September, Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin's book entitled "Deutschland
schafft sich ab" (roughly: Germany
does away with itself) hit a nerve in German society. A prominent member of the
SPD and a well-known public figure, Sarrazin also criticized what he speculates
might be an inherent reluctance of Muslim immigrants to adapt to Western
standards. The most disputed aspect of his speculation rested on an interview
statement that Muslims might also have some genetic predisposition to lower
intelligence levels. The uproar that followed forced Sarrazin's resignation
from the German Central Bank (Welt).
Embarrassed by Sarrazin's controversial thoughts, the SPD is presently seeking ways to expel him, although there is considerable disagreement on the move within the party (Spiegel). No matter what one might think of the notoriously provocative Sarrazin, his book (which few people have actually read, as the first edition was sold out within hours) initiated a heated though much-needed debate on immigration and German attitudes toward their Muslim fellow citizens. Many of the latter have lived in Germany for generations, as the descendants of Turkish guest-workers who came to the country during the 1960s' boom years of Germany's post-war economic miracle.
Incidentally, Sarrazin's book was launched at roughly the same time that a Florida pastor named Terry Jones made international headlines with calls for burning Islam's holy book. Although Jones later withdrew his challenge, the proclaimed intent to deface the Koran led to popular unrest in Afghanistan. Near the Bundeswehr camp at Faisabad in northern Afghanistan, one such protest left numerous Afghans injured and one man dead (Tagesschau). That unfortunate incident underlined for Germans the fact that purely domestic buzzes such as Muslim baiting incidents in the US and Germany can lead to grave consequences abroad in today's globalized world.
Both the Koran burning affair and the Sarrazin case seem to reveal parallel developments in the United States and Germany; namely, the rise of populist forces. While Germany has yet to witness anything akin to the Tea Party movement, the debate surrounding Sarrazin's hypotheses reveal certain unresolved issues which Germans apparently have with parts of the immigrant population in their country. A survey conducted by the magazine Stern brought to light that half of all Germans consider Sarrazin's dismissal from the Central Bank unwarranted. One third regards the SPD's efforts to revoke his membership as misguided.
How a drab, elderly gentleman like Thilo Sarrazin can inspire such passions on the right and left of the political spectrum is somewhat of a mystery. His appeal to the man in the street is quite obvious. Sarrazin's words carry particular weight with the disgruntled right wing in Germany that feels that Berlin has become too politically correct to deal properly with real-life issues, such as the difficult integration of immigrants into mainstream society (Welt).
A survey conducted by Emnid pollsters moreover shows that a party headed by Thilo Sarrazin could attract nearly one fifth of the vote (18 percent). Voters from the Left Party were particularly outspoken in their support for his ideas, with 29 percent sympathetic to his views. Among conservative voters, Sarrazin's approval ratings hovered around 17 percent, which however does not differ greatly from that of the overall protest vote (Zeit). For this reason, political scientist Frank Decker reassuringly claims that Germany is nowhere near forming a right-wing populist party, despite much popular acclaim for Sarrazin's ideas (Welt).
That is good news not only for social stability in Germany and the country's large Muslim community, but also for the business sector that increasingly depends on attracting foreign talent to promote innovation in Germany. A study by the Institute for the German Economy in Cologne reveals that, in four years' time, the German economy will be short in engineers and scientists by nearly a quarter of a million. The Federal Minister of Economics and Technology, Rainer Bruederle, of the FDP advocates making the country more attractive to qualified immigrants by a variety of measures, e.g. by offering bonus money to new arrivals (Spiegel).
Whatever might come of Sarrazin's ideas in the end, they at least ignited long overdue soul-searching in Germany on the topic of immigration and the question of national identity. The problem of integrating immigrants fully into the host country's social fabric is a fundamental one - and one that will not go away simply by ignoring it. Hence the debate also needs to be seen as a sign of a vibrant and much-needed democratic process (Zeit). Whether or not one embraces the Interior Minster Thomas de Maiziere's call to recruit imams for the more active integration of the Muslim minority into German society (ZDF), the native German majority's relationship to its fellow citizens with an immigrant background is crucial to the country's future not only domestically, but also internationally, e.g. in terms of a possible full EU membership for Turkey. Given Ankara's strategic importance as a key player in the Middle East, that is a matter of no little concern for the United States as well.
Photo licence: cc by Richard Hebstreit