Banker-turned-author breaks taboos, channels growing public frustration over immigrants

BERLIN (AP) — Thilo Sarrazin was a board member of Germany's august central bank until he wrote a book claiming German society was being made "dumber" by Muslim immigrants. It's a runaway best-seller, but has cost him his job.

By suggesting that Muslims' inability, or unwillingness, to speak German may be linked to their DNA, Sarrazin broke a post-Nazi taboo on foraying into genetic theories. But his core argument resonates among many ordinary Germans, who fear that their language, culture and generosity are being abused by welfare-dependent newcomers, many of them Muslims.

The massive success of Sarrazin's book has cracked open growing anti-immigrant anger among many Germans, who fear that their language, culture and generosity is being abused by newcomers, especially Muslims, who they say live off their welfare state without contributing to it.

Sarrazin provoked an outcry even before the book's release when he said in a newspaper interview that "all Jews share a certain gene, like all Basques share a certain gene, that distinguishes these from other people." Although research tends to confirm a genetic commonality — Sarrazin cites Darwin to justify his remarks — such notions are delicate in mainstream Germany for having driven the ideology behind Hitler's genocide.

"Sarrazin ... ignores a century of academic research," said Juergen Neffe, a German biochemist, who wrote a book about the father of modern evolutionary theory. "A lot has happened since Darwin."

But supporters say Sarrazin's criticisms are simply meant to make a point about what is expected of newcomers to Germany.

"We are not far-right extremists, we just want the people who come here to contribute something, to be polite and learn the language. Nothing more," said Mike Temme, a doctor.

Temme was among a lively crowd of several hundred in Berlin who paid to hear Sarrazin debate his book, "Germany Abolishes Itself." Support for the ex-banker was palpable as the crowd applauded his defense of his theories and drowned out any participants who questioned Sarrazin's use of genetic theory or accused him of manipulating data.

"Because we've started and lost two world wars, nobody dares to say it. But now somebody has spoken the truth and everybody agrees," Temme said.

The "truth," according to Sarrazin, is that Germans "have accepted as inevitable that Germany will be smaller and dumber."

"The three immigrant groups with the largest educational deficit and the highest social welfare costs, are also those with the highest rate of reproduction," Sarrazin writes, citing Turks, immigrants from the former Yugoslavia and from the Middle East.

But plenty of Germans fear that Sarrazin, with his history of provocative statements and the stature of high office at the Deutsche Bundesbank, is fanning fires that will be hard to put out. Even before the book hit stores two weeks ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned its tone, saying the "ostracism and the contempt are unacceptable."

"It's creating a false impression of foreigners in society," said Julia Buhmann, a 21-year-old biotech student whose high school ran a program aimed at integrating Turkish students in her Berlin neighborhood.

"Most Germans have never even met someone who's Turkish, and then they hear all of this talk and suddenly think all foreigners are bad," Buhmann said.

According to a survey by ZDF public television, 56 percent of Germans say Sarrazin's criticism is justified, and many immigrants are feeling uneasy.

"I am worried about my Germany," said Samadi Ahadi, 38, a filmmaker who immigrated from Iran as a child and obtained German citizenship. He said the increase in discrimination since the book's release is felt on the streets and public transport, without elaborating.

"Most of what is in the book is harmful, painful populism," said Samadi. "I am also a German."

Hardening attitudes toward Muslims are felt in many European countries. But these are generally spearheaded by the far-right, whereas Sarrazin, 65, belongs to the traditional, center-left Social Democratic Party, which is moving to expel him. Some heavyweights of Germany's left-leaning establishment are leaping to Sarrazin's defense, arguing that he is being unjustly pilloried for saying what a silent majority has long felt.

Matthias Matussek, a columnist with