Richard Bernstein


A few months ago, the German and foreign press carried one of those alarming stories that the war of civilizations, pitting Muslims against Christians, had arrived on German soil. The police were investigating claims, made by a teacher whose informant was a 9-year-old girl, that a mosque in Frankfurt had shown violent videos calling for jihad against the West.

The story seemed to confirm the worst fears about the Muslim presence in Europe, which is why it attracted a fair amount of attention. Attracting less attention is the fact that, until now, the police say, the investigation of the charge has turned up no evidence at all that it was true.

The story of the Frankfurt mosque comes to mind these past few weeks amid the sudden crescendo of annoyed complaints, coming mostly but not exclusively from the moderate right on the political spectrum, that immigrants are failing to integrate themselves into German society, and that multiculturalism - the idea that immigrants can be part of Germany while retaining their own culture - has been a miserable failure.

The complaints are coming with a warning. If you are unwilling to adopt German values as your own, Edmund Stoiber, the premier of Bavaria, said at a conservative party congress this week, then "you picked the wrong country."

Nobody would argue, especially after the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, that the large and growing Muslim population in Europe is not of enormous concern.

For many people in this country and elsewhere, the murder of van Gogh, in which an Islamic suspect is alleged to have used the grisly methods that have become familiar to viewers of Al Jazeera, was unmistakable evidence that a cult of murder and death had implanted itself in Europe. What could happen in the peaceful, tolerant, open-hearted Netherlands surely could happen elsewhere.

Still, to an outsider at least, there seems to be a kind of soft demagogy hanging in the air in German, a sense not so much that a problem is being forthrightly addressed as that a political opportunity is being seized.

Stoiber got a lot of applause the other day when he declared "Yes to openness and tolerance; no to Islamic head scarves."

Angela Merkel, the presumed conservatives' candidate for chancellor in the next election, announced recently, a good deal of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the "Multiculturalism has failed, big time." And Jörg Schönbohm, the interior minister of Brandenburg, issued a stern warning to immigrants to adopt the "leitkultur," the German dominant culture, as their own. "We cannot allow foreigners to destroy this common basis," he said.

And yet, as the politicians themselves have been saying, the vast majority of Muslims are law-abiding and peaceful, and the evidence of daily life would suggest a far more mixed picture of integration and separation than Merkel's comment would indicate.

Moreover, there is no point in conflating the threat of terrorism with the issues of simple cultural differences. The answer to the terrorist threat would seem to lie not in cultural coercion but in good police and intelligence work - of the sort last week that nailed several members of the terror group Ansar al Islam as they were plotting to assassinate the visiting Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric against multiculturalism strikes many ethnic Turks living in Germany as a refusal by the majority culture to recognize that Germany has become a country of immigration, or to accept the consequences of that irrevocable fact.

"In America immigrants are proud to be immigrants," said Mustafa Yoldas, a medical doctor in Hamburg and vice chairman of the Islamic League of North Germany. "In Germany they are only endured."

Of course, the reply is that immigrants to America are eager to become Americans, while Muslim immigrants in Germany have refused to give up cultural ways that are inimical to German values and to democracy. When politicians here talk about a parallel society, they mean the growth of a sort of an eastern Anatolian tribal culture that oppresses women, forces their daughters into arranged marriages, and from time to time engages in honor killings.

Yoldas and other Muslim spokesmen acknowledge that this society exists, but they have several rejoinders. One is that the newly harsh and uncompromising discourse on immigration places all the onus on the immigrants themselves, and very little on Germany itself, which has abjectly failed over the decades to help the Turkish guest workers to integrate - by, for example, recognizing Islam as a German religion and funding a religious academy so imams could be German born and German trained, rather than imported from Egypt or Gaza.

It was Germany, after all, that not only encouraged the original guest workers to come four decades ago, but preferred the uneducated and more culturally backward of them, because the demand was for unskilled labor. Then, in the false expectation that they would return to Turkey, the host society encouraged the Turks to live quite separately - Bantu-ized, as it were.

Since then, Germany has yet to discover remedies for cultural separateness that have been fruitful elsewhere: affirmative action for example, for which there is barely a suggestion, much less an actual program in Germany.

And at a deeper level, listening to the overwrought rhetoric of recent days, one wonders about a paradox lying at the heart of the whole matter. Speaking of the leitkultur, the politicians most commonly define it as an attachment to the German Basic Law, in other words to German democracy. Every body who wants to live here, they say, should pledge allegiance to that.

Fair enough. But that very definition suggests to many ethnic Turks that the Germans themselves do not fully appreciate the significance and the implications of their own values. What, for example, do Stoiber's calls for openness and tolerance mean if Germany remains closed to a simple, voluntary, unforced choice of a headdress by a Muslim woman who is qualified to teach in the public schools?

What the Turkish leaders here say is that they want to be integrated, but not by force and not at the cost of their identity as Muslims. Moreover, they argue, the very principles of the Basic Law require that they be allowed to see things this way.

"If we have a Basic Law that does not prefer one ethnic group or religion over another," Yoldas said, "then we have to ask the politicians to accept the Basic Law."