When Germany's new Interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, says Islam is not a part of the German way of life and "does not belong" in Germany, his comments sparked a new round of debate over the increasingly contentious question of Muslim immigration, integration and assimilation, and the role of Islam in modern German society.

Considering that more than one million immigrants living permanently in Germany cannot speak German, the government is now pushing for the children of non-German-speaking parents to develop better German language skills.

But that idea hit resistance from none other than Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who on February 27 travelled to Germany to urge Turkish parents living in Germany to teach their children to learn to read and write Turkish before German.

Speaking to a crowd of more than 10,000 immigrants waving Turkish flags and shouting "Turkey is Great!" in the German industrial city of Düsseldorf, Erdogan said. "We are against assimilation. No one should be able to rip us away from our culture and civilization. Our children must learn German, but first they must learn Turkish."

This is the same Erdogan who says the construction of mosques and minarets is part of a strategy for the Islamization of Europe. Citing the Turkish nationalist poet Ziya Gökalp, the pro-Islamist Erdogan has said: "The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our army."

Speaking to reporters at his first news conference since taking office on March 3 in a cabinet reshuffle, Friedrich said: "To say that Islam belongs in Germany is not a fact supported by history at any point." He also said that although Muslims should be allowed live in Germany, Muslim immigrants ought to be aware of Germany's "Western Christian origins" and learn German "first and foremost."

Friedrich was speaking in the context of an inquiry into the March 2 killing of two American airmen at the international airport in Frankfurt. German police say the shootings are the first case of home-grown terrorism inspired by radical Islamic propaganda disseminated over the Internet. The suspect, a 21-year-old Muslim immigrant from Kosovo, is believed to be a lone operator motivated by radical Islam.

Friedrich's remarks come at a time when Germany is fully immersed in a heated national debate over Muslim immigration. That debate was launched in earnest in August 2010 with the publication of an inflammatory book titled "Germany Does Away With Itself."

The best-selling book broke Germany's long-standing taboo on discussing the impact of Muslim immigration. It also resonated with vast numbers of ordinary Germans, who are becoming increasingly uneasy about the social changes that are transforming Germany, largely due to the presence of millions of non-integrated Muslims in the country.

The book, authored by 65-year-old Thilo Sarrazin, a renowned German banker who is also a long-time member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), is now on its 16th edition. At the last count, it has sold more than 1.3 million copies, making it one of the most widely read titles published in Germany since the Second World War.

German President Christian Wulff tried to defuse the row ignited by Sarrazin. During a keynote speech to mark the 20th anniversary of German reunification on October 3, Wulff proclaimed that "Islam belongs in Germany" because of the four million Muslims who now live there. Germany has Western Europe's second-biggest Islamic population after France, with Turks the single biggest minority.

Opinion polls, however, show broad public support for Sarrazin's argument that many Muslim immigrants shut themselves off from Germany, do not speak German and do not share the German, European or Western worldview.

According to a recent survey conducted by TNS Emnid pollsters, around 20% of German voters would back a hypothetical political party led by Sarrazin. Another poll, conducted by the mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag, shows that 89% of those surveyed say Sarrazin's arguments are convincing. "For them, Sarrazin is somebody who is finally saying what many are thinking," according to Emnid.

Another survey, published in October by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a think tank linked to the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), found that 55% of Germans believe that Arabs are "unpleasant," and over 33% believe the country is being "overrun" by immigrants. The study also noted that "far-right attitudes" are not isolated at the extremes of German society, but to a large degree "at the center of it."

As the political winds shift, so are German politicians. After initially distancing herself from Sarrazin's views, German Chancellor Angela Merkel did an about-face and said Germany's roots are Judeo-Christian. She also said: "Now we obviously have Muslims in Germany. But it is important in regard to Islam that the values represented by Islam must correspond with our constitution. What applies here is the constitution, not Sharia law."

Shortly thereafter, Merkel addressed an October 16 meeting of her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in Potsdam outside Berlin, where she conceded that Germany's efforts to build a post-war multicultural society has "failed utterly."

In a landmark speech, Merkel said: "We are a country which at the beginning of the 1960s actually brought [Muslim] guest workers to Germany. Now they live with us and we lied to ourselves for a while, saying that they will not stay and that they will have disappeared again one day. That is not the reality. This multicultural approach -- saying that we simply live side by side and are happy about each other -- this approach has failed, failed utterly."

In mid-November, Merkel told the CDU annual conference in Karlsruhe that the debate about immigration "especially by those of the Muslim faith" was an opportunity for the ruling party to stand up confidently for its convictions. "We do not have too much Islam, we have too little Christianity. We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind." Germany, she continued, needs more public discussion "about the values that guide us and about our Judeo-Christian tradition. We have to stress this again with confidence. Then we will also be able to bring about cohesion in our society." Merkel also said: "We feel bound to the Christian image of humanity -- that is what defines us. Those who do not accept this are in the wrong place here."

On November 16, the CDU passed a resolution stressing that Germany's cultural identity (Leitkultur) is based on the "Christian-Jewish tradition, ancient and Enlightenment philosophy and the nation's historical experience." The resolution also states: "Our country benefits from immigrants who live and work here. But Germany does not benefit from a minority that refuses to integrate, does not want to learn our language, and denies participation and advancement to their children.… We expect that those who come here respect and recognize our cultural identity."

Meanwhile, the previous Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière, rejected calls from some center-left Social Democrats and Greens for Islam to be recognized as a state religion along with Christianity and Judaism. Speaking on Deutschlandradio Kultur, he said: "If you now ask: Will Islam be put on the same level as the Judeo-Christian understanding of religion and culture that we have, then my answer is: not for the foreseeable future."

At the same time, Horst Seehofer, president of the southern German state of Bavaria, and a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's Christian Democrats, has called for a halt to immigration from Turkey and Arab countries.

In an interview with the German newsmagazine Focus, Seehofer said it was time for Germany to look elsewhere for qualified workers, at a time when many parts of the labour market were facing grave shortfalls. "It is clear that immigrants from other cultural circles like Turkey, and Arab countries, have more difficulties. From that I draw the conclusion that we do not need any additional foreign workers from other cultures," he said.

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