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Much ado about Sarrazin

Sarrazin detox? The debate one year later, summarized by Hamed Abdel-Samad.

Hamed Abdel-Samad bei der Vorstellung seines Buches Hamed Abdel-Samad 
One year after the publication of Sarrazin's book I ask myself whether the debate has visibly achieved anything beyond polarization, indignation and insult. According to some, Sarrazin touched a raw nerve and sparked public debate about a taboo topic. According to others, no, Sarrazin did not touch a raw nerve but instead got on everyone's nerves by characterizing an entire segment of the population as genetically dumb, which made getting along more difficult. What kind of superman is this eloquent statistics enthusiast? And why does everyone seem to be obsessed with him? Why does he alone dominate the topic of integration, although he is neither one of the brightest minds of the nation, nor does he offer any solutions?

Yes, Sarrazin did open up a debate - not about the taboo topic of integration but about the topic of Sarrazin himself. And emotions were churned up not by Sarrazin's disproportionate critique but by many people's subjective feelings of permanently being treated unjustly. Strangely enough, this feeling is shared by the parties on both sides of the Islam debate. The "finally someone is telling the truth" faction is uncritically loyal to him and his arguments, which hardly anyone is able to precisely articulate. And the "we don't feel welcome" faction longingly awaits the messages of the retired banker, in order to feed the fire of their own lasting indignation. The constant restaging and artificial prolonging of the Sarrazin debate confirms that either we don't have an integration problem or we have no solution for it.

Sarrazin's success among German-Germans can be compared with the success of Turkish premier minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's nationalistic arguments among German-Turks. The thundering applause that Sarrazin received in late September 2010 at the Literaturhaus in Munich has the same origin as the cheers that met Erdogan in late February 2008 in the Cologne Arena. Both men are selling their adherents a nationalistic myth and a pseudo alternative to the current social reality. However, our problems are not Sarrazin and Erdogan but the gaping holes that they fill. We have three, or possibly more, segments of the population in Germany that are increasingly sealing themselves off from each other. I am not against this kind of isolation on principle, as long as it takes place under the motto "live and let live." But this systematic separation is ideologically based and born of resentment. There is a small underclass living in an immigrant subculture that still clings to old archaic and religious traditions, erecting a mental barrier between its own children and contemporary society. These people have neither the linguistic nor social competence to provide themselves or their children upward mobility.

On the other side, we have a small German upper class, which wishes to protect its children from "problematic immigrants" and therefore sends them to Catholic or Protestant schools, where there are hardly any "foreigners". On the other end of the social spectrum, this class is apparently responding to Islamisation with re-Christianisation. Many parents simply feel out of their depth in the face of the challenges posed by multiculturalism, and they retreat with their children to a romantic Germany that ceased to exist at the end of the 19th century, at the latest. Sending their children to a Christian school serves not only simply as a form of elite exclusiveness but also identity hygiene. At the same time, there is a growing number of Turkish private schools in Germany with an Islamic emphasis, which primarily attract the Turkish middle class. So Germany is cultivating its own future foreigners on all peripheries of society. After they have graduated, if not before, the isolated children of both camps will have to return to a different Germany, for which they hardly have the social or intercultural competencies. However, these very competencies form the basis of a successful society and functioning economy in the age of globalisation.

In the future, the third and largest group of people in Germany, at least I hope, will consist of people with and without an immigration background, who will have learned through engaging in and enduring conflict that the picture of society painted by Sarrazin, on the one side, and Erdogan, on the other, is not sustainable. However, at the moment this third group does not seem to have a lobby and apparently has too low a capacity for outrage to be attractive to the media. I hope that the economic and social mobility in the country and effective educational policy will enable this group to continue to grow, so that the general mood can be detoxified even without integration summits and the dialogue industry. For no one can win the game of isolation.

Initially, I also hoped that Sarrazin's provocative arguments would break through this indifference and take the debate in a new direction. But up until now this debate has brought nothing but polarization, which exacerbates the isolation on both ends of the spectrum and puts pressure on the multicultural centre to take a stand with one side or the other. Both sides are responding to the political and economic upheavals of this world with feelings of insecurity and fear, which each side projects onto the other. Instead of simply enduring the tensions of change and looking in the mirror, each constantly blames the other. And if you don't know who you are, you should at least know who you aren't. We need less, not more, institutionalised religion and reconstructed identity in order to detoxify our society. It is not a sign of creativity that we respond to the uncertainties of globalisation according to old patterns: finding solace and identity through religion and outdated concepts of nationality, which are kept alive by the exclusion of others.


This article was originally published in Die Welt on August 18, 2011.

Hamed Abdel-Samad is a German-Egyptian political scientist, historian and journalist. Recent publications include "Mein Abschied vom Himmel" (my departure from heaven) and "Der Untergang der islamischen Welt: Eine Prognose" (the decline of the Islamic world: a prognosis).

Translation: ls - let's talk european