Right wrong A Plea for Tolerance

In the face of growing far-right protests in Germany against the “Islamization” of Western society, Handelsblatt’s editor in chief urges the mainstream to speak out for tolerance and understanding.
Pegida should be countered with ideas, not just with diplomacy.

Let’s start with something old-fashioned: the theater. Sometimes it can still provide us with moral lessons, even in these modern times of Internet anarchy.

Students from several schools in Germany's capital recently attended a performance by the Berliner Ensemble of the play “Nathan the Wise,” a plea for religious tolerance by the German philosopher and playright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

The play's director Claus Peymann told his young audience that, while the story may seem contemporary, it was actually first published in 1779. The students could learn a lot from the drama, he argued.

Mr. Peymann may be right, but the fact that we have to reach so far back for moral lessons is a sad state of affairs.

No one tells a story like Lessing’s these days - one in which a Muslim is described as enlightened and a Jew as a true humanitarian, who together through their cooperation help an impulsive Christian find his way. Nor does anyone use the parable of the three rings, which were handed down by a father to his three sons and served as a symbol of the equality of the three religions.

Today, someone reading the Koran draws suspicion, Jewish words of blasphemy are still smeared on the sides of buildings, and the “Islamization” of society is raised as a dangerous specter.

That which is foreign no longer piques our curiosity. Instead it makes some people long for segregation.

It is in this climate that a small, Dresden-based group of far-right activists has been making headlines. The group’s members declare resentment a primary feeling. These German flag-wavers are on TV news shows and in national and international newspapers. The group that shuns what it calls a “media of lies” has still benefited greatly from their attention.

The group, which goes by the name Pegida (a German acronym that stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), poses a political and economic risk to Germany’s reputation as a good place to do business.

The image of Germany today is modern, open, liberal. That’s not the image conveyed by the protestors from the state of Saxony in eastern Germany.

In business, “diversity” is normal these days. For companies that compete in global markets, it’s desirable to have a variety of cultures and nationalities represented in the firm.

Racism and xenophobia don’t mix well with export-prowess. The 15,000 Pegida protestors, however, act as if they are taking their cues from the protests of 1989 against the East German state.

That’s just as treacherous as the group’s idea to sing Christmas carols as it parades through the streets. Christmas manifests peace and tells of the distress of two asylum-seekers who were turned away everywhere and had to spent their night in a stable.

Pegida might as well call itself Perfidy.

And yet, commentators and politicians these days are using that formulaic plea “One must take them seriously.” Because, they argue, these rebellious people from Dresden already seem to some as saviours of the right, and because nobody wants the country’s newest right-wing political party, the Alternative for Germany, to capitalize on the confusion.

The plea to take them seriously is about as accurate as the right’s rallying cry that “We should be allowed to speak our minds.” These groups live from the false idea of invoking taboos that do not even exist. We, on the other hand, live with the false idea that political diplomacy is always possible.

Yes, one can always talk. But sometimes it is enough to have an opinion. And most of the time, it is helpful to uphold one's values.

Unlike the Pegida movement would have you believe, there is no mainstream liberal conspiracy to conceal the Islamization of our society. Rather, we should highlight in these late days of the year the church’s values of humainity, at a time when families from Libya and Syria are being forced to flee their homes. The basic principles of Germany’s constitution also remain valid: Freedom of belief and religious belief are inviolable; the right to practice religion will be “ensured.” This includes mosques.

The contradictions are openly inherent in the fear-mongering of the right:

-- Extremely few foreigners live in Dresden and the vicinity where Pegida has its power base. Muslims make up 0.4 percent of the local population.

-- Economically speaking, it is clear that this ageing country needs skilled workers from abroad.

-- Immigrants pay much more into social security benefits than they receive.

-- Pegida activists are clearly outnumbered by those who protest against xenophobia or help refugees.

For the demonstrators, it is all about protecting the “Occident” – the West. For them, the enemy has always come from the East.

Yet throughout history, this concept has never held true for those that trade with others, including willingly with Allah’s countries, as once was the case with the maritime republics of Genoa and Venice. There have always been those who extolled the virtues of Arab culture, bringing such things as the counting system to the West.

In this idea of the Occident, humanism and tolerance are solid virtues – just as Lessing described in his “Nathan” drama.

“For, it is the will and not the gift that makes the giver,” goes a famous line from the play.

Maybe Germany simply needs more citizens with will and fewer with anger.


Hans-Jürgen Jakobs is editor in chief of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]