German Chancellor Angela Merkel took everyone by surprise recently, when in an address to the young members of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), she sounded the death knell of multiculturalism in Germany. It had “utterly failed”, she said, an observation that could not be brushed aside given that ethnic and religious diversity has become more the norm than the exception in societies around the world today. In her own country, Merkel has been known to toe the middle line when it came to Europe’s contentious engagement with immigrants, especially Muslims who were visibly different, asking the Germans to accept the fact that mosques have become a part of their landscape. But by contributing her bit to the deepening ‘us versus them’ debate, she seems to have given in to pressures within the CDU to talk tough on immigrants, especially the integrationsverweigerer (immigrants unwilling to adapt to the dominant culture). Merkel now stands accused of fanning the flames of a rabid, visceral anti-immigrant discourse plaguing German society.
Their liberal media has alarmingly noted the popular response to former banker Thilo Sarrazin’s book, Germany Abolishes Itself, where, dubious statistics have been used to argue that Muslim immigrants have lowered the intelligence of German society. Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer (of the Christian Social Union) has added grist to the mill, calling for an end to immigration from Turkey and other Arab countries if Germany was not to end up as the “world’s largest welfare office”. The facts speak otherwise — Poland, Romania and the US (none with an Islamic majority populace) send the maximum number of immigrants to Germany while the number of immigrants from Muslim countries number in a few thousand.
Merkel’s statement, a risky hyperbole given Germany’s sanguinary history of intolerance, is part of the growing trend of immigrant and minority bashing in Europe. German industry bodies estimate the need for hundreds of thousands of skilled immigrants, if the country is not to suffer an economic decline (the Free Democrats, one of Merkel’s pro-business coalition partners have been arguing to lower the entry barrier for immigrants). The rest of Europe too urgently needs foreign skilled workers. But the response of European governments to the influx of the ‘other’ has been paranoid and immature, from banning the veil/headscarf or minarets, to increasing electoral success and political visibility of anti-immigration right-wing parties. To remain relevant, Europe will need to recognise its economic needs and temper its prejudices.
There is, however, a likely positive outcome of Merkel’s sudden outburst. By bringing a thorny issue to the fore, it has opened up the scope for a much-needed debate and dialogue on the question of integration, especially in this age where large numbers of people would have an economic imperative to relocate. Would it not be enough to expect the immigrants to pay taxes and obey the law of the land, and not make it necessary to adopt mores totally alien to their being? Perhaps each side will have to give a little, the host population doing better than balking and looking askance at the first sign of cultural unfamiliarity, while immigrants will have to avoid using the veil, figuratively, to mask practices anachronistic in the 21st century.