Who would refugees vote for? Recent immigrants to Germany observe the election

As Germany prepares to go to the polls, there are many inside the country who will not be able to cast a ballot on September 24th: roughly 10 million of Germany’s 82 million inhabitants do not hold German citizenship. Of these, 5.7 million residents have a non-EU nationality. (( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2017-06/auslaenderzentralregister-deutschland-auslaender-zuwanderung-gestiegen ))

No vote at the end of an immigration-centred campaign

Roughly 1.3 million men and women from outside the EU have arrived since 2014 – most of them refugees from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. Whilst they will not be able to vote themselves, they have nevertheless figured prominently in political debates running up to the election, which displayed an ample (if often ill-informed) focus on immigration, crime and terrorism, as well as Islam.

In spite of their outsized presence in the electoral campaign, refugees’ own political leanings have remained by and large unexplored. In the last days prior to the vote, some of their voices are, however, being heard.

Disillusionment with a lack of opportunities

Two years after Chancellor Merkel’s momentous decision in early September 2015 to open Germany’s borders to refugees stuck on the Western Balkans route, the initial beneficiaries of this policy are by no means uniform in their view of the election.

For some, the journey through Germany’s immigration system and bureaucracy has been a thoroughly disillusioning experience. Speaking to the Tagesspiegel newspaper, Iraqi artist Akil expressed this dissatisfaction: “We are stuck in Germany”, he said. Whilst Merkel had opened the door to people fleeing war and misery, Germany’s rigid legal framework continued to prevent him gaining a foothold and starting a new life.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/bundestagswahl-2017-wenn-fluechtlinge-waehlen-wuerden/20359154.html ))

Continued support for Chancellor Merkel …

Disenchantment might also lead refugees to remain aloof from politics altogether, since different parties are perceived to be mirror images of each other. For some, politics is also a bête noire for other reasons: having lost friends and family to the ongoing conflict in his home country, Syrian Mohammed al-Naid asserted that “politics only brings trouble”.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/bundestagswahl-2017-wenn-fluechtlinge-waehlen-wuerden/20359154.html ))

Yet for a large number of those who have come to Germany in recent years, Angela Merkel continues to be a much-respected and even revered persona. They stress the Chancellor’s willingness to take them in at a time when neighbouring states and Muslim-majority countries refused to step up in solidarity((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/bundestagswahl-2017-wenn-fluechtlinge-waehlen-wuerden/20359154.html )) – a sentiment shared among many in the Arab world.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2017-09/bundeskanzlerin-angela-merkel-araber-fluechtlingsdebatte-wahl ))

… but an uneasy relationship with the CDU

Whether this could eventually translate into a higher level of support for the CDU among Germany’s Muslims remains to be seen. Not only will it take a long time for the recently immigrated refugees to acquire German citizenship (provided that they choose to do so); refugees’ loyalty is also oriented more towards Mrs. Merkel than her party.

Over her twelve years in office as Chancellor (and 17 years as chairwoman of the CDU), Mrs. Merkel has steered her party sharply to the political centre on a number of social issues, including immigration. Whilst she is expected to win a fourth term at the Chancellery this Sunday, her tenure will not last forever, raising the spectre of a return to a more conservative profile under a potential successor.

Particularly since Mrs. Merkel’s decision to allow the arrival several hundred thousand refugees, she has faced pressures from the party base. At the CDU’s last party congress at which Mrs. Merkel announced her intention to run for another term as Chancellor, the party forced her against her will to shift to the right on immigration, burqa ban, and dual citizenship.

German Muslims’ stance on immigration

Socially conservative Muslim immigrants and their offspring have long been touted as a potential electoral reservoir for the CDU. Yet at the ballot box many German Muslims may continue to feel that the Christian Democrats (and CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, even more so), do not govern in their interests.

This does not mean, however, that German Muslims are automatically supportive of a permissive immigration policy. Among the country’s Muslim population, fears about immigration seem almost as widespread as among members of mainstream society.

To be sure, German Muslims have been active volunteers in charitable efforts to help refugees. Yet many established Muslim voters also view new immigrants as potential rivals on already tight labour and housing markets. Others fear that immigrants from war-torn Middle Eastern countries might bring social unrest or even jihadist violence to Germany.((For such opinions, see http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/umfrage-stimmen-zur-deutsch-tuerkischen-beziehung-a-1137631.html or http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2016-01/michel-abdollahi-angst-migranten-koeln ))

Stability and change in Muslims’ voting behaviour

In sum, even without the votes of refugees who could express their gratitude to Mrs. Merkel, electoral analysts expect a slight uptick of the Muslim vote benefiting the Chancellor’s Christian Democrats. A recent poll suggested that 12 per cent of German Turks now support the CDU, compared to 9 per cent in 2013.(( http://taz.de/Wahlverhalten-der-Deutschtuerken/!5449200/ ))

This comes against the backdrop of a dynamic in which the traditional bond of Germany’s Turkish Muslims with the Social Democrats appears to be weakening. The scale of Germany’s Turkish, immigrant, and Muslim communities distancing from the SPD remains to be seen, however.

Recently, a rapper, enormously popular also among young refugees for his rags-to-riches story – his family had come to Germany in the 1990s as asylum-seekers from Iraqi Kurdistan – posted a photograph of his ballot paper on a social networking site. He had ticked the SPD’s boxes.(( http://hiphop.de/node/307308#.WcUBh7JJbBU ))

Muslim MPs unanimously support gay marriage in Germany, Islamic associations split on the issue

On June 30, the German Parliament voted to legalise gay marriage – or, as it has become known in Germany, the “marriage for all” (Ehe für alle). The path to this decision had been a tumultuous one; and the vote in the Bundestag came only after a surprise move in which Chancellor Angela Merkel, a long-time opponent of gay marriage, relinquished her principled opposition.

