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Germany can't impose its values on refugees

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Germany can't impose its values on refugees
A police officer watches a line of refugees at a camp in Friedland, Lower Saxony. Photo: DPA
10:28 CET+01:00
Lawyer Christina Lee argues that Germany shouldn't treat refugees harshly in the name of teaching them the country's 'values' - and that the crisis could be a learning opportunity for Germans themselves.

In his opinion piece of November 10th, academic Ashley Nunes struggles to find evidence for his claim that Germany “must insist on its own laws and values”, which, he implies, are at risk from Muslim refugees.

To support this broad claim he provides anecdotal evidence from the mouth of a Saarland politician who allegedly witnessed several newly arrived refugees at an asylum center insulting women, refusing to eat food they were offered, and cutting in line. Do try to contain your shock at these clear disavowals of German laws and values.

“The German government is so fearful of being labeled inhumane towards asylum seekers that it errs on the side of appeasement,” writes Nunes, without providing any evidence of how, exactly, Germans have been failing to enforce the laws or values he brings up.

Let's break this down.Can you arrest someone in Germany because of their beliefs about women? The German Grundgesetz (constitution) protects freedom of opinion in most situations, even in the case of sexist beliefs. This is convenient, since Germans themselves are clearly not in universal agreement about what constitutes sexism.

For instance, Nunes rightly points out that German law protects German women from discrimination, and suggests that all Germans reject inequality for women (unlike those misogynistic refugees!).

And yet, as recent European Union statistics show, German women earn on average 22 percent less for the same work as men, a figure that hasn't budged since 2010. Perhaps attitudes towards women aren't as uniformly progressive in the Bundesrepublik as Nunes thinks?

And while holding backwards views towards women, if not illegal, is certainly deplorable, are the actions of a few jerks to be taken as representative of the entire wave of refugees, many of whom are women and children?

Domestic violence continues to be a big problem in Germany. Photo: DPA

If we follow this strain of faulty logic what can we conclude about German values towards women, when one out of four German women is reportedly affected by domestic violence?

And what about refusing to eat certain types of food? Clearly that's not against the law, but is it a German value to eat whatever type of food is offered you, regardless of your beliefs? Let's ask the Jewish population of Germany whether they are failing to accept German values by not eating pork or shrimp. It would also be a good question to pose to the four percent of Germans who are vegetarians. 

To prove acceptance of German culture, do Muslim refugees have to do things that we would never force Germans to do? It sounds similar to the hateful logic of the police officer in Hannover who is under investigation for forcing an imprisoned refugee in his care to eat rotten pork off the ground of his cell. Hate crimes like these seem directly to arise from a false perception that “German values” must be enforced at all costs.

And what about cutting in line? From experience I'm sceptical about calling “standing in line properly” a beloved German value (just try it next time on the BVG), but let's take this as an example of one of those little politeness rituals that one must adapt to in a new country. 

Look for 'German politeness' on the day of a train strike and you'll probably be disappointed. Photo: DPA

Anecdotally, as an immigrant to Germany myself like Mr. Nunes, I can tell you that it took me at least six months to understand why people were shouting at me for walking on the “pavement” (aka, the bike lane.) It took me ages to get on board with the perfectionist recycling program, or to understand “Thou shalt not discard a bottle with Pfand (deposit)” is the eleventh commandment in this country. Eventually, I learned with a little help from my friends (and some angry strangers). 

But it appears that Mr. Nunes is arguing that literally within days of arrival, perhaps on the first day, refugees must be expected to instantly and totally adapt to German values without any help or explanation of what those values are, or leave the country. I certainly was not given such an ultimatum when I arrived, and I doubt Mr. Nunes was either.

Clearly, refugees will have to respect German laws. We already have a great way of ensuring that, called “German laws.” If a foreigner assaults someone, or, say, fraudulently installs faulty emissions systems in hundreds of thousands of automobiles, he will be punished equally to the extent as a German would, and in many cases more so. (Indeed, as the official investigations following the NSU murders showed, non-white Germans often receive an unfair level of extra attention from police.)

But in his piece, and with his pithy examples, Nunes implies that refugees have shown a contempt for German values, which he clearly posits as a uniform set that “we” know and “they” don't, or that they are somehow getting a lighter version of the law. The truth is a bit more complex.

Perhaps we are missing a golden opportunity with such reductive rhetoric. The refugee crises could be a chance for this country to reevaluate what, actually, German core beliefs really are, and maybe to even learn some new values from these newcomers.

Values like faith in one's ability to adapt to difficult circumstances, or the perseverance to face extreme obstacles to bring your family to safety. And the courage to start over in a new country where some portion of the population opposes your very existence.

Courage, especially, is a value that Germans could use a bit more of when gearing up for that chat about how to line up for the bathroom.

About the author: Christina Lee is an American lawyer, researcher and freelance writer interested in migration, press freedom and human rights. She lives in Berlin and has worked for many non-profits such as Human Rights Watch, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, and Netzerk für Osteuropa-Berichterstattung. Follow her on Twitter:  @tinaleeinberlin.

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