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How this woman became Germany’s first Muslim parliamentary president

Edith Sitzmann, left, designated minister in the Baden-Wuerttemberg state parliament, congratulates Muhterem Aras on being elected president of the Baden-Wuerttemberg state parliament during the constituting session of the parliament in Stuttgart, Germany, on May 11. (Christoph Schmidt/European Pressphoto Agency)

When Muhterem Aras became the first Muslim house speaker of one of Germany's federal parliaments in May, the time could not have been more sensitive. The country had just welcomed more than 1 million refugees in 2015 — many of them Muslims. For months, tensions had risen between supporters and opponents of refugees.

The person who helped facilitate the influx of refugees in the last months of 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel, has faced declining approval ratings and harsh criticism. Aras's election, however, suggests that the skepticism toward refugees might not necessarily imply a general shift toward xenophobia.

Every German state has one parliamentary president: Their role is not to be the driving forces behind new laws, but rather to lead sessions and hearings.

Parliamentary presidents' words carry particular weight because of their significance for bridging the divides between various parties. The office could enable Aras to become a significant counterweight to the Alternative for Germany, an anti-foreigner party which has double-digit approval ratings in the polls at the moment. In an interview with WorldViews, Aras discussed her election as well as how the country should respond to the current refugee crisis.

Questions and answers have been slightly modified and shortened.

WorldViews: As the first female and Muslim speaker in a German state parliament, how do you perceive the current political climate in Germany?

Muhterem Aras: First of all, I would like to emphasize that as a matter of principle, I do not define myself by my religious affiliation. Religion is not my priority, and it plays no role in how I execute my office.

In receiving 42.4 percent of the vote, my election result was not only the best among the Green Party in Baden-Württemberg, but it was also the best among all members of parliament. At the same time, there are right-wing tendencies in Germany, just as there are in other parts of Europe. But in my voting district, the AfD had their poorest outcome in Baden-Württemberg, receiving only 7 percent of the vote.

With my election to president of the state parliament on May 11, 2016, the Baden-Württemberg State Parliament made history — not just because it elected a woman to this high office for the first time, but also because it elected a woman with a non-German ethnic background. In this, the state parliament is setting a clear example, an example that reaches far beyond the borders of Baden-Württemberg — an example that stands for openness, for tolerance and for successful integration. This gives us hope and shows that we are on the right path.

Why do you think that the fact that you are a female Muslim did not matter more during the election campaign? 

I am a member of the Alevi community, but I am non-practicing. My religious affiliation played no role in the election campaign. The substance of the issues and clear positions are what matter. I am very glad that Germany enjoys freedom of religion and opinion and that these indispensable rights are enshrined in the constitution.

In London, Sadiq Khan faced harsh allegations of ties to Islamist extremists during his election campaign. Would such personal allegations be imaginable in Germany or does your experience show that the opposite is possible?

I am part of this society, I am a German politician, and that is how people see me. I help make policy for our German society. I have been politically active on all kinds of levels over the past 20 years. I am happy to say that I have not been met with that kind of hostility.

 Recent surveys have shown that Germans' support for refugees has declined. Do you expect this to be a temporary or permanent mood? And could this affect the assimilation of refugees into German society?

Germany has achieved something incredible in the past year. In one year, our country has taken in more than 1 million refugees. This was only made possible by the dedication with which so many members of society have volunteered their service, a spirit of service which is still present.

I am very grateful to all those people who have shown this incredible dedication. But we must keep in mind that integration does not work overnight. In order to meet this great challenge, society as a whole must step up. We must provide a great deal of support while also expecting a great deal. This goes both for the refugees and local citizens. We urgently need cooperation at the European level on our refugee policy.

It is important that all countries pay the UNHCR dues to which they have committed themselves. And it is important that the refugees living in camps in bordering countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have prospects for the future. If they did, many of them would not undertake the dangerous journey to Europe.

Chancellor Angela Merkel recently helped negotiate a refugee deal with Turkey to keep migrants out of the European Union. Was this the right decision?

I believe the European community needs to help combat the root causes that lead people to flee so that they can live in peace in their home countries. It is also right that we combat the dreadful human smuggling rings. I hope that despite all the problems involved, our European community, which is a community of shared values, takes on this responsibility and that the individual countries support each other in accommodating refugees.

Turkey has taken in over 2 million refugees, and I am very grateful to Turkey for this. Turkey and Germany have a good relationship characterized by a spirit of partnership. And partnership also means that one speaks openly and constructively about political issues, even the difficult ones.

How should Germany react to the recent Kurdish-Turkish violence?

The eruptions of violence in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict worry me a great deal. To start with, I would like to see the PKK lay down their weapons. The Turkish government should return to the peace process, for the conflict merely causes suffering and senseless destruction. It is damaging to both Turkey and the Kurds. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict cannot be solved with violence.

 What can be done to make German and European politics more diverse?

Baden-Württemberg has set a good example in this matter. In May, the State Parliament elected me, a woman with a visibly non-German ethnic background, to the second-highest office in the state. This gives me great hope that even more diversity is possible — in politics, but also in society as a whole. My election is an important signal of openness, tolerance and successful integration.

Also read:

Why Sadiq Khan’s win in London is so remarkable