Radweg in Schwarz-Rot-Gold bei Wasserstetten
Bicycle path with German national flag near Wasserstetten | Photo: Franzfoto | CC BY-SA 3.0

Germany’s Pluralistic Society and its Contested Religious Heritage

A new homeland ministry, further debates on Islam and Germany, new places for crucifixes in public buildings – all these political acts show that exclusive identity constructions are perceived as a way to be electorally successful. But they also blur the boundary between politics and almost satirical symbolism-oriented acts. The current politics are part of a political communication that seems to add fuel to the ongoing sociopolitical debate on religious and cultural diversity. However, in a pluralistic country like Germany, a calm and thoughtful political communication is required to increase societal cohesion and not let a presumed heritage determine the shared values of our society.

Politics and Satire

When an important sociopolitical debate on freedom of religion is reduced to polarizing sound bites and slogans, the debate takes a preposterous turn blurring the boundaries between politics and satire. In this way, Lutz van der Horst, a comedian from the Heute Show (13 April 2013) compared the topic of digitalization and network coverage in Germany to the debate on the relationship between Germany and Islam. He asked “Can one still rightfully say that the Internet does not belong in Germany?” If van der Horst’s question was answered according to the recent statement by the current homeland minister Horst Seehofer, one should say that the Internet does not belong in Germany but its users do. Or one could speak about history and say that, as there was no Internet a hundred years ago, it does not belong in Germany. This question and my fictional response show that obviously not all issues of the present are necessarily part of presumed national heritage as the world is in constant flux.

In an open online poll, the populist and increasingly right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) asked if Islam belongs in Germany. This poll developed a satirical dimension as 83 percent of the participants answered in the affirmative, which led Ronald Gläser, spokesperson of the Berlin AfD, to reject the poll’s findings as manipulated. The poll was taken down by the AfD as it did not feature the results wished for. Due to the interactive and satirical dimension of this poll, its results were more inclusive towards German Muslims than the results of a survey by the federal anti-discrimination office (2016) according to which 25 percent admitted having a very negative image of Muslims living in Germany while 64 percent have a positive image (p. 6-7). The cultural or religious background of the participants was not mentioned. The populist era in Europe is marked by truth contestations in which satire gains credibility while political communication seems increasingly symbolism-oriented and therefore satirized. But why did we get this far? Let’s look at Germany as a receiving country of immigration and the role that Islam played in political communication.

Post-War Immigration to Germany

History involves multiple narratives and perspectives. Although this blog post will not assess the cultural or religious heritage of Germany, it will nevertheless go back in history to the post-war migration of Turkish immigrants. When West German industry started to flourish in the 1950s, the demand for manual labor increased. Due to this labor shortage, an estimated number of 18 to 19 million workers from different Mediterranean countries were invited and employed in Germany. In his article “Germany at the Crossroads: National Identity and the Challenges of Immigration”, the sociologist Hermann Kurthen argues that the German government struggled in dealing with the “sociocultural implications of ethnic and cultural diversity” (p. 922), and remained passive while nurturing the idea that the migrants would leave once jobs would get scarce. While strangers became neighbors, debates on German national identity became part of the political communication and German citizenship remained an ancestral principle. Children of migrants, though born in Germany, remained non-Germans and had to undergo naturalization procedures. Although dual citizenship has become possible; it remains highly contested and some incidences of radicalization in communities of migrant background lead to current political contestations on whether Germany’s integration policy has failed. In this way, the current political discourse on religious diversity and the belonging of Islam in Germany inter alia is a legacy of Germany’s integration history.

