Germany Grapples with Integration Debate: ‘We Don’t Do The Burqa’

By James Carstensen | May 5, 2017 | 3:14am EDT
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Berlin ( – As Germany continues to grapple with questions of migrant integration and national identity, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere stoked a row this week when he presented a ten-point concept of what he argues constitute German cultural values.

The announcement prompted renewed debate, and criticism from some quarters, over the notion that immigrants must assimilate to a set of shared “dominant” cultural values.

Germany has taken in more migrants and asylum seekers – around 1.2 million since 2015 – than any other European Union member-state.

Complaining that countries like Germany are “shouldering the greatest burden of the consequences of flight and migration in Europe,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier during a visit to Rome this week called for a greater sharing of the load among E.U. partners.

In an earlier op-ed in the Bild newspaper, de Maizière put forward ten points representing his personal view of a “leading culture” (Leitkultur) – characterizing Germany as a multicultural, accepting nation but one that also retains its sense of identity.

“We shake hands, show our faces, and tell people what our names are,” he wrote. “We don’t ‘do’ the burqa,” he added, in reference to apparel designed to conceal a woman’s head and body, favored by many Muslims.

“Germany is part of the West, culturally, spiritually and politically speaking,” de Maizière argued. While “synagogues and mosques” are part of German society, the country, he said, has been “shaped by Christianity.”

The comments came as political parties prepare for a general election in September, in which the issue of integration will likely be a key topic.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is running for her fourth term. The latest Emnid poll shows her Christian Democrat (CDU) party in the lead, at 36 percent, with her current coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), at 29 percent. The far-right, anti-immigration Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) sits at nine percent, down from a 16 percent high last year.

De Maizière is a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s sister party.

While not commenting directly on the interior minister’s comments, Merkel was quoted by the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland newspaper as calling for discussion over “how we humans should live as early as our own way, our basic law, our values.”

CDU deputy leader Thomas Strobl voiced support for de Maizière’s points, as did CSU general-secretary Andreas Scheuer, who said a debate over Leitkultur was overdue.

“Integration does not mean that the local population and the immigrants meet halfway, and a new culture emerges,” the Passauer Neuen Presse quoted him as saying.

Political groups such as the SPD and the Greens, meanwhile, outright opposed de Maizière’s concept of a German “leading culture,” with SPD deputy leader Ralf Stegner calling it “a cheap attempt” to get votes.

Greens co-chairman Simone Peter said Germany doesn’t need Leitkultur, but instead “a new domestic policy that promotes integration, inspects right-wing networks and keeps a tight surveillance on people considered potential Islamic terrorists.”

“A society is always changing – and one of the reasons for that is migration,” Deutsche Welle quoted Greens spokesperson Jamila Schaefer as saying. “I don't think finding a way to live together peacefully is about preserving one culture.”

The anti-immigration AfD appeared to favor de Maizière’s comments, saying on Twitter he was playing the role of “the big defender of culture.”

Leitkultur is a highly controversial concept that has been part of social and political debate in Germany in recent years.

The term was coined around the turn of the millennium, when CDU politician Friedrich Merz said that immigrants should conform to the “liberal German leading culture.”

Last year, the state of Bavaria passed a new integration law, requiring all migrants in the state to respect the “dominant culture.”

The issue is a sensitive one due to Germany’s Nazi past, and some feel Leitkultur moves the nation backwards, towards nationalism and oppression.

Integration has been an issue in particular for the country’s large Turkish population. Resentment over a perceived lack of respect from German society and politicians was seen as a key factor when more than 63 percent of the Turkish population in Germany voted last month in support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposals for sweeping new powers as president.

In a poll last February, about two-thirds of respondents felt that being German has nothing to do with being born in the country. Only 11 percent of respondents felt that being Christian was important.

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