Germany’s new Interior Minister reopens old debates on Islam, catering to the far-right

Germany’s new Interior Minister has entered his office with a bang. Speaking to Germany’s leading tabloid, Bild, Horst Seehofer from the Christian Social Union (CSU) party triumphantly announced that Islam was “not part of Germany” or “did not belong to Germany” (Der Islam gehört nicht zu Deutschland), depending on the translation chosen.1

This quote made it to Bild’s front page – together with the subtitle “Homeland Minister Seehofer – the CSU politician [speaking] on: deportation, parallel societies, integration, and the homeland”. In a neat sentence, Seehofer and Bild thus revived all run-off-the-mill stereotypes of Germany’s Muslim population as crime-prone aliens living in a parallel universe isolated from ‘normal’ people. Only forcible ‘integration’ or ‘deportation’ could avert the resulting danger to the ‘homeland’.

The chequered history of ‘Heimat

Seehofer, significantly enough, is indeed not only Germany’s Interior Minister: He had his ministerial portfolio revamped to include ‘homeland’ or Heimat affairs.

The notion of Heimat, frequently seen as untranslatable, conveys not only the cosiness and warmth of hearth and home but also the kitschy sentimentalism and stuffy conservatism of centuries of tradition. (In what was widely seen as a Freudian slip, Seehofer misspoke at his first press conference in office, announcing his pride at having created a not a Heimatministerium but a Heimatmuseum – a homeland museum.)

The CSU has already created a Heimatministerium in its home state of Bavaria, of which Seehofer had served as Minister President for 10 years up until his recent switch to Berlin’s Interior Ministry. Yet already in Bavaria, the creation of a homeland ministry had not gone without criticism.

An exclusionary undertone

For the connotations of Heimat are not uniquely benign. To be sure, a broadly apolitical vision of Heimat has proliferated at least since the Heimatfilm – immensely popular post-World War II movies providing an escape from the memories of war, destruction, and moral guilt by invoking sentimental themes of love, friendship, and rural life against the clichéd backdrop of Bavarian mountain ranges, Dirndls and cuckoo clocks.

Heimat, however, has also always had a more sinister undertone. Then it conveys not the quaint conviviality of sharing a beer in a wood-panelled countryside inn but rather the voices of drunk men shouting xenophobic slogans in a smoke-filled beer hall. It evokes, in other words, precisely the mechanisms of ethnic exclusion and nationalist fervour that led the country into the World War the Heimatfilm audiences were subsequently trying to forget.

Some are more German than others

Many are thus extremely wary of the creation of an expanded Ministry of the Interior and the Homeland at the national level. Farid Hafez, an Austrian political scientist and renowned scholar on Islamophobia, observed that the notion of Heimat “can be traced back to a concept of nationhood based on ethnicity, one that conveys the superiority of several ‘truly German groups’ over a minority.2

With Seehofer bursting onto Berlin’s political scene by announcing that ‘Islam is not part of Germany’ in the country’s largest yellow press newspaper, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there are indeed some groups that are more German than others.

‘Islam is (not) part of Germany’

Yet Seehofer is far from the first politician to defend the argument that ‘Islam’ is alien to the German nation. Ever since then-Interior Minister Schäuble asserted in 2006 that “Islam is a part of Germany and a part of Europe; it is part of our present and part of our future”, German political debates have been periodically rocked by extensive navel-gazing surrounding the position of Islam in the country’s identity.3

When the former German President Christian Wulff stated in 2010 that Islam was by now a part of Germany just like Judaism and Christianity, this was met with a fierce backlash – including from Seehofer, who insisted at the time that Germany was marked by “a Christian value tradition with Jewish roots – and not by any other [tradition]”.4

Anatomy of a debate

Most of the time, politicians have sought to make a distinction between ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’, claiming that the former did not belong to Germany while the latter did. Leading CDU politician Volker Kauder expressed this paradigmatically when he asserted that “Islam is not part of our tradition and identity in Germany and therefore is not part of Germany. Yet Muslims are full well part of Germany. They obviously enjoy full rights as citizens.”5

It is somewhat difficult to fathom how the artificial separation between ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ could be anything other than a piece of linguistic sophistry. After all, it is hard to conceive of Muslims as ‘belonging’ to Germany while their religion is cast in the role of the categorical Other. Nevertheless, in his Bild interview, Horst Seehofer sought to pull of precisely this feat, claiming that Muslims were a part of the country while their religion was not.