Downfall of a bastion of conservatism

While the Chancellor still voted against the marriage equality bill, her own party – the Christian Democratic Union – was split, with 225 CDU-parliamentarians opposing the bill, and 75 supporting it. The other parties – Social Democrats, Greens, and Left – gave the bill their quasi-unanimous backing.

Thus, many in the CDU were not willing to give up what has been perceived as one of the last core conservative positions of their party. A number of CDU politicians also adduced religious reasons for the rejection of the bill, deeming the opening of the marriage relation to homosexual couples a contravention of the Christian principles the CDU is grounded upon.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/gleichstellung-bundestag-beschliesst-ehe-fuer-alle-15084396.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

Muslim MPs support “marriage for all”

Interestingly enough, none of the Muslim members of Parliament shared the qualms of the Christian conservatives. All parliamentarians of Islamic faith supported the bill. To be sure, the extent to which these men and women felt and identified as distinctly ‘Muslim’ when they made this decision is open to question. Most Muslims in Germany’s parliament are situated on the left of the political spectrum, in a milieu that is often quite secular.

The more interesting case in this respect is perhaps Cemile Giousouf, the CDU’s only Muslim MP and a strong backer of gay marriage. Giousouf has stated that her religious convictions were a “determining factor” in her decision to join the CDU:

“The CDU gives space to religious feeling. This is important for me. It is a party that represents a value-bound politics derived from the Christian conception of man. For the CDU, religion is not a marginal phenomenon. There are more commonalities than differences between Christians and Muslims. We both feel responsible to man and to our Creator for our deeds. Thus there was no question for me that my political commitment was right only in this party.”((https://www.welt.de/regionales/duesseldorf/article114268231/So-etwas-hat-es-in-der-CDU-noch-nie-gegeben.html ))

The conundrum of organised religion

Organised religion and its representatives remain split on the issue of gay marriage. On the one hand, the German Lutheran churches have for a considerable while abandoned any past opposition to the legal and religious recognition of homosexual partnerships.

On the other hand, the Catholic Church, in line with dogma from Rome, continues to oppose the “marriage for all”. Yet ahead of the vote in the Bundestag, the voice of the Catholic Church was scarcely heard and it seemed as if the Roman clergy had resigned itself a long time ago to the fact that, in spite of its dismay, the full recognition of homosexual marriage would only be a matter of time.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2017-06/gleichgeschlechtliche-ehe-katholische-kirche-ablehnung-reformation ))

Liberal-Islamic Union backs gay marriage

Islamic religious organisations did not figure as prominently in the recent public debate as their Christian counterparts. Yet they have not been completely absent, either. Already in May, 2017, the Liberal-Islamic Union (LIB), a small socially progressive Muslim umbrella body, came out in support of gay marriage.

One of the LIB’s board members, Annika Mehmeti, highlighted that in no instance does the Quran explicitly define “marriage” as limited to a man and a woman. Nor does the holy book define the begetting of children as the sine qua non condition of the marriage relation. Instead, the Quran lays its focus on the mutual commitment of the spouses and on the duties they have towards each other, or so Mehmeti argues.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article164652401/Der-Koran-erlaubt-die-Homo-Ehe.html ))

Silence of the conservative associations

The other Islamic associations, which tend to be more conservative in outlook, have been much more equivocal than the LIB. For the most part, they have simply avoided to comment on the issue of homosexual partnerships.

While some of their members will undoubtedly support gay marriage (or perhaps do not see it as such a big deal), many will also hold deep reservations. Against this backdrop, keeping silent may be a preferred option, since it allows the associations to dodge uncomfortable questions.

The mental gymnastics that the mainline conservative forces have had to undertake in this respect mirror the contortions of the Catholic Church. They are epitomised by a statement by Aiman Mazyek, media-savvy chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), in a 2016 interview:

“For my own part, and from a religious standpoint, I do not accept homosexuality. Yet at the same time I stand up against homophobia, as a Muslim.”(( http://zentralrat.de/27637.php ))

Popular Muslim attitudes

Among the German population at large, support for gay marriage had been high for a considerable number of years: in a 2013 survey, 87% of individuals unaffiliated with any religion, 78% of Protestants, 70% of Catholics, and 48% of Muslims had supported full marriage equality for homosexual couples.

Yet survey results are far from unequivocal. A 2012 study among Turks in Germany reported that 51% of respondents agreed to the statement that “homosexuality is an illness”.(( https://web.archive.org/web/20121011112234/https://d171.keyingress.de/multimedia/document/228.pdf )) Conversely, a 2015 study found that 60% of German Muslims supported gay marriage.(( https://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/de/presse-startpunkt/presse/pressemitteilungen/pressemitteilung/pid/muslime-in-deutschland-mit-staat-und-gesellschaft-eng-verbunden/ ))

Pressure from abroad

To some extent, the unease and hostility with which the LGBT community is viewed from many Islamic quarters is not only – perhaps not even primarily – rooted in (putative) homophobic sensibilities among German Muslims. Rather, religious institutions and societal pressures from abroad continue to play a large role.

