German President Joachim Gauck recently said in a newspaper interview that Muslims living in Germany are a part of the country, but that Islam is not.
The comments -- Gauck is the ninth prominent German politician to voice an opinion about Islam -- have sparked a new round in the on-going debate over the role of Islam and Muslim immigrants in Germany.
During a May 31 interview with the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Gauck was asked about a quote from the previous German president, Christian Wulff, who during a keynote speech to mark the 20th anniversary of German reunification in October 2010, proclaimed that "Islam belongs in Germany" because of the four million Muslims who now live there. Germany has Western Europe's second-biggest Islamic population after France, with Turks the single biggest minority.
Gauck responded by saying that Wulff had wanted to encourage Germans to open themselves up to the reality that "many Muslims live in this country," but that he, Gauck, would have worded things differently than did Wulff.
Gauck continued, "I would have simply said that the Muslims who are living here are a part of Germany," but that religion should not be the defining mark for immigrants there. "Anybody who has come here," he said, "and does not just pay their taxes, but also likes to be here, partly because there is a level of justice and freedom not available in their country of origin, they are all one of us; so long as they adhere to our basic rules."
The 72-year-old Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor, also said he could understand people who might ask, "Where has Islam made an impression on this Europe? Did it experience the Enlightenment, or even the Reformation? … I am highly anticipating the theological discourse about a European Islam."
The leader of the environmentalist Green Party, Cem Özdemir, a German of Turkish descent, told the daily newspaper Ruhr Nachrichten that he could not understand Gauck's differentiation between Islam and Muslims. "When the president states that Muslims who live here belong to Germany," Özdemir said, "then of course Islam it part of Germany too."
Alexander Dobrind, however, the general secretary of the Christian Social Union (CSU), a conservative political party based in the southern German state of Bavaria and a partner in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right ruling coalition, said, "Gauck has clearly found the right words. Germany is a country with a Christian character, a Christian history and a thoroughly Christian value system."
Dobrindt's comments directly contradicted those of fellow CSU politician Markus Söder, the finance minister of the state of Bavaria. On May 31, Söder surprised an audience of Turkish immigrants by declaring that "Islam is an integral part of Bavaria."
Söder made the comments at a Muslim cultural festival sponsored by an organization called the Turkish-Islamic Union for Islamic Affairs (DITIB), which is controlled by the Turkish government. According to Fikret Bilir, the Turkish chairman of DITIB in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, Söder was met with "great applause. We hope that he remains steadfast."
In April 2012, German parliamentary spokesman Volker Kauder, in an interview with the newspaper Passauer Neue Presse, said: "Islam is not part of our tradition and identity in Germany and it therefore does not belong to Germany."
Previously, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said that Islam is not a part of Germany. Speaking to reporters at a news conference in March 2011, Friedrich said: "To say that Islam belongs in Germany is not a fact supported by history at any point." He also said that although Muslims should be allowed live in Germany, Muslim immigrants ought to be aware of Germany's "Western Christian origins" and learn German "first and foremost."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stressed that Germany's roots are Judeo-Christian. She said: "Now we obviously have Muslims in Germany. But it is important in regard to Islam that the values represented by Islam must correspond to our constitution. What applies here is the constitution, not Sharia law."
Shortly thereafter, Merkel addressed an October 16 meeting of her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in Potsdam outside Berlin, where she conceded that Germany's efforts to build a post-war multicultural society had "failed utterly."
In a landmark speech, Merkel said: "We are a country which at the beginning of the 1960s actually brought [Muslim] guest workers to Germany. Now they live with us and we lied to ourselves for a while, saying that they will not stay and that they will have disappeared again one day. That is not the reality. This multicultural approach -- saying that we simply live side by side and are happy about each other -- this approach has failed, failed utterly."
Merkel also told the CDU annual conference in Karlsruhe that the debate about immigration "especially by those of the Muslim faith" was an opportunity for the ruling party to stand up confidently for its convictions. "We do not have too much Islam, we have too little Christianity. We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind."
Merkel continued: "Germany needs more public discussion about the values that guide us and about our Judeo-Christian tradition. We have to stress this again with confidence. Then we will also be able to bring about cohesion in our society." Merkel added: "We feel bound to the Christian image of humanity -- that is what defines us. Those who do not accept this are in the wrong place here."
In November 2010, the CDU passed a resolution stressing that Germany's cultural identity (Leitkultur) is based on the "Christian-Jewish tradition, ancient and Enlightenment philosophy and the nation's historical experience." The resolution also states: "Our country benefits from immigrants who live and work here. But Germany does not benefit from a minority that refuses to integrate, does not want to learn our language, and denies participation and advancement to their children.… We expect that those who come here respect and recognize our cultural identity."
The previous Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière, rejected calls from some center-left Social Democrats and Greens for Islam to be recognized as a state religion along with Christianity and Judaism. Speaking on Deutschlandradio Kultur, he said: "If you now ask: Will Islam be put on the same level as the Judeo-Christian understanding of religion and culture that we have, then my answer is: not for the foreseeable future."
The president of the state of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, has called for a halt to immigration from Turkey and Arab countries. In an interview with the German newsmagazine Focus, Seehofer said it was time for Germany to begin looking elsewhere for qualified workers, at a time when many parts of the labor market were facing grave shortfalls. "It is clear that immigrants from other cultural circles like Turkey, and Arab countries, have more difficulties," he said, " From that I draw the conclusion that we do not need any additional foreign workers from other cultures."
The current debate over the role of Islam in Germany was launched in August 2010 with the publication of a book entitled, "Germany Does Away With Itself."
The best-selling book shattered Germany's long-standing taboo on discussing the impact of Muslim immigration. It also resonated with vast numbers of ordinary Germans, who are becoming increasingly uneasy about the social changes that are transforming Germany, largely due to the presence of millions of non-integrated Muslims in the country.
The book, authored by 67-year-old Thilo Sarrazin, a renowned German banker who is also a long-time member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), is now on its 22nd edition. At the last count, it has sold more than two million copies, making it one of the most widely read titles published in Germany since the Second World War.
Polls show that almost half of the German population (from across the political spectrum) agree with Sarrazin's view that German immigration policies have produced a deeply divided society.