The following article is from our November 2010 issue.

One Mesut to bind them all Why Chancellor Merkel hurried to a soccer hero in his locker room – By Lutz Lichtenberger

As Germans keep arguing about integration, Angela Merkel tries to please everyone. In one and the same speech, she dismissed the notion of a multicultural society while affirming that Islam is part of Germany.

Germany’s political photo of the year shows a soccer player in the locker room. The reason that practically every newspaper in the country ran it was because national team player Mesut Özil had stripped off his jersey before shaking hands with Chancellor Angela Merkel. No one asked if it was appropriate. Merkel certainly didn’t care. She got the photo op she wanted.

The picture was taken by a member of Merkel’s entourage. It has been Merkel’s most notable contribution to the acrimonious debate over the integration of minorities, and especially Muslims, that was sparked by former Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin’s book “Germany Does Away With itself.” In it, he questions whether people from immigrant families, mainly from Turkey and the Arab world, are genetically capable of integrating into German society. Many are third-generation residents of the country and hold German passports. Sarrazin accuses them of shunning the German school system, relying disproportionately on state aid and having higher than average crime rates.

Sarrazin’s arguments sparked much criticism in the media and among the political establishment, but it also ignited enthusiastic approval throughout German society. Obviously, when it comes to integration of Muslims, Germany is a divided country.

Özil, 22, was born in Turkey. He held dual citizenship but opted in 2007 to relinquish his Turkish passport in favor of his German one. During this summer’s World Cup in South Africa, the entire country cheered the midfielder’s exploits. Since then, he has become Germany’s unofficial poster child for successful integration.

Hence the photo op: Merkel wanted to show that integration is possible – without upsetting her party’s more conservative wing.

In a speech to youth leaders of her center-right Christian Democrats, Merkel managed to finely balance the sound bites for the news reports. The dream of a multicultural society in which various cultures coexist has “failed, utterly failed,” she said.

That was a nod to her conservative listeners, for whom the German term “multi-kulti” epitomizes leftist naivety. In any case, she risked nothing politically by rejecting that thoroughly vague concept.

Yet in the same speech, Merkel also said that “Islam is a part of Germany…As is shown by more examples than just the soccer player Mesut Özil.”

The first sentence was a signal to liberals. In their view, immigration has enriched Germany and made it a more colorful and interesting place to live. Making integration work better, in their opinion, is mainly a matter of convincing Germans to open up more toward minority communities while expanding social programs and educational opportunities.

“Islam is a part of Germany” was also the sentiment from Christian Democrat and German President Christian Wulff in a speech on Oct. 3 marking the 20th anniversary of German reunification. Wulff was trying to calm the rhetoric in a dispute that had gripped the country for weeks. Yet many in his CDU party and its Bavarian offshoot, the CSU, had little sympathy with the president’s choice of words. They see themselves as guardians of the country’s German – even Judeo-Christian – “Leitkultur” (lead culture), a divisive political term often used by anti-Muslim populists.

The conservatives fear that if the CDU abandons that tradition, it would leave the door wide open for parties and movements farther to the right. Pollsters say that kind of party would appeal to about 20 percent of Germany’s voters.

Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the CSU, wants to prevent that from happening. In a recent interview, he said that immigrants from Turkey and Arab states had difficulties integrating. He went on to say, “We do not need any more immigration from other cultural circles.”

Seehofer knew his remarks would raise an outcry from all parties. “For me, Horst Seehofer’s contribution was not helpful: It was the attempt to reclaim ground from Thilo Sarrazin,” said Christian Lindner, general secretary of the FDP, the conservatives’ coalition partners in the federal government.

Turning from the political dimension toward the policy aspects of the debate is like going from night to day. German industry has made amply clear that the country needs an influx of qualified workers, regardless of what cultures they come from because Germany’s declining birth rate is already affecting the economy. There are shortages of engineers, doctors and geriatric nurses. More people are leaving the country than arriving on its shores.

That is why the government has embarked on a sustainable, if unspectacular, way to integrate Muslims. Since 2006, a series of conferences under the direction of Chancellor Merkel has been submitting ideas for ways to move forward. All civic groups have been involved in these “integration summits”: politicians, immigrants’ associations, employers, trade unions and even athletic teams. The result of their work has been the National Integration Plan. It outlines projects including how to expand integration and language courses and improve living conditions for women and girls. It describes helpful initiatives on the ground while paying heed to the potential of athletic teams for integration.

In 2006, then-Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble convened the first German Islam Conference. Its mission was to explore the special issues in the relationship between the German state and the Muslims living in it. “The dialogue in the Islam Conference will serve to help Muslims understand that they are welcome in our country,” Schäuble said at the inaugural session.

At celebrations after the German team’s matches at the World Cup this summer, there was a new phenomenon on the country’s streets and squares. The legions of peaceful partygoers included cohorts of ethnic Turks, decked out with flags and team shirts. Speaking with each other, they both arrived at a single name: Mesut Özil. They were all proud of their newest star.

Merkel’s visit to the locker room to congratulate Özil in the midst of an emotional public debate was also a reminder of how close Germans and Turks once were. The match in Berlin, incidentally, pitted Germany against Turkey. The man of the hour – and not just because of his winning goal – is on the photo, shaking the chancellor’s hand.

Presidential outreach

In his speech on Oct. 3, German President Christian Wulff said “Islam is a part of Germany” and explicitly called himself the president of Germany’s Turks. News magazine Focus subsequently ran a montage photo of Wulff on the front page in which he sports a typical Turkish mustache and taqiyah, the Muslim prayer cap.

Wulff responded to this ridicule and the harsh criticism he reaped after his reunification speech when, on Oct. 19, he became the first German president to address the Turkish parliament in Ankara. Referring to his speech in Germany, he added a corollary, “Christianity is definitely a part of Turkey.”