Germany's new interior minister, Horst Seehofer, in his first interview since being sworn in on March 14, has said that "Islam does not belong to Germany." He has also vowed to pursue hardline immigration policies, including the implementation of a "master plan" for speedier deportations.
Seehofer's remarks prompted an immediate firestorm of criticism from the self-appointed guardians of German multiculturalism, including from Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has repeatedly insisted that "Islam belongs to Germany."
The backlash will raise questions about how much Seehofer — a former minister-president of Bavaria and a vocal critic of Merkel's open-door migration policies — will be able to accomplish during his tenure.
In a March 16 interview with Bild, Germany's largest daily newspaper, Seehofer was asked if Islam belongs to Germany. He responded: "No. Islam does not belong to Germany. Germany is shaped by Christianity. This tradition includes work-free Sundays and church holidays and rituals such as Easter, Pentecost and Christmas."
Seehofer added that Muslims living in Germany are "of course" part of Germany. But that does not mean, he said, "that we therefore, out of false deference, give up our country's traditions and customs." He added: "My message is that Muslims have to live with us, not next to or against us. To achieve that, we need mutual understanding and consideration, which is only achieved by talking to one another."
Seehofer's commonsensical remarks opened yet another chapter in the decade-long debate over the phrase, "Islam belongs to Germany." The words were first uttered in September 2006 — at the time there were 3.5 million Muslims in Germany, compared to more than six million today — by then Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.
Speaking ahead of the first-ever German-Islam Conference, an institutionalized dialogue between representatives of the German government and of Muslims in Germany, Schäuble said:
"Islam is a part of Germany and a part of Europe. Islam is a part of our present and a part of our future. Muslims are welcome in Germany."
The phrase was repeated in October 2010 by Germany's then president, Christian Wulff, during a keynote speech to mark the 20th anniversary of German reunification. Wulff proclaimed that "Islam belongs to Germany" because millions of Muslims now live there:
"Christianity doubtless belongs to Germany. Judaism belongs unequivocally to Germany. This is our Judeo-Christian history. But now Islam also belongs to Germany (Der Islam gehört inzwischen auch zu Deutschland)."
Wulff then quoted the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who in his West-Eastern Divan (West–östlicher Diwan, 1819) wrote: "He who knows himself and others will understand: East and West are no longer separable."
Since then, Merkel has repeatedly stressed that "Islam belongs to Germany." During a January 2015 meeting in Berlin with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, she declared: "Former German President Christian Wulff said: 'Islam belongs to Germany.' That is true. This is also my opinion." Six months later, during Ramadan, Merkel said: "It is indisputably obvious that Islam now belongs to Germany."
The same day that Bild published Seehofer's comments, Merkel, through her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, distanced herself from the new interior minister: "Muslims belong to Germany, their religion also belongs to Germany, Islam too. We must do everything we can to ensure good relations between different religions."
By contrast, the AfD parliamentary leader in Saxony-Anhalt, André Poggenburg, said that Seehofer's statement that well integrated and loyal Muslims belonged to Germany, but that Islam does not, was a "core message" of his party. He said that Seehofer's comments "affirm how right we are."
The deputy leader of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), Beatrix von Storch, has said: "Many Muslims belong to Germany, but Islam does not belong to Germany. Islam is at base a political ideology that is not compatible with the German Constitution."
Alexander Gauland, another deputy leader of the AfD, elaborated: "Islam is not a religion like Catholicism or Protestantism. Intellectually, Islam is always linked to the overthrow of the state. Therefore, the Islamization of Germany poses a threat."
Seehofer has also promised to crack down on criminal migrants and speed up the deportation of migrants whose asylum applications have been rejected. He added: "There must be a consensus throughout Germany that we will no longer tolerate lawless zones."
On February 26, Merkel publicly admitted, for the first time, the existence of no-go zones — lawless areas in German cities where the state has effectively lost control to migrant gangs and where native Germans, including the police, increasingly fear to go. In an interview with RTL television, Merkel said:
"Naturally, the arrival of so many refugees has raised many questions regarding internal security. The state has the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force (Gewaltmonopol). The state must ensure that people feel safe whenever they are in the public realm. People have a right to security. This is our top responsibility. It means that there should not be any no-go areas — areas where no one dares to go. Such areas do exist. We must call them by name. We must do something about it."
Merkel made the comments after pledging earlier in the day that her new coalition government would adopt a "zero tolerance" policy on homeland security. "Security is not negotiable," she said at a conference of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Berlin. "Security is one of the core tasks of a strong state," she added. "Zero tolerance is our motto."
Some commentators quickly dismissed Merkel's comments as mere empty words — a belated attempt to win back angry CDU voters who have defected en masse to the AfD over her 2015 decision to allow into the country more than a million migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Other commentators noted that Merkel's comments on no-go areas reflects of the growing power and influence of the AfD, which, according to a recent INSA poll, has overtaken the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) as the second-largest party in Germany. In fact, Merkel's decision to form a coalition government with the SPD has thrust the AfD into the role of being the main opposition party in the German parliament. The AfD's presence there will almost certainly ensure that migration and security remain top public policy issues.
Arguably the greatest consequence of Merkel's admission is that it has pierced the veil of silence over no-go zones. European political and media elites have long tried to stop discussion of the negative consequences of mass migration by branding opposing voices as racist and xenophobic. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been relentlessly disparaged by Europe's self-appointed guardians of multiculturalism for his politically incorrect stance on mass migration, hailed Merkel's comments as a victory. A blog post on the Hungarian government's website stated:
"Remember that time back in the autumn of 2016 when the government of Hungary had the audacity to talk about 'no-go zones'?
"In voicing our opposition to the EU's compulsory migrant resettlement quotas and policies that would continue to encourage further immigration to Europe, we pointed to the 'no-go zones' found in certain urban areas of western Europe. Inhabited by significant numbers of immigrants, these areas suffer from notoriously high crime rates and are called 'no-go' because local police and authorities are no longer able to maintain public order and security.
"Critics dismissed it as fiction and denounced us as intolerant or worse. How dare that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán draw a link between immigration and a decline in public security....
"Today, it seems this taboo has been broken. Guess who is talking about 'no-go zones'? Chancellor Angela Merkel. In an interview with the daily news program RTL Aktuell, the German chancellor referred specifically to 'no-go zones.' And she also said this: 'Freedom can only prevail if security is guaranteed.'
"Prime Minister Orbán has been saying virtually the same thing for years now when urging Europe to make border security the first priority. If we cannot defend our borders and maintain our security, he has said, then our hard-won liberties — like the freedom of movement in the EU — will be in jeopardy.
"In addition to calling them by name, Chancellor Merkel pledged to adopt a policy of 'zero tolerance' for no-go zones to get to a place where 'there are no public spaces where no one dares to go.'
"That we're finally calling them by name signals a step in the right direction."