German minister in pre-election dispute over ‘dominant culture’

FILE PHOTO: Eritrean migrants walk after arriving by plane from Italy at the first registration camp in Erding

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s interior minister has caused a furor five months before an election for saying migrants must accept a “dominant (German) culture” that includes shaking hands, rejecting Islamic full-face veils and grasping the importance of Bach and Goethe.

The row over 10 theses on German culture and values set out by conservative Thomas de Maiziere in a Sunday paper indicates that the integration of more than a million migrants who have arrived in Germany since 2015 will be a hot election issue.

Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose popularity was hit by her open-door migrant policy, is favored to win a fourth term but her Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners have picked up 8-10 points since choosing a new leader in January.

Even some of his fellow conservatives criticized de Maiziere for writing: “We value some social customs… as they are an expression of a certain behavior … We are an open society. We show our face. We are not burqa.”

The burqa is the full face veil worn by devoutly religious Muslim women.

Ruprecht Polenz, former general secretary of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), distanced himself from de Maiziere, saying the idea of a “dominant culture” was problematic given that German values were already set out in the constitution.

“I think it raises the question about where there is still a need for binding rules and how a ‘dominant culture’ fits in with the diverse cultures in Germany,” Polenz told Deutschlandfunk.

The subject is deeply sensitive for many Germans out of concern, given the country’s Nazi past, that “dominant culture” risks straying in the direction of nationalism and repression.

SPD deputy leader Ralf Stegner said de Maiziere’s theses were “a cheap attempt to get conservatives going and run along behind right-wing populists”.

The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has dipped in popularity after last year capitalizing on fears about the migrant crisis, also derided the theses as electioneering.

Merkel’s government has in the last decade talked a lot about the problems of integrating the roughly 3 million people with Turkish roots in Germany. The arrival of more than a million asylum seekers, more than 35 percent from Syria, in the last two years has intensified the debate.

Merkel angered some in her party in 2015 by saying Islam belonged to Germany but she is now performing a balancing act, backing a nationwide ban on Muslim face veils “wherever legally possible”, an allusion to public places.

The German parliament last week passed a law to stop the use of burqas by civil servants, judges and armed forces personnel at work.

De Maiziere’s theses, which also stressed the right of Israel to exist, to have church towers shape Germany’s landscape and to be an “enlightened patriot”, pleased some conservatives.

“A debate about a dominant culture is long overdue,” said Bavarian conservative Andreas Scheuer.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; editing by Mark Heinrich)