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Making multiculturalism work

Jutta Limbach defends the idea of multiculturalism, and suggests how its constitutional protection could reduce the terrorist threat.

The 1960s witnessed the beginning of worldwide migration. Increasingly, people find themselves in surroundings where not only their clothes, food and drink set them apart from local inhabitants, but also their language, their ways of thinking and their beliefs. In Europe, as previously in the USA and Canada, the growing diversity of cultures and religions leads to tensions and conflicts.

These conflicts often take place in the schools, in many cases over questions of clothing, religious signs and symbols. The "Islamic scarf" and the crucifix come to mind. Should schoolgirls or teachers be allowed to wear veils in public schools? Does an Islamic girl have the right to be excused from co-educational gym classes because her religion – at least according to her reading of the Koran – forbids her from wearing gym clothes in the presence of the opposite sex?

But questions also arise outside of the schools. Should the Muezzin's calls to prayer over loudspeakers have the same status in German cities as the tolling of Christian church bells? Should religious slaughtering practices be permitted if they contravene local regulations? In the recent past, the major bones of contention have arisen from Koranic injunctions that Muslim men and women use to justify behaviour which is at odds with, or even contradicts, that of the local population.

There are basically two conflicting answers to these questions. One is to recommend that immigrants conform to the customs, habits and culture of their host country. The alternative to this forced assimilation emphasises cultural freedom: the right of immigrants and their children to retain the traditions and values of their country of origin, which are familiar, cherished and perhaps even holy to them.

Both strategies have their adherents – in Germany as elsewhere. True, one rarely encounters either position in its pure form. But the opposing sides often prefer the least sophisticated interpretation of the argument they oppose. This was evident in the public debates surrounding the murder of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam and the suicide bombings in London. Faced with these fanatic acts of terror coming from the midst of society, the idea of multiculturalism has been on the wane in Germany - across the party spectrum. Not only that, it is being represented as the root of all evil.

It cannot be denied that parallel societies are emerging across Europe. Society is divided along ethnic, race and religious lines, particularly in the major cities and suburbs, where many immigrants and their descendants live. This worrying fact may shatter our idealistic illusions, but it should not lead us to discard a good socio-political idea. The increasing fragmentation of our major cities and suburbs does not result from the idea of peaceful coexistence among cultures. It is much more the result of the unsuccessful implementation of this idea.

Only gradually are we coming to understand that immigrants and their children, who live and work with us, feel spiritually displaced in our (allegedly) open society, and excluded by the majority. Inferiority complexes are spreading. Those ignored by the majority society are left searching for other spiritual worlds in which they can forge an identity for themselves and their communities. The comfort offered by fundamentalist preachers is a way out. But the solutions they propagate differ from religion; they create an image of the "enemy" that polishes their own ego.

The causes, motives and preconditions of terrorist attacks are certainly many-sided. The fact that the perpetrators come from the midst of our society leads us to turn our gaze there. Analyses into the roots of terror have shown that neither poverty nor illiteracy create a predisposition to terrorism. A much more important factor is the experience of humiliation. This explains why terrorist leaders are so successful in recruiting young men.

For that reason, our starting point should be a commitment to the inviolability of human dignity and the minority rights this commitment implies, even if it may, at first glance, seem absurd to discuss the protection of minorities rather than the protection of the majority, when faced with the threat of terrorism.

In Germany, the horrible lessons drawn from the inhumanity of the Nazi era had a formative influence on the shape of the Basic Law. In particular, the admission of human and civil rights drew on lessons from the past. The commitment to the inviolability of human dignity and equality before the law is an answer to the legal travesty of National Socialism, and the machinery of destruction that worked in the shadows of this arbitrary system.

The suffering of ethnic, racial and religious minorities under National Socialism resulted in a discrimination ban in the Basic Law: no one can be disadvantaged or favoured based on his parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith, or religious or political opinion.

The creators of the Basic Law were satisfied with this individual protection for members of groups that are frequently subject to discrimination. But unlike the constitutions of other nations, the Basic Law makes no mention of minority protection in the form of a collective right; that is, norms according to which the state, the Länder and the communities are to protect and foster the cultural identity and autonomy of an ethnic or religious minority.

