This article was originally published on May 3, 2017, and republished without changes in February 2018.
As Germany moves into election mode with parties scrambling for attention, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière has created some buzz for his center-right Christian Democratic Union with his call for migrants to accept a “Leitkultur,” or a definitive core culture.
In a guest column in the Bild tabloid newspaper, the minister shared his 10-point plan for ensuring social cohesion in Germany, which has accepted more than 1.2 million refugees since 2015. He called for a public debate on the divisive issue of setting dominate German values to create tolerance and help foster integration.
“We are an open society. We show our face. We are not the burqa,” Mr. de Maizière wrote, referring to the full-face veil worn by devoutly religious Muslim women.
The minister emphasized Germany’s overall western perspective and defense of European unity. “Germany is part of the West, culturally, spiritually and politically speaking, ” he wrote.
We are an open society. We show our face. We are not the burqa. Thomas de Maizière, Interior Minister
His column was published on the heels of a vote in the German parliament, the Bundestag, for a limited burqa ban for civil servants, judges and military when performing their public duties. Numerous policymakers have sought a more general ban on wearing the burqa in public, but legal experts say that such a blanket prohibition would be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.
The concept of Leitkultur has been the focus of debate in Germany for several years. It has been an issue pursued mostly by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU and especially by her smaller Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Last year, Bavaria passed a new integration law, requiring all migrants in the state to respect the “dominate culture.” The term Leitkultur is anchored firmly in the law.
But the concept has generated plenty of criticism. While some argue that a Leitkultur would limit integration by rejecting those who fail to assimilate, others believe a set of core values would lead to culture clashes, with the German culture inherently being viewed as superior to others.
Rival parties wasted no time attacking Mr. de Maiziere’s plan. “Once again, it’s about religion,” Christian Lindner, the leader of the pro-business Free Democrats told public broadcaster ARD.
Ruprecht Polenz, a former CDU general secretary, told public radio the subject is deeply sensitive for many in Germany because of the country’s Nazi past. He warned that the Leitkultur concept risks moving in the direction of nationalism and repression.
"Our guiding principle is the constitution," Thomas Oppermann, deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party, told the Ruhr Nachrichten newspaper.
Simone Peter, co-chair of the Green Party, tweeted that Germany doesn't need a debate over Leitkultur but "a new domestic policy that promotes integration, inspects right-wing networks and keeps a tight surveillance on people considered potential Islamic terrorists."
Mr. de Maizière's plan comes amid efforts by the CDU to wrestle back conservative voters angered over the liberal immigration policy of its leader, Ms. Merkel. Some of those have shown an affinity with the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and have indicated a willingness to vote for the party in the September federal election.
SPD deputy party leader Ralf Stegner called Mr. de Maizière’s plan “a cheap attempt” to snatch votes.
Ms. Merkel is running for a fourth term. The latest Emnid poll put her party at 36 percent, followed by her coalition party, the Social Democrats, at 29 percent and the AfD at 9 percent, down from its high 16 percent in September.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]