Until recently, political rhetoric was the giveaway of real opinions of German political actors on Germany's Muslim minority. While proclaiming openness, it sufficed to mention 'Islamic customs' when referring to a case of honour killing in a Kurdish family, or 'forced marriage' among immigrants form Anatolia, and the veil was lifted. Germans politicians too long equated Islam with what they saw as retrograde or dangerous characteristics of a whole group. Rare were those – mostly the Greens, partly Socialists – who showed no unease about the immigrants' difference.
The upcoming elections mark a shift in Germany’s policies towards German Muslims. Until the last elections, a clear cleavage existed between the conservative Christian Democrats suspicious of Muslims, and the Social-Democrats and the Greens, advocating more openness and political solutions. The Conservatives’ comeback in 2005 lead nevertheless to the most active policy German state has ever held in integration matters. The rhetoric itself has changed direction consequently.
Germany discovered its ‘immigrant’ problem in the early 90’s: de-industrialisation left many of the (often Muslim and Turkish) guest-workers unemployed, ill-schooled and on the margins. While working out the uneasy integration of East Germany into the new all-German state, 3 millions of Turkish workers appeared as a particular integration problem for German politics. They did not want to assimilate and cut themselves off from their origins. The 1990’s saw also the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ex-Yugoslavia, mostly Muslim, whom only Germany accepted in great numbers. Controversies about the legal status of immigrants and refugees became suddenly overshadowed by questions of integration. Political Islam, 9-11, van Gogh’s murder and London bombings turned difficulties of ‘ethnic’ integration into what was considered as difficulties of ‘cultural’ integration. Many politicians and large parts of German public readily confused the multifaceted religion of Islam with some kind of retrograde culture incompatible with modern values, and with terrorism. A number of regional conservative politicians from CDU/CSU made themselves known (and sometimes elected) by negative, suspicious and anti-immigrant positions, mostly concerned with head-scarf ban in schools, with opposition to mosque construction and to double citizenship, by refusing Turkey’s EU membership, accusing Muslims of unfitness for pluralism.
The first greater openings came from the Red-Green coalition at the end of 1990’s. The Socialists passed a major law in 2000 making access to citizenship easier, based not on ancestry but on birth-place. In 2005 they pushed through new immigration law, encouraging integration and declaring for the first time Germany a country of immigration. Symbolically, the Greens showed the least reticence, promoting Muslim personalities to leading party positions and openly accepting Muslims as a part of German society. Generally, Germany’s politics has shown a degree of helplessness and defensiveness about the integration “problem” of its non-Christian minority of some 4 million (45% naturalised). The Socialists, while more open to Turkish guest-workers, have nevertheless actively pursued suspicious homeland security policies and strict application of ‘progressive’ values especially in personal law.
The turn came astonishingly from the Christian Democrats, leading the Socialist-Conservative Grand coalition government after 2005 elections. The Conservatives have always insisted on the republican, Christian character of Germany and expected foreigners to assimilate into the ‘host culture’. Having a sense of tradition, they distrusted liberal belief in multiculturalism. Recent terrorist acts perpetrated by seemingly integrated immigrant youth in Europe seemed to confirm their position. Yet a series of such events, occurring around 2005 elections, moved the CDU to make questions of integration a government top priority – clearly in order to avoid similar attacks in Germany. Unlike the Socialists government before them, who acted in a top-down manner and deplored Muslim political passivity, the CDU Interior Minister Schaeuble and the head of the newly created “office for integration” saw that criticising islamophobia alone could not bridge the distance between Muslims and the state. Muslims were to define solutions themselves, in cooperation with the state, not in opposition to it. Between 2005 and 2009 a series of “German Islamic Conferences” were organised by the Interior Ministry, three of them plenary. They had a great symbolic impact, while also showing a harrowing degree of discording views, mistrust and ideological diversity among actors from both sides.
By the initiative, Wolfgang Schaeuble made officially clear: “Islam is part of Germany”. He sought to fill a serious gap: lack of the communities’ representative to the government, capable of formulating Muslim positions on questions ranging from swimming lessons for Muslim girls, German-based education for imams, to support for state policies. Among the few tangible results are a new “Coordination council,” a decision about Islamic religious education in state schools, and an in-depth sociological study. It showed that despite discrimination, Muslims do integrate and most are religious. The conference’s reverse side is a continuing absence of consensus about principles of co-existence and the unclear role of the state. One example is the difficulty about who is to define ‘Muslims’. German Muslims are diverse – ranging from secularists, conservative Muslims, Islamists to independent intellectuals, from Turkish to Bosnian speakers; and their interests are too. The Socialists, bereft of initiative, accuse Schaeuble of giving too much place to conservative Muslims, while leaders of Muslim communities criticise the strong presence of Muslims secularist intellectuals, representing no organised community.
A lot has changed, despite the ongoing awkward position of Germany’s Muslims. A process is in place that gives Muslims more agency and more demanding power. Political rhetoric follows the increased communication: it is expected that politicians express opinions on matters of their interest, from Obama’s address in Cairo to condemning heinous acts. When Prime Minister Merkel failed to immediately react to the murder of Marwa Sherbini, Muslim communities’ protests have been widely heard.
Germany’s Muslims taking a more active part made at least the federal level politics more responsive to their views. Experts fear that smaller parties and regional level politics might pick up the old populist topics: a matter to be observed in upcoming elections.