An English Idyll in the Rheinland
German Word of the Week: Fremdaussprechen

Anna Sauerbrey, Like Germany, Misses the Point

Infografik-vom-kopftuch-bis

[source. A handy German field guide to Muslim head coverings. I see the four on the left every time I leave the house, although the niqab remains pretty rare; I see it 2-3 times a week, not every day. The irony is that almost nobody wears a burka in Germany, but the debate about this issue is called the "burka-debate".]

Which brings us to one of Germany's periodic, tedious Leitkultur debates. I'll let Anna Sauerbrey, the New York Times' Germany-whisperer, define the term:

Consider the topic of the moment among Germany’s political class — whether the country has a “Leitkultur,” or guiding national culture, or whether it is a truly multicultural nation.... The term surfaced in 2000, when the Christian Democratic politician Friedrich Merz wrote an article in Die Welt asking whether it is enough for immigrants to obey German law or whether there are other manners, habits, traditions and conventions that everybody should respect as well.

Sauerbrey herself counsels: "Germans will have to accept habits and thoughts that are unfamiliar or even disturbing. Not because we accept them, but because we probably won’t change them."

The first response which pops to mind (aside from how you can "accept" something you don't "accept") is: Why? Did they vote for this? I don't meet very many Germans who are eager to be confronted with "unfamiliar" or "disturbing" things. Indeed, I don't meet many people in general who are this way.

The deeper problem is that this debate dances around the only relevant issue. If German acted like the majority of developed countries and only imported immigrants with a proven track record of adapting successfully to other cultures, there would be no Leitkultur debate.

If you want foreigners to integrate easily into your society, pick foreigners who will integrate easily into your society.

This is not mystery. Düsseldorf plays host to the largest Japanese expat community in Europe. These folks of course preserve their own habits and culture, much to the delight of their German hosts. But because they tend to be well-educated and come from a culture which has broadly similar values to German culture, they cause no problems. The whole Leitkultur debate is not about what immigrants do in their own homes and businesses, but about aspects of their behavior in public and in interactions with institutions.

Japanese immigrants cause no friction at all. In particular:

  • Japanese immigrants don't engage in honor killings.
  • Japanese immigrants do not get radicalized by online propaganda and commit terror attacks on German soil.
  • Japanese immigrants don't form clan-based criminal syndicates which engage in violent street battles in the poor areas of German cities.
  • Japanese immigrants are happy to shake hands with members of the opposite sex.
  • Japanese immigrants do not believe religious laws should take precedence over civil laws.
  • Japanese immigrants don't insist their female children be exempted from swimming lessons or school trips.
  • Japanese immigrants don't commit crimes at a rate hugely disproportionate to their share of the population.

The list goes on. You could substitute "educated, worldly Muslim" for the word "Japanese" in each of those bullet points.

Germany is having a debate about how much (formal or informal) pressure they need to apply to "get" immigrants to fit in is because those immigrants aren't doing it themselves. And that's because Germany has imported too many of the wrong kind of people: uneducated young males from conservative, traditional Muslim societies (or the conservative, traditional parts of Muslim societies). These people have few or none of the preconditions necessary to thrive within a very different, much more modern culture than their own. Yet they also don't want to go back to their home countries, where standards of living are much, much, much worse than Germany in every way. Who can blame them?

Choose your immigrants more wisely, and the Leitkultur debate vanishes. Yet Germany keeps on making the same mistake, over and over -- importing people who cannot adapt to German society, and then being surprised when they do not adapt. As Albert Einstein Narcotics Anonymous once said, "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results."

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