Germany's new coalition government is signaling that it wants better relations with the country's Muslim community.
In a series of newspaper, television and radio interviews, Thomas de Maizière—who was recently sworn in as Germany's new interior minister—has announced a series of pro-Muslim initiatives apparently designed to defuse escalating tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims there.
Among other policy initiatives, Maizière says the government plans to change German immigration laws to make it easier for Muslim immigrants to obtain dual-citizenship and thus to maintain religious and cultural links to their countries of origin.
Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière met on January 28 with German Muslim leaders to discuss the next German Islam Conference. (Image source: German Interior Ministry video)
Maizière also says he intends to give Muslims more say in setting the agenda of the government's ongoing dialogue with the Islamic umbrella groups that represent the estimated 4.5 million Muslims now living in the country.
While focusing his energy on expanding the rights of Muslims in Germany, Maizière has been largely silent about the responsibility of Muslim immigrants to take measures to integrate better into German society.
Muslims have been quick to respond to Maizière's multicultural concessions. They have issued a list of demands that include the official recognition of Muslim holidays in Germany, as well as the installation of Muslim clerics in German hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and military units.
Maizière's outreach to Muslims stems from a 185-page coalition deal between Germany's two largest parties.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won the general election on September 22, 2013, but fell short of a majority. They needed a partner and—after five weeks of negotiations—Merkel's conservatives reached an agreement with the rival Social Democrats (SPD) on a program for a new coalition government. The new "grand coalition" government was inaugurated on December 17, 2013.
The coalition agreement includes a series of concessions Merkel made to the SPD, including a pledge to offer dual citizenship to Muslims in Germany. More specifically, the agreement states that the so-called option model—which grants automatic German citizenship until the age of 23 to anyone born in the country; after which time the children of foreign nationals must choose either German citizenship or that of their parents—will be abolished.
The new regulation will allow people from migrant backgrounds who were born and raised in Germany to be able to apply for dual citizenship, a significant concession to Germany's 3.5 million-strong Turkish population, which forms the largest ethnic minority in the country.
The center-right CDU/CSU have long opposed dual nationality over fears it could lead to divided loyalties. But the center-left SPD—which insisted there would be no coalition deal without the right to dual citizenship—has argued that forcing young people to choose their nationality leads to an identity conflict. The reform would presumably also help the SPD's popularity with Muslim voters in future elections.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Istanbul-based newspaper Hürriyet on January 25 (German translation here), Maizière elaborated on the government's plans:
The new government has a big plan. We want new regulations for dual citizenship. It involves people who were born and raised in Germany and have two nationalities. This directly applies to more than half a million people. Of these, there are very many whose parents are from Turkey.
It was not entirely wrong for the previous arrangements to require that at a certain age a decision for the German nationality should be taken. But we have seen that this leads to conflicts. In the families, between parents and adolescents, many mothers and fathers feel that a decision by an 18-year-old to choose Germany is directed against the parents rather than as a decision for Germany.
To resolve these conflicts and problems, we want to change the law so that children who are born and raised in Germany to foreign parents will no longer have to decide between their German and their other nationality. This bill will be one of the first that I will present.
The compromise on dual nationality was fiercely resisted by many conservatives, including Maizière's immediate predecessor, former Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich.
In an interview with the Münchner Merkur, Friedrich, a member of the CSU and a well-known hardliner on immigration and security issues, said the SPD's proposal threatens Germany's very integrity:
If we give millions of people dual citizenship, which they will hand down to their descendants, we are building a permanent Turkish minority in Germany. That means a long-term change in the identity of German society. I am against it... At some point you have to decide. It is not unreasonable to demand that one choose Germany as his new home. This does not mean a person has to forget his or her roots.
But Aydan Özoğuz, a German politician of Turkish descent who led the SPD's coalition negotiations with the CDU over the dual nationality issue, says that rather than promote the perpetuation of a parallel Muslim society in Germany, dual citizenship will promote integration.
Özoğuz also says the agreed-upon condition—that individuals eligible for dual citizenship must be both born and raised in Germany—is too restrictive. She says the coalition agreement should be renegotiated and expanded so that anyone born in Germany—regardless of whether they were raised in the country or speak any German—should be given German citizenship. This would open the door to potentially millions of new Turkish-German dual citizens, regardless of age.
Representatives of the Turkish community in Germany are demanding even more concessions. They want to see dual citizenship for all foreign residents in Germany, regardless of whether they were born or raised in Germany. This would include the more than one million immigrants living permanently in Germany who cannot speak German.
In any event, the debate over dual citizenship in Germany is far from resolved, and it appears as though the CDU is losing control over the outcome to the multiculturalists within the SPD.
Meanwhile, Maizière says Muslims should have a greater say in setting the agenda for the annual German Islam Conference. Launched by former Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in 2006, the conference has been billed as the "central forum for dialogue" between German politicians and representatives of the more than four million Muslims living in Germany.
The stated aim of the annual event—where Muslim organizations and individuals are invited to sit at the table with representatives from federal, state and local government—is to promote Muslim integration into German society.