This dynamic has been in evidence in the context of the fierce criticisms directed at the recently opened “gender-equal” mosque in Berlin by Turkish and Egyptian authorities. In cases such as these, it is voices from Middle Eastern countries that make an opening towards ‘divergent’ paths more difficult to achieve for Islamic associations operating in Germany.

Resistance to Muslim-LGBT dialogue

This lesson was also learned in 2014 by Ender Çetin, chairman of the DİTİB-run Şehitlik mosque in Berlin at the time. He agreed to convene a discussion round between Muslim and LGBT representatives at his mosque. The resulting backlash came first of all from DİTİB’s Turkish parent organisation and from Turkish media: Turkish newspapers accused Çetin of opening the mosque to “abnormal” homosexuals.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/diskussion-in-berlin-homosexualitaet-und-islam-unvereinbar-1.2237310 ))

As a response, the meeting did not take place at the mosque, and a number of DİTİB’s theologians and clerics that had initially agreed to participate in the forum withdrew.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/diskussion-in-berlin-homosexualitaet-und-islam-unvereinbar-1.2237310 )) Since then, the purges of Turkish state organisations in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt have not stopped short of DİTİB, and the liberal-leaning governing board of the Şehitlik mosque has been at least partly removed.

German Interior Minister revives the debate on a ‘guiding culture’ to which Muslims must assimilate

 

Periodically, the German discourse on immigration is marked by the resurgence of a distinctly German notion – the idea of a ‘guiding culture’ (Leitkultur), supposed to connote an essence of Germanness that needs to be safeguarded amidst what appear to be accelerating migratory flows.

Leitkultur – history of a debate

The term was first coined in 1996 by political scientist Bassam Tibi, who asserted that, in the face of Muslim immigration, Europeans needed to develop and uphold a “European guiding culture”. For Tibi, central elements included the dominance of reason over religious revelation, democracy and the separation of religion and politics, pluralism, and tolerance.

Tibi’s critique of what he saw as cultural relativism and as unlimited immigration was subsequently taken up in political circles – most notably by the CDU politician Friedrich Merz, at the time one of his party’s leading young faces. In the process, it assumed a more narrowly German meaning.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/leitkultur-merz-geht-in-die-offensive-a-99435.html ))

Ever since, calls for an official recognition and – in one way or another – an enforcement of a ‘guiding culture’ are regularly voiced on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

De Maizière’s comments

The latest – and particularly crude – attempt to do so was recently kick-started by the German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière. In an op-ed for the Sunday edition of the country’s best-selling tabloid, Bild, de Maizière wrote that “I like the term ‘guiding culture’ and want to stick with it.” The piece was titled: “We are not burka (Wir sind nicht Burka)”.(( http://www.bild.de/bild-plus/politik/inland/thomas-de-maiziere/leitkultur-fuer-deutschland-51509022,view=conversionToLogin.bild.html ))

The remainder of the relatively long text includes somewhat repetitive musings on the notion of a ‘guiding culture’, followed by a platitudinous as well as random ten-point checklist supposedly summarising its core elements. Essentials of Germanness mentioned range from giving a handshake by way of greeting to Germany’s embedding in the NATO security architecture.

To paper over the cracks of the rather flimsy content of the article, Bild underlaid the entire text with the black-red-gold of the German flag, further enhancing its nationalistic overtones.

Buttressing Germanness against Muslim immigration

As the title intimates, Muslim immigration lies at the heart of de Maizière’s intervention. The first of the ten theses starts by highlighting the need to shake hands and to show one’s face in order to participate in the democratic community.

The fourth section asserts that “religion is a glue rather than a wedge in our country”. This also means upholding the Christian heritage of Germany through Christian festivals and buildings. The seventh point then takes a swipe at notions of “honour” that many immigrants may – illegitimately – connect with “violence”.

Other elements of de Maizière’s declaration stray much further afield, making a good level of “general knowledge (Allgemeinbildung)” constitutive of Germanness (thesis 2), as well as defining Germany via its capitalist ‘social market economy’ (thesis 3). Particularly tortuous manoeuvring is reserved for the issue of patriotism, which – in view of 20th-century German history – de Maizière strives hard to separate from nationalism by asserting that “we are enlightened patriots” (thesis 8).

Political praise and criticism

Reactions to de Maizière’s statements were mixed. While he drew considerable applause from the CDU party, others pointed out that his ’10 points on guiding culture’ were indicative above all of an attempt to fend off conservative challengers from within his own party.

Notably, the Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann is mooted as a replacement for de Maizière should Angela Merkel return to the chancellery after the upcoming German federal election.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/leitkultur-thomas-de-maiziere-und-seine-thesen-sorgen-fuer-aufregung-a-1145587.html ))

Politicians from the Social Democrats, Greens, and the Left remained critical of the discourse on Leitkultur, dismissing it as a political ploy.

Talking about Muslims

As usual, however, the voices of those being ‘talked about’ in this debate were much less likely to be heard. Immigrants, and more particularly Muslim immigrants (as well as their descendants), were not party to the debate being led in the country’s main media outlets and on the political stage.

This state of affairs was criticised by Armina Omerika, Bosnian-born professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Frankfurt((https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-12-mai-2017-100.html )): she noted that the ostentatious targets of the Leitkultur debate were never reached by and included in these discussions; a fact which, since Friedrich Merz’s comments in 2000, had made all talk about a ‘guiding culture’ a rather sterile and inane exercise.

More broadly, Omerika questioned the attempt to legalise and commit to paper inherently changeable and shifting social conventions. Giving examples from the university context, Omerika noted that social life in Germany was totally different today when compared to even the recent past of only 50 years ago.

