by Theunis Bates (AOL)
He’s only been in the job for three days, but Germany’s new interior minister has already sparked a major controversy by suggesting that Islam does not “belong” in the country.
Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of the Bavaria’s Christian Social Union party, made the headline-grabbing comments as police investigated the killing of two U.S. airmen at Frankfurt Airport on Wednesday. Prosecutors suspect that the attacker was acting alone and had been motivated by radical Islamist beliefs. The suspect — a 21-year-old Muslim immigrant from Kosovo — is now being held on two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder.
In his first news conference as minister, Friedrich said Thursday that Muslims were part of modern German society but added, “To say that Islam belongs in Germany is not a fact supported by history,” according to the British daily The Guardian. The German press has interpreted that statement as a rebuttal of a speech given by German President Christian Wulff in October, in which he said that decades of Muslim immigration meant that “Islam belongs to Germany.”
Although Friedrich went on to state that his chief goal as interior minister was to “bring society together and not polarize it,” his words have been damned as divisive by other members of the coalition cabinet as well as the opposition, Deutsche Welle reported.
“Of course Islam belongs in Germany,” said Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the Free Democratic Party, according to news site TheLocal.de. “I assume that the new interior minister … takes the responsibility for integration in his department seriously and is committed to solidarity and not marginalization.”
Another FDP politician, Hartfrid Wolff, declared today, “Islam has been a real part of Germany for several generations. … It is just as unhelpful to deny this fact as to naively romanticize multiculturalism.” Meanwhile Renate Künast, a member of the opposition Green party, joked that Friedrich was already “smashing the porcelain” despite having “only been interior minister for 24 hours.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was probably hoping that her new hire would avoid causing any unnecessary outrage in his first week. Her government is still recovering from a high-profile scandal involving former defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who stepped down Tuesday after he was found to have plagiarized large chunks of his Ph.D. dissertation.
But any high-level discussion of the role of Islam in Germany was always likely to cause controversy. The issue has been the subject of heated debate since the publication in August of an incendiary book by a former board member of the Central Bank. In “Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab” (“Germany Does Away With Itself”), Thilo Sarrazin claimed that Germany’s national character was being watered down by its 4 million Muslims (about 5.5 percent of the population), many of whom, he argued, refuse to integrate. “I don’t want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to live in a mostly Muslim country where Turkish and Arabic are widely spoken, women wear headscarves and the day is measured out by the muezzin’s call to prayer,” he wrote. “If I want that experience, I can just take a vacation in the Orient.”
Sarrazin was fired from the bank’s board after the book’s release. But Bavarian premier and CSU member Horst Seehofer picked up his argument and called for an end to immigration from Turkey and Arab nations. “It is clear that immigrants from foreign cultural circles, like Turkey or Arab countries, have a hard time,” he said in an interview with Focus magazine in October. “That leads me to the conclusion that we do not need any more migrants from other cultural centers.”
That statement in turn inspired President Wulff to try to silence opponents of immigration by stating that Islam “belongs in Germany.” The government had hoped the head of state’s conciliatory speech would mark an end to the immigration debate. Friedrich’s intervention, however, suggests that this hot topic is sure to continue burning for a long time yet.