But in recent years, Muslims have been angered by the German government's efforts to enlist the support and cooperation of Muslims at the conference to help in the fight against the radicalization of young Muslims in Germany.
The seventh annual German Islam Conference, for example, held in April 2012, was supposed to be focused on finding ways to deal with the spiraling rates of forced marriages and domestic violence among Muslims in Germany.
The main topic for discussion at the conference, however, was not on the official agenda: the unprecedented nationwide campaign by Islamic radicals to distribute 25 million free copies of the Koran—"A Koran in Every Home"—with the stated aim of converting millions of Germans to Islam.
German authorities view the Koran project as a recruiting campaign for radical Islam. Security analysts say the campaign is also a public-relations gimmick intended to persuade Germans that the Salafists—who want to implement Islamic Sharia law in Germany—are transparent and "citizen-friendly."
Former Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich opened the one-day conference by declaring that Islamic extremism has no place in Germany. "We all agree that Salafist extremism is not acceptable and does not work in a free society, as we have in Germany," he insisted. "Religion must not be abused in an ideological bid for power."
Friedrich urged Muslim representatives attending the conference to join him in condemning the Salafists, but Muslims declined to meet him even half way. Instead, they dismissed fears over the Salafists as "hysterical" and "misguided."
The chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, Kenan Kolat, personally intervened to prevent the Salafist issue from becoming part of the official conference agenda. In an interview with the newspaper Rheinische Post, Kolat justified his action by saying, "A hysterical debate is not helpful."
The chairman of the German Islamic Council, Ali Kizilkaya, told German public radio that non-Muslims were engaged in "a panicked discussion" about the Salafist campaign. He insisted: "It is definitely not the spirit of the Koran to foment unrest in society."
Muslims were equally unwilling to discuss the main item on the official conference agenda: "Gender Equality as a Common Value." Conference attendees refused even to acknowledge that there might be any connection between Islam and forced marriage.
German officials were left trying to put the best spin on the event, which ended without a joint press conference because of lingering Muslim pique at the "offensive" comments that were uttered at the press conference ending the event in 2011.
The eighth annual German Islam Conference, held in May 2013, also ended in failure when Friedrich wanted find ways the government could work together with moderate Muslims in Germany to combat Islamism and extremism.
Muslims attending the gathering were offended by the insinuation that Islam could be radical or violent, and demanded instead that the German government take steps to make "Islam equal to Christianity" in Germany.
The director of inter-religious dialogue at the Turkish-Islamic Union for Islamic Affairs [DITIB], Bekir Alboga, complained that Friedrich had rendered the German Islam Conference "pointless" by bringing "security policy themes too far to the fore." Alboga said the conference "makes no more sense in its current form. I do not see any genuine partnership."
In a speech he delivered at the conference, Alboga accused Germany of promoting "extremism and radicalization" by not doing enough to stop "Islamophobia."
Later, in an interview with the German news agency Deutsche Welle, Alboga said he was hoping that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would be defeated in the federal elections so that the Muslim-German dialogue could continue in a more positive way with a new government led by the more Muslim-friendly Social Democrats. "I yearn for a real partnership," he said.
It should be noted that Alboga's DITIB is an arm of the Turkish government, which controls over 900 mosques in Germany. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long used DITIB to dissuade Turkish immigrants from integrating into German society.
Alboga's complaints were echoed by the Secretary-General of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Aiman Mazyek, who said the Islam conference "urgently needs a general overhaul" because it is not a "dialogue among equals."
Kolat, the head of Germany's Turkish Community, called on the German government to create a new Integration Ministry that would take responsibility for organizing the German Islam Conference away from the Interior Ministry.
Maizière now appears resigned to concede the debate. In an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine on January 21, he said the German Islam Conference should redefine its role and that he would personally meet with the heads of Islamic groups in Germany to discuss their expectations from the conference.
Muslim groups responded by demanding that the German government officially recognize Muslim holidays in Germany, beginning with the Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice. In practice, this would require all federal, state and local government offices in Germany, as well as all non-Muslim German businesses, schools and stores, to be closed in observance of a Muslim religious festival.
Islamic groups have also called on the government establish Islam on the same footing as Christianity in Germany. As a first step, they said, Muslim chaplains should be placed in all public institutions in the country. In addition, prisons, hospitals and nursing homes should begin serving halal foods that are prepared according to Islamic dietary guidelines. "This would be an important signal to the Muslim population," Kolat said in Berlin.
In his interview with the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, Maizière was asked if Islam belongs to Germany. The interviewer was referring the declaration by former German President Christian Wulff—during a keynote speech to mark the 20th anniversary of German reunification in October 2010—that "Islam belongs in Germany." Wulff's comments set off a debate about the role of Islam in Germany that still continues.
Maizière responded: "What is meant by 'Islam'? My understanding of the Islamic religion is that the individual Muslim is strong. That is why I would rather talk about Muslims in Germany. Muslims belong to Germany. This is a sentence that is more focused towards people. Towards people of faith, who educate their children religiously, and who live side-by-side with us in society. That is why I say quite clearly that Muslims belong to Germany."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.