Refugees stress the need for respect

When interviewed about the Interior Minister’s ideas on Leitkultur, a group of Syrian refugees from the town of Rüsselsheim had very little to say about it.((https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-12-mai-2017-100.html )) The common consensus appeared to be that it did not really matter what de Maizière said but that it was important to interact with others respectfully in everyday life and respect the ‘ways of the German people’ (whatever that might mean), even if that did not necessitate giving up all one’s own cultural particularities.

A social worker underscored the point that most new arrivals would not even be able to read de Maizière’s article due to the language barrier, making his text a purely ‘domestic’ exercise catering mainly to the established population and to political rivals.

“Germany is my country, too”

More self-consciously Muslim voices were dismayed by what they perceived to be de Maizière’s exclusivism: Malika Laabdallaoui, Moroccan-born psychologist and chairwoman of the Central Council of Muslims in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, stressed somewhat defiantly that not only church spires, handshakes, and carnival belonged to Germany, as insinuated by the Interior Minister.((https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-12-mai-2017-100.html ))

“Germany is my country, too”, she asserted. “I belong here with all my values, my religion, my mindset, my engagement for society, my German as well as my Christian and my Muslim friends, with my family.” Addressing de Maizière, she added: “How can it be that you just think me away out of this society?”

Defining the meaning of conservatism: German Muslims seek to organise in the CDU

Recently, German authorities commissioned an estimate of the country’s Muslim population. Unsurprisingly, the number of both Muslim residents and citizens has been growing over the past few years. The question of ‘integration’ has thus unsurprisingly remained a staple in public discussions.

Yet these debates have been led above all in culturalistic terms, focusing for instance on whether immigrants from Muslim backgrounds have to to accept a German ‘leading culture’ (Leitkultur). Little thought was given to immigrants’ integration into the country’s political life and its party system.

The voting behaviour of immigrants and their descendants

A recent study noted that “visible minorities” tend to vote left in Germany. Indeed, among the Turkish-German population, nearly 70 per cent of respondents expressed support for the Social Democratic Party (SPD).(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/migranten-und-politik-diese-parteien-waehlen-einwanderer/14851994.html ))

At the same time, these tendencies no longer appear to be set in stone. The scandal surrounding the racial theses of Thilo Sarrazin, an SPD member, apparently caused some German Turks to turn away from the Social Democrats while the CDU gradually seemed to open itself to immigrant voters.(( http://www.taz.de/!5061177/ ))

Moreover, the socioeconomic position of immigrants and their descendants has evolved: they have been credited with creating millions of jobs in diverse sectors of the economy.(( http://www.dw.com/en/study-migrant-entrepreneurs-provide-millions-of-jobs-in-germany/a-19465413 )) The Economist noted that recent – predominantly Muslim – immigrants were “bringing entrepreneurial flair to Germany”.(( http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21716053-while-native-germans-are-growing-less-eager-start-businesses-new-arrivals-are-ever-more )) The traditional pro-SPD vote of the Muslim guest worker toiling in one of the country’s factories can no longer be taken for granted.

Representing the ‘conservative majority’

Seeking to capitalise on this trend of an increasingly unmoored Muslim electorate, around 30 young Muslim members of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, have joined forces to build a platform for the CDU’s Muslim partisans. Their project is dubbed “Members in the [Christian Democratcic] Union”, shortened to MidU.

According to its founding statement, MidU conceives of itself as the representative of the “conservative” majority of German Muslims, whose views are not taken into account by any other existing political platform. It vows to enrich the political debate by bringing to bear the distinctive viewpoint of these men and women on current issues.(( http://www.muslimeinderunion.de/ ))

‘A positive counter-public’

MidU founder and spokesman Cihan Sügür described this initiative as an attempt to create “a positive counter-public” that is no longer completely dominated by emotional debates surrounding ‘hot’ topics of cultural integration or jihadist radicalisation.(( http://www.rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/interview-muslime-in-der-union-aid-1.6061461 ))

Admittedly, though, it has most often been the CDU itself (with the exception of the far-right AfD party) that has engaged most stubbornly in these debates. Only in December 2016, the CDU party conference shifted to the right on a whole range of issues touching Muslims and immigrants. They include a project particularly dear to Sügür and MidU, namely dual citizenship.

Another policy area where MidU appears far removed from the conservative mainstream is the admissibility of the hijab in public functions. While Sügür defended the right of a Muslim woman to war the headscarf when working e.g. in court of justice as a self-evident right,(( http://www.rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/interview-muslime-in-der-union-aid-1.6061461 )) to the delight of many conservatives, the reality in Germany is still considerably more complex than that.

A potential gain for the CDU

Nevertheless, the Muslim vote does hold out considerable promise for the CDU: with now more than four million men, women, and children of Islamic faith living in the country, Sügür points out that they can be a decisive factor at the ballot box.(( http://www.rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/interview-muslime-in-der-union-aid-1.6061461. It is worth noting, however, that of course by 2008 only 1.8 million Muslims held Germany citizenship, thus reducing the pool of those eligible to vote.))

Conversely, many of Germany’s Muslims could indeed be attracted to a more ‘conservative’ stance on a range of questions related to social morality. Some even joined the rising Alternative for Germany from 2012 onwards, thinking that the party would stand up for traditional family values.(( http://www.rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/migranten-in-der-afd-abgestempelt-als-tuerkischer-nazi-aid-1.4607002 ))

Against this backdrop, the CDU’s Secretary General, Peter Tauber – widely seen as a core figure behind his party’s attempts to attract a younger and more female membership – welcomed the formation of MidU by sending a note of greeting to the club’s first gathering.

