German Interior Minister revives the debate on a ‘guiding culture’ to which Muslims must assimilate

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Periodically, the German discourse on immigration is marked by the resurgence of a distinctly German notion – the idea of a ‘guiding culture’ (Leitkultur), supposed to connote an essence of Germanness that needs to be safeguarded amidst what appear to be accelerating migratory flows.

Leitkultur – history of a debate

The term was first coined in 1996 by political scientist Bassam Tibi, who asserted that, in the face of Muslim immigration, Europeans needed to develop and uphold a “European guiding culture”. For Tibi, central elements included the dominance of reason over religious revelation, democracy and the separation of religion and politics, pluralism, and tolerance.

Tibi’s critique of what he saw as cultural relativism and as unlimited immigration was subsequently taken up in political circles – most notably by the CDU politician Friedrich Merz, at the time one of his party’s leading young faces. In the process, it assumed a more narrowly German meaning.1) http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/leitkultur-merz-geht-in-die-offensive-a-99435.html

Ever since, calls for an official recognition and – in one way or another – an enforcement of a ‘guiding culture’ are regularly voiced on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

De Maizière’s comments

The latest – and particularly crude – attempt to do so was recently kick-started by the German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière. In an op-ed for the Sunday edition of the country’s best-selling tabloid, Bild, de Maizière wrote that “I like the term ‘guiding culture’ and want to stick with it.” The piece was titled: “We are not burka (Wir sind nicht Burka)”.2) http://www.bild.de/bild-plus/politik/inland/thomas-de-maiziere/leitkultur-fuer-deutschland-51509022,view=conversionToLogin.bild.html

The remainder of the relatively long text includes somewhat repetitive musings on the notion of a ‘guiding culture’, followed by a platitudinous as well as random ten-point checklist supposedly summarising its core elements. Essentials of Germanness mentioned range from giving a handshake by way of greeting to Germany’s embedding in the NATO security architecture.

To paper over the cracks of the rather flimsy content of the article, Bild underlaid the entire text with the black-red-gold of the German flag, further enhancing its nationalistic overtones.

Buttressing Germanness against Muslim immigration

As the title intimates, Muslim immigration lies at the heart of de Maizière’s intervention. The first of the ten theses starts by highlighting the need to shake hands and to show one’s face in order to participate in the democratic community.

The fourth section asserts that “religion is a glue rather than a wedge in our country”. This also means upholding the Christian heritage of Germany through Christian festivals and buildings. The seventh point then takes a swipe at notions of “honour” that many immigrants may – illegitimately – connect with “violence”.

Other elements of de Maizière’s declaration stray much further afield, making a good level of “general knowledge (Allgemeinbildung)” constitutive of Germanness (thesis 2), as well as defining Germany via its capitalist ‘social market economy’ (thesis 3). Particularly tortuous manoeuvring is reserved for the issue of patriotism, which – in view of 20th-century German history – de Maizière strives hard to separate from nationalism by asserting that “we are enlightened patriots” (thesis 8).

Political praise and criticism

Reactions to de Maizière’s statements were mixed. While he drew considerable applause from the CDU party, others pointed out that his ’10 points on guiding culture’ were indicative above all of an attempt to fend off conservative challengers from within his own party.

Notably, the Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann is mooted as a replacement for de Maizière should Angela Merkel return to the chancellery after the upcoming German federal election.3) http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/leitkultur-thomas-de-maiziere-und-seine-thesen-sorgen-fuer-aufregung-a-1145587.html

Politicians from the Social Democrats, Greens, and the Left remained critical of the discourse on Leitkultur, dismissing it as a political ploy.

Talking about Muslims

As usual, however, the voices of those being ‘talked about’ in this debate were much less likely to be heard. Immigrants, and more particularly Muslim immigrants (as well as their descendants), were not party to the debate being led in the country’s main media outlets and on the political stage.

This state of affairs was criticised by Armina Omerika, Bosnian-born professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Frankfurt4)https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-12-mai-2017-100.html : she noted that the ostentatious targets of the Leitkultur debate were never reached by and included in these discussions; a fact which, since Friedrich Merz’s comments in 2000, had made all talk about a ‘guiding culture’ a rather sterile and inane exercise.

More broadly, Omerika questioned the attempt to legalise and commit to paper inherently changeable and shifting social conventions. Giving examples from the university context, Omerika noted that social life in Germany was totally different today when compared to even the recent past of only 50 years ago.

Refugees stress the need for respect

When interviewed about the Interior Minister’s ideas on Leitkultur, a group of Syrian refugees from the town of Rüsselsheim had very little to say about it.5)https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-12-mai-2017-100.html The common consensus appeared to be that it did not really matter what de Maizière said but that it was important to interact with others respectfully in everyday life and respect the ‘ways of the German people’ (whatever that might mean), even if that did not necessitate giving up all one’s own cultural particularities.

A social worker underscored the point that most new arrivals would not even be able to read de Maizière’s article due to the language barrier, making his text a purely ‘domestic’ exercise catering mainly to the established population and to political rivals.

“Germany is my country, too”

More self-consciously Muslim voices were dismayed by what they perceived to be de Maizière’s exclusivism: Malika Laabdallaoui, Moroccan-born psychologist and chairwoman of the Central Council of Muslims in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, stressed somewhat defiantly that not only church spires, handshakes, and carnival belonged to Germany, as insinuated by the Interior Minister.6)https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-12-mai-2017-100.html

“Germany is my country, too”, she asserted. “I belong here with all my values, my religion, my mindset, my engagement for society, my German as well as my Christian and my Muslim friends, with my family.” Addressing de Maizière, she added: “How can it be that you just think me away out of this society?”

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