Religious Symbols Take Center Stage

Clash of Civilization

2018-05-03 /

...Helmholtzplatz, a micro-neighborhood in Berlin, is one of the capital city's best-known blocks. Locals like to call Helmholtzplatz, the square from which the area gets its name, Helmi and it is a hub of tolerance and the international lifestyle, evidenced by the fact that English competes with German as the most-spoken language in the area...

Crumbling Insulation

Germans have long sought to insulate themselves from the problems facing the rest of the world. Since 2005, voters have repeatedly elected a chancellor who has taken pains to fulfill that longing - to ensure that Germany is something like Helmi on a vast scale. An oversized neighborhood so cosmopolitan and liberal that it was even prepared in the summer of 2015 to take in close to a million refugees.
But now, that insulation appears to be crumbling. And religion, something that had long since seemed to have lost its importance in Germany, is at the forefront. Once again, religions are playing a powerful role in the world - and it is a development that is making itself felt in even the most bucolic of German neighborhoods.
The result is that any discussion about the Germany of today must necessarily consider the kippah, the cross and the headscarf. They are all symbols of religion at first glance, but upon deeper reflection, they are also symbols of this country's identity. Or at least its search for identity...

The vast majority would likely agree that the memory of the Nazi crimes is a part of German identity. The Holocaust is a black stain on German history, and the fact that the country chooses not to be silent about it and has made it central to Germany's culture of remembrance is an achievement that liberal-minded Germany likes to claim for itself.
The murder of Europe's Jews was the ultimate taboo. Those who question this taboo fall outside the scope of what is acceptable to society. ...

But can we demand that immigrants from foreign countries also adopt this significant element of Germany's cultural identity? What connection, after all, does the father of a Muslim immigrant family in Germany have to the Holocaust? Why should he send his children on a trip to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp? To most of the 5 million Muslims living in Germany, the Holocaust is a crime that was committed by others....

The situation in Germany has become complicated. Previous certainties are being lost and old battles are being launched anew. In Bavaria, for example, the cabinet of Governor Markus Söder recently moved to require that the cross be displayed at the entrance of every state government building. The Bavarian governor himself took the first step, installing a cross at the reception of the state capital building following his April 24 cabinet meeting. ...The cabinet decision declares that it is an expression of Bavaria's historical and cultural identity, the "fundamental symbol of Christian-Occidental heritage." Söder says it is not a "religious symbol" and has more to do with the "people's desire to have their identity assured."

Culture Wars

Söder's Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has repeatedly demonstrated that it sees the cross as more of a political and ideological symbol than a religious one. In 1983, in support of newly elected Chancellor Helmut Kohl's campaign to return to conservative values and morals, Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann of the CSU personally intervened to cut government subsidies to a film deemed blasphemous. In the film, director/actor Herbert Achternbusch plays Jesus and in one scene, he climbs down from the cross in a market square and demands to be given "shit."
While there is little doubt as to whether the scene was blasphemous, Zimmermann's action at the time was an expression of an aggressive culture war. It was the subject of intense debate, with intellectuals viewing it as a reactionary step backward. But Zimmermann's move found support within the Catholic Church, including from Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become pope.
That same year, the state government of Bavaria once again instrumentalized the crucifix for political symbolism, ordering that a cross be hung in every classroom in state-run schools.
The fact that Söder is once again instrumentalizing the Christian cross for political symbolism could, of course, just be chalked up to tradition. ...Söder's proposal, though, is also an attempt to cozy up to the far right, which, in its fight for the West, has leaned heavily on the symbols and traditions of Christian culture - or, at least, the symbols it considers to somehow be Western. Particularly active in this battle has been Erika Steinbach, who became famous as the champion of Germany's expellees, the segment of the population driven out of areas in Eastern Europe once populated by ethnic Germans after World War II. Steinbach was long a member of Merkel's CDU, but today she is considered close to the AfD, although she is not an official member. ...

In France, Steinbach-esque crusades helped transform the far-right Front National into a major party, as it sought to promote traditional nativity figures at Christmas and professed outrage that pork wasn't served in school cafeterias.
At first glance, none of this seems to be directly connected to the actual cross. But there's more at stake here than just the correct faith. Kippahs, crosses and headscarves are the symbols of a culture war over the identity of a society - an identity that has changed just as much in Germany in recent decades as it has in France and other European countries. Some 22.5 million people in Germany, or one in five, has immigrant roots. We now find ourselves struggling to determine who we are, who we were and what we want to be.
During his time as interior minister, Thomas de Maizière had a pretty clear idea about what we didn't want to be. "We are not the burqa," he wrote in a 2017 op-ed for the Bild am Sonntag tabloid, his contribution to the debate over Germany's Leitkultur, or defining culture....

'Fascism of Our Time'

But the issue with the burqa is a little more complicated. On the one hand, it is a symbol of Islam. On the other, it provides a view of women that clashes with the one held by enlightened Western feminism. Are burqas and headscarves even religious symbols? Or are they just relicts from some pre-modern, patriarchal parochialism? Whereas younger feminists aren't automatically opposed to the headscarf if the woman is wearing it of her own free will, some more traditional feminists, like Alice Schwarzer, the most famous feminist voice in Germany, have spoken out against them. After the mass sex crimes committed during new year's eve in 2015 in Cologne, Schwarzer even went to far as to say that Islamic ideology justifies violence against women. She has also described Islamism as the "fascism of our time."
In general, of course, Germans should think twice before accusing other cultures, religions or countries of being fascist. But the history of political Islam is also one of subjugation. The ideological renaissance of conservative Islam began with the 1979 Iranian revolution, followed by the 1989 fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie to be murdered because of his book "The Satanic Verses." Was the book blasphemous? One of the central achievements of modernity is that blasphemy is now something that must be tolerated.
In 1751, the Bavarian legal code still called for beheading in cases of repeated heresy. Bavaria has made progress since then, but not all Muslim countries have come as far.
Is the headscarf an appropriate symbol for this form of Islam? Or is it more of a barometer of xenophobia? A recent survey conducted by the pollsters at Forsa found that more than a quarter of all Germans agree that Islam is "to be feared." In 2010, fully 73 percent of Germans believed that Islam doesn't fit in with the Western world. Horst Seehofer, the head of the CSU who has just become German interior minister in Merkel's cabinet, said in March that Islam doesn't belong to Germany but that the 5 million Muslims who live in the country do. ...

