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Germany's immigration debate boils

Chancellor Angela Merkel's comments about multiculturalism spur anti-immigrant dialogue.

Germany immigration debate
A woman wearing a headscarf walks past a Turkish religious organization in the immigrant-heavy district of Kreuzberg on Sept. 21, 2010 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

BERLIN, Germany — Daud Abuel is eating lunch with his family in an Arabic restaurant in Neukoelln, a southern Berlin district dominated by Muslim families.

With its high crime and high unemployment rates, Neukoelln is often cited by immigration critics as evidence of Germany’s multiculturalism failures.

Abuel, 46, is of Palestinian descent. He came to Germany 27 years ago on a scholarship, studied medicine, and now works as a doctor. And he is appalled by the recent surge in anti-immigration rhetoric in Germany.

“I speak perfect German. My wife speaks perfect German,” Abuel said. “My children were born here. My son is only 7 but he’s already in the fourth grade. I work in a hospital and I pay tax. What more can I do?”

Abuel is happy to be quoted, but he asks GlobalPost not to use his wife or children’s names.

“As a Muslim right now, I’m worried about speaking my mind,” he said.

For decades, Germany largely ignored the question of how to integrate its immigrant communities. The bulk of the immigrants, Turkish “guest workers” who came to fill low-skilled jobs during Germany’s post-war “economic miracle” and their children, were considered guests only. They were always expected to go home when their work was done.

But most stayed, and Germany now has more than 4 million Muslims — a little over 5 percent of the population. In the summer, the long-neglected issue of their patchy integration burst onto the public stage after former central banker Thilo Sarrazin published “Germany Does Away With Itself,” a book arguing that immigration from Muslim countries was bringing about Germany’s gradual demise.

The debate came to a crescendo this month when Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech to her conservative party’s youth wing that multiculturalism, which she defined as the idea “that we are now living side by side and are happy about it,” had “utterly failed.”

Merkel tempered her remarks by saying that “Islam is now a part of Germany,” but also added that Germany was defined by Christian values and that “those who do not accept this are in the wrong place here.”

While there are undoubtedly political reasons for Merkel’s uncharacteristically strong language — she is desperate to shore up conservative support to bolster her slumping poll figures — her rhetoric, like Sarrazin’s before her, has tapped into a deep anxiety among the German public.

“In Germany, the left has always successfully slapped the ‘Nazi’ label on anyone who alluded to the problems of mass immigration,” said Karl Schmitt, the acting head of an anti-Islam group called the Pax Europa Citizens’ Movement.

Schmitt was an active member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party for 15 years until he joined the new anti-Islam “Freedom Party,” which has close ties with the firebrand Dutch anti-Islam politician, Geert Wilders.

He compares Muslim immigration to Germany with European colonization of the Americas. Citing passages of the Quran to back his case, he describes Islam as “a hostile and malignant ideology.”

“We see an occupation in this mass immigration,” he said.