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Testing the Limits of Tolerance

Deanne Corbett
March 16, 2006

Citizenship tests are currently in fashion in Europe, with Germany, the Netherlands and Britain all revising the process by which immigrants are admitted or made nationals. But do these new tests unfairly target Muslims?

Hesse is the second German state to propose a citizenship testImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

Gaining immigrant or citizen status in Europe is increasingly becoming an experience akin to appearing on the popular television quiz show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."

More countries are introducing or refining admissions tests for immigrants. Sample questions from new tests in Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands include: Where are Geordie, Cockney and Scouse dialects spoken, what are three low mountain ranges found in Germany, and who was William of Orange?

Whereas the British citizenship test introduced in November of last year is aimed at immigrants from all backgrounds and emphasizes practical issues about life in the UK, in Germany, the tests proposed by two states so far are already being called the "Muslim tests," because of questions designed to probe an applicant's compatibility with local values.

"Muslim tests"

Baden-Württemberg, the first German state to propose a citizenship test, included questions that ask about a person's views on forced marriage, homosexuality and women's rights, for example -- all things that relate to specific cultural issues that have caused tension between Germans and the large Muslim immigrant population.

Fragenkatalog der Ausländerbehörde
German test questions range from general knowledge to cultural valuesImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

This week, the state of Hesse followed suit with a test comprised of many general knowledge questions, but also questions clearly targeted at Muslim applicants. It asks, for example, whether the applicant believes in Israel's right to exist and whether a woman should be allowed out in public without the accompaniment of a male relative.

The proposed tests have been criticized for being a means to bar Muslims from becoming citizens, but the German tests are mild in comparison with new immigration procedures that were introduced in the Netherlands this week.

Controversial Dutch test

The Dutch immigration test is openly discriminatory in that it only applies to would-be immigrants from "non-Western countries," i.e. not the EU or the United States.

It's also a misnomer to refer to the process as a "test," as it really consists of at least three "pre-tests" conducted over the phone before the applicant can then apply at the Dutch embassy in his or her country to register for the actual, hour-long immigration exam on geographical, historical and language issues.

Schwule in Europa - Symbolbild
Immigrants to the Netherlands are expected to be tolerant of homosexualityImage: PA/dpa/DW

Those who have dutifully completed their preparation tests should know for example, that nude bathing is legal in the Netherlands, and that "Pindakaas" is not a kind of cheese, but rather peanut butter. The test costs a hefty 350 euros ($420), not including the preparation packet (63 euros) and DVD meant to make immigrants ready for life in the tolerant Netherlands by showing them images of topless female bathers and gay men kissing.

Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, dubbed "Iron Rita," doesn't think this strict new process will create an image problem for the Netherlands.

"It's not going to be that bad," she said. "I've already seen that more and more countries are following our example, that more countries are recognizing that they also need a program for immigrants, and that they have to take responsibility so that immigrants find their place in society. It's not wrong to demand something from people (who want to come to your country)."

But according to Trees Wijn, head of the policy department of the Dutch Council for Refugees, the Dutch tests demand too much, especially from would-be immigrants who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"If you have little education, it is very difficult to learn -- on your own -- the basic knowledge of Dutch and basic knowledge of Dutch society which is tested," Wijn said. "It's difficult for people to start learning these things in their own country if they can't read or don't have access to computers."

A model for Germany?

Nonetheless, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble praised the new Dutch regulations, saying that "we can learn from the Netherlands." He indicated that while the Dutch program could be a model for Germany, it would not be adopted "one to one."

But rather than a patchwork approach at the state level, pressure is now growing for Germany to decide at the federal level on a unified approach towards citizenship procedures. Many of the integration problems now facing Germany are the result of the fact that, for decades, the country lacked a national immigration policy, a situation that was only remedied in 2004. Now, there's a feeling that the mistakes of the past should not be repeated.

"A person becomes a citizen of Germany, after all -- not of a German state," said the government's integration commissioner, Maria Böhmer.