MidU and the large Muslim associations

Yet as soon as MidU stepped into the open with this first meeting, political headwinds started to build up. Notably, MidU received critical scrutiny for its supposed closeness to the four large German Muslim associations (the predominantly Turkish DİTİB, IGMG, and VIKZ associations, as well as the more mixed ZMD).

To some observers, the self-consciously conservative MidU appeared as an initiative to consolidate the – somewhat tenuous – grip of these four conservative Islamic associations on the political representation of Muslims. And for many of Sügür’s fellow CDU members, the conservatism of these four associations is deeply unappealing. (( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/muslime-in-der-union-polarisieren-14873404.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

The implicit supposition that the four associations would work together and use MidU as a shared platform to influence the CDU and government policy is somewhat far-fetched: the different Islamic associations are notoriously disunited and have never managed to overcome these differences even when there were considerable political incentives in favour of doing so.

The role of DİTİB

Yet even the suspicion of being too close to these associations risks hampering MidU’s acceptability among the conservative mainstream. Especially DİTİB, for a long time the state’s preferred cooperation partner, has fallen out of favour with the authorities over recent months and years.

It has become a pastime among CDU politicians to criticise DİTİB clerics, sent by Ankara. Slightly derogatorily referred to as “imported Imams” (Importimame), they are blamed for inhibiting the integration of German Muslims. By contrast, MidU spokesman Sügür offered a defence of the workings of this system.(( http://www.rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/interview-muslime-in-der-union-aid-1.6061461 )) The fact that a (small) number of DİTİB’s Imams is now accused of spying on suspected Gülenists in Germany will not help Sügür’s position.

MidU, Erdoğan, and the political fault-lines among ‘conservative’ Muslims

The larger issue looming behind the present debate on DİTİB and its trustworthiness is its relationship with the Turkish state led by President Erdoğan, bête noire of many CDU politicians. Some of them promptly accused the MidU founder of seeking to organise the infiltration of the CDU by Erdoğan supporters.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/muslime-in-der-cdu-uns-verbindet-nicht-erdogan-sondern-der-islam/14012648.html ))

Sügür was quick to deny this. Yet MidU’s critics saw their suspicions as confirmed by the exclusion of all those from the MidU platform who had supported the government’s resolution classifying the massacres of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. This included the perhaps most high-profile Muslim member of the CDU, Cemile Giousouf.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/muslime-in-der-union-polarisieren-14873404.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2))

MidU subsequently pledged greater openness. Yet this episode demonstrates that the political issues haunting and also dividing the Muslim and Turkish communities in Germany resurface even among the small group of self-defined ‘conservatives’ who have decided to join the CDU.

Fear and apprehension among German Muslims after the Berlin attack

Disavowing the attacker

Following the truck attack on a busy Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz in the heart of former West Berlin on December 19, German Muslims have sought to dissociate themselves from the presumed attacker. The suspected jihadist, Anis Amri, remains at large at the time of writing.

Muslims gathered on the square where the attack had occurred, wearing t-shirts with the inscription “Muslims for peace”, and holding up signs such as “I am a Muslim, not a terrorist”.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/anschlag-in-berlin-muslime-demonstrieren-gegen-terror-a-1126876.html )) A choir, composed of long-standing German residents and recently arrived refugees, came out to sing Christmas songs.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/anschlag-in-berlin-wir-sind-hier-weil-wir-alle-menschen-sind-1.3305340 ))

In the aftermath of the attack, anxieties among refugees are running particularly high: speaking to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, many express fears about a worsening security situation and a growing incidence of terrorist attacks. They worry about tighter immigration policies and above all about greater suspicion and distrust that couls make building a life in Germany more difficult.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-12/anschlag-weihnachtsmarkt-berlin-fluechtlinge-reaktionen/komplettansicht ))

Responses of Muslim bodies and representatives

Representatives of the country’s largest Muslim associations have strongly condemned the attack and sought to show their presence during official ceremonies of mourning.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2016/12/20/religionsvertreter-verurteilen-berliner-anschlag/ )) An Imam participated in the oecumenical service at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a war-damaged church at Breitscheidplatz rechristened as a monument to peace. The service was also attended by leading politicians, including Chancellor Merkel.(( http://islam.de/28268 ))

At the same time, Muslim associations’ capacities remain circumscribed due to their internal divisions and their limited ability to represent Muslim believers in a convincing fashion. In contrast to a host of Christian and Jewish institutions, they are also not recognised as ‘religious communities’ (Religionsgemeinschaften) or as ‘corporate bodies of public law’ (Körperschaften öffentlichen Rechts) and thus have a distinctly inferior legal status in the country – a fact which hampers their financial and social capacities as well as their political clout.(( https://en.qantara.de/content/islam-in-germany-a-poor-second ))

The complex politics of Islamic associational life

Consequently, Germany’s Muslim community may struggle to develop a coherent and powerful public response to the Berlin attack. Already in January 2015, when a vigil with a large number of high-ranking participants from politics and society was organised in front of the Brandenburg Gate to commemorate the attack on Charlie Hebdo, bitter infighting broke out among Germany’s disparate Muslim associations.

