As Germans attempt to define national culture, some detect anti-Muslim tone to the debate

Critics think that beneath this veneer of seeming congeniality is an underlying assumption that other native cultures are inferior to the Deutsch way of life.

“Who are we? And who do we want to be?... What is German?” These are among the few questions Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maizière asked last month, reigniting an old debate surrounding the controversial term “Leitkultur”, or dominant culture.

In his guest column for the German tabloid Bild am Sonntag, de Maizière of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union party, drew up a 10-point plan on what constitutes Germanness. He wrote: “Leitkultur can and should be presented above all. Those who are sure of their guiding culture are strong. Strength and inner security of one’s own culture leads to tolerance towards others.”

A popular term among right-wing circles in Germany, Leitkultur first found its way into the mainstream discourse in 2000 when Christian Democratic Union politician Friedrich Merz spoke about the need for immigrants to conform to a “liberal German leading culture”. It was considered an attack on multiculturalism. The word itself was originally an agricultural term used to describe dominant plant varieties in a natural environment. Syrian Islam expert Bassam Tibi first used it in a political context two decades ago, asking for a European Leitkultur that would fuse common values.

‘A guiding culture’

Until not so long ago, there was another buzzword in Germany: Willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture. The word had become a siren call, attracting people from their war-ravaged homes in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iraq to Germany. This welcoming stance, at the heart of which stood Chancellor Merkel, saw the entry of more than a million asylum seekers over the last two years. Today, Willkommenskultur is slowly getting displaced by its almost antithetical successor.

How does de Maizière define Leitkultur? Underscored in his guidelines is the importance of social habits, values and a western lifestyle. He wrote: “We are an open society. We show our face and shake our hands. We are not burkha.” He also invoked a rich history in music and philosophy: “Bach and Goethe belong to the whole world and were Germans. We have our own understanding of the importance of culture in our society”, as well as Germany’s past, including the darkest chapter in history: “We are the heirs of our history with all its highs and lows. Our past shapes our present and our culture”. He brought up meritocracy: “We regard good performance as something that each individual can be proud of.”

De Maizière also put an accent on patriotism, Euro-centric pride and precedence of law over religion. A guiding culture, he said, would help in the integration of immigrants and refugees, ultimately leading to greater tolerance.

When asked about Leitkultur, Annette Widmann-Mauz, another Christian Democratic Union parliamentarian said: “Those who come to our country should respect the crucial ways in which we express our identity. We don’t want to set limitations on what people should wear or do, but we want them to live with us while respecting our liberal ways.”

People protest against the deportation of Iraqi refugees from Germany at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, in February. The banner should read: We are demanding right to stay for Iraqi refugees. Photo credit: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters.
People protest against the deportation of Iraqi refugees from Germany at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, in February. The banner should read: We are demanding right to stay for Iraqi refugees. Photo credit: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters.

Veiled criticism?

Critics however think that masked beneath this veneer of seeming congeniality is a strong condemnation of Muslims (there are about four million Muslims in Germany), an underlying assumption that other native cultures are inferior to the Deutsch way of life and a dodgy sense of national pride.

“The Leitkultur debate is a challenging discourse about core values and identity in Germany and Europe,” said Steffen Burkhardt, professor of media and culture theory, Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. “In a fast changing society there is a need to define basic principles of the civil society that guarantee social justice and cohesion. However, there is the danger that it could be misused for social exclusion. Therefore, we need a broad debate in which all groups of society participate.”

Indeed, the resurgence of the debate has brought to the fore the horrors of Germany’s past, rooted in which was this very idea of a robust German identity, which led the Nazi regime to commit ghastly atrocities. Many feel that this debate is particularly dangerous in the months leading to the national elections in Germany in September, especially in the wake of the popularity of the right-wing populist party, Alternative für Deutschland.

“To expect people who come from countries vastly different from ours to adopt our lifestyle immediately is risky,” said Felix Heimbach, a theatre producer in Stuttgart who volunteers at radio stations in refugee camps. “They come with their own set of experiences and we should see how we can learn from them. Integration is a two-way process. We Germans should also be open to understanding their lives and culture, instead of imposing ours.”

Hajera Sheikh, a 21-year-old media and anthropology student at the University of Tϋbingen, recollected her early days when her family migrated to Germany from Lahore. She was 12. “I went to preparatory class and all we did was learn German,” she said. “On the one hand, it was good to be immersed into the language, but on the other, we didn’t study anything else.”

She added: “The idea of Leitkultur stands in the way of acceptance of different cultures. Can one really have a pure culture in a globalised world?”

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

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The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.