It has now been for almost exactly 50 years that this modern version of Germany, the one that is now wrestling with its own identity, was founded back in April and May of 1968. On April 11, left-wing student protest leader Rudi Dutschke was shot on the streets of Berlin...

It was an uprising of children against their parents, a cultural rebellion against the Germany of the Nazis, against the narrow-mindedness and lack of openness in society. The 1968 movement made plenty of its own mistakes, including the detour into terrorism on the extreme fringe and the predilection among many for fundamentalist forms of communism.

The Cornerstone for Today's Germany

Nevertheless, the cornerstone for today's Germany was laid in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A democratic, free country dedicated just as much to anti-fascism as to friendship and solidarity with Israel and the Jews. A country striving for equal rights, one which seeks to protect its minorities just as it tries to preserve the environment. A country wanting to be peaceful and do good. A country, in essence, that is really not a bad place at all.
The historic year of 1968 could never have come about without all of the historic years that preceded it: the years 1933 and 1945, the Nazi crimes and the Holocaust. Those who speak of the Judeo-Christian culture today cannot credibly do so without explicitly acknowledging the anti-Semitic pogroms and slaughter of the Jews over the course of centuries. Indeed, those who speak of Europe's Judeo-Christian tradition do so because excluding Judaism from the history of European civilization, particularly since Auschwitz, is simply unacceptable.
The recognition of just how systematic the World War II slaughter of European Jews was proved decisive for the developments seen in 1968. The public at large was first confronted with the enormity of the crimes committed during the Holocaust during the Auschwitz trials, which began in Frankfurt in 1963. One consequence of the trials was that a huge number of younger Germans took their first serious look at those crimes - and many of them arrived at the conclusion that the bourgeoisie had allied itself with the National Socialists. They lost all respect for the dignitaries of old - including the curie. The pope, after all, had remained silent about Hitler's crimes. Postwar West Germany, under the leadership of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of the CDU, was deeply Catholic and patriarchal. But with the liberalization set in motion in 1968, the influence of churches, most of which were deeply conservative at the time, began to ebb. Today, many of the Protestant regional churches, and even the Catholic bishoprics, have moved just as far to the center as has the CDU under the leadership of Angela Merkel.
The 1968 generation ultimately emerged victorious. Merkel became the first female head of government in Germany and cleared the way for gay marriage. It was also Merkel who brought in trainloads of refugees from Budapest in 2015.
Germany, the magazine wrote, has become so open and diverse, so economically successful and politically stable, that it could serve as a model for the entire Western world. It is all-too tempting to believe it.
In his recently published book on the legacy of 1968, Munich-based sociologist Armin Nassehi wrote that, in addition to the constant reflection about German history and widespread cognizance of the moral implications the Holocaust has for present-day Germany, today's pop culture is the third great legacy of that year....

Today, the country is multicultural. But contrary to the dreams likely harbored by many of the 1968 generation and of the Green Party that grew out of it, this multicultural country is no paradise. It is a country where conflicts over national identity also extend into the world of pop. It is also a country home to the conflicts between Jews and Muslims - conflicts that have been imported from the Middle East....

Fifty years after the birth of this new Germany, the environmentalist, liberal and culturally dominant mainstream in the country finds itself facing a degree of skepticism it has never experienced before. Skepticism from politicians who are demanding a return to Christian values. From the consequences of Muslim immigration, which could ultimately overwhelm the capacity of German society to integrate them. From the populists with the AfD, who would prefer to forget about the 12 years under Nazi rule. From the demons of the past that are crawling out into the open. From the global return of autocrats who reject the West and its universalist impulses. From the shock triggered by recent weeks, a product of the country's desire to do everything right by both the Jews and the Muslim immigrants, only to be forced to realize that the perfect world of the kind it yearns for doesn't actually exist.

What Keeps Us Together?

The problem isn't just that the logic of universalism is reaching its limits, but also that identity politics, an invention of the 1968 generation, is suddenly triggering conflicts that can hardly be tamed. The right to a completely individual lifestyle and the expectation that it be protected cannot just apply to the heart of Berlin but must also be valid for those left behind in a village in Saxony where nobody refers to themselves as gender fluid, where the Saxon dialect is the only language spoken and where most residents cast their ballots for AfD.
What, then, belongs to Germany? What is it that keeps us together? The atheists and Jews, Christians and Muslims, lefties and right-wingers, western and eastern Germans, Bavarians and Saxons, urban dwellers and villagers. Who gets to decide who belongs and based on what criteria? Do German anti-Semites belong to Germany? What about AfD politicians? Or ghetto machos who rap about women only as "bitches" and who date women in headscarves? Or Muslim immigrants who insist on their right to have nothing to do with the Holocaust? Or Catholic fundamentalists who change "Resistance! Resistance!" at anti-Merkel demonstrations? We likely have to put up with all of that. It is acceptable, after all, to have different opinions.