German President Joachim Gauck (photo: Rainer Jensen/dpa)
President Gauck and Germany's Muslims

A Certain Distance to Islam

The interviews and speeches given by Germany's new president, Joachim Gauck, show that he is putting a clear distance between himself and Islam. But as German president, his job is not to polarise, but to differentiate. In this essay, Jan Kuhlmann argues that he should reach out more to conservative Muslims in particular

Christian Wulff's legacy from his time as German president may be minimal, but one sentence remains and will echo for a long time to come: "Islam belongs to Germany". Strangely enough, these few words have had a polarising effect, even though (or perhaps precisely because) they merely describe the situation.

About four million Muslims living in Germany are a fact that no one can deny. This fact is also acknowledged by the new president, Joachim Gauck, who has already said that one should expect "no change of direction" from him on this issue.

All the same, Gauck wants to use different words. What line will he take? At this stage, it looks as if he is not planning to cosy up to anybody. Gauck and the Muslims could turn out to be a difficult issue: on the basis of what he has already said, he seems to be putting a clear distance between himself and Islam.

Entirely the wrong category of assessment

Thilo Sarrazin (photo: dpa)
Polarisation is their trademark: Gauck spoke of former member of the Executive Board of the Deutsche Bundesbank and author Thilo Sarrazin's "courage" in voicing his controversial theories about the negative effects of immigration in Germany

​​For a start, there's his interview with the Tagesspiegel newspaper, in which he spoke of author Thilo Sarrazin's "courage". Although he has distanced himself elsewhere from Sarrazin's absurd biologistic theories, his choice of words is still surprising. It doesn't need courage to create a scandal, as Sarrazin did, by adopting widely held prejudices and stereotypes. Courage is entirely the wrong category of assessment here: courage could be used to justify many statements that would have been better left unsaid.

Gauck is inclined to admire Sarrazin because they both enjoy polarising; they thrive on it. As he said in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, "Escalation is part of such debates, as is populist exaggeration." Well, actually, no: escalation and exaggeration have no part in such debates, at least not in this form!

Gauck's view of Islam can be deduced from an interview he gave to NZZ-TV, even if he did couch these views in very vague terms. He referred to "strangeness and distance", to "entirely different traditions", and he warns that "what has grown out of the soil of European enlightenment and also from the religious soil of Europe" could become "overly foreign".

In this context, he used the German word "überfremdet", which means something like "over-foreignised", and actually said in the interview that he chose this word deliberately. However, ever since 1993 – when another presidential hopeful, Steffen Heitmann, used it and thus disqualified himself for the office – this word has been controversial and seemed to have been banished from reasonable public parlance in Germany.

A dualist view

Muslim women in a mosque (photo: dpa)
According to Jan Kuhlmann, Germany's new president, Joachim Gauck, himself a pastor, exhibits a kind of dualist view of religious issues

​​For Gauck, Islam is foreign, different, something which doesn't really belong. He exhibits a kind of dualist view of religious issues: on the one side there is "us", the enlightened West founded on the basis of Western Christianity, and on the other, there is Islam, which "hasn't had its reformation" and is thus pre-enlightenment, or even medieval. That sounds like Sarrazin dressed up as an intellectual.

This rhetoric of exclusion is particularly bitter for those Muslims who were born or grew up here, who speak German as their mother tongue, who, like their non-Muslim contemporaries at school or elsewhere, have been most influenced by the enlightenment norms and values of this country, and who are for that reason (but not just for that reason) a firm part of its culture. Just because a woman wears a headscarf, or a man lets his beard grow, doesn't mean that Kant's categorical imperative is alien to them.

In his first speech in office, Gauck seemed to suggest that, as president, he will take a more balanced line. He declared that "an inviting, open society" was close to his heart. He pointed out that the German constitution gives everybody the same right to dignity, "irrespective of where they come from, what they believe, or what language they speak." And he continued, "[The constitution] does not grant this as a reward for successful integration, and it does not withdraw [the right to dignity] as a sanction when integration is rejected."

But even here, one can sense a distance to Islam. He speaks of the fact that "religions like Islam . . . have come to stand alongside the accepted German and Christian traditions" in Germany. But something which stands alongside doesn't necessarily belong, so that it would have been better if Gauck had chosen the word "with". That would have been a small change with a major effect. One might say that such a criticism is splitting linguistic hairs, but a rhetorician like Gauck chooses his words carefully.

Especially since, in a later passage about Islam (although he doesn't refer to it explicitly), Gauck puts it in the usual context of fanaticism and terror. That's understandable, given the events of Toulouse. But it's precisely because of that that it would have been much better if he had offered a real counterbalance.

Building bridges and raising his voice in reminder and warning

Former German President Christian Wulff (photo: Reuters)
Gauck's predecessor, Christian Wulff, was popular among German Muslims because he declared that Islam belongs to Germany

​​That, after all, is what his task as German president must be: not to polarise the discussion about Islam, but to differentiate; to bring people together, rather than to drive them apart; not to build a front between Muslims and non-Muslims, between "us" and "them", but between extremists and non-extremists. That's what he has to succeed in doing, without hiding the real problems of integration under a blanket of silence. He has to be a president who both builds bridges and raises his voice in reminder and warning.

That's a fairly easy task when one is dealing with Muslims who are seen in Germany as "liberal" or "secular", i.e. women who don't wear headscarves, or men who occasionally allow themselves an alcoholic drink. But in reality, a significant proportion of Muslims see their religion differently, and interpret it in a more traditional way. They may be "conservative," but they still stand with both feet firmly on the foundation of a liberal, constitutional state. It's no contradiction to be a faithful Muslim and a democrat.

This country has to win over conservative German Muslims above all since they make up a significant proportion of the German Muslim community. It won't be possible to build up a kind of "German Islam" without "the faithful".

They are the ones who are most likely to be able to prevent the young from drifting into extremism. President Gauck, a trained pastor who therefore has a special understanding of religion, should start from there and try to talk to those who suffer social exclusion because of their religion.

Gauck himself called on those who were listening to his inaugural speech, made before the two houses of the German parliament, not to be "led by anxiety, resentment and negative projections" when it comes to "questions of coexistence." How very true! And it will be by this standard that he will have to be judged in the future.

Jan Kuhlmann

© 2012

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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Comments for this article: A Certain Distance to Islam

Or more precise, on conservative Muslims. Becoming Germany's president does not erase his Protestant identity. And as Martin Luther distanced himself clearly from the conservatism of Rome and its Catholics, so Gauck keeps distance from Mecca and its Muslims, mutatis mutandis. Now this logic might be regrettable but logical it is. And it has a positive aspect. He can feel himself closer to the progressive Muslims, even if they are a minority within the Ummah The conservative Muslims, meanwhile, have another German they can feel more familiar with. Ratzinger is his name.

guy meynen05.04.2012 | 21:36 Uhr