Few German cities are as emblematic of the country's growing diversity as Berlin. Neukölln, July 2016.

On April 30, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere published an extremely controversial article in Bild in which he outlined ten features of a German Leitkultur (“leading culture”), including “enlightened patriotism,” shaking people’s hands, reading Goethe, supporting Israel, and “no Burka.”

Politicians from across Germany’s political spectrum slammed de Maiziere. “Once again, it’s about religion,” snapped Christian Linder of the pro-market Free Democratic Party.

De Maiziere’s comments on Leitkultur build on twenty years of discussion, largely amongst politicians from the governing Christian Democratic Union. The term itself centres on Europe as a whole, and was coined by Syrian-German political scientist Bassam Tibi in his 1996 essay, Multikultureller Werte-Relativismus und Werte-Verlust (Multicultural Value Relativism and the Loss of Values.)

Rather than a German Leitkultur, which he finds dangerous, Tibi argues for a European Leitkultur based on a collective value system of secularism, mutual tolerance, and good citizenship. The problem is that these ideas obviously have a racist core, which CDU leaders are now expressing openly. Leitkultur’s superficial inclusivity masks a deeper process of cultural and institutional Christianisation. It is important to put the term in context.

It helps to begin with an overview of Tibi himself, who was born to an influential family in Damascus, before moving to Germany in 1962, and receiving his PhD from Goethe-Universität in 1971. Tibi became a German citizen in 1976, and completed his habitation at the University of Hamburg in 1981, beginning a successful career with over a dozen professorships across the world.  His immigrant success story is crucial for understanding his contempt of Muslims that have not ‘integrated’ into German society.

In a Deutsche Welle interview, Tibi shows clear prejudice when comparing refugees from Lebanon’s civil war:

One of my best students is a Lebanese who went to Germany with his parents back then. Today he is an important advisor for German authorities and much more faithful to the constitution than many Germans. That is a good example. A bad example is in Berlin. Go there and you will find Lebanese parallel societies where drug dealing, prostitution and crime prevail. And even Berlin’s police do not dare go there.

Unsurprisingly, Tibi’s good example is a Lebanese-German professional who is similar to himself. His bad example is a less privileged community in Berlin that he smears with stereotypes. Readers may be surprised that a Muslim would back a concept like European Leitkultur, but Tibi doesn’t see himself to be of the same community as the Muslims he criticises.

Mahmoud Mamdani describes the phenomenon in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, arguing that “good Muslims are modern, secular, and Westernized, but bad Muslims are doctrinal, antimodern, and virulent.” Tibi is clearly the former, which gives him legitimacy as a public thinker, and impacts nearly all of his intellectual output.

In fact, Tibi is such a ‘Good Muslim’ that he is a Syrian-German Orientalist. His 1999 book Kreuzzug und Djihad (Crusade and Jihad) is an update of Belgian Orientalist Henri Pirenne’s 1937 work Mahomet et Charlemagne (Muhammad and Charlemagne.) Pirenne nonsensically traces a confrontation between Islam and Europe back to Charles the Great. Rather than skewering the argument, which is obviously shaped by European imperialism, Tibi extends it into a theory of “mutual threat and fascination.”

Each has threatened the other, be it with jihad, conquest, crusades or colonisation, but has equally enriched the other in cultural and civilisational terms […] One may place the 20 million Muslims living in Europe today as part of this history into the overall context of threat and fascination.

It is clear that Tibi is informed by both a weak reading of history (jihad is not the same as colonisation) and an Orientalist insistence that Islam and Europe are mutually antagonistic monoliths. In 1992, shortly before his writings on Leitkultur, he published an essay called  Les Conditions d’une Euro-Islam (The Conditions of Euro-Islam) that is characterised by the same problematic ideas.

Tibi argues that Islam needs to be Europeanised with modern ideas, rather than Europe being Islamised by “parallel societies” that refuse to integrate with the majority population. Leitkultur builds on this “Europeanisation of Islam.” Both concepts address the existential threat of visibly Muslim immigrants by pressuring them to internalize a collection of poorly defined European values.

Leitkultur is largely framed by an expectation that Muslim immigrants internalise a Protestant political vocabulary, in which Islam is separated from European public life. Tibi ignores that this strain of secularism was shaped by a specific historical and cultural context, where a highly centralised “religion” (the Catholic Church) was pushed back in favour of an assortment of non-“religious” states that succeeded the previous order. When applied to Muslim immigrants, the concept totally overstates the threat they pose.

It is no wonder Tibi argues that “the concepts of jihad and sharia need to be kept out of Europe,” and that “Muslims stand by their religion entirely” in “a sort of religious absolutism.” He is working within an intellectual tradition that treats them like Medieval Catholic clergymen, lamenting that “Europeans have stopped defending the values of their civilisation.”

Inevitably, Tibi’s writings on Leitkultur, with their essentialism and barely concealed demands for cultural homogeneity, influenced German politics. In October 2000, speaking in the context of an expanded immigration law, the CDU/CSU parliamentary group chairman, Friedrich Merz, demanded that immigrants wishing to reside in Germany should “adapt to an established, liberal Leitkultur.”

Merz argued that immigrants should make “their own contribution to integration” and “adapt to the fundamental cultural values that have evolved in this country.” The legislator was roundly condemned outside his party, with critics accusing him of using a “racist vocabulary,” and being “sentimentally obsessed with all things German.”

Nevertheless, Leitkultur successfully entered the mainstream. CDU Secretary General Peter Tauber went on to argue that each generation should “work out for itself which values form part of the German Leitkultur,” which for him, means volunteering, the constitution, “pride in Germany,” “singing the anthem not only at football matches,” and acknowledging “that it is completely natural for two men to kiss in the street.”

In 2005, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert invoked Leitkultur, when he called for a “guiding European idea” based on “common cultural roots, common history, and common traditions.” ‘Common’ is clearly a code word for ‘Christian,’ in opposition to Europe’s unassimilated ‘bad’ Muslims.

Thus, by the time that de Maiziere published his article in Bild last week, German conservatives had been publicly discussing a “leading culture” for over two decades. The idea has been normalised, with Paul Ziemiak, head of the CDU’s Young Union, even going as far to argue that it is a legitimate form of patriotism:

A nationalist says his people are better than other nations’ people. That’s what happened in Germany during the National Socialist regime. A patriot loves his country but understands other people’s love for their country, too. A true German patriot has the greatest respect for patriots from Poland or France, for example. That’s not excluding anyone. We are all proud of [our countries] together.

It’s clear that Leitkultur will continue to define German nationalism going forward, in spite of its originally more cosmopolitan framing. The term’s fundamentally sectarian logic is appealing to conservatives who, in the aftermath of the refugee wave of 2015, find themselves able to express xenophobia more easily in the context of a stronger European extreme right.

Tibi’s proposals, ranging from Germany developing Muslim leaders with “European ideas,” to a fifty-year process of intergenerational “reeducation,” could be an indication of the future.

Yet in spite of these potential policies, and the various imperialist ideas embedded in his philosophy, Tibi does seem to understand Leitkultur’s racist appeal. As he told Der Spiegel, “the problem is that Germany can’t really offer foreigners an identity because the Germans hardly have a national identity themselves,” which is why, in his view, Muslims politicise their identities.

Tibi is correct that German national identity is incoherent, but misses that in the context of economic and cultural insecurity, white Germans are likely to respond by hardening the ‘traditional’ aspects of their identities against perceived outsiders. Leitkultur is currently being directed against ‘Bad Muslims,’ but obviously, historical precedent suggests other targets as well.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons License.