Does Islam ‘belong to’ Germany? The most meaningless debate of the year
Germany’s new Interior Minister caused uproar last week when he declared that "Islam doesn’t belong to Germany." The Germany expression is a headache to translate, partly because it is so deliberately vague.
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Horst Seehofer, Germany’s new interior minister and the leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the conservative Bavarian sister party to the CDU, told Bild that “Islam gehört nicht zu Deutschland.”
The southern politician was clearly trying to show that he is about to bring a breath of Bavarian fresh air into the stiflingly correct corridors of Berlin.
In doing so, he was merely echoing the words of the Alternative for Germany, which has made the phrase “Islam gehört nicht zu Deutschland” a central tenet of its party programme.
The AfD claim to be “the only democratic party in Germany that has the clear and non-negotiable position that “Der Islam gehört nicht zu Deutschland.”
In reality, no position could be less clear- as anyone who has tried to translate the phrase into English will tell you.
“Gehört zu” normally implies possession. For example the classic pop song “Er gehört zu mir” translates to “He belongs to me.”
The Local is just one of many English language outlets which has chosen to translate the phrase as “Islam doesn’t belong to Germany.”
In one sense this is objectively true. Germany can hardly lay claim to owning Islam. If there were any part of the world which could do so it would be the cities of Medina and Mecca, although even that is no doubt a highly contentious statement.
On the other hand, the statement that Islam does not belong in the sense of “is not a part of” is factually incorrect. There are close to 5 million Muslims in Germany, so it would be rather bold to deny that Islam is part of modern German society.
What does the phrase really mean then?
Is it better to translate it into the more natural sounding “Islam does not belong in Germany”? Well, no, because the implication of that phrase would be that Islam should be banned in Germany - and that is not what Seehofer, or even the AfD, are saying.
On their website the AfD claims that “an Islam that does not respect our legal system and claims to have a right to rule as the one true religion is not compatible with our peaceful democratic order.”
But the statement carefully uses the wording “ein Islam” rather than “der Islam”, thus leaving open to interpretation how much of Islam they believe in unconstitutional.
Indeed the far-right party states its respect for the constitutional right to freedom of religion, adding that “many Muslims live law-abiding lives here and are respected members of our society.”
Rather than seeking a ban on Islam, the AfD say they want to stop foreign funding of mosques and to ensure that Imams speak German during services.
Officially at least, the AfD accepts that Islam has a place in Germany. Crying that "Islam gehört nicht zu Deutschland" shows their base that they see it as something suspiciously foreign, but it is vague and unspecific enough to keep them on the right side of the constitution. Rather than being against Islam, they are against the much less specific concept of "Islamization."
Seehofer is just as mealy mouthed in his explanation. He told Bild that while Islam doesn’t belong to Germany, the Muslims who live here do.
He went on to explain that “Germany is characterized by Christianity. These aspects include shops being closed on Sundays, church holidays and rituals such as Easter, Pentecost and Christmas."
What Seehofer seems to be saying then is that nobody should be in doubt that Germany is historically Christian rather than Muslim. He will apparently make sure that Sundays aren’t swapped for Fridays as the days of rest, and that we will continue to take our holidays at Easter and Christmas rather than Eid.
The absurdity of this point perfectly illustrates the vacuousness of the phrase - it is so fuzzy that even the people who use it have no idea what it means.
Reassuringly, another new face in the Berlin establishment was quick to call Seehofer out over his populist leanings.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the woman Angela Merkel recently named as new secretary-general of her CDU, dismissed him as "superficial."
The woman tipped to succeed Merkel said that “as long as we remain stuck on this rather superficial discussion we won’t be able to discuss the real issues in the Islam debate.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer went on to warn Seehofer that the grassroots of their party “want us to do the work of government in a professional way and tackle the underlying problems that exist.”
If she can convince Seehofer to stop using the phrase "Islam gehört nicht zu Deutschland", she won’t just be doing the party base a favour, she will also have done a service to journalists who have to translate it.