Thilo Sarrazin: the dark side of multiculturalism
Sarrazin’s claim that people are imprisoned by their ethnicity is not that different from PC notions of ‘diversity’.
Starting this month, spiked will be publishing regular contributions from the journalists and editors at Novo Argumente, our sister magazine in Germany. Kicking things off, Sabine Beppler-Spahl reports on the Thilo Sarrazin controversy that rocked Germany and sent shockwaves through Europe.
Germany recently experienced a political bombshell in the form of Thilo Sarrazin’s polemical book, Deutschland schafft sich ab (‘Germany is Doing Away With Itself’). With his claim that migrants are Islamifying and dumbing down Germany, the 65-year-old financier stirred up a heated debate about immigration and racism.
Sarrazin, a board member of Germany’s Bundesbank (the central bank) and a former finance minister, has made headlines in the past for demanding a curb on immigration from Muslim countries. He has come under fire for saying that Turkish and Arabic immigrants in Germany ‘keep producing more little girls in headscarves’, that they are only good for selling fruit and vegetables, and that Germany is becoming more stupid because its immigrants are poorly educated.
Sarrazin has long been known as Germany’s ‘bad boy’. After a controversial interview for the journal Lettre International last October, in which he stated that Muslim immigrants are incapable of integrating into German society, the Bundesbank punished him by taking away some important responsibilities.
Last month, Sarrazin sparked further outrage after telling the newspaper Welt am Sonntag that ‘all Jews share a certain gene. Basques [Spanish separatists] have particular genes, that distinguishes them from others.’ German chancellor Angel Merkel condemned Sarrazin for making ‘stupid and pointless’ statements. Other prominent politicians have also accused him of causing divisions in German society, of acting irresponsibly and of harming the country’s international image. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) wants to throw Sarrazin out of the party and the Bundesbank sent a formal request to German president Christian Wulff to dismiss Sarrazin from the board. As it turned out, there was no need for this: Sarrazin announced his resignation last Thursday.
At first glance, the unified outrage and condemnation from across the political spectrum and in the media appear to be an appropriate response to Sarrazin’s prejudices. Despite his claims that his book is based on ‘facts and statistics’, Sarrazin is no more than a fearmonger, blaming immigrants for the social, economic and infrastructural problems of modern-day Germany. His ignorant fingerpointing at specific nationalities certainly makes a farce of his own claim that he ‘aims to analyse problems which have hindered innovation in Germany’. Instead, Sarrazin is an expert at using statistics to back up his own prejudices rather than properly analysing the complex reality behind the figures.
However, no matter how troubling Sarrazin’s theories are, the reaction – calls to exclude, ban and censure him – are even more worrying. As some critics have rightly pointed out, an intellectually lively society should seek better ways to challenge backward ideas than issuing gag orders. But there is also more going on here than intellectual cowardice.
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Germany’s elite has avoided a serious debate on immigration for many years and has generally tried to keep the topic out of mainstream politics as much as possible. On the one hand, the idea that immigration should be strictly controlled and that the number of migrants allowed in should be based on the needs of the German economy has been presented as a necessary standpoint for a general consensus and a way of alleviating ‘normal people’s’ fears. On the other hand, a superficial celebration of ‘ethnic diversity’ has become an instrument for the betterment of society - a hallmark of a new and tolerant Germany.
Immigration has become a topic through which a well-situated layer of society could distinguish itself from the ‘man on the street’, and through which it could display its own superiority. But rather than supporting universal freedom of movement, being ‘pro-immigration’ and pro-multiculturalism in Germany today is like a lifestyle choice, a way of proving that you are culturally refined and cosmopolitan, unlike the supposedly uncultured, racist working classes.
While proper debates about immigration and integration were avoided in Germany, ‘cultural and ethnic diversity’ were celebrated. Colourful street festivals such as Berlin’s Carnival of Cultures replaced any search for common values. And, in fact, the trendy multiculturalists who insist that people are deeply rooted in their own cultures and ethnicities – and that they should make a virtue of this fact – have more in common with Sarrazin than they like to think. Although shrouded in positive, celebratory language, their happy-clappy view of foreigners is every bit as culturally deterministic as Sarrazin’s wacky ideas.
The immigration debate in Germany has become highly regulated, laden with taboos, and Merkel’s reaction to Sarrazin’s book reflects the contemporary tendency to stifle dissenting views – a tendency which caused social rifts in Germany long before Sarrazin entered the stage.
It is telling that it is not so much the content of Sarrazin’s book and statements that is regarded as problematic as the potential public reactions. It has been described as tarnishing Germany’s international image and as ‘irresponsible’, because apparently it might lead to rage amongst Muslims or be used as a justification for Islamophobia amongst unsophisticated white Germans. In the eyes of politicians, it is not so much what we discuss but how we discuss it that matters. With regards to the immigration debate, the elite has cynically instrumentalised it as a tool for keeping Germany and its people on track, and for monitoring the problematic attitudes of the ‘uneducated’.
Will Sarrazin become Germany’s Geert Wilders, as some commentators have suggested? It’s unlikely. However, the debate which he has sparked, with his claim that Germany is a nation in decline as a result of unchecked immigration, is a common theme in European politics today. More and more intellectuals and outspoken politicians have taken up the cause of their nations’ supposed need to struggle against the influences of alien cultures and backward religious ideas, as symbolised by burqas and so on.
This idea overlooks two key truths. First, it is internal intellectual rot that has harmed these European countries, not any external cultural threat. Second, to the extent that some immigrants indeed no longer integrate into Western European societies, it is because they are not actively invited to do so. Today, many young, second-generation Turkish women living in Germany wear headscarves even though their mothers don’t. Might this be because there is nothing clear for these women to integrate into, and might it have to do with the fact that they have been encouraged to celebrate the cultural identities that they were ‘born into’?
Germany, where the government has tried to keep the immigration debate as far away from normal people as possible, provides the perfect backdrop for people like Sarrazin. His wacky statements are antithetical to the strictly controlled debate Germany has had recently and it has been easy for him to make a splash and stir up controversy. It is good that the old multicultural consensus is now coming under pressure, but any debate about Germany’s current problems in education, infrastructure and social integration, will need a very different focus than the one provided by Sarrazin’s ignorant polemic.
Sabine Beppler-Spahl is an economist working in Berlin. She is also a journalist for the German magazine Novo and is speaking in the Battle of Ideas satellite debate Immigration: the more the merrier in Berlin on 11 November.