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Genetics and Immigration – The public debate about Muslims in Germany

September 24, 2010

Immigration is a delicate issue in every country. The expansion of a national community always requires the reformulation and revision of the societal consensus, which almost inevitably leads to uneasy questions: What defines our country? What defines our culture? Should our efforts aim at integration or assimilation of immigrants?

Germany has never had a societal consensus on immigration since – till only 50 years ago – the country did not experience any significant immigration flows. In the course of the prevailing labour shortage in the 1960s, however, the German government encouraged the immigration of, especially Turkish, labourers to maintain the country’s economic prosperity. When these labourers decided to stay in Germany, the government should have put the topic “immigration and integration” on its agenda. Instead, it has largely been ignored. This approach now takes a terrible toll on German society.

Now and then, the media would point out certain events that could have served as indicators of the growing dissatisfaction of the German people with the immigration policy, for example, when an asylum shelter – known for its Muslim residents – was set on fire in 2008.1 The public as well as the government condemned this crime immediately and reiterated that this does not reflect the attitude of the German people towards the Muslim community. Instead, the perpetrators would constitute a minority of extremists that does not speak for the majority.

Is any other explanation in Germany even possible? A country, which has made history by almost exterminating an ethnic group based on its members’ visible difference? Can the leader of such a country confess in front of an international audience that there are general resentments among the German population against Muslims?

Besides these questions, Chancellor Merkel might have partly been right. The setting on fire of the asylum house might have only been the expression of a small group of extremists. But it might have also marked the intensification of an ongoing polarization between the German and the Muslim community.

The public debate after these events remained largely superficial. ‘Minorities’ represent a topic that is mostly being censored by political correctness; for example, the word ‘immigrant’ has been replaced by the term ‘people with a migration background’.

The perception that Germany has no need to worry about its immigration and integration model was further reinforced when Wolfgang Schäuble – at that time German Federal Minister of Interior – opposed the image of Germany as a country of immigration: “Germany has never been a country of immigration and it is not a country of immigration.”2 Ironically, he gave this statement at an integration summit in Berlin in 2006.

However, the economic crisis has further diverted the government’s attention towards the topic. When the economy suffered, questions of immigration and integration were largely subjugated besides repeated inflammation of conflicts.

Now the integration debate knocks on the politicians’ doors again in the form of Thilo Sarrazin and his book “Germany Does Away With Itself.”

Thilo Sarrazin is the former Finance Senator of Germany’s capital city Berlin. Until recently, he was a member of the board of the German Federal Bank. The publication of his book about Germany’s deficient integration policy not only put him in the centre of public attention but was eventually responsible for the loss of his position at the German Federal Bank. Officially, Thilo Sarrazin stepped down from his position by “his own choice”. The public persecution that had been going on weeks before this “free” decision presents an indicator of the explosive nature of the topic “immigration and integration of Muslims” in Germany.

Why all this hysteria?

Thilo Sarrazin has always been a provocateur. In 2008, for example, he proposed to reduce the daily welfare benefits to €3.76 since he considered €4.25 per day as too much. This time, he is not targeting Germany’s welfare recipients but the country’s Muslim immigrants as the following quote vividly illustrates:

"I don't want the country of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be largely Muslim, or that Turkish or Arabic will be spoken in large areas, that women will wear headscarves and the daily rhythm is set by the call of the muezzin. If I want to experience that, I can just take a vacation in the Orient."

With this statement, Sarrazin expresses his opinion on immigration in Germany quite clearly. His demand for a more restrictive immigration policy is driven by the fear that Germany might lose its cultural identity. But what defines the German cultural identity in the first place? The clarification of this question is overdue. Especially since the formation of the European Union, debates about common values and national identities have become pressing. Nevertheless, they have largely been subordinated to the economic prosperity of the Union. Thus, Mr. Sarrazin’s provocative statements have technically served as a catalyst to finally face the difficult question of how Germans – and Europeans in general – define themselves.

The worth of a discourse about cultural identity, however, can easily be nullified when the debate is taking the wrong course. Thilo Sarrazin’s book indicates a direction that is not only oversimplified but also dangerous.

