Germany's immigration debate boils

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.

It remains to be seen whether the party will make anything more than a ripple; it will contest next year’s Berlin city-state election. But its mere existence represents a shift in Germany which, unlike its European neighbors, had not spawned a modern, populist, anti-immigration party.

There are various theories as to why the debate has flared up now after being muted for so long. Some argue that Sarrazin and Merkel have broken a taboo and allowed the expression of pent-up fears about the loss of German culture and values.

Conservatives such as those of the Christian Social Union — the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU — are openly talking about defending Germany’s Christian heritage.

“The USA is an immigration country. Germany is not an immigration country,” said the party’s general secretary, Alexander Dobrindt, earlier this month. “We have a culture that has grown over centuries.”

Many Germans seem genuinely to fear that immigrants will undermine their culture.

“Foreigners such as Englanders, U.S. citizens, Italians and Greeks for example are well-integrated and bring their culture with them, which I find good,” said Michael Schulz, 42, who was one of more than 4,000 contributors to an online forum on immigration run by news magazine Der Spiegel.

“The problem is the Turks,” Schulz said after GlobalPost contacted him for an interview. “Their ideas about the role of women, the rights of girls, the problems of forced marriages and honor killings are only among the Muslims and in Germany most of them come from Turkey."

The Lower Saxony resident hastened to add that there are plenty of Turks who are well-integrated, law-abiding citizens, but then said: “There are also simply too many Turkish people in Germany.”

This week, Merkel’s government made clear it was targeting a perceived clash of cultures with the announcement that it would criminalize forced marriages, with those responsible to face five years’ jail time.

In the district of Pankow, where former East Berlin’s first mosque was built in 2008 against protests from locals, resident Christiane, aged in her 50s, said without rancor that she was worried there were too many foreigners in Germany.

Asked whether she thought multiculturalism had failed, she shrugged. “That’s difficult to say,” she said. “We live completely separately. I don’t know if you call that failure.”

Like it or not, Germany needs to have the debate, most commentators agree. With its aging population and looming skills shortage, Germany will increasingly struggle to maintain its manufacturing-based, export-driven economy, let alone support its welfare system, without more immigration.

“We are now discussing the core issues of German society that have not been discussed before,” said author and television commentator Henryk Broder. “The genie is out of the bottle and I don’t think anyone will be able to get it back in. I actually think it’s a very healthy process.”