Merkel Stands Up Against Islamophobia

Sarrazin Shut Up Poster

German central banker Thilo Sarrazin has stirred international controversy with his new book Germany Does Away With Itself: How We are Risking the Future of our Nation, which contains what many believe are anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments.

CSM‘s Robert Marquand has the back story ("German banker comments raise concerns about new ‘intellectual racism’"):

The book critiques immigration policy in Germany, a hot topic around Europe, and makes genetic arguments about intelligence linked to ethnicity, suggesting that immigrants are not as gifted as Germans and that the country is losing its identity, becoming “smaller and stupider.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel weighed in yesterday saying the remarks were “utterly unacceptable” and that Mr. Sarrazin is likely to come before the Bundesbank board – though previous attempts to remove the banker from what is an independent body have failed. Last fall Sarrazin said the birthrate of Muslims threatened Germany’s future and that he wished that it was “Eastern European Jews” that were reproducing quickly since “their IQs are 15 percent higher than that of the German people."

The controversy comes amid a gradual mainstreaming of anti-Islamic feeling in Europe, including inflammatory depictions and often exaggerated projections about a continent on the verge of becoming a “Eurabia,” as the genre is often called, say analysts.

Kenin Kolat, head of the German Turkish Federation described Sarrazin as representing “the climax of a new intellectual racism that damages Germany’s reputation abroad.” Jewish leaders said Sarrazin’s views were a reprise of Nazi racial ideology, and that “Whoever tries to define Jews by their genetic makeup, even when it is superficially positive in tone, is in the grip of a race mania that Jews do not share,” according to Stephan Kramer, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.


The pending book kicked up a firestorm last week as portions of it were serialized in newspapers, with passages such as this one: "I do not want the land of my grandchildren and great grandchildren to be predominantly Muslim, where Turkish and Arabic are spoken in broad sections of the country, where women wear a headscarf and where the daily rhythm of life is determined by the call of the muezzins."

Germany’s population of 80 million comprises 3 million people of Turkish descent, 700,000 of whom are German citizens. Sarrazin says that in 90 years Germany will have only half of the native population figures it had in 1965. German federal authorities have disputed his claims, saying that second and third generations of immigrants are already showing significantly reduced birth rates as they integrate and are faced with sustaining their families in a European economy. Brookings Institution expert Justin Vaisse argues similar declines with immigrant birth rate in France, which has an estimated five million persons originating in states with a Muslim majority.

That such a prominent citizen holds these views is only mildly interesting in and of itself.  And, while a move is afoot to remove Sarrazin from the board, that’s a matter of arcane domestic politics of little interest to me, much less our readership.  But the controversy points to the larger issue of rising cultural strife in the wake of the economic meltdown.  While it’s much more acute in Europe for a variety of reasons, it’s happening in the United States as well, as the ongoing controversy over a plan to build an Islamic cultural center a few blocks from Ground Zero illustrates.

Spiegel diplomatic reporter Erich Follath asserts flatly that "Germany is Becoming Islamophobic."

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.

His colleague, Charles Hawley, disagrees, arguing ("Searching for Germany’s Right-Wing Populists") that Sarrazin’s is an isolated voice, indeed, in modern Germany.

While there have been several voices who have lent their support to Sarrazin, a political movement espousing his brand of right-wing populism is virtually non-existent in Germany. Aside from a few fringe figures from the right-wing extremist NPD party and a collective nodding of heads from the Islamophobic activists at pro-Cologne, the right side of the country’s political landscape would appear to be sparsely populated.

In contrast to virtually all of its neighbors — particularly Belgium, Holland, Denmark and France — there is no political home in Germany for people like Sarrazin.


The fleeting nature of right-wing populism in Germany is almost unique in continental Europe. Belgium has the Vlaams Belang party, the Netherlands has Geert Wilders and France’s far right has periodically found significant success at the polls under Jean-Marie Le Pen. In Switzerland, voters supported a populist movement to ban the construction of minarets. Austria’s right wing has a long history of political success under now deceased Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider and many eastern European countries, led by Hungary, have an active right wing.

Indeed, in much of Europe, Sarrazin’s views, if not necessarily part of the political mainstream, would hardly elicit more than a shrug from most given the political platforms they enjoy.

