BERLIN // A senior German official has sparked a public outcry by claiming that the country is in decline because of the rapid growth of an underclass of poorly educated Muslim immigrants who are unwilling to integrate into society.
Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of the German central bank, the Bundesbank, is well known for his outspoken views on immigration but stepped up his rhetoric this week by espousing deeply controversial racial theories in his book, Germany Is Abolishing Itself, which was published on Monday. "From an economic point of view we don't need Muslim immigration in Europe," Mr Sarrazin, 65, who is also a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party, wrote in the book. "In every country Muslim immigrants cost the state more in terms of their low employment and high use of welfare benefits than they generate in added economic value."
To back his claim that Germany's average intelligence is destined to decline, Mr Sarrazin cited research that between 50 and 80 per cent of intelligence is hereditary and juxtaposed that with statistics showing that poorly educated Muslim immigrants had a far higher birth rate than ethnic Germans. The book was swiftly condemned. The Bundesbank's board voted on Thursday to ask the German president, Christian Wulff, to fire him. The chancellor, Angela Merkel, called Mr Sarrazin's remarks "absurd" and "completely unacceptable".
"Whole groups in our society feel insulted by this," she told the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet on Friday. The Social Democrats this week also began proceedings to expel him from the party. "He crossed a red line with the claim that the intelligence and performance of different cultures are genetically hereditary," said Sigmar Gabriel, the chairman of the centre-left party. Representatives of the four million mainly Turkish Muslim immigrants voiced outrage at Mr Sarrazin's theories. Ayman Mazyek, the general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, called him a "pin-striped Nazi" who was dividing the country with false claims about Muslims. "We Muslims are part of Germany and Germany is part of us," he said.
In his book, Mr Sarrazin said Muslims were more prone to crime and claiming welfare benefits than any other immigrant group. "Demographically the enormous fertility of Muslim migrants constitutes a threat to the cultural and civilization equilibrium in an ageing Europe," he wrote. "With no other religion is the transition to violence, dictatorship and terrorism so fluid." Criticism of Mr Sarrazin's comments intensified after he broke a taboo by saying in a newspaper interview that "all Jews have a particular gene." He was citing recent US research, but any comments about Jewish ethnicity are highly sensitive in Germany given the Holocaust.
However, newspapers said that surveys among their readers indicated that a large majority of Germans support Mr Sarrazin's claims on immigration. His book had sold out within hours of being published. Critics said it is destined to become Germany's first racist best-seller since Hitler's Mein Kampf. Even Mr Gabriel admitted that many SPD members questioned why Mr Sarrazin should be expelled. The far-right National Democratic Party, which glorifies the Third Reich, welcomed Mr Sarrazin's book and even offered him a job. "I would be delighted if he were to make himself available as an adviser to the NPD party executive," said Udo Voigt, the party's chairman.
Commentators in the conservative press said that while the tone of Mr Sarrazin's arguments had exposed him to charges of racism, he had made valid points about the problems of Muslim immigrants. "His statistics tell a devastating story," wrote Die Welt, a leading national newspaper. "Sarrazin has made it easy for his critics to evade the real issue. Instead of the blatant shortcomings of our policies we are now discussing whether Sarrazin is a racist or not. What a missed opportunity.
The majority of Germany's Muslim population - about five per cent of the population - are descendants of Turks who came as "guest workers" between the 1950s and 1970s to make up for a shortage of manpower after the Second World War. Despite the community's long history in Germany, many Muslims, even those born here, remain poorly integrated, live in ghetto-like communities in big cities and have worse-than-average education standards and job prospects.
A government report released in July showed the jobless rate among people with an immigrant background was twice as high - 12.4 per cent - as among Germans with local roots in 2008. The proportion of immigrants leaving school without any qualifications was also double, at 13.3 per cent for pupils aged 15 to 19. Mr Sarrazin's book has reopened a debate about who was to blame. He has identified Islamic culture as the culprit, arguing that it encourages people to segregate themselves from mainstream society. He cited British statistics showing that Indian immigrants in Britain have a better record on education and employment than Pakistanis. But many commentators have accused German authorities of failing to adapt the education system to the needs of the Muslim community. International studies have shown that Germany does not provide sufficient language tuition for the children of immigrants.
Xenophobia is a further problem. Immigrants regularly complain that they encounter hostility from ethnic Germans and that they have poor job opportunities because many employers will not hire people with foreign-sounding names. Critics said Mr Sarrazin's book offers no solutions and paints an excessively negative picture of a situation that is gradually beginning to improve thanks to higher government spending on education programmes and an increasing willingness among immigrants to embrace a German national identity.
"He reduces people to cold genetic material and conveys an idea of mankind that divides people and is incendiary," said Dieter Graumann, the vice president of the Central Council of Jews. "That is a big danger for our country especially if it comes from someone who holds such a high office." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org