incendiary comments about Muslim immigrants over the weekend.
"It's clear that immigrants from other cultures such as Turkey and Arabic countries have more difficulties. From that I draw the conclusion that we don't need additional immigration from other cultures," Seehofer, who is leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told Focus magazine in an interview published on Monday.
"I don't agree with demands for increased immigration from foreign cultures," Seehofer added. "We have to deal with the people who already live here. Eighty to 90 percent of them are well integrated. But we must get tougher on those who refuse to integrate."
Seehofer's comments fanned a debate that has become increasingly fractious since Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin published a book in late August claiming that Germany was in decline because of a rapidly growing underclass of poorly educated Muslims unwilling to integrate themselves into German society. Sarrazin has since resigned from the Bundesbank after the bank launched proceedings to have him dismissed for the comments. Sarrazin's remarks were widely condemned by politicians and media commentators as racist and inflammatory, but were supported by many Germans, according to a number of surveys.
The opposition Greens accused Seehofer of "incendiary far-right populism," and Merkel's integration commissioner, Maria Böhmer, said she was shocked at his comments. "One can't place people from another culture under such blanket suspicion. That alienates them and counteracts all efforts at integration," she told the mass-circulation Bild newspaper on Monday.
'Defamatory and Unacceptable'
Kenan Kolat, the head of the Turkish Community in Germany, demanded that Seehofer apologize and called his remarks "defamatory and unacceptable."
German media commentators say Seehofer may have made the comments because he wanted to boost flagging support for his CSU in Bavaria or to enhance his standing against popular Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who is seen as Seehofer's main rival in the CSU.
Whatever his reasons, the comments have fanned a debate just as Wulff and Merkel were trying to defuse it. Wulff said in his speech marking the 20th anniversary of German unification on Oct. 3 that Islam was part of Germany, and both Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the better integration of Turks in talks in Berlin on Saturday. Both had attended a football match between Germany and Turkey on Friday night, at which Erdogan had worn a scarf bearing both the German and Turkish colors, in an apparent signal to the more than 2 million people of Turkish descent living in Germany to embrace their chosen homeland and integrate themselves.
Some commentators said the match itself reinforced the impression that many Turks are living in a parallel society in Germany. The Turkish team, which lost 3-0, was cheered on by some 30,000 supporters, most of whom were Turkish immigrants or the children of immigrants who had grown up in Germany. They whistled their disapproval whenever one of Germany's best players, midfielder Mesut Özil, who is of Turkish origin as well, was on the ball. He scored one of the goals.
Writing in the Monday editions of Germany's newspapers, several media commentators say Seehofer's comments were unhelpful.
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Seehofer has told millions of people, many of them German citizens, that they don't culturally fit in with Germany. He has come up with a rival model to the picture of Germany drawn by Christian Wulff which includes Islam. Those like Wulff or Chancellor Angela Merkel, who consider Islam to be part of Germany, put themselves in a position to demand something from Muslims in return: a sense of responsibility for Germany. But those who label them as difficult guests assign them to the parallel society they are supposedly trying to remove."
"Seehofer has achieved the feat of offending a large part of the population and snubbing the chancellor who, together with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had just called for the integration of Turks. The attempt by Wulff and Merkel to take control of the integration debate has failed for the time being. They have seen what happens when Germany embarks on a debate. It's like a group hiking excursion. The slowest dictate the pace."
Left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan conducted politics with small, well-conceived gestures in Berlin over the weekend. At the Germany-Turkey football match he wore a scarf bearing the Turkish and German colors. That can be interpreted as a signal to the Turks living here that they should not just embrace their country of origin but their new homeland as well. Erdogan's message to Germans and Turks is that it is possible to live in both cultures, and that living with both cultures can be fun and can be successful."
"It was just a small gesture but, in the midst of the hysterical debate over Islam and integration, it was a call for moderation and reason. And to make sure that everyone understood his message, he added that the Turks should integrate themselves 'for the sake of their own happiness,' and he called on them to respect the values of our society. In doing so, Erdogan may have done more for the integration of Turks. One hopes he has managed to get his message through to more people who are reluctant to integrate than the populist Seehofer, who is now even calling for a stop to Muslim immigration."
Conservative Die Welt writes:
"It is regrettable if people who have grown up here feel more Turkish than German. But feelings cannot be prescribed. And a German passport does not protect the holder from the yearning for the homeland of his fathers. A country of immigration must be able to cope with such ambivalence."
"But it was astonishing how the Turkish fans spent the entire match whistling at Mesut Özil, the German player of Turkish descent who like most German Turks in the stadium was born in Germany and grew up here."
"Even though there is still a lot of prejudice, Germans have become significantly more open towards immigrants in recent decades. Receiving the same toleration from the immigrant community should be the least we could expect. So the nationalist Turkish narrow-mindedness that Özil was confronted with shows how far removed some German Turks still are from being part of a modern European society."
Mass-circulation Bild writes:
"Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer is regarded as a high-stakes gambler. But the leader of the CSU has miscalculated with his call for a halt to immigration."
"This isn't about letting NO foreigners into the country. It's about WHO comes here and to what extent they are willing to integrate themselves. Seehofer deliberately launched his new crusade for the Christian occident during the weekend when Chancellor Merkel met Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. This targeted provocation indicates that Seehofer is in hot water in his own party."