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Germany

'Sarrazin factor' has little effect on immigration attitudes

A survey by major US think-tank the German Marshall Fund has shed new light on European and North American opinions on immigration. But last year's media furore seems to have done little to change underlying attitudes.

Demonstrator holds up anti-Sarrazin sign

Thilo Sarrazin's book sparked a lot of anger in Germany

Last year, the immigration issue dominated headlines throughout western Europe and North America like no other. If the press was to be believed, the western world was being engulfed by a wave of intolerance towards immigrants - particularly Muslims.

While Americans grappled with controversial immigrant legislation in Arizona, the French parliament voted for a burqa ban and politician Geert Wilders won 15 percent of the Dutch vote with his anti-immigrant Party for Freedom. In Germany meanwhile, a federal banker called Thilo Sarrazin ignited a media volcano by publishing a book called Germany Abolishes Itself.

But what effect did the resulting media furore - the new "honest debate," as it was called in Germany - have on the respective populations of these countries? Very little, according to a new survey by US think-tank the German Marshall Fund.

Open day in Cologne mosque

A majority of Germans don't think second-generation muslims integrate well

"In comparison to the two previous years, public opinion on immigration is fairly stable," Tanja Wunderlich, program officer at the German Marshall Fund's Berlin office, told Deutsche Welle. "It looks like there is an underlying opinion that is more stable than the the day-to-day hype about current news or incidents."

The survey was carried out two weeks after Sarrazin's book was published, but it found very little change in attitudes to immigration compared to the year before. Wunderlich said she was surprised by the indifference to what she called the "Sarrazin factor."

Measuring intolerance

Around 1,000 people were surveyed in each of eight countries - Germany, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Canada, and the US - and the same questions were asked everywhere, designed to measure the level of intolerance. These included: are there too many immigrants? Are immigrants integrating well? Do immigrants increase crime rates?

The breakdown for Germany was eye-opening, especially if you'd always thought of this as a rather politically correct place. For instance, Germany had the second highest number of respondents who believed that legal immigrants increase crime in society: 46 percent, behind Italy's 56 percent. Sixty percent of Germans, meanwhile, felt that immigrants benefit more from health and welfare services than they contribute.

When it came to Thilo Sarrazin's favorite subject, integration, Germany had the lowest number of respondents (36 percent) who believed that second-generation Muslims were integrating well.

Language - obstacle or opportunity?

Against this, Wunderlich praised what she saw as Germany's pragmatic approach to citizenship. When asked what was the most important precondition for obtaining citizenship, 49 percent of Germans said learning the language - way more than in any other country.

This is an improvement on the past, Wunderlich argues. "When you think of the discourse in Germany about ten to fifteen years back, German citizenship was based on an ethnic concept of belonging. It depended on your parents," she said. "And if we now see this shift - that also the population thinks it's language skills that count - well, this is something you can learn."

Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders

Many believe that populist racism has risen in Europe in the past year

Nalan Arkat, head of the German Turkish community organization the TGD, was unimpressed by this interpretation of the statistics. She believes Germans use language as an additional barrier to gaining citizenship.

"People can't feel like they belong here if they only know the language," she told Deutsche Welle. "Gaining citizenship also means accepting the constitution and the values of society. A perfect German speaker can reject these. Language is deliberately put in place as an obstacle to gaining citizenship, like a big stone."

But both Arkat and Wunderlich were pleasantly surprised by one finding - more than half of Germans see immigration as more of an opportunity than a problem for society. Tellingly, this figure did not change from 2009 to 2010, despite Sarrazin's book.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Mark Hallam

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