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May 4th, 2010, by Riem Spielhaus

Riem Spielhaus

View Riem Spielhaus’ GEF profile here

In a cabinet reshuffle last month the governing Christian Democratic Party, for the first time in German history, appointed a Muslim woman of Turkish decent into a leading position as regional government minister for social affairs in Lower Saxony. As parliamentarians, politicians with a migration history are present in German politics from the local to the European level since the mid 1990ies. A highlight was the election of Cem Özdemir as leader of the Green Party in 2008, another one the appointment of the health minister with Vietnamese background Philip Rösler by the coalition of CDU and Liberals in the federal government of Angela Merkel in 2009.

A recent survey among Muslims in Berlin commissioned by the Open Society Institute reveals that those eligible to vote with nearly 75% have a higher election turnout than the general population. Muslims show high rates of civic participation in education and youth activities and religiously observant young Muslim women are particularly active in civic and political spheres.

In order to keep democratic processes legitimate in a society marked by migration, parties and civic initiatives need to reach out to engage recent newcomers. Since the opening of German citizenship to long-term foreign inhabitants in the mid-1990s, naturalized voters have aroused the interest of leading parties. Moreover, as France and the Netherlands demonstrated, ministers with a migrational background serve as role models exemplifying successful integration to both offspring of immigrants and immigration critics.
However, the virulent debate on the appointment of the first Muslim minister in Germany last week – first applauded as a sign for integration and a coup to win Muslim voters, then fiercely criticized by party fellows – is symptomatic of the current debate regarding political participation of Muslims.

A major characteristic of this debate is that immigration and integration in Germany are predominantly discussed as issues related to Islam and, hence, Muslim immigrants or immigrants from Muslim majority countries are in the spotlight of these debates.

Yet still, a Muslim minister raises irritation because of her religion. While the Christian faith of an immigrant from Vietnam who became health minister stirred no debate, media seized upon Aygül Özkan’s swearing-in on the oath “Be God my witness”, which is used by Christians and usually skipped by non-religious politicians. As the Muslim minister-to-be chose to use the religious oath, controversy mounted on the theological implications – Who’s God is she turning to? – while using the oath. If then, parliamentarians of the same party criticize the appointment because a Muslim was not able to represent German interests warning of a silent Islamization, it becomes apparent that participation of Muslims in decision-making remains questioned.

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