In the early 1990s, an attempt by the opposition to add the explicit protection of minorities to the Basic Law failed. Even the simple sentence: "The state respects the identity of ethnic, cultural and linguist minorities" was rejected, due to the political make-up of the constitutional commission: members of the Bundestag and the Bundesrat (the second house of parliament composed of representatives of the 16 German states). The further addition proposed by the SPD that the state should protect ethnic groups and national minorities with German citizenship was attacked by the conservative majority. Opponents feared this minority protection veiled a new socio-political concept, that of the multicultural society.

For them, the term multicultural society evidently stood for more than the observable fact of a culturally mixed society. They associated it with the coexistence of the various independent cultures. But it could not be the business of the state, they argued, to organise as many independent cultures as possible within the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany. Rather, immigrants must be expected to integrate into the German state and society. Germany is one of the largest countries of immigration, following the USA, Canada and Great Britain. Seven million foreigners live here. Around 3.2 million are Muslims, of which between 300,000 and 400,000 are German citizens. These large numbers of immigrants and descendants of immigrants have no collective minority protection under the law. In particular, Turkish immigrants and their descendants enjoy no protection of their language, culture and religion.

These are tolerated, but not fostered. For that reason, the protection of ethnic and religious minorities in Germany takes place essentially through the needle's eye of individual protection, particularly through the basic freedom rights, of which freedom of religion plays a main role. So the construction of mosques, Islamic religious instruction by the Islamic federation, butchering practices and the excusing of Muslim girls from co-educational gym classes have been the subject of court decisions.

One consequence of religious freedom is that there is no forced assimilation. As a secularised freedom, the freedom of confession is "open to the development of various religions and confessions". All religious beliefs are on an equal footing, and are to be acknowledged in their respective particularities. The differentness of "immigrated religions" must therefore be accepted. No heed should be paid to recommendations to migrants that they conform to the practises of their host country. Strategies aiming at assimilating minorities into the majority culture jar with our constitutional order. Under a constitution that protects the freedom of belief and ideological confession, a "dominant culture" striving for spiritual or intellectual predominance is out of place. Rather, the Basic Law sets a standard of openness vis-à-vis the plurality of ideological and religious views.

All public authorities in the Federal Republic of Germany must respect the freedom of faith, conscience and ideological confession, and the imperative of tolerance. In the event of a conflict between majority and minority cultures, tribunals appealed to by the minority must defy the majority if constitutional guarantees are at stake.

Because the modern state is defined through its constitution and not through its religion, it must admit and protect cultural, and especially religious diversity. It is not the business of the state to answer every last question of meaning. In a pluralistic state which guarantees religious and ideological freedom, there can be no obligation to Christianity or a personal God. Only a state that remains neutral in questions of faith can guarantee the peaceful coexistence of diverse religious convictions.

The term "tolerance" does not appear in the constitution. But this principle is to be deduced from the Basic Law in its complete expression. The German Constitutional Court derives the imperative for tolerance mainly from the commitment to the inviolability of human dignity. But the "constitutional system of values promoting tolerance as a fundamental principle of free democracy" is also expressed in the right to free development of the personality, religious freedom and the prohibition of discrimination against other confessions.

Even tolerance has its limits. The behaviour of a religious minority may not conflict with the basic values of our constitution, even if it is grounded in religious law. This applies to cases in which the religious sign is a symbol of oppression and runs counter to the dignity and freedom of its wearer. The Basic Law also guarantees the equality of men and women. But the religiously motivated veil cannot be seen automatically as a symbol of oppression, or the expression of a fundamentalist basic attitude. Things are different for the burka, a veil that covers the entire head and body apart from the eyes, because the veiled woman is no longer seen by others as an individual.

Religious practices that degrade women or children, making them the object of foreign cultist acts that irreversibly violate the right to bodily inviolacy – genital mutilation, for example – are not covered by the guarantee of religious freedom. The state is duty-bound to protect the individual from assault by others, even their own parents. This duty to protect the individual's right to bodily inviolacy arises explicitly from the international law of human rights and the Children's Convention.

To change the world in the spirit of human rights, we must dream more deeply and be more awake in our actions. The commitment to the inviolability of human dignity in our Basic Law is the normative idea that will challenge us to do so. To bridge the gap between the ideal and the reality we need not only the sympathy, but more importantly, the will to make it happen. And we need this as much in our everyday life and social environment as in our political decisions.


The speech was delivered at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin on August 3, 2005. It was published in German on Perlentaucher.

Jutta Limbach was President of the German Federal Constitutional Court
from 1994-2002. Since 2002 she has been President of the Goethe-Institut.

Translation: jab - let's talk european