At the time, representatives of the DİTİB, VIKZ, and IRD umbrella bodies, each of which runs substantial numbers of mosques, had a public fallout with their rival Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD). They accused Mazyek of using the vigil to distinguish himself and to derive political capital for himself and the ZMD to the detriment of the other associations. ((http://www.fr-online.de/terror/zentralrat-der-muslime-muslime-sauer-auf-mazyek,29500876,29557370.html ))

Germany at a crossroads

One might be tempted to hope that in the aftermath of the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market attack – the first substantial jihadist incident on German soil – the country’s Muslim associations could be propelled to overcome some of their long-standing hostilities and move to a more unified position.

Yet it is equally if not more plausible to expect tensions between these antagonistic players to increase in the coming weeks and months. Muslim representatives and institutions seem poised to be sucked into a divisive spiral of politicisation in which they are required to prove their loyalty to the German state.

The onset of this dynamic could already be observed in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Horst Seehofer, leader of the CSU, Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel’s CDU, swiftly demanded a fundamental recalibration of Germany’s immigration and integration policies.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article160483611/So-rechtfertigt-Seehofer-seine-Zuwanderungsaussage.html )) A high-ranking AfD politician commented on Twitter that the fatalities of the attack were “Merkel’s dead”, i.e. a consequence of her lax immigration policies.(( https://www.welt.de/regionales/bayern/article160485594/Polizei-prueft-Tweet-von-AfD-Mann-Pretzell.html ))

Invoking unity

The bulk of the political responses to the events of December 19 has been more measured so far. Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller (SPD), called upon the three monotheistic religions to continue to live together in peace. He asserted that “Jews, Christians and Muslims belong to this city” and must “not let themselves be pitted against one another”.(( http://islam.de/28268 ))

CDU politicians as well as a range of civil society actors harshly criticised Horst Seehofer for his glib calls for repressive measures and his populist ‘law and order’ approach.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/annegret-kramp-karrenbauer-weist-horst-seehofer-nach-berlin-anschlag-zurecht-a-1127140.html ))

Cautionary tale from the other side of the Rhine

In this respect, the political climate in Germany is still far from attaining the poisonous levels reached in France after the November 2015 terrorist attacks. Yet it is worth remembering that after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre, France lived through something of a moment of national unity in which millions of citizens and leaders peaceably took to the streets, collectively defying the terrorist challenge.((http://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hollande-idUSKBN0L91VN20150205 ))

Nearly two years and two major attacks later, this sense of unity appears to have dissipated completely. This highlights the challenges that Germany will face in the months and years ahead. The truck assault of December 19 may inspire the sense of cohesion that many observers are hoping for. Yet this cohesion remains fragile and vulnerable to further attacks.

CDU party congress shifts to the right on immigration, burqa, and dual citizenship

Pacifying internal critics

On December 6 and 7, 2016, Germany’s centre-right CDU congregated in Essen for its party convention to endorse Angela Merkel for another term as CDU chairwoman as well as for a fourth run for Chancellor in the September 2017 federal elections.

Merkel had announced her decision to stand again for both offices shortly before the convention. Manifestly, shee deemed the moment to be an opportune one: her popularity ratings had steadily improved over the past weeks as she shifted to a more restrictive position on immigration that sought to reassure a fearful electorate and – after a series of defeats at the polls – to pacify her internal detractors.(( http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/10/17/regional-elections-germany-deliver-gains-afd-weakening-merkel/ ))

At the party convention, Merkel continued her attempts to win over her critics on the right by asserting that the open-door approach to immigration that she had taken in summer 2015 “cannot, should not, and must not repeat itself.” She defined a harsher line on immigration as “our and my declared political goal.” ((http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/cdu-parteitag-zwischen-merkel-und-morgen.724.de.html?dram:article_id=373394 ))

A set of restrictive measures on immigration and identity

The party convention endorsed the creation of “transit zones” for newly arriving migrants at German borders. These are to function as centres for reception, shelter, and detention where immigrants’ demands for asylum are processed on the spot. Moreover, the CDU aims to quicken the deportation of asylum-seekers who have had their demands rejected. (( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article160057151/CDU-Innenexperten-setzen-auf-noch-rigidere-Asylpolitik.html ))

Islam and immigration loomed large behind some of the other proposals adopted at the convention, too. Merkel herself demanded that the burqa be banned “wherever this is legally possible.” As a piece of clothing making face-to-face communication in a democratic society impossible, Merkel defined the burqa as alien to German culture and values.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/cdu-parteitag-zwischen-merkel-und-morgen.724.de.html?dram:article_id=373394 ))

Moreover, the convention demanded that marriages involving an underage bride or groom concluded abroad be no longer legally recognised and valid in Germany. On this issue, the run-up to the convention had witnessed repeated public polemics.(( http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/gesellschaft/kinderehen-in-deutschland-integrationsbeauftragte-aydan-oezoguz-gegen-pauschales-verbot-a-1119480.html )) Finally, in another measure of identity politics, German is to be inscribed in the constitution as the country’s official language.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article160076321/CDU-verschaerft-innenpolitischen-Kurs.html ))

Conservative revolt on dual citizenship

However, these concessions did not satisfy the CDU’s conservative wing. While Merkel was re-elected to the chairmanship, she only received 89.5 per cent of the votes – a weak showing given the traditionally consensus-based and largely ceremonial nature of personnel choices at CDU party conventions. It represented Merkel’s second-worst result in her sixteen years at the head of the party.

Moreover, the CDU’s youth wing pushed through a resolution proposing a tightening of citizenship laws. Since late 2014, children of non-EU immigrants (above all from Turkey) who have been born and raised in Germany are allowed to retain both the German nationality and the nationality of their parents. The convention adopted a motion that seeks to scrap this option for dual citizenship and to force children to choose between a German passport and the passport of their parents’ country of origin by the age of 23.

