BERLIN — Can Germany survive Islam?
That question is once again at the center of the country’s public discourse amid the violent protests that followed last week’s brutal killing of a German man, allegedly at the hands of two Muslim refugees, and the publication of a new book titled “Hostile Takeover, how Islam halts progress and threatens society.”
On Saturday, about 11,000 people (8,000 right-wing and far-right protesters and about 3,000 anti-Nazis, according to police estimates) took to the streets of the eastern German city of Chemnitz, where the killing occurred. Eighteen people were injured, including a TV reporter who was thrown down a flight of stairs.
There’s nothing new about such clashes, or even the debate over Islam. What the past week reveals, however, is the degree to which the refugee influx since 2015 continues to dominate the country’s politics and fuel support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The pictures of marauding neo-Nazis in Chemnitz suggest the German government has largely failed to keep the violent extreme right in check, despite decades of trying.
By all rights, Germany should be celebrating a golden era. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been since reunification amid robust economic growth. The country’s public debt is on course to fall below 60 percent of gross domestic product this year, meaning Berlin will fulfill the Maastricht criteria for the first time in almost 20 years.
About 170,000 migrants enjoy “tolerated” status in Germany. A further 350,000 reside in the country with no official immigration status at all.
Despite Germany’s growing prosperity, its society is seething as the negative consequences of taking in more than 1 million asylum seekers since 2015 sink in. “Who should be allowed in?” asked Der Spiegel on its cover last week. This week’s cover, devoted to Saxony, the state where the violence occurred, reads: “When the right grabs power.”
Thilo Sarrazin, the former Bundesbank official and provocateur who wrote “Hostile Takeover,” has tapped into Germany’s unease about the refugee influx with a dystopian prediction of what lies ahead.
Describing Islam as “an ideology of violence disguised as religion,” Sarrazin argues that if Europe doesn’t take swift action to halt Muslim migration into the EU, European society will ultimately be enveloped and destroyed by Islam.
“Hostile Takeover” debuted last week at No. 1 on German Amazon’s bestseller list.
Germany’s political establishment, meanwhile, has taken to the airwaves, in what might best be described as ritualistic soul-searching.
“For far too long, we didn’t recognize the dimension of the problem or weren’t willing to,” Marco Wanderwitz, a state secretary in the interior ministry, said on public television.
Though Wanderwitz was referring to the outbreak of right-wing violence, many in the country would argue the same is true for the government’s handling of the refugee question.
While Germany remains an extremely safe country by international standards (there were roughly as many homicides in all of Germany last year, 731, as in Chicago), a raft of high-profile, violent crimes committed by refugees is unsettling the nation.
In June, the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, allegedly at the hands of an Iraqi asylum seeker, enraged the nation. That case followed the fatal stabbing of a 15-year-old in broad daylight at a drug store in southwestern Germany in December. This time, the suspected killer was an Afghan.
Last year, refugees were suspects in about 15 percent of homicides in Germany, according to official statistics, though they account for only 2 percent of the population.
The issue of refugee crime has been a boon for the AfD.
Many of the suspects, including the Iraqi accused of stabbing the Chemnitz victim and the terrorist who drove into a Berlin Christmas market in 2016, enjoy an immigration status classified as a Duldung, or “tolerance.” That means that even though the individual’s asylum application has been denied, the government is allowing the person to remain in Germany and in many cases seek employment. The reasons for such a ruling vary, but can be as mundane as a lack of a passport, making it difficult to confirm the migrant’s nationality.
About 170,000 migrants enjoy “tolerated” status in Germany. A further 350,000 reside in the country with no official immigration status at all, many of them waiting for a ruling on an asylum application.
Critics say the presence of so many migrants without a bona fide legal right to remain in the country proves that Germany’s asylum system is a sham. History suggests that a denied asylum application presents little more than minor delay to a migrant’s quest to acquire legal immigration status in Germany. About 233,000 people whose asylum applications were rejected are currently in the country. All but 60,000 of them enjoy “tolerated” status.
Angela Merkel’s government has largely avoided addressing such concerns in public, mainly because there are no easy answers.
Under Germany’s federal structure, its 16 regional states are responsible for deporting migrants. Last year, they carried out about 24,000 deportations, far fewer than the potential pool. The problem is that if a migrant doesn’t agree to leave the country, the cost of removing him or her can be prohibitive due to the extra security involved.
Considering the large number of refugees and that most of them are young men, it’s inevitable that some of them will commit crimes.
Yet with the rise of the anti-immigrant AfD, such arguments generally get drowned out.
The issue of refugee crime has been a boon for the AfD. In Saxony, the party is closing in on Merkel’s Christian Democrats ahead of next year’s state election. The AfD’s poll numbers are strong across the rest of the eastern half of the country as well.
Establishment politicians have tried to dismiss that strength as an eastern phenomenon, the result of the region’s failure to face its Nazi past after the war. They point to the long history of violence against migrants in the region, including the torching of a refugee shelter in Rostock in 1992 and the murder spree by the NSU, an underground neo-Nazi group that killed 10 people.
While there’s something to such arguments, the resonance of Sarrazin’s latest book suggests unease over refugees extends far beyond the borders of former East Germany.
Amid the neo-Nazi attacks in Chemnitz, Merkel’s coalition has succeeded in steering the debate away from refugee violence to the dangers of the extreme right. For now. If the last few months are any indication, that tactic won’t work for long.