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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Of crucifixes and secularism

Aygül Özkan, the 38-year-old daughter of Turkish migrant parents, was sworn in as Social Affairs Minister in Lower-Saxony last Tuesday thus becoming the first minister of Turkish origin in Germany. Her appointment constitutes a breakthrough in other ways too, as she is a member of the Christian Democratic Party that, despite its claims to the contrary, has been ambivalent insofar as the integration of Germany's Turkish community into the mainstream is concerned. 

And, indeed, just before her oath-taking ceremony, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, CSU, were embroiled in turmoil over Ms Özkan's call for a ban on crucifixes and other religious symbols in schools in an interview with news weekly Focus. 'Christian symbols do not belong in state-run schools. Public schools should be neutral spaces, free of religious symbols, for the same reason that headscarves are inappropriate', Özkan said.

Despite the fact that the new minister was merely affirming German constitutional law as it was interpreted by the German Constitutional Court back in 1987 when its members ruled that crosses and other religious symbols have no place in public schools in accordance to Art. 4(1) of Germany's Basic Law, members of her own party, have been quick to denounce the comments and some demanded  her removal from Lower Saxony's cabinet as they found her remarks incongruent with CDU positions.

Stefan Mueller, a member of parliament who represents the CDU and CSU on integration issues, said to the German media that he found the remarks 'absurd and shocking' and that 'politicians who want to ban crosses in schools should think about whether they belong in a Christian party'. CSU, General-Secretary Alexander Dobrindt criticized Lower Saxony state Minister-President Christian Wulff last Monday saying he would “better have a talk with [Özkan] about Christian Democratic politics.”

In a crisis management attempt Christian Wulff tried to minimize the impact of Ms Özkan's comments arguing that they represented her 'personal opinion' and reassuring his party base that his government welcomed crosses in schools making an astonishing statement:
In Lower-Saxony, we value Christian symbols, especially crucifixes in schools, on behalf of a tolerant education based on Christian values, as intended by the regional government ... , we have the separation of church and state, but still maintain a strong relationship with the Christian faith. Hence, crosses are present in classrooms. On the other hand, we provide classes teaching Islam to Muslim children, because we support the role of religion in our country.”
In the meantime, critics disected Ms Özkan's record and have been pointing out that, in contrast to official CDU policy on a special relationship of Turkey with the European Union short of membership , she has voiced support for an open-ended negotiation process for Turkey’s EU membership. The racist blog Politically Incorrect  called Ms Özkan "Muslim Trojan Horse", the "Catholic" Holocaust-denial site is outraged that a "Muslim" has a role in a "Christian" party, and the neo-Nazi NPD  represents her as a fifth column of Islamic extremism.

Ms Özkan, Germany’s first minister with Turkish heritage, eventually had to apologize for her call to ban crucifixes in public schools and her oath taking ceremony took place as scheduled. In her official apology to the CDU last Monday, she said she regretted the misunderstanding and her offense to religious sensitivities.

However, the Özkan affair gave rise to some profound questions as to the meaning and limitations of European secularism. At a time when Europe's Muslim communities are facing numerous assaults in the name of secularism, or of other 'European' principles of social coexistence (such as the freedom of expression) the CDU/CSU intervention and the mobilizations against Ms Özkan's statements reveal the complex discursive ambiguities surrounding notions such as secularism, freedom of expression or, even, equality. Far from being articulated as neutral, these principles, as the discourse of the CDU indicates, can often be, and indeed often are, inextricably linked with and informed by Europe's Christian tradition. Thus the CDU has little difficulty in both arguing against visible markers of Islam in public spaces (such as schools) and seeing no contradiction between the separation of church and state and still maintaining a strong relationship with the Christian faith in matters pertaining to state education.

To be clear, this comment should not be read as a criticism of the principles of secularism, freedom of expression or legal equality but as an attempt to point the need to develop a critical approach towards the uses of such principles and to develop an awareness of the social-historical contexts in which some of our institutions and the principles that underpin them have emerged and are operating in.

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