This proposition targets over half a million children and young adults born between 1990 and 2012. Conservative politicians such as Jens Spahn, young CDU hopeful and self-stylised ‘burqaphobe’((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/08/26/muslim-womens-dress-takes-centre-stage-german-debate/ )) have long lambasted rules allowing dual citizenship as diluting immigrants’ loyalty to Germany.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2016-12/doppelte-staatsbuergerschaft-cdu-optionspflicht-faq ))

The CDU’s strategic choices

Merkel and the CDU leadership subsequently stated that they would not consider themselves bound by the convention’s decision on dual citizenship. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière asserted that while he remained sceptical of dual citizenship per se, retracting the more liberal regulations would needlessly hurt and antagonise the young people targeted. In any case, none of the CDU’s potential coalition partners for a post-2017 government is willing to accept a crackdown on dual nationality.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2016-12/staatsbuergerschaft-cdu-parteitag-integration ))

Thus, while the arduous discussions on citizenship provisions will remain largely inconsequential for the foreseeable future, they nevertheless show the dissatisfaction of the conservative base: the CDU party convention – occasionally ridiculed by political opponents as a powerless body rubberstamping the leadership’s decisions (Kanzlerwahlverein) – rose up in open revolt against a party elite deemed too liberal and out of touch with a disgruntled population.

Merkel herself has warned that the 2017 electoral campaign will be difficult and marked by increasingly loud assaults from the rising populist right. It remains to be seen whether her own party will prove immune to the temptations of populist slogans.

Regional elections in Germany deliver further gains to the AfD, weakening Merkel

A year of electoral defeats

Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU party has suffered a set of electoral setbacks in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin; losses widely blamed by her detractors on her stance in the ongoing migration crisis in Europe. These renewed drubbings at the ballot box come after crushing defeats in elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg – the CDU’s former stronghold – earlier this year.

In Merkel’s home region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the CDU was pushed into third place, behind the Social Democrats and the surging right-wing populist AfD. Since re-unification, the north-eastern state has gone through more than two decades of de-industrialisation and population decline, although economic and demographic indicators have stabilised during recent years. In spite of the state’s extremely low proportion of immigrants and Muslims, the twin fears of migration and Islamisation dominated large parts of the electoral campaign. ((http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/wahl-mecklenburg-vorpommern-afd-zweitstaerkste-kraft-spd-gewinnt-a-1110844.html ))

The subsequent Berlin state elections did not deliver a better result for Merkel’s party, with the CDU obtaining its lowest-ever vote share in a Berlin ballot. Neither did the AfD’s showing as strong as in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Nevertheless, Merkel’s inner-party rivals have been quick to lay the blame for the renewed debacle at her feet. ((http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/berlin-wahl-spd-bleibt-staerkste-kraft-afd-zweistellig-a-1112823.html ))

Merkel changing course ahead of federal elections

While Merkel had for a long time stood by her initial mantra ‘Wir schaffen das’ (‘We can do it’) when talking about the evolving migration challenge, recent months had already brought a gradual shift in her position; perhaps most notably in the form of the EU-Turkey migration deal which she helped broker, as well as through harsher immigration legislation at home. In the aftermath of this string of electoral losses, Merkel has now explicitly abandoned her trademark phrase, commenting that ‘Wir schaffen das’ had become an “empty formula” that has only served to unnecessarily “provoke” many listeners; a provocation that had never been her intention – or so Merkel asserted in a press conference. (( http://www.tagesschau.de/inland/merkel-1377.html ))

One year ahead of Germany’s federal elections, Merkel’s national approval ratings have dropped to the lowest level in five years, and the majority of voters do not want her to run again for office. Yet at the same time, Merkel’s rivals within her own party as well as the presumptive Social Democratic contender for the Chancellery, Sigmar Gabriel, remain equally unpopular, so that so far no clear challenger has emerged.  ((https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/deutschlandtrend-617.html ))

 

Muslim women’s dress takes centre-stage again in German debate

Counterterrorism and the burqa

Following the twin attacks in Würzburg and Ansbach in July, a group of conservative interior ministers from Germany’s federal states have published a manifesto demanding enlarged competences for police, army, judiciary, and intelligence services. The politicians from the CDU/CSU party also demand the retraction of laws easing the acquisition of dual citizenship, passed by the red-green government of Gerhard Schröder in 2000.((http://www.haz.de/Nachrichten/Politik/Deutschland-Welt/Innenminister-der-Union-fordern-Burka-Verbot )).

While the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the conservatives’ coalition partner in Berlin, has flatly rejected calls to abolish dual citizenship, responses to added security measures have been more mixed. Yet what has taken centre stage in recent days is another demand from the manifesto – a proposed ‘burqa ban’. This is in spite of the fact that the precise security benefit from such a ban has remained largely unexplored. The initially security-focused discussion has thus gradually morphed into a debate with vaguely ‘civilisational’ overtones.

