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Anti-Islam rhetoric alarms German foreign ministry

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Selfies for all. Source: DPA

Berlin’s foreign policy establishment is growing increasingly uneasy at the anti-Islam rhetoric deployed by the Christian Social Union (CSU), a conservative coalition partner of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). In particular, foreign ministry officials fear that recent attacks on Kuwait Airways by CSU ministers could impact Germany’s relations with the Muslim world.

Under pressure from the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, senior CSU figures have made provocative statements on Islam in recent weeks. Immediately after taking office, Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister and the CSU chairman, claimed “Islam is not a part of Germany”.

Mr. Seehofer’s statement was challenged by Ms. Merkel, and was widely criticized as damaging the country’s efforts to integrate its minority populations. However, CSU ministers have continued to make publicity-grabbing statements on Islam, in what is clearly a coordinated effort to win back support from the AfD ahead of October’s Bavarian regional elections.

Some German diplomats regard Kuwait as a particularly reliable regional partner.

But the new attack on Kuwait Airways has the German foreign ministry worried. This week, the CSU transport minister Andreas Scheuer threatened to take measures against the airline, which refused to accept an Israeli passenger on a flight from Frankfurt to Bangkok last year.

The passenger sued the airline, but a Frankfurt court found in its favor, saying no religious discrimination had taken place, and the company had no choice but to obey Kuwaiti law. The Gulf monarchy has no official diplomatic relations with Israel, with which it is still officially at war. The popular German tabloid Bild has campaigned vigorously against the airline, accusing it of anti-Semitism.

Given its 20th century history, Germany is extremely sensitive on questions of anti-Semitism and is generally at pains to be seen as supportive of Israel. But the waning of American power in the Middle East – highlighted by the Syrian civil war – has increased the importance of bilateral relations with other countries in the region.

German diplomatic sources regard Kuwait as a particularly reliable regional partner, which takes a firm line on Islamist terrorism. On the question of mosques in Germany, the country is more cooperative than other Arab states: It is in close contact with German authorities and acts to prevent extremism in mosques it supports.

Diplomats are puzzled as to why Kuwait has been singled out, pointing out that 16 countries currently have laws against accepting Israeli passengers, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. They also drew attention to Israel’s ban on Palestinians using Tel Aviv airport, including Germans of Palestinian origin, effectively barring them from flying.

These arguments have in a way stopped Mr. Scheuer’s campaign. Last week, Bild reported that the minister presented the airline with a “tough ultimatum.” The tabloid has continued to press the issue, comparing the airline’s policy to the Nazi’s Nuremburg racial laws.

Mr. Scheuer will meet this week with foreign minister Heiko Maas to urge him to take action. Foreign ministry officials point out that any changes to the 1979 German-Kuwaiti air transportation agreement must be approved by the foreign ministry, which seems unlikely to cooperate.

Officials in Mr. Scheuer’s own transport department have privately mocked his campaign as a politically-motivated “farce.” They point out that the passenger who sued the airline had a choice of thousands of connections which did not stop in an Arab country.

For the CSU, the controversy represents another opportunity to position itself as taking a hardline on Islam, as it looks to steal populist policies and voters from the AfD. The controversy surrounding Mr. Seehofer’s comments continued over the Easter break, with ex-finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, saying Islam was part of the country, and all Germans must address the fact.

But the CSU’s parliamentary leader Alexander Dobrindt doubled down on the rhetoric, saying that the idea that Islam formed part of German culture “sent the wrong signal to migrants,” discouraging integration.

CSU parliamentary leader Alexander Dobrindt doubled down on the anti-Islamic rhetoric.

The CSU has traditionally been the CDU’s closely-allied “sister party.” However, since the 2015 refugee crisis the two parties have frequently been at odds on migration. Bavaria bore the brunt of refugee arrivals in that year, prompting the CSU to align itself with the hardline policies of neighboring Hungary and Austria.

The party has recently proposed stripping fighters returning from Syria of German citizenship, if they are dual citizens. It is also pushing for the establishment of “anchor centers,” where arriving asylum-seekers can be detained while their applications are dealt with. Bavaria has even housed some asylum-seekers in former military bases, surrounded by security checkpoints and barbed wire.

Criticism of the Bavarian party’s attack on Islam came from both opposition parties and the center-left Social Democrats, another coalition partner within Ms. Merkel government. An SPD spokesperson said the CSU’s anti-Islamic rhetoric damaged Germany’s image abroad and made it more difficult for the German government to uphold human rights around the world.

Moritz Koch was Handelsblatt’s Washington correspondent between 2013 and 2017. He is now a political editor in Berlin. Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. To contact the authors: koch@handelsblatt.com, delhaes@handelsblatt.com

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