December 7th, 2009

“Anti-Muslim sentiments”

Statement by the Secretary General of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan J. Kramer, on the debate on the minaret ban in Switzerland and a possible “Islamophobia” in Germany

I do not see the outcome of the referendum as an attack on freedom of religion, nor do I think that it proves the case of those who, on principle, oppose the use of referendums. On the contrary, freedom of opinion is one of the most fundamental rights in a functioning democracy, and t he participation of citizens in political decision-making – be it through elections or referendums – is one of the basic principles of our pluralistic democratic society. The less democratic responsibility citizens have, the less they identify themselves with the society and the country they live in. Therefore we need not less but more citizen participation. Of course, this requires responsible and informed citizens, as well as a strong culture of debate, which is what we, unfortunately, are lacking today.

As for the argument, the result of the referendum could provoke Islamist violence of the kind that hit Denmark after a newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, I think this argument is wrong. If we take seriously the principles and values of our democracy and free society, and hence want to be taken seriously by others, then we should let neither the authorities nor extremist groups intimidate us by threats or prospects of violence, limit our fundamental rights or prevent us from freely expressing our views. It is, however, important that freedom of opinion is used in a responsible manner. Here we should be guided by the principle of respect for human dignity which must not be encroached upon, and this applies not only to Christians but also, as in this case, to other religious communities.

The result of the referendum, being an expression of deeply ingrained anti-Muslim sentiments, cannot be glossed over or interpreted in a different way. It demonstrates what happens when we dodge an important debate on fundamental problems, fears, identities, and challenges and try to play down or to hush up the existing differences.

An open discussion, however, does not release us from our obligation to treat each other respectfully. Instead of making, in a high-profile and above all hypocritical manner, indignant statements on the outcome of the referendum in Switzerland, both national and international politicians should try to determine the causes of anti-Muslim prejudice in the Swiss population.

Neither the Swiss nor the Germans nor any other people are born with xenophobic or anti-Muslim sentiments. Nonetheless, it is quite safe to say that there is not a single country in Europe where there are no more or less similar fears of Muslims and where a referendum like that in Switzerland would not produce a similar result. Therefore, those who point a finger at Switzerland will notice that at least three fingers of the hand are pointing at them.

The current debate in Germany on the construction of a mosque in Cologne or on the interview with Thilo Sarrazin in which the latter paints a nightmare scenario of Muslims unwilling to integrate taking over Germany, as well as the allegedly wide acceptance of such views in German society demonstrate how widespread feelings of alienness, prejudices, and ignorance towards Muslims are. An argument often used to justify Xenophobia is that people tend to regard things they are unfamiliar with as something strange and threatening, which leads to rejection and opposition. It is often claimed that Muslims are unwilling to integrate and are lacking openness and readiness to engage in dialogue. But at the same time, the majority society does rather little to give the immigrants a sense of being at home, of being respected and recognised as equals, and to provide them with equal educational and job opportunities without urging them to give up their cultural and religious identity.

Fortunately, the debate on the construction of a mosque in Cologne has demonstrated that the situation in Germany is far from being hopeless. Not only the city of Cologne but also the Christian Churches and the Jewish community have expressed their clear support for the construction of a mosque in Cologne, and in the whole country in general. However, this does not mean that we can just sit back and do nothing. We should neither ignore the results of recent polls showing that many Muslims do not feel at home in Germany and have fears of growing Islamophobia, nor hush up the fears of the German majority society.

Although a referendum like that in Switzerland has never been held in Germany, there are enough xenophobic and extremist political forces and populists in this country that seek to bring about a change of political course by means of elections. If we really want integration and not assimilation then we have to create a climate of mutual respect, trust, and recognition. Integration contracts, bans on minarets, shechitah, and headscarves are harmful populist campaigning rather than adequate confidence-building measures.

We will be able to create a climate of trust only if we recognise the fundamental right of Muslims to their own religion, culture, and language and begin to see cultural diversity not as a threat or burden but as an asset and advantage for our society and our country.

Berlin, 02.12.2009