BERLIN -- Two years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the Internet "Neuland," a "new land," that she doesn't understand. She is now feeling the impact of her weak grasp of the new medium. Her address to the German nation two weeks ago welcoming refugees went viral around the world through the web and social media, raising the hopes of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the troubled countries of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who were literally already walking toward the German border. Her comments prompted thousands more to escape the dreariness of their tent refugee camps or lives in bombed towns and villages that used to be their home.
A "Neuland" on German soil is precisely what millions of refugees now long for -- and expect -- based on the chancellor's remarks.
A 'Neuland' on German soil is precisely what millions of refugees now long for -- and expect -- based on the chancellor's remarks.
The German constitution guarantees the right to asylum. Yet, that guarantee is clearly meant for individuals or groups that are persecuted within their national, ethnic or tribal societies. It was certainly never meant to be applied to such a large outpouring at once as we see today. What term would one use to describe the displacement of an entire nation? This, too, is new territory. It thus comes as no surprise that the German minister of the interior is considering amending the constitution to clarify this point.
The hopelessness of the Syrian people motivated Germany's open door policy. But Chancellor Merkel clearly was not solely motivated by her background as a pastor's daughter. She also wanted to show leadership in the debate among European member states regarding the process of placing the refugees entering the European Union.
As of this time, though, it is clear that her approach has failed. She has had to reverse course. Temporary border controls have been instituted. Germans still welcome Syrian refugees. People still open their homes, the German army, the Bundeswehr, has vacated some of its buildings to shelter refugees. Parishes and monasteries are taking in refugees. But there is just not enough capacity.
Syrians Tread in the Wake of the Turks
Many Syrian refugees are well trained and educated. Many of them speak English. This marks an important difference with the immigration waves of the 1960s and 70s. Today, there are around 3.5 million people of Turkish descent in Germany. Their fathers were not very welcome at the time. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt even said that it was a mistake to have taken in these people of a different cultural background.
The writer Max Frisch described the dilemma: "We asked for workers, but in the end human beings came." The outcome was half a century of "them" and "us" in segregated communities. A Turkish name is still a hindrance in the job market, as surveys show.
'We asked for workers, but in the end human beings came.'
Yet, even today, the utilitarian argument is present in every conversation: we need qualified workers for Germany's future. When the Frankfurt International Motor Show opened its doors this week, Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche urged the Germans to take in the skilled and ambitious refugees at a moment when the country seeks to fill approximately 40,000 trainee positions in various industries. The cause is honorable. But will Germany repeat its former mistakes?
The people entering the country today are human beings, not breathing machines. They bring their whole identity, their history, their collective memory. And this includes their religion. But, Germans fear nothing more than radical Islam that has some roots in Arab culture. Indeed, there has never been much of a problem with the Turkish variants of Islam in this country. The first wave of immigrants did not practice their religion in an aggressive manner. Why would they have? Originally they intended to return to Turkey after a few years of working in Germany. In the end, they stayed. Yet, only 10 years ago, half a century after their first arrival, the German public finally accepted the idea that the people who helped build the country might need proper places of worship. There are great examples of new mosques now, such as this one in Cologne.
Over the past decades, the Turkish government has tried to influence people of Turkish decent via the ministry of religious affairs, which delivers the Friday sermons from Ankara to mosques all over Germany. But still, there has been no disturbances of any sort coming out of Germany's Turkish community.
In light of the current influx of Syrians, one wonders if an apology by the Germans might be appropriate at this point. The Turkish (and other guest workers from Greece, Italy and Portugal) never got much assistance and support from the government. Now, the so-called third generation is the one paying taxes and helping integrate Syrians and others through their good will. The chairman of the Council of Muslims in Germany, Aiman Mazyek, has already made clear that the Muslim community expects laws and rules to be upheld by the new guests of Muslim belief in the country.
Fear of Islam Remains
The fear of Islam, however, is still enormous, both in secular circles that cherish a liberal society as well as by the Christian faithful in the country. Right-wing parties all over the continent seek to fuel their xenophobic campaigns with reminiscences of historical conflicts between Christians and Muslims even as the current refugees are fleeing from a religiously inspired, denominational and ethnic war in their homelands.
Surely, many of today's refugees may not care about religion anymore. But they do not become "enlightened" Europeans just by entering Europe. The refugees need time to understand that there is no prescribed religion in Europe and that the commitment to the constitutions and the values embodied in them is paramount.
Chancellor Merkel may have thought that by welcoming the refugees she would solve the societal debate about whether or not Germany is a country of immigrants ("Einwanderungsland"). But conservatives still struggle to accept the fact that every fifth German today is of foreign descent. In major cities the immigrant numbers are even higher. Muslim religion has been added to the curriculum in public schools. There are Muslim cemeteries, hospitals and other institutions, such as libraries or hospitals and Muslim private schools.
Many of today's refugees may not care about religion anymore. But they do not become 'enlightened' Europeans just by entering Europe.
Bavaria, the province on the border with Austria, reveals the cleavage in German society. The Christian Social Union chairman in Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, invited Viktor Orban, Hungarian prime minister and persona non grata in Berlin known for his anti-immigrant views, to Bavaria. He has further stated that -- without Vladimir Putin -- the war in Syria could not be brought to an end. This was also understood to be a criticism of the United States for upending the entire Middle East after 9/11.
Mr. Seehofer has pushed to close the German borders. Voices predicting that such measures would mean the end to Schengen -- the treaty on free movement of people on the continent -- have so far been proven wrong: European public opinion seems to have accepted the border closures in Germany and Austria as fair measures. And the call for ending the Syrian war as the alternative to accepting more refugees is getting louder and louder.
Eastern European nations struggle even more with the idea of losing the homogeneity of their populace. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary all seek to wall themselves in, refusing to take in refugees unless they are Christians. With EU leaders failing to find any common ground on allocating some 120,000-160,000 refugees among more than 500 million European citizens, the EU has become as dysfunctional on this issue as with the sovereign debt crisis.
Germany can gain a lot from taking in the Syrian refugees if it doesn't repeat the mistakes of the past with Turkish migrants. It is, unfortunately, a hard truth that the many thousands of refugees that wish to enjoy this safe haven of Germany cannot at this point be taken in. As long as the EU doesn't solve its issues, Germany, as Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, has said, cannot shoulder the burden alone. A common European refugee strategy is also "Neuland" -- and a very distant prospect at this point.
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