Bojan Pancevski and Matthew Campbell, The Australian (Sydney), October 10, 2010
ANGRY claims that Islam is ‘dumbing down’ Germany have shocked its nation’s leaders.
The distinctly multicultural German football team that humiliated England in the World Cup was feted at home as the emblem of a dynamic young country enriched by decades of immigration.
It was beaten by Spain in the semi-final, however, and the national jubilation inspired by players of Turkish, Tunisian and Ghanaian origin is a distant memory today as Germany is caught up in a wave of anti-immigrant feeling that is sweeping across Europe.
Germany’s burdensome history was long considered to have immunised it against the populism flourishing among its neighbours: parties of the far right have never broken through the 5 per cent electoral barrier to win representation in parliament, as they have in half the European Union’s member states.
Now, though, resentments ignored by mainstream politicians are beginning to boil over as Europe’s most populous and economically powerful country engages in what by German standards is an unusually fierce debate about the role of Muslims in the country.
A recent poll showed that 55 per cent of Germans consider Muslim immigrants a burden who “have cost much more socially and financially than they have contributed economically”.
When, in an attempt to defuse public anger about immigrants, President Christian Wulff likened the challenge of integrating Germany’s 4 million Muslims to that of reunification after the fall of communism and proclaimed that Islam, like Christianity, was now part of Germany, it provoked an immediate backlash.
“Mr President, why are you sucking up to Islam?” screamed Bild, the largest-circulation tabloid, which published a poll showing that 66 per cent of the public believe Islam does not belong in Germany.
MPs in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), to which Angela Merkel, the chancellor, and Wulff also belong, seemed eager to distance themselves from him. “Multiculturalism has failed and that’s the truth,” said one MP, Maria Bohmer.
Joachim Herrmann, the conservative Bavarian interior minister, was even more blunt. “There is no reason to integrate Islam into our system of values. Germany does not want to integrate Islam, but to retain its own cultural identity,” he said.
Emotions have been stirred by reports of German Islamic militants, the children of first-generation immigrants, receiving training as terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Several Germans were reported to have been killed in the mountains of Pakistan last Monday in an attack by drone aircraft operated by the CIA.
Another feature of the debate is a book called Germany Does Away With Itself by Thilo Sarrazin, a Social Democratic party politician and former director of the Bundesbank. His provocative thesis is that fast-breeding Muslim immigrants are “dumbing down” Germany and will eventually take over. It has sold 600,000 copies in less than a month.
“I don’t want the country of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be largely Muslim,” he wrote.
“I don’t want Turkish or Arabic to be spoken in large areas, women to wear headscarves and the daily rhythm to be set by the call of the muezzin. If I want to experience that, I can take a holiday in the Orient.”
Merkel publicly criticised Sarrazin and he was forced to resign from the central bank, but an opinion poll showed that 60 per cent of the public agreed with him and 18 per cent would vote for him if he set up his own party.
He has shown no interest in the idea, but it may be only a matter of time before some charismatic figure rides the populist wave into parliament.
Rene Stadtkewitz, a Berlin MP who was expelled from the CDU because of extremist views, caused a political earthquake last month by founding Freedom, a party modelled on that of Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti- immigration politician.
“We are focused on building up this new party in Berlin,” said Stadtkewitz, who wants to ban mosques and cut welfare payments to immigrants. “But if we have success here, I certainly can’t rule out extending it nationwide.”
He is the latest politician to jump on the anti-immigrant bandwagon in Europe, where concerns about migrants have grown on fears of terrorism and the economic crisis.
Wilders, who went on trial last week for inciting racial hatred, has emerged as arguably the most powerful politician in Holland. In Austria, the far-right Freedom party sponsored an online video game called Bye Bye Mosque. Players were invited to shoot at muezzins in minarets.
Even in Scandinavia, often regarded as a beacon of tolerance, far-right parties are on the march. Norway’s anti-immigrant Progress party has become the country’s main opposition group and a far-right party in Sweden made history last month by winning seats in parliament for the first time. Mainstream politicians are being forced to take note.
In France, Nicolas Sarkozy’s rightward lurch and crackdown on immigrants over the summer, when thousands of Roma people were expelled from the country, was his way of flirting with supporters of Marine Le Pen, the popular new figurehead of the country’s far right.
Merkel angrily denied Sarkozy’s claim that she, too, was thinking of rounding up Roma travellers. The suggestion was potentially explosive in a country with Germany’s history.
Yet the German chancellor is trimming her sails, albeit minimally, to the anti-immigrant wind. Initially she supported Wulff’s speech about Islam, but as the magnitude of public anger became clear–and as newspaper editorials accused politicians of having lost touch with reality–she altered her language.
At a party conference last Wednesday, Merkel told followers that Islam “in some of its forms” was not compatible with German law.
“Forced marriages and honour killings are not part of our basic order,” she said. “Tolerance ends there.”
It went down well.
“It was so refreshing to hear clear words from the mouth of our chancellor,” a party member told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung paper.
“It was a balm for our souls.”