Contested Heritage and Belonging

When asked about his stance on the debate on Islam in Germany, the current homeland minister Horst Seehofer replied that Islam does not belong in Germany because of the country’s Christian heritage. When heritage becomes decisive for belonging and determines what freedom of religion means today, the past is exploited for politics of the presence. With his answer, Seehofer rejected a statement that was coined in 2006 by Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister at that time, with regards to the need for a German Islam Conference. Schäuble argued that Islam is a part of Germany and Europe. In 2010 the then federal President Christian Wulff stated that Christianity belongs in Germany so do Judaism and by now also Islam. This was an inclusive way of addressing Germany’s Muslim communities who at that time were in the focus of the debate on the costs and benefits of multicultural coexistence. The debate was shaped inter alia by the politician Thilo Sarrazin whose book “Germany abolishes itself” (German: “Deutschland schafft sich ab”) criticized “parallel societies” and denounced the post-war immigration policy. Chancellor Merkel in 2010 stated that Germany’s heritage is Christian as well as Jewish while Muslims are also living here, before changing her view in 2015 declaring that among other religions Islam belongs in Germany. Her positions were not shared by the whole government. Since 2010 members of the Bavarian Christian Socialist Party (CSU) have attempted to deny belonging on the basis of heritage by arguing that history cannot prove that Islam belongs in Germany.

In 2014, I was invited to the Jalsa Salana of Ahmadiyya Muslims in Karlsruhe, a gathering of 33,000 believers and guests. In several speeches, religious leaders and German politicians from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party (Bündnis 90/ Die Grünen) shared their ideas. Interestingly, the politicians mainly addressed symbolic debates on Islam belonging in Germany and the virulent headscarf debate which prompted an audience member to remark: “It’s crucial to care about what’s happening in the heads and not on the heads of the citizens.” This was greeted by big applause in the hall and, in my interpretation, expressed a clear wish to move on from those symbolism-oriented debates. Nevertheless, the debate was further shaped in 2018 mainly by politicians from the Bavarian CSU inter alia with recent political acts of hanging up crucifixes in Bavarian state buildings to make the Christian identity and heritage further visible which, according to the sociologist Christian Joppke, is an act of radicalization in itself.

Crucifixes in Bavaria

When the prime minister of Bavaria, Markus Söder (CSU) ordered Christian crosses to be placed in the entrance area of government buildings, a controversy on the role of religion in politics was started. “The cross is a fundamental symbol of our Bavarian identity and way of life. It stands for elementary values like charity, human dignity and tolerance” said Söder in a cabinet meeting last month. This act of displaying crucifixes was criticized on various levels and started debates on its meaning in society and whether this act violated constitutional rules of the state’s religious neutrality. While the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich addressed this as dispossession of the cross in the name of the state saying that such deeds lead to division and turmoil in society. Other voices viewed it as a political act of the CSU in order to gain more publicity than the AfD with regards to the upcoming Bavarian election in October 2018. Although the CSU later strengthened the message that the cross is about charity, human dignity and tolerance and does not exclude anyone, their act had an exclusive character with regards to other religions in Germany, non-believers and in terms of the ongoing debate on the role of Islam in Germany. In times of religious diversity and diverse interpretations and degrees of religiosity, it seems too generic to speak about a Huntingtonesque “clash of civilizations”. Instead, it seems better to describe those identity constructions as the result of a “clash of intercultural prejudices and myths” as the communication psychologist Wolfgang Frindte phrased it. After the symbolism-oriented and satirical debate on whether wearing headscarves in kindergarten should be forbidden by law, a priest wore a headscarf in his Pentecost speech to show solidarity with Muslim girls. ‘Leave the church in the village’ is a German expression for telling “Don’t overdo it”. In this sense one could say “Let’s leave the church in the village and the cross in the church.” Not exaggerating it could be a way to disentangle politics from symbolic and satirical acts and to not add any further polarizing fuel to the ongoing sociopolitical debate on religious and cultural diversity. In a pluralistic society, different ways of life, opinions and beliefs exist equally. Hence, pluralistic countries like Germany need politicians who act as representatives of the whole population instead of enforcing polarization with the short-term goal of the next election in mind. The new government now has the chance to take a direction that increases societal cohesion instead of merely repeating phrases and giving symbolic responses. Moreover, the heritage of this country remains contested and should not determine our values and who we are today as members of a pluralistic society in which we respect one another with our similarities and differences.

Magdalena von Drachenfels
Magdalena von Drachenfels is a research associate at PRIF. Her research areas are migration and diaspora studies with a focus on protests and radicalizations.

Magdalena von Drachenfels

Magdalena von Drachenfels is a research associate at PRIF. Her research areas are migration and diaspora studies with a focus on protests and radicalizations.

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