The new German president Joachim Gauck (photo: dapd)
Joachim Gauck

Germany's Muslims Are Skeptical towards Their New President

Muslims are divided in their views on the new German president, Joachim Gauck. Many are concerned about his evident understanding for the views of Thilo Sarrazin on Muslims in Germany. Jan Kuhlmann reports

It was a broad coalition in the Federal Assembly which elected Joachim Gauck to the German presidency last Sunday. Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens all supported the 72-year-old candidate. The media also took a positive view, describing him as a "President of the People" – a judgement which is confirmed by the opinion polls. According to one major poll, 67 percent think he was a good choice. So is Joachim Gauck "everybody's president"?

That doesn't seem to be true: in spite of the fact that so many political parties supported him, 108 members of the assembly abstained. Muslims in Germany are especially critical. Some – like Mehmet Kilic, Turkish-born spokesman on integration for the Green Party group in the German parliament – see Gauck as the completely wrong man for the job. He objects particularly to Gauck's evident understanding for the views of Thilo Sarrazin, a former central banker whose book "Germany does away with itself" ("Deutschland schafft sich ab") was highly controversial because of its view that the immigration of people who are genetically disadvantaged is causing problems for Germany.

"Not on the side of the weak"

In an interview with a newspaper, Gauck said that it had taken "courage" to say what Sarrazin had said – as he put it. "He has spoken more openly than politicians do about a problem which exists in society." Gauck said he wasn't worried at Sarrazin's provocative positions. "Naturally, he's someone who intentionally provokes the German public, but that's part of the game," he told another newspaper.

Mehmet Kilic (photo: private copyright)
No faith in Gauck: Mehmet Kilic of the Greens says he "couldn't vote for someone for president who complimented Sarrazin on his courage"

​​Kilic was annoyed when he read what Gauck had to say. "I saw that as a dagger in my back," he says. "Gauck was not taking the side of the weak, he was putting himself firmly on the side of the Bild (Germany's most popular mass daily, the editor) and Sarrazin."

The fact that Gauck has now distanced himself from Sarrazin's biologically deterministic theses hasn't softened Kilic's view: he says that Gauck follows opinion, and only criticized Sarrazin after others had done so.

Kilic found his view confirmed by a filmed interview which Gauck gave to a Swiss paper and which has been posted on the internet. Gauck said that Islam showed "a foreignness and a distance" towards Europe which should not be ignored. He was being deliberately provocative, as he admitted himself, when he used the term "Überfremdung," a highly sensitive and well-nigh untranslatable word which means literally "over-foreignisation."

"We have completely different traditions," he said, "and the people in Europe – we see it everywhere, not just in Germany – react allergically when they get the feeling that something is growing up on the foundations of the European enlightenment, and also on the religious foundations of Europe, and that they are being 'over-foreignised.'"

A president that devides?

Kilic is an Alawi Muslim, and he's is indignant at this choice of words: "If he says that, he's addressing a certain audience," he says. For immigrants, his election is not good news: "We migrants had better wrap up warm. We will find out that he won't unite and integrate society. He'll divide it."

Kenan Kolat, chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany (photo: AP)
Regret over Wulff's resignation: Kenan Kolat of the Turkish Community in Germany says, "We've lost a good president as far as content is concerned"

​​Kilic's scepticism is shared by many Muslims in Germany. Many of them regret the resignation of the former president, Christian Wulff, in spite of the controversy surrounding him which led to it. His statement that "Islam belongs to Germany" was widely applauded, and the Turkish Community in Germany expressed its regret when he went.

The organisation's chairman, Kenan Kolat, who's a member of the Social Democrats and thus beyond suspicion as a natural Wulff supporter, said that, even if Wulff had made mistakes, it was still a shame that he'd resigned.

Gauck's positive assessment of the Arab Spring

Katajun Amirpur, professor of Islamic studies in Hamburg and the daughter of an Iranian and a German, understands the immigrant position. She's a Social Democrat, and she was appointed as a member of the Federal Assembly as a representative of the state of Hamburg. She's also critical of some of Gauck's statements on Islam and immigrants, but she voted for him anyway.

He's a man of integrity, she says, and one of the few who really rejoiced over the Arab Spring: "Gauck was someone who said in spring last year, 'Why are we all so negative? We should be happy together with the people who are fighting for freedom and for values which are important for us.' Most people only issued warnings and said, 'God help us: who knows what'll happen next!'"

Amirpur also praises the new president for going up to the relatives of the victims of the recently discovered neo-Nazi killings after a national memorial service. And she hopes that, as a theologian, Gauck will have particularly understanding for people of other religions. "Perhaps he has an open ear for religious issues," she says. "Someone who is not deaf to religion could be a good president on Muslim concerns."

Katajun Amirpur (photo: Georg Lukas/DW)
Katajun Amirpur: "Someone who is not deaf to religion could be a good president on Muslim concerns"

​​But she's not entirely without her doubts: she thinks Gauck needs to deal with the issue of integration, both in word and deed. He needs to say that problems of integration are primarily problems of education, and not a problem of religion. Muslims in Germany had the impression "that their religion is seen primarily as a problem."

Paternalism in the integration debate

Another Muslim who voted for Gauck was the Turkish-born politician from the liberal FDP, Serkan Tören, spokesman on integration issues for his party's parliamentary group. He too felt there were questions to answer after Gauck's interviews, but Gauck had assured the FDP parliamentary group when he met them that he would continue the policy on integration set by his predecessor, even if he might use different words. Tören thinks that Gauck's main topic, freedom, is one that was also of importance to Muslim immigrants.

Everyone in society needs to see what he can do for others, instead of just asking what the state can do for him, says Tören. There is quite a bit of paternalism in the integration debate. Assistance for immigrants and their families is imposed "from above". This is where Gauck could show "that individual freedom is also the right answer for immigrants".

The new president will take his oath of office before the two houses of parliament on Friday. When Wulff did so in 2010, he referred to the "colourful republic of Germany". Will Gauck also deal with the issue? An interview he gave to German television after his election suggests he might. He said one should expect "no change in direction" on Islam now that he has taken over from Wulff.

Kilic finds that hard to believe. "Immigrants will first be softened up with gentle words," he says. "But then Gauck will insist that they alone are responsible for all their shortcomings."

Jan Kuhlmann

© 2012

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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