Mr. Sarrazin tries to contribute to the question of cultural identity by explaining its constitution with a version of biological determinism. His basic thesis is: The Muslim immigration to Germany must be stopped - for genetic reasons. In other words: Because the German people’s intelligence potential is decreasing in a natural way since the “cognitive less gifted Muslims” in Germany are generally bearing more children than the German population:

“The cultural alienation of Muslim immigrants could be offset, if these immigrants would contribute a highly skilled or intellectual potential. This, however, is not detectable. Indicators rather show that the opposite is the case, and it is not guaranteed that the reason for this lies only in the uneducated background (of the immigrants). Genetic burdens also play an important role, for example, in case of migrants from the Middle East where genetic diseases are caused by the common custom of marrying relatives which leads to an above average high share of different genetic disorders.”

Thilo Sarrazin tries to identify superficial correlations between variables like intelligence, minorities and religion and propagate them as causalities. The direct implication of his interpretation is that members of a certain ‘cultural’ group have genetically determined attributes that cannot be modified by exogenous factors. It becomes apparent that Mr. Sarrazin is introducing a totally different definition of ‘culture’ by adding genetic components. Not surprisingly, Sarrazin also relies on Darwin to buttress his own social theory:

“The pattern of generative behaviour in Germany since the mid-1960s is not a Darwinist one. In other words, it is not a natural selection in terms of ‘survival of the fittest’. Instead, it is a cultural, negative selection regulated by human-beings themselves which relatively and absolutely decreases the only renewable resource that Germany is having: intelligence.”

Sarrazin’s book leaves no doubt that he is actually not worried about a cultural heritage that immigrants contribute and pass on to the German people but a genetic one:

“The hereditament of people who reproduce the most will consequently also spread throughout society most intensively. Since the survival chances in modern societies are the same, the hereditament of people with a high fertility rate will be spread the most.”

This quote illustrates Sarrazin’s determined anti-Muslim assumptions, denouncing high fertility rates among Muslim women as responsible for the genetic degeneration of the overall German society.

To prevent this doom and gloom scenario, Sarrazin considers a ban on immigration of Muslims: “The only reasonable policy decision is to generally prevent a further immigration flow from the Middle East as well as from Africa. Understandably, this requires forcefully holding against the high immigration pressure.”

An immigration debate always bears the risk of being turned into an eugenic debate. Thilo Sarrazin has become a victim of this fallacy. Just like America became a victim of it approximately 100 years ago when the U.S. government announced a quota system to restrict the numbers of certain ethnicities (e.g., Irish and Italian immigrants). Sarrazin has suggested a point system to evaluate a candidate’s potential to integrate into German society. Similarities are clearly visible.

The debate in Germany is only an indicator of what kind of transformation Europe is going through. Approximately 15 to 20 million Muslims are currently residing in the EU. This population is expected to double by 2025. Thirteen countries still do not recognize Islam as a religion, even though it is at least the second largest religion in 16 of 37 European countries (Turkey not included!).3 Considering these facts, questions of European values and identities will have to be addressed. Reducing this debate with eugenic arguments is an easy way to cope with the issue. Eugenic arguments limit choices and, moreover, it evades responsibility. Nobody can be blamed if genetic predispositions do not allow the compatibility or even coexistence of Western values and Islam. The outcome of this attitude could be described in Samuel Huntington’s words as the “clash of civilizations”. These primordialist arguments, however, can frequently be unmasked as the simple fear of a group losing its dominant status. Germany has largely been homogenous in terms of race, religion, language and culture. With a growing Muslim population, categories like race and religion must be dismissed as the characteristics of a majority identity. Race and religion are exclusive identities that do not allow for integration by their very own nature. Furthermore, discrimination on racial and religious grounds is not ‘politically correct’. Language and culture, however, have long served as the last resort to ensure the dominance of one group’s identity on generally more accepted grounds. France, for example, openly admits its ambitions to protect French culture – even at the expense of its minorities. Still, France has never been harshly criticized for its cultural regulations. How come that the liberal democratic European countries are suddenly discovering their ‘national heritage’ and their ‘national culture’? A detailed analysis of this discourse might reveal that it is not so much about conserving a cultural heritage but rather about maintaining a majority position and the privileges that come with it.

  • 1. Muslim Welt, “Wissen schafft Frieden: Rassistische Angriffe in Deutschland häufen sich,” 20.09.2010,
  • 2. Tagesspiegel – Politik: Wir sind kein Einwanderungsland. 20.09.2010,
  • 3. Savage, Timothy M.: Europe and Islam: Crescent Waxing, Cultures Clashing. The Washington Quarterly, 27:33, pp. 25- 50.