Germany's opposition Social Democrats are courting disgruntled Muslim voters in a desperate bid to unseat German Chancellor Angela Merkel in federal elections set for September 22.
Peer Steinbrück, the 66-year-old chancellor candidate for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), said at a campaign stop in Berlin on April 3 that he supported the idea of physical education classes in German schools being divided by gender as a courtesy to Muslims.
Responding to a question from the audience, Steinbrück said: "If schools are able to do it, then they should." After his comment was greeted with silence, Steinbrück added that the measure should be taken "out of consideration for [Muslim] religious convictions."
The reaction to Steinbrück's comments was immediate and fierce from across Germany's political spectrum, an indication that overt support for multiculturalism may actually be a political liability in this election cycle.
Barbara John, a politician with the ruling center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), said the debate over gender separation is outmoded and that "children and parents have to get used to the fact that genders here grow up together and live with the same rights."
Maria Böhmer, a member of the Bundestag [federal parliament] for the CDU who also serves as Minister of State in the German Chancellery, said: "Peer Steinbrück is wrong! School, especially physical education, is a place of social learning. Here girls and boys learn from an early age to treat each other equally. And that race, religion and skin color do not matter! Shared learning and joint physical education promote integration in our country. Schools should be encouraged to continue along this path!"
Serkan Tören, a Turkish-born member of parliament with the libertarian Free Democrats (FDP), Merkel's junior coalition partner, said "dividing boys and girls is akin to dividing society. Splitting classes by gender is also the wrong signal to send when it comes to integrating Muslims in Germany."
Memet Kilic, a Turkish-born member of parliament for the left-wing Green Party, said that current rules governing physical education classes should not be changed, that gender equality is a universal human right.
Even members of Steinbrück's own SPD -- which has long championed multiculturalism and Muslim immigration -- distanced themselves from his remarks.
Heinz Buschkowsky, the SPD mayor of the Neukölln district of Berlin, said Steinbrück's comments were "very unfortunate." He added: "Young people need modern social orientation -- in addition to or even in opposition to traditional family rites. We had schools for girls and boys schools 150 years ago. In Germany we have no segregation. It cannot be that we turn the social clock back now."
This is a far cry from just recently, when the SPD said it would like to see Islam recognized as an official religion in Germany. In an interview with the newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung in October 2010, SPD politician Dieter Wiefelspütz declared: "It would be an important signal to the four million Muslims in Germany, if the state recognizes Islam as a religious community. Islam needs a fair chance in Germany."
In November 2011, the SPD-led government of Hamburg, the second-largest city in Germany, concluded a "state treaty" [Staatsvertrag] with its Muslim communities that grants Muslims broad new rights and privileges but does little to encourage their integration into German society.
The November 13 agreement, signed by Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz and the leaders of four Muslim umbrella groups, was praised by the proponents of multiculturalism for putting the northern port city's estimated 200,000 Muslims on an equal footing with Christian residents.
The most controversial part of the accord involves a commitment by the city government to promote the teaching of Islam in the Hamburg public school system. The agreement grants the leaders of Hamburg's Muslim communities a determinative say in what will be taught by allowing them to develop the teaching curriculum for Islamic studies.
On November 30, the northern German city of Bremen followed Hamburg's lead by concluding its own state treaty with the local Muslim community. Bremen Mayor Jens Böhrnsen (SPD) said the treaty reflects "mutual recognition and respect of mutual values."
Critics, however, say the agreements, the first of their kind in Germany, will boost the growing influence of Islam in the country by encouraging the perpetuation of a Muslim parallel society.
In fact, polls indicate that ordinary Germans are increasingly concerned about the consequences of mass immigration from Muslim countries.
The recent study, "Fear of the East in the West" [Die Furcht vor dem Morgenland im Abendland], shows that more than half of the German population believes that Islam is prone to violence (64%); has a tendency toward revenge and retaliation (60%); is obsessed with proselytizing others (56%); and strives for political influence (56%).
More than 80% of Germans believe that Islam deprives women of their rights, and 70% say Islam is associated with religious fanaticism and radicalism. By contrast, only 13% of Germans associate Islam with love for neighbors, 12% with charity and 7% with openness and tolerance.
The study -- which corroborates the conclusions of other recent surveys -- concludes that the image of Islam in Germany is "devastating."
These attitudes were reinforced by a recent survey of Turkish-German mores and attitudes that found that nearly half of all Turks living in Germany say they hope there will be more Muslims than Christians in Germany in the future.
Germans appear to be reluctant to provide Muslim immigrants with more rights and special privileges in the absence of a greater commitment on the part of Muslims to integrate into German society.
Case in point: On the same day that Steinbrück made his controversial comments about Muslim-friendly gym classes, Germany's Central Council of Muslims (ZMD) demanded that the German government introduce statutory Muslim holidays throughout Germany.
In an interview with the daily newspaper Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ) on April 3, council chairman Aiman Mazyek said that granting one day during the month of Ramadan and another on the fast-breaking day of Eid al-Fitr would be "an important sign of integration" and "would emphasize tolerance in our society."
The proposal has not been well received. Wolfgang Bosbach, a member of parliament for the CDU, told WAZ that he sees "far and wide no need" for the legal recognition of Muslim holidays, adding that Germany has "no Muslim tradition." The current public holidays -- such as Christmas and Easter -- are part of a Christian-Western heritage, Bosbach said.
Guntram Schneider, a minister in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia for the SPD, told WAZ that adding more statutory holidays is "not economically affordable."
If Steinbrück insists on borrowing a page from the playbook of neighboring France, where Muslims determined the outcome of the presidential elections in May 2012, and thrust François Hollande and his Socialist Party into office, he may end up alienating more voters than he hopes to gain.
Growing public apprehension in Germany over Muslim immigration suggests that -- at least for the time being -- pandering to Muslim voters may be a rather risky proposition.