Still, the almost unanimous opprobrium German political parties have heaped on Sarrazin is misleading. Recent studies suggest that the lack of a robust, right-wing populist party in Germany is more of a political anomaly than an indication of tolerance in the country. According to a study by the University of Bielefeld published last December, fully 46 percent of Germans agree that there are "too many Muslims" in the country. Only 16.6 percent of German respondents agreed with the statement "the Muslim culture fits well into Germany," a result that was the lowest among the eight countries that were surveyed, including the Netherlands, France and Hungary.

A survey in July, conducted by the polling institution Emnid for the newsweekly Focus, found that 20 percent of Germans would consider voting for a party to the right of Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Their colleague Cathrin Schaer seems to call this into question with her round-up and translation of the German newspaper reaction ("Will Sarrazin Become a ‘Free Speech Martyr’?") which shows widespread opposition to removing Sarrazin from his post.

Some express fears about the Bundesbank’s independence, while others make the point that, whether he is racist or not, many of the details in Sarrazin’s book about insufficient integration ring true.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The chancellor and the president have both made it clear, in public, that they no longer consider executive board member Sarrazin acceptable — because he has damaged the reputation of the Bundesbank, as well as the entire country. In doing so, they have commandeered a bastion of independence and turned one book into a state scandal. There is no worse deed than besmirching the immigration and integration fairytale, which says that everything is, or will, be well."

"And because Sarrazin — borne on a wave of support from the general populace — won’t do his highly placed judges a favor and remove himself, those judges have another more problem. As a martyr for freedom of opinion and a principal witness for accusations already made by broad swaths of the populace, Sarrazin will outlast them all."

"That burning smell that some are attributing to Sarrazin has another source: It comes from more than just a touch of rebellion — a rebellion against the whitewashing and the dumbing down that is going on. If the political parties don’t soon start taking the worries and the fears that Sarrazin has brought up more seriously, then those issues will find other spokespeople. And they might not allow their big mouths to be gagged by the German president."


The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Sarrazin must go. This is not a good solution — but there was no better one available. In reality Sarrazin is only a problem of disciplinary (employment) law for the Bundesbank. He has become a political issue not because of his personality but because of the resonance (of his words). Around half of the German people agree with his theses. The lesson in this is that a charismatic, right-wing populist would also have no trouble attracting many voters in Germany, too. Sarrazin himself is not going to found any right wing populist party. He is too old for that and too much of a technocrat. But he has made it clear how much room there is for someone to stand to the right of (Merkel’s) Christian Democrats."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"As vulgar and Darwinian as Sarrazin’s theory of society is, and as scientifically unproven and argumentatively vague they may be, the details are undeniable: There is a growing level of misery in Turkish and Arab families in Germany, who require a disproportionate amount of social support, which fail educationally and refuse any attempts to integrate. Sarrazin’s crooked book deserves credit for bringing the attention of the masses to these irregularities. And for that he must reckon with physical threats from the so-called Antifa (anti-fascists) and the supposed left wing."


The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:


"Could it be that the lack of cogent dialogue, the aggressive discourse and the rush to sideline Sarrazin is an expression of something else entirely? Could it be that there is a lack of national self awareness stemming from years of indifference toward immigrants that nobody wants to discuss?"

Regardless of how the debate plays out, however, Chancellor Angela Merkel is hitting all the right notes.  In an interview today with Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, she forthrightly declared, "When [Germany’s] Turks have worries and problems, I am their chancellor, too."

"It is the paramount duty of the German state to actively incorporate immigrants into our society," Merkel said. "We would like to present all the possibilities of an open country to our immigrant citizens. These people should receive their share from social, economic and cultural life. But we also expect them to actively ask for this and show effort."

Merkel called Sarrazin’s remark that immigrants were making Germany "more stupid" a "ridiculous" claim.

"Problems should be openly expressed, but positive improvements should not be neglected," she said. "There are many examples in Germany that show successful adaptation is taking place."

"There are many Turks living in Germany," Merkel said. "Most of them are third- and fourth-generation immigrants. I think they have adapted very well. … I state this clearly: What we mean by adaptation is not forced assimilation and denying of one’s cultural roots. When Turks have worries and problems, I am their chancellor, too."

It’s an unfortunate if natural human tendency to lash out at "the other," particularly when times are hard.   But it’s the duty of political leaders to stand up against the more virulent forms of this, and Merkel is meeting it admirably.   Others, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, could learn much from her example.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo credit: Spiegel.


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