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Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is at once the brightest and least ideologically driven of world leaders. The daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor, she came of age when Protestant churches were the focal point of opposition. She earned a doctorate in quantum chemistry, and rose to leadership in Germany’s Christian Democratic Union through brains and grit, much like Lady Thatcher in England a generation earlier.

“At the beginning of the sixties,” the Chancellor said last Saturday, “our country called the foreign workers to come to Germany and now they live in our country.” She added, “We kidded ourselves a while, we said: ‘They won’t stay, sometime they will be gone’, but this isn’t reality . . . . And of course, the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side-by-side and to enjoy each other . . . has failed, utterly failed.”

When this tough and pragmatic woman told a Christian Democratic youth group on October 17 that multiculturalism had utterly failed, liberal commentators around the world bemoaned the reappearance of the old Blonde Beast. Nothing of the sort is true: Chancellor Merkel, with Pomeranian candor, was simply stating the facts. The facts, however, have not made their way into the global press.

Today, her party offered a position paper stating that while Germany has benefitted from immigrants, it has problems “with a minority which will not integrate itself, doesn’t learn our language and shields its children from participation and advancement in our society.” Germany should offer “no tolerance” to those who refuse to integrate into German society, including consequences for residency. “In the future we will take care that the possibility of such sanctions is applied in the appropriate way and determine whether a further sharpening of sanctions is required.”

Part of the CDU’s concern is a matter of pure economics . The country has little need of unskilled labor illiterate in German, although it is facing a labor shortage for highly qualified positions. The German economy is doing far better than the rest of Europe due to niches in machine tools, construction equipment, and other high-quality capital goods; every factory in China runs on German machine tools. Unlike the 1960s, unskilled immigrants are now more of a burden than a blessing to German industry.

The facts the global press failed to mention, however, include the fact that an important motivation for the Chancellor’s remarks lies in Germany’s profound disillusionment at the radical Islamist tendencies in Turkey’s government, led by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, and Germany’s alarm at Turkey’s drift towards Islamism.

When Erdogan visited Germany September 10, he delivered a mixed message to the nearly three million Turks (about four percent of the population) now living in Germany. On the one hand, he called on them to “integrate” into German society; on the other hand, he called “assimilation” a “crime against humanity.” Just what is the difference between “integration” and assimilation” would challenge the great German philologists of centuries past.

Erdogan’s political success in Turkey is the flip side of Merkel’s coin: The traditional Islam of the Anatolian highlands has beaten the cosmopolitan secularism of Istanbul. Turkey’s Islamists want to restore their country’s leading position in the Muslim world, in a sharp turn away from the country’s previous Western orientation (as well as its military alliance with Israel). For Germany, though, the revived arrogance of the Anatolian backwaters represents a problem.

It may have been more symbolic than substantive that a corruption scandal spoiled the inauguration of Germany’s showpiece Islamic studies program”an enterprise considered a major part of the “liberal Islamic project””at the Goethe University in Frankfurt the same week that Merkel and her party washed their hands of multiculturalism. Symbols, though, have their own importance.

In 2006, Germany invited a theology professor from the University of Ankara, Ömer Özsoy, to join the Goethe University faculty and create a program in Islamic studies. On October 14 the university celebrated the start of the program, which has a hundred students enrolled. For the first time in Germany, Özsoy told the Wiesbadener Tagblatt , “Islam will be researched and transmitted not from an external perspective, but from the inside.”

In 2008, major media had advertised a new, moderate Islam under construction at the Ankara theology faculty, where Özsoy and his colleagues reportedly were updating the Hadith (the sayings of Mohammed’s “companions” and a main source of Islamic doctrine). According to numerous press accounts at the time, Turkey’s new brand of Islam heralded an Islamic reformation.

Writing for the BBC on February 28, 2008, Robert Pigott enthused, “Commentators say the very theology of Islam is being reinterpreted in order to effect a radical renewal of the religion. Its supporters say the spirit of logic and reason inherent in Islam at its foundation 1400 years ago are being rediscovered. Some believe it could represent the beginning of a reformation in the religion.”

The optimism was misplaced. Godfather to the new program was Fr. Christian Troll, S.J., who frequently advises Benedict XVI on Islamic issues, and assisting the Turks was one of his students, Fr. Felix Körner, S.J., then on assignment to Ankara. Körner wrote a book on the subject, characterizing the supposed reforms as “tin-opener theology,” that is, opening Islam as if it were a tin of beans and changing the contents arbitrarily.

As I noted in a “Spengler” column, he wrote that the Ankara theologians argued that parts of the Koran”like those dealing with polygamy and the wearing of veils”were directed at specific people at a specific point in time and therefore can be revised. They “subsume the whole of Koranic theology under the single intention of influencing people’s behavior. Consequently, they are what should be called ethical reductionis[ts].”

Whatever the theological status of the Ankara group’s work, the Turkish government has shown no interest at all in religious reform, moving the country instead towards a more fundamentalist reading. As it happens Professor Özsoy’s salary is underwritten by Turkey’s Office of Religious Affairs, headed by Erdogan’s picked man, Mehmet Görmez.

This was when the scandal arose. Reports in the Turkish press last week ”vigorously denied by the Office of Religious Affairs”claimed that the “liberal Islamic project” in Germany was used to launder two million Euros to place Turkish imams in Western Europe. Özsoy, the Turkish media reports allege, is a “close friend” of Mehmet Görmez and complicit in the use of the two million Euro slush fund.

It is all rather sketchy, as the Turkish press typically is, but the allegations come at a particularly delicate time. If the poster-boy for moderate Islam in Germany turns out to be an Islamist wolf in sheep’s clothing, that is, an instrument of a Turkish government agency, Chancellor Merkel and the CDU will have all the more reason to crack down on Germany’s Turkish problem.

David P. Goldman is a senior editor at First Things and the “Spengler” columnist for the Asia Times.


David P. Goldman’s Tin-Opener Theology from Turkey
Mustafa Akyol’s The Hrant Dink Murder and Its Meaning .
George Cardinal Pell’s Islam and Us (also behind the paywall).

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