BERLIN, Germany — Thilo Sarrazin may not sport the mad-scientist hairstyle of the Dutch anti-Islam campaigner Geert Wilders, nor the handsome tan-and-teeth combination of the late Austrian right-wing populist Jörg Haider.
With his forgettable coiffure, spectacles and moustache, Sarrazin fits the job description: a 65-year-old former Berlin Finance Minister sitting on the board of Germany’s central bank.
But his rhetoric matches that of his flashier ideological bedfellows. And it has created a storm that commentators across the political spectrum say highlights Germany’s decades-long failure to manage the integration of its large Turkish and Arab populations.
Sarrazin, already notorious for outbursts on Islam and immigration, bested himself this week as he launched his new book, “Abolishing Germany: How we’re putting our country in jeopardy.”
He doesn’t, he insisted, want his grandchildren living in a country in which “Turkish or Arabic will be spoken in large areas … and the daily rhythm is set by the call of the muezzin.”
Immigration, he has said in the past, is making Germany “dumber” because many of the country’s estimated 4 million Turks and Arabs “have no productive function other than in the fruit and vegetable trade,” unless one counts “constantly [producing] little girls in head scarves.”
Topping it off was the claim that “all Jews share a certain gene” – a remark widely reported as anti-Semitic, though in fact Sarrazin’s racialist theories seem to hold Jews to be genetically superior to other races, notably Turks and Arabs.
The swift condemnation culminated Thursday when the Bundesbank board recommended to President Christian Wulff that Sarrazin be fired. A short statement read: “The board of the German Bundesbank today unanimously decided to ask the Federal President to dismiss Dr. Thilo Sarrazin as a member of the board.”
And Sarrazin’s own center-left Social Democratic Party has begun a process to expel him.
Sarrazin, who shows no inclination to start a popular movement in the style of Wilders or Haider, might be safely dismissed were it not for the fact that his book has already shot to number one on Amazon.de’s best-seller list. And there are other signs that Germans are listening, among them the flood of support from readers of the mass-circulation tabloid Bild, which is by far the country’s biggest-selling and most influential newspaper.
It’s a reflection, observers say, of genuine frustration over Germany’s long neglect of Turkish and Arab integration, not to mention a distraction from the clear-headed debate Germany needs to solve the education, employment and crime problems that hold back these communities.
“Governments have known that it was a problem but they haven’t done anything about it,” said Oktay Demirel, 29, a hospital administrator from Düsseldorf who runs an advocacy group for Turkish youths. “And then someone like Sarrazin comes along and throws fuel on the fire and says, ‘I’m telling uncomfortable truths,’ when in fact they’re just old social Darwinist theories. And some people listen.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of thousands of “guest workers” came to Germany – many from poor parts of Turkey and Morocco – to fill jobs created by the country’s post-war “economic miracle.”
In contrast to, say, a U.S.-style aspiration to citizenship and social mobility, these guest workers were considered just that – guests who filled temporary manual labour shortages.
When many of them decided to stay, Germany was unprepared to deal with their integration, explained Mona Kheir El Din, an education consultant who was born in Egypt but whose mother is German.
“Germany missed the moment when it became clear that those workers were here to stay,” she said. “And so they missed the chance to create of a set of proper immigration and integration laws. Fifty years of mismanagement or ignorance in integration matters have consequences.
“Twenty years ago when I mentioned Egypt, people would say, ‘Oh how nice, the pyramids.’ Now, they no longer ask me when I’m going home, but instead there is sometimes a suspicion about being a Muslim who’s here to stay.'”
Indeed, until Germany’s blood-line citizenship laws were relaxed in 2000, even children born in Germany to immigrant parents could not become citizens.
Oktay Demirel says this created a gulf that he sees reflected in the resentful attitudes of many young Turks today.
“They have their own racist ideas – they say, ‘If the Germans don’t want us … we’re not going to integrate. If they want me to speak German, I’m going to speak Turkish.”
And the gulf can be seen in the statistics. Nearly one-third of Germany’s Turks have no secondary-school diploma. Just 14 percent qualify to go to university. Some 16 percent are dependent on welfare – twice the share of native Germans. They are also twice as likely to be unemployed.
Sarrazin seizes on such figures to bolster his argument that Muslim communities are a drag on the nation.
The flip side is that, with the right policies, these communities are a source of great potential in an ageing nation country – a view The Economist took earlier this year when it wrote that “a country in demographic decline cannot afford such waste.”
Integration debates, suggests Ulrich Raiser, from the Office of the Commissioner for Integration and Migration in Berlin, have a habit of turning hysterical quickly.
In fact, a sober look at the statistics shows that, though grim, they are getting better, he says.
“Until 10 years ago, you could not speak of a real integration policy in Germany. Yes, criminality is still higher among immigrant youths … and the immigrant school drop-out rates are much too high. But given that we have a lot of catching up to do, things are actually improving,” Raiser said.
Ozturk Kiran, 36, a placement officer in a job center, asks that fellow Germans inclined to listen to Sarrzin consider the longer term benefits of immigration.
“It was a benefit to bring in workers,” Kiran, whose parents were manual guest workers from Turkey, said. “But when their work was done, they started to be seen as a cost. You have to look at the long term balance.
“For me, things are getting better,” he continued. “I finished my university, I’m working, my wife is working. My children will have more possibilities than my father and mother.”