Echoing many of his colleagues in an opinion piece for the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, leading CDU politician Jens Spahn deems burqa and niqab to be incompatible with the values of an open society and with the kind of public interaction such a society necessitates. According to him, these items of clothing also undermine the integration of recently arrived refugees. ((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/warum-burka-und-niqab-nicht-nach-deutschland-gehoeren-14393282.html )) In an interview in late July, Spahn had struck a distinctly more polemical note, declaring himself to be a “burkaphobe” and accusing Muslims of being sexually repressed. As a remedy, Spahn encouraged Muslims to shower in the nude while at the gym.((http://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article157398148/Ein-Verbot-ist-ueberfaellig-Ich-bin-burkaphob.html ))

Constitutional hurdles

Yet whether a blanket ban on the burqa as Spahn and others demand it would even withstand scrutiny by the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) is uncertain at best. In the past, the court has generally set high hurdles to potential state regulation of religious practices. Consequently, already in 2010 a German parliamentary committee came to the conclusion that a straightforward burqa ban would be unconstitutional. ((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/verbotsdebatte-burka-verbieten-geht-das-ueberhaupt-1.3123311 ))

In view of this fact, politicians not just from the CDU but also from the SPD appear to move away from a general ban to more targeted restrictions: more recent interventions in the debate propose prohibiting women from wearing burqa or niqab when appearing in front of a judge or when driving a car.((http://www.n-tv.de/politik/Burka-am-Steuer-soll-verboten-werden-article18438906.html ))

The calmer voices in the often agitated discussion have sought to critique the focus on the burqa as a false debate obscuring the real issues. Indeed, the number of burqa-wearing women in the country  is very small, ranging between a few dozen and several hundred.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/verbotsdebatte-burka-verbieten-geht-das-ueberhaupt-1.3123311 )) As the Muslim CDU politician Cemile Giousouf stated, “I am against the burqa but it is not the core problem – an extremist understanding of religion is.” Moreover, according to her, “the experience in France shows that a burqa ban does not provide greater security.”(( http://www.haz.de/Nachrichten/Politik/Deutschland-Welt/Cemile-Giousouf-Burkaverbot-bietet-nicht-mehr-Sicherheit ))

From burqa to burkini

France itself, among the pioneers of a burqa ban, has since moved on to debate the ‘burkini’, a piece of swimwear covering all of a woman’s body with the exception of face, hands, and feet.(( http://europe.newsweek.com/burkini-swimsuits-spark-anti-muslim-outrage-sales-488138?rm=eu )) This debate has been considerably more muted in Germany, where the focus has remained on face-covering burqas and niqabs. Indeed, the German Constitutional Court has implicitly legitimised the burkini in the past, when it ruled that co-educational swimming classes in public schools were mandatory, and that those Muslim girls uncomfortable with a co-educational arrangement could wear burkinis.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/bundesverwaltungsgericht-schwimmunterricht-in-burkini-fuer-muslimische-maedchen-zumutbar-12569208.html ))

In spite of this, in mid-August German Muslim woman reported an incident in which she and one of her daughters were asked to leave a water park near Berlin since their burkinis were deemed to be “inappropriate clothing”. Speaking to Berliner Zeitung, the mother asserted that wearing the burkini was her own independent choice; a choice that one of her daughters had also made while her other daughter had stuck to regular Western swimsuits. Interestingly, she went on to add that she disliked full-body veiling and that she agreed with a burqa ban, but noted that a burkini for her was a completely different thing.((http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/berlin/streit-in-bad-saarow–was–bitte-schoen–ist-an-einem-burkini-so-schlimm—24599592 ))

All of this amply demonstrates that the body of Muslim women is back at the centre of attention. After the string of attacks in Europe and amidst unresolved questions regarding immigration, however, a nuanced engagement with this topic seems to have become even more difficult to achieve.

CDU politician from Rhineland-Palatinate demands burqa ban

Federal deputy and head of faction Julia Klöckner from the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) has demanded to restrict the full coverage of women in the

In Germany, full coverage of Muslim women being employed at schools, kindergartens and hospitals has become a controversial legal and political issue within the last months.
In Germany, full coverage of Muslim women being employed at schools, kindergartens and hospitals has become a controversial legal and political issue within the last months.

public. Underlining her claim for the burqa ban, Klöckner added: “The burqa would not stand for religious diversity but for a degrading image of women”. The State of Hesse was the first German State that banned the burqa from public service in 2011.

Full coverage of Muslim women being employed at schools, kindergartens and hospitals has become a controversial legal and political issue within the last months.

 

Major challenges for German Islam Conference

February 10, 2014

 

According to experts such as Islam Scholar Michael Kiefer, the German Islam Conference has not made progress, since it was found by former Minister of Interior Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) in 2006. The initial success was the creation of an institutional connection to Islamic representatives and the foundation Islamic studies in schools.

Since then, the dialogue between State and religion representatives has gone through difficult obstacles such as the debate on selection processes through home affairs politicians and constitution protection authorities. The exclusion of extreme Islamic organizations like the Turkish Milli Görüs represented.

Further challenges are questions related to the understanding and representation of Islam in Germany. The current Minister of Interior Thomas de Maizière (CDU) seeks a pragmatic oriented approach to Muslim associations with a “goal-oriented” and “issues-driven” agenda. Muslim associations have welcomed the Ministers approach by sidelining security policy issues, focusing mainly on issues such as the recognition of Islam as a statutory body under public law.

Again, there will be questions related to the representativeness of associations. The growing Islamophobia will be a further challenge to the German Islam Conference. Critics fear the conference to remain an event of political symbolism. The politician Lale Akgün (SPD) claims more representative rights for women. Female teachers of Islamic studies, female Imams would be necessary to enhance a feminist view of Islam, deliberately strengthening a “liberal” Islam in Germany.

 

Qantara: http://en.qantara.de/content/changing-the-orientation-of-germanys-islam-conference-new-agenda-same-old-faces