As interior minister, Horst Seehofer is responsible for defending both Germany's constitution and its religious freedom. However, his recent remarks show he may not understand those tasks, says Michel Friedman.
Horst Seehofer did not say that "political Islam" does not belong in Germany. Nor did he say that "Islamism" does not belong in Germany. His words were clear and unequivocal: "Islam" does not belong in Germany. This is no coincidence. The interior minister knows what he's doing. And he is choosing to do this. It's called intent.
Millions of Germans who practice the Islamic faith live here. But this is not the only reason why Islam is a fact of life in Germany. This fact of life is also based on principle. And someone who is interior minister — the position that protects the constitution — should be familiar with Article 4 of Germany's Basic Law. This article defines religious freedom: Every person is allowed to believe what he or she wants. Every religion is accepted, every faith is possible, as long as it does not violate the Basic Law. A politician who denies a world religion its place as a part of Germany's religious and social reality is showing a questionable understanding of religious freedom.
Western Christianity's bloody history
This exclusion of Islam is neither historically nor sociopolitically comprehensible. No one disputes that Christianity has been Europe's dominant religion for centuries. But this Christian West that so many rave about has not always had a modern view of religion. On the contrary, religious and secular powers have partnered up here, too. There have been religious wars and aggressive missions. Anti-Semitism has been present from the beginning. Martin Luther, the reformer, was a rabid anti-Semite.
So, when we talk about the symbiotic relationship between Christianity and Judaism in contrast to Islam, we should perhaps reflect on what we are actually saying. For centuries, this symbiosis was about differentiating and segregating people; it was bloody and destructive. The cultural and religious roots of the hatred towards Jews in Europe, and in Germany in particular, became evident once and for all with the Holocaust and its previously unknown murderous brutality.
No to political Islam
Islam is one of the three major monotheistic world religions. But there is no such thing as a single kind of Islam. In many countries, it is the state religion, and in most of the ones that are dictatorships, there is a dreadful symbiosis between state and religious power, as was long the case in Europe. This kind of political Islam, which primarily oppresses Muslims and which — like Christianity for a long time — has an aggressive, religious-imperialist goal, must be fought with all our might.
But stigmatizing Islam overall is not part of the portfolio of an interior minister. In upholding Germany's constitution, it is his job to ensure that all religions are respected.
The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party uses the term Islam as an insult. It is taken as a metaphor for focusing a general hatred towards "strangers." AfD officials and their sympathizers — among others — make no distinction between different kinds of Islam, and in this way prey on citizens' fears by presenting this religion as the greatest of all dangers. They refer to parallel societies in which German law is not respected. They talk about a disregard for the equality between men and women and intolerance towards the LGBT community.
The AfD's parallel society
It is indisputable that all this exists. But many AfD supporters also live in a parallel society. They do not respect Article 1 of the Basic Law ("Human dignity is inviolable"), through the way in which they stigmatize and insult entire groups. Their Islamophobia is comparable to anti-Semitism.
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Yes, it is true that even among Muslims in Europe anti-Semitism rears its ugly head. But Nazi-style anti-Semitism is still clearly visible even among new right-wing extremists. And you simply can't compare the two groups — the fact that there may be anti-Semitic Muslims doesn't not make the anti-Semitic neo-Nazis look any better! Likewise, it must be made clear that some AfD supporters are just as much enemies of the constitution and of humanity as those who denounce them.
Instead of contributing to this emotional debate in a nuanced and responsible manner, Horst Seehofer has poured fresh populist oil on an old fire. In his position, it is important for him to distance himself from the AfD, as well as from political Islam. It is the responsibility of his office not to adopt their language. No politician has the right to decide whether a religion belongs to his or her country or not.
The political limits of religious matters
If religion, whichever one it may be, is used as an excuse to commit crimes or to disregard the Basic Law, then the police and the judiciary have a responsibility to address this. No religion is above the law. But everything else to do with matters of faith remains outside the sphere of politics. This too is a result of European history, which has confronted the separation of state and religion since the Enlightenment.
Horst Seehofer knows all this. And if he continues to disregard it, then criticism is justified. This has nothing to do with what some claim, which is that you cannot say what you think in Germany. You can say almost anything in this country! And Horst Seehofer often uses his freedom of speech. That's fine. But Seehofer and his followers must also tolerate differences of opinion. In any case, I believe that at a time when there are right-wing populist members of parliament, when disinhibition has become commonplace and intellectual arson has become part of everyday social discourse, politicians from democratic parties must send out a clear and different message of respect.
Michel Friedman is a lawyer, publicist and television presenter. He is professor of Real Estate and Media Law at the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences. At DW he moderates "Conflict Zone" and "Auf ein Wort... with Michel Friedman."