By Jochen Bittner
March 29, 2018
It was a warm June day in a northern German village, and I was talking to a Syrian friend outside a local shop. I had just bought some ice cream and offered to share it, but my friend refused. He was observing Ramadan: no food or drink until after sunset.
“If you had found asylum at the Arctic Circle instead of Germany,” I asked, “would you have starved by now?” It wasn’t an entirely academic question. In our village on Germany’s Baltic shore, the sun doesn’t set in summer until around 11 p.m.
My Syrian friend chuckled at the question about the Arctic Circle — where the summer sun never fully vanishes — but insisted: The law is the law; it’s what the Prophet Muhammad commands.
But wouldn’t the prophet be content if you observed, say, Damascus time? I wondered.
He chuckled again: No, this wouldn’t be what he had said.
The exchange left me with mixed feelings. I felt great respect for my friend’s willpower and the idea of Ramadan: to experience deprivation in order to stir empathy with the poor. What startled me, though, was his refusal to question religious commands and at least try to align them with reason without reducing their moral purpose.
This is an anodyne example, but it relates to a conundrum facing Germany as a country. To many non-Muslim Germans, the comparatively high significance that many Muslims attach to divine laws raises the question of to whom all the immigrants and refugees who have come to us in recent years would rather pledge allegiance and loyalty: the state that took them in, or Allah? Are the newcomers really convinced of the blessings of an open, liberal society, or are they just happy to seize its advantages?
The new German minister for the interior, Horst Seehofer, recently addressed this fear with a sentence that was meant as a reassurance to voters: “Islam does not belong to Germany.” With this Mr. Seehofer, who is also the chairman of the conservative Christian Social Union party, is rejecting an opposite claim made back in 2010 by Christian Wulff, then the president, and subsequently by Chancellor Angela Merkel. One of Mr. Seehofer’s party colleagues, Alexander Dobrindt, went even further: “Islam, no matter the form, does not belong to Germany.”
Their provocation is calculated to create a backlash against the naïveté and carelessness of those who have tried to make space for Islam as a part of German culture — a position conservatives think has been dominating public discourse for too long.
What a splendid idea: Counter leftist simplification with rightist crudeness! If there is one thing that doesn’t belong to a enlightened nation like Germany, it is a deliberate coarsening of a debate where a maximum of nuance is needed.
On the surface, of course, there’s an obvious tension between the largely secular, liberal traditions of German culture and those forms of Islam that, for example, place religious law over secular law. But that’s also a moot point: Muslims have been living here in large numbers since the 1960s, and now Germany’s six million Muslims make up roughly 6 percent of the population. The problem is that the way Germany has dealt with them is a history of mistakes.
The first mistake, the one conservatives made, was to believe that the early “guest workers” brought from Turkey in the 1960s, to make up for a labor shortage, would eventually go home again. The second mistake, the one the left made, was to embrace all foreigners, whatever their values. After Sept. 11, more or less all sides have made a third mistake, the failure to ask painful questions about how to reconcile Islam with an pluralist, secular democracy.
Apathy, illusions and false tolerance have left important issues unaddressed for half a century. That has now turned to hostility: Many Germans just don’t believe that Islam is compatible with Western values.
And yet the fact that there are many liberal observant Muslims living in Germany suggests the opposite. These are the people who speak out against false dogma, the overly literal reading of the Quran, and anti-Western teachings. The problem is their small number and the hostility they encounter from fellow Muslims here in Germany.
In a representative survey conducted by the University of Münster in 2016, 47 percent of Turkish immigrants and their descendants said that it was more important for them “to abide by religious commands than by the laws of the country I live in.” Some 32 percent said that Muslims should try to re-erect a social order like the one during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. And 50 percent said there was “only one true religion.”
These are troubling figures. While giving divine laws priority over worldly laws does not necessarily mean rejecting democracy (many Christians and Jews would subscribe to the same statement), the apparent longing of so many Muslims for an authoritarian rather than an open society is shocking. Their intolerance for those of other beliefs matches a political attitude that surprised this country one year ago: Of the roughly 700,000 Turkish Muslims in Germany who participated in the constitutional referendum in Turkey last April, 63 percent voted in favor of granting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unilateral powers.
This contempt for liberalism is a real problem, but rhetoric like Mr. Seehofer’s will only make things worse. It will compound a feeling, already widespread among Muslims, of not belonging to Germany anyway. The sentence “Islam does not belong to Germany” is a gift to radicals who hold an obsessive, binary, West versus Islam worldview.
So how do we move on? Instead of prolonging the mistakes of the past, the secular majority in Germany should make clear two things to their fellow Muslim citizens. Yes, Muslims belong here — but belonging brings with it expectations. Being a citizen means, first and foremost, upholding the values and laws that make this country so attractive. The secular majority must learn how to convey this expectation in a clear yet civil manner.
Germans struggle with this because they are uncomfortable, for historical reasons, with making such demands of religious minorities. The problem, in other words, is not just politicians who wield stupid slogans. It is also the majority of nonpopulist Germans who are shy about expressing the terms of participation in a pluralist society.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor at Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.