Opposition from top policy-makers

This time around, however, opposition to Seehofer’s statements among the country’s top policy-makers seemed stronger than in the past. Chancellor Merkel came out quickly after Seehofer’s remarks, contradicting her Interior Minister and asserting that ‘Islam belongs to Germany’ – provided that it accepts the fundamental tenets of Germany’s Basic Law.

Merkel’s and Seehofer’s coalition partners from the SPD called for an end to the theoretical debates surrounding the position of Islam and instead for more practical measures to foster the inclusion of Muslims in German society.6

Robert Habeck, chairman of the Green Party accused Seehofer of fomenting social divisions. He called on the Interior Minister to apologise to Germany’s Muslims and to formally retract his statements.7 Members of Seehofer’s own party, however, supported their chairman, categorically asserting that “Islam doesn’t belong to Germany – not matter in what form.”8

Germany’s obsession with Islam

In an ironic commentary for the Spiegel magazine, Ferda Ataman observed that the ceaseless debate on whether Islam belongs to Germany or not is, in fact, the best indicator that the Muslim faith has truly become a part of the country’s make-up.

Ataman – a journalist and activist working for greater diversity in the media business – noted that “Germans are preoccupied by Islam. Almost obsessively so. It has become part of their identity: Dissociation from Islam constitutes Germanness in the first place.”

Particularly the far-right would not be able to exist without Islam: “Had there only been refugees from Christian countries – the AfD would still be a splinter party. Seen in this light, Islam belongs to the AfD, just like the wooden leg to the pirate.” And the media circus would lose one of its most favoured topics should Germans ever cease to discuss their relationship to Islam, Ataman observed.9

Disappointment among Germany’s Muslims

Other German Muslims were less willing to develop an ironic take on Seehofer’s statements. In an open letter, 200 migrant-run organisations active in Germany’s social welfare sector complained that in the face of growing anti-Muslim hate crime Seehofer’s interview with Bild was “tactless and extremely awkward”.10

Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) bemoaned that the discussion whether ‘Islam was part of Germany (or not)’ was “obsolete”.11

Adil Zaher, who had joined Seehofer’s CSU as a rank-and-file activist “in order to show what is possible if Muslims and Christians work together” quit the party and took to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper to express his disappointment:

“Look, my children are born here. Germany is their country and it is my country. Germany is our Heimat. I live here, I served in the military, I pay taxes and I have built my business here […]. I ask myself: What purpose does Seehofer’s statement serve? And what does it mean for me?”12

Criticism from Catholic, Jewish figures

Beyond Germany’s Muslim community, Seehofer’s utterances were also met with criticism. The chairman of the Central Council of Catholics in Germany (ZdK), Thomas Sternberg, castigated Seehofer’s statements as populist and as “a slap in the face” of German Muslims and all those working for interreligious dialogue.13

Michel Friedman, journalist and formerly a high-ranking functionary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany (ZdJ) accused Seehofer of violating basic constitutional guarantees of religious freedom with his statements.

Friedman also criticised the self-serving trope of a ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage employed by Seehofer and his defenders. Not only did this serve to exclude Muslims, Friedman asserted; it also falsified history by stipulating a supposed harmony between Jews and Christians on the European continent – conveniently erasing centuries of anti-Jewish hatred culminating in the Holocaust.14

A divided public opinion

But what does the ‘average’ German think about the position of Islam in the country? Opinion surveys on this issue are fraught with difficulties. Not only do they seem vulnerable to rapid fluctuation depending on day-to-day politics; it is also somewhat unclear what the enormously abstract question ‘Does Islam belong to Germany?’ is actually supposed to measure – and what respondents mean when they say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. (A more concrete and less obfuscating question would be: ‘Should Muslims’ right to religious freedom be withdrawn?’)

In any case, TV channels RTL and n-tv responded quickly to the hullabaloo generated by Seehofer’s interview and commissioned an opinion poll. The results are split: While 47 per cent of respondents asserted that Islam was a part of Germany, 46 per cent were of the opposite opinion. This mirrors the results from previous surveys that had asked the same question. (Other  polls have come to different conclusions, however, registering higher levels of hostility towards Islam.15 )

More interesting is perhaps the detailed distribution of answers. In terms of party politics, clear majorities of supporters of the Greens and the Social Democrats thought that Islam was part of Germany, while supporters of the economically liberal FDP party and the AfD believed the opposite. 75 per cent of the 18-29 age group saw Islam as belonging to the country; conversely, majorities of elderly respondents, as well as of respondents from the former East, did not.16 Whether anyone had their opinion swayed by as much as a single inch by the renewed debate seems doubtful.

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