x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Germany's first Muslim Minister speaks her mind about religion and runs into trouble

Aygül Özkan committed sacrilege by calling for the crucifix to be banned from German school classrooms, a suggestion that is anathema to her party, the Christian Democratic Union

The German social affairs minister, Aygül Özkan, has upset her party, the predominantly Catholic Christian Democratic Union, by calling for crucifixes to be kept out of classrooms.
The German social affairs minister, Aygül Özkan, has upset her party, the predominantly Catholic Christian Democratic Union, by calling for crucifixes to be kept out of classrooms.

BERLIN // The appointment of Germany's first minister with Turkish roots was intended as a signal that the country was finally beginning to embrace its Muslim immigrants, but it quickly had the opposite effect, much to the embarrassment of the chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling conservatives. Aygül Özkan, 38, a trained lawyer whose father, a tailor, moved to Germany in the 1960s, was initially feted as a model of successful integration when she was named social affairs minister for the large northern state of Lower Saxony last month.

Commentators said the move was long overdue and historic, coming half a century after Turks started moving to Germany as "guest workers" invited by the government to offset a shortage of German workers after the Second World War. The German edition of Hurriyet, the Turkish newspaper, ran the headline: "Our First Minister". Mrs Özkan, a regional sales manager for TNT, a logistics company, said she felt at home in Mrs Merkel's predominantly Catholic Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, even though she is Muslim. She said she was an example of how Germany's Muslims can make it to the top if they try hard enough.

But she went on to spoil everything by making a fatal error: she spoke her mind. In various media interviews, Mrs Özkan committed sacrilege by calling for the crucifix to be banned from German school classrooms, a suggestion that is anathema to the CDU. "Christian symbols don't belong in state schools," she told Focus, a news magazine. "Schools should be neutral places." Muslim headscarves should also be kept out of classrooms, she said.

CDU members rapidly distanced themselves from Mrs Özkan, in some cases with a venom that suggested they had misgivings about her all along. Martin Lohmann, the spokesman for the Association of Engaged Catholics, a lobby group within the CDU, said: "The experiment of making a Muslim politician minister of the Christian Democratic Union in Lower Saxony appears to have failed before it even started."

Stefan Müller, the integration policy spokesman for the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, said: "Politicians who want to banish the crucifix from schools should think about whether they are in the right place in a Christian party." Bild, Germany's best-selling tabloid newspaper, also laid into Mrs Özkan. "There is something the first minister of Turkish origin has evidently failed to understand: this country's culture of tolerance is part of the Christian-occidental tradition," the newspaper wrote in an editorial.

"Immigrants from other religions and with other values profit from this tolerance." Mrs Özkan also ruffled feathers by saying Germany should be open to the idea of Turkey joining the European Union, again departing radically from the CDU line of keeping Turkey out. She quickly apologised for her comments. Opposition parties said the uproar showed that Mrs Özkan's appointment had been nothing more than a ploy by the CDU to tap into the growing immigrant vote. Her meteoric ascent in the party she joined in 2004 was indeed a surprise given that the CDU has campaigned forcefully against immigration in the past, and does not have a single MP with Turkish roots.

Germany's four million Muslims, including around 2.8 million Turkish immigrants and their descendants, have long complained that they are under-represented in parliament and that the main parties are ignoring them. There are only five MPs of Turkish descent in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, out of a total of 622 MPs. The most senior politician with an immigrant background is Cem Özdemir, the co-leader of the opposition Green party.

Studies by the OECD have revealed that Germany's education system is failing to provide equal opportunities for immigrant children because it isn't teaching them enough German to succeed in school, let alone reach higher education. Unemployment among immigrants stands at around 20 per cent, twice as high as the rate for people of German origin. That is partly due to poorer education but also a result of xenophobia - immigrants frequently claim that prospective employers throw job applications away as soon as they see a non-German name on the top. Mrs Özkan, who is married to a doctor of Turkish descent and a has a seven-year-old son, has said she too occasionally comes across xenophobia in her everyday life.

But she said immigrants must more actively integrate into German society, a message that struck a chord with conservatives. "One has to approach people," she told Die Zeit, a leading newspaper, last week. "Especially if one is a foreigner or looks like one, it's important to make the first move. We're still segregating ourselves too much." Immigrants have formed virtual ghettos in the major cities and the communities live parallel lives. Mrs Özkan said it was up to immigrants to seize the opportunities they were given. "We must remember why our parents came to Germany: for the children to have better lives one day." That message has been drowned out by the crucifix controversy.

In a further reminder of the challenges Mrs Özkan faces, she was assigned police bodyguards after receiving threats from right-wing extremists. @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae