Last week, the prime minister of Lower Saxony, a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), replaced several ministers in his cabinet. The new holder of the portfolio that includes social, health, and family policy, women’s affairs, and integration is a 38-year-old woman named Aygül Özkan, also a Christian Democrat. She is not only the first minister of Turkish descent to serve in a German state government, but also the first Muslim to hold an executive office at this level in Germany. In an interview with the Munich-based weekly Focus, Ms. Özkan told a journalist that she believes headscarves should not be allowed in public schools, a view that is fairly uncontroversial in her own party and among much of the German population. In fact, a 2008 poll indicated that 53 percent of Muslims living in Germany oppose the headscarf, indicating that Kemalist attitudes are widespread in Germany’s Muslim population, which is largely of Turkish origin. The journalist proceeded to ask the new minister about crucifixes in public schools, a hot-button issue in German church–state policy. She responded that those, too, should not be allowed in public schools: “Schools should be a neutral place.” Her response set off a firestorm among Christian Democrats. The Turkish daily Hürriyet quotes one politician calling her comment “absurd and shocking.” The party’s general secretary stated that crucifixes in public spaces are reminders of “the formative influence of Christianity in our culture” and must be defended as such.
Ms. Özkan’s opposition to crucifixes is based on the same principle as her opposition to headscarves, that is, state neutrality in religious matters. In fact, as a columnist writing in the conservative daily Die Welt points out, the new minister, a trained lawyer, is completely in line with a landmark decision in 1995 by Germany’s highest court, popularly known as the “crucifix ruling.” How, then, can we make sense of the passions stirred by Ms. Özkan’s remarks? Does it mean that the German state is not really secular? No. Talal Asad has argued that secularism is not about the dispassionate application of a single abstract principle (such as state neutrality). Rather, secularism is a political arrangement that draws on a variety sources. Asad writes,
Varieties of remembered religious history, of perceived political threat and opportunity, define the sensibilities underpinning secular citizenship and national belonging in a modern state. The sensibilities are not always secure, they are rarely free of contradictions, and they are sometimes fragile. But they make for qualitatively different forms of secularism.
In this case, German secularism reveals one of its qualities, namely its strongly Christian hue. National belonging is strongly associated with the redemption story the cruciform ornaments evoke; the German people, once fallen into sin, is now redeemed by taking responsibility for its history of war, dictatorship, and organized mass murder. The crucifix controversy is symptomatic of more deeply seated anxieties prompted by the increasing presence of groups that do not share this past. It remains to be seen how Germany will adapt to the reality of increasing pluralization as more first- and second-generation descendants of the Gastarbeiter make a place for themselves in public life.