Official's views on Muslim immigration divide Germany

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By Anthony Faiola
Friday, September 10, 2010

IN BERLIN The most talked-about man in Germany is a 65-year-old economist whose hot new book and sudden groundswell of popular support have the media dubbing him a folk hero. But that is not the only thing they are calling Thilo Sarrazin these days.

Some are also calling him dangerous. Sarrazin, a board member of the German central bank until he resigned under pressure Thursday, has divided the nation by postulating the theory that Germany is being "dumbed down" by Muslim immigrants and their children. Wielding statistics and scientific arguments both in his book and in public comments, he delves into territory largely taboo here since the Holocaust, suggesting that "hereditary factors" are at least partly to blame. Turks and Kurdish immigrants, he asserts, are genetically predisposed to lower intelligence than Germans and other ethnic groups, including Jews.

His statements have shocked many in Germany, not only because of a national sensitivity to anything remotely smacking of genetic superiority claims in the post-World War II era. What has also shocked many is that so many Germans have rallied to his side as the central bank and his political party have sought to oust him for his pronouncements.

On Thursday, the Central Bank announced he had finally agreed to tender his resignation, a week after outraged officials called for it, thus avoiding a showdown with Germany's president who was set to decide on Sarrazin's fate.

Muslims who are among his critics are calling Sarrazin's surging popularity here part of a wave of Islamophobia in the West, citing the move to ban burqas in France and minarets in Switzerland, the opposition to the construction of an Islamic center near New York City's Ground Zero, and a Florida preacher's plans (now canceled) to stage a burning of Islamic holy books later this week. Others say his emergence in Germany, and growing popularity, is fundamentally even more disturbing.

Though most of Sarrazin's backers are publicly distancing themselves from his genetic arguments, they are lauding him as a straight-talker willing to address the problem of Muslim immigrants, who often eschew German language and culture. By throwing political correctness to the wind, they say, he has dared to speak the truth about higher immigrant unemployment, birthrates and welfare rates.

Among Germany's population of 82 million, about 5 percent are Muslims, most of Turkish descent. A poll published in the national magazine Focus this week showed 31 percent of respondents agreeing that Germany is "becoming dumber" because of immigrants, with 62 percent calling Sarrazin's comments "justified" and 52 percent saying he shouldn't be thrown out of his Social Democratic Party because of them. Since party chiefs began a process to evict him last week, their headquarters in Berlin has been inundated with thousands of e-mails supporting Sarrazin. High-profile politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, have strongly condemned him. But others are praising him for bringing concerns about immigration from Muslim countries to the forefront of the national dialogue.

Sarrazin now has more than 21,000 friends on Facebook and an online fan club. Less than two weeks after its release, his book, "Germany Does Away With Itself," is in its seventh printing, topping bestseller lists with more than 300,000 copies shipped so far and many bookstores in Germany still sold out.

German Jewish groups are among Sarrazin's staunchest critics, calling him a dangerous racist. Though Sarrazin has spoken positively of Jews, saying they have "high IQs," he courted controversy after declaring in an Aug. 29 interview that "all Jews share a certain gene." In fact, observers here say that the official outcry against Sarrazin - including the move to expel him from the board of the central bank - would have been far more muted had he simply stuck to his generalizations about Muslims.

But by generalizing about Jewish genetics at all, Sarrazin also "crossed a red line," said Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

"It's absolutely unacceptable with the history here that such a large amount of people follow what he says," Kramer said. "The lesson of the Holocaust is not just about Jews, but that human dignity is indivisible. Yet now, they react if there is a genetic comment about Jews, but not if it's about the Roma or the Turks. We obviously still have some homework to do."

Sarrazin's critique of Muslim immigrants has, without question, touched a national nerve. In the bars, taxis and offices of Berlin, it is the hottest topic of conservation, with his supporters feeling liberated by Sarrazin's willingness to throw caution to the wind and speak openly about their concerns. More than anything, he has tapped into German frustrations about the tendency of Muslim Turks - who began large-scale immigration in the 1960s to work in German factories - to live clannish lives, jealously guarding their language and religious traditions.


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