In Europe nowadays it's the height of fashion to subject citizenship candidates to tricky tests – usually in question-and-answer form, sometimes employing sophisticated operations – that are supposed to determine the applicant's compatibility with the liberal democratic operating system of the western world.
The tests differ in detail and in rhetorical tone. In Baden-Württemberg, as Heribert Prantl wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the test is "filled with prejudice and ill-will", while the Hessian questionnaire is "for know-it-alls". In Austria, with the exception of 18 basic questions on civic issues, the focus is more on a knowledge of local culture that is ultimately of interest to no one but the inhabitants of a given state or region.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands the authorities have come up with something really original: for the first phase of the test, applicants must view a 105-minute- long DVD showing naked women and smooching homosexuals. If this makes citizenship candidates run screaming out of the room, they need not return to take the rest of the test.
Keeping foreigners at a distance
For all their differences, the tests all share one basic theme: the desire to keep the foreigners at a distance. Social inclusion is offered only to those who a) have a surprisingly exhaustive knowledge of the national culture ("Which assembly met in 1848 in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt?") and b) successfully master the liberal trick questions ("Explain the following concept: Israel's right to exist", "A woman should not be permitted to move around in public or travel by herself without being accompanied by a close male relative: What is your opinion on this statement?").
In actual fact the liberalism that runs through these tests is a paradoxical one. It asserts a liberal attitude that is hardly uncontroversial or taken for granted even in western societies: equal rights for women, tolerance of other lifestyles, respect toward lesbians and gays, condemnation of anti-Semitism.
Keeping up the appearance of liberalism
One might almost think the laissez-faire hedonism of the post-1968 generation had been distilled into question-and-answer form. Surprisingly enough, for the conservative circles that are cooking up these "Muslim tests" – or rather "anti-Muslim tests", this kind of liberalism, the principle of "to each his own", is anything but mainstream.
This is not necessarily cause for criticism, on the contrary. This sort of posited liberalism could be seen as a performative ruse: if only western societies assert their own liberalism often and loudly enough, some day they may actually be that liberal. The postulate may outdo the reality, but that doesn't mean the reality won't catch up with the postulate.
That would be the lenient interpretation. But there is another, more serious possibility. The posited liberalism simultaneously acts as its own disclaimer. The crucial thing about the assertion of open-mindedness is not the open-mindedness itself, but the subtext which it is allowed to convey: "We don't want you here. You don't fit in with us."
Phobia of the Other
In this way the new "test culture" reveals a truth of the west, but a truth in complete opposition to the one intended: western European culture is not liberalism, but the phobia of the Other. To keep the Muslims at arm's length, the Europeans formulate questions they are convinced will confound those who beat their wives, go to war over religion and have no concept of freedom of the press.
In short, the tests are not a tool for integration or for regulating immigration in a positive sense; rather, they are a means of signalizing to the autochthonous population that everything is being done to ensure that as few people as possible are able to leap the hurdles of immigration. Those who are forced to take these tests take them for what they are: a dismissal.
Ultimately, of course, that is the punch-line of all this talk about integration – that not a moment is spent thinking about how one's actions could be interpreted by the other. Who is willing to bother with the effort of empathy, identifying with the other, cultural understanding?
Now and then this results in clever, if unintended, punch-lines. The Viennese test, for instance, asks: "When was the aqueduct built?" For anyone who is interested: The Viennese aqueduct was built in 1873. The one in Istanbul was built in 1560.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translation from German: Isabel Cole
The author lives in Vienna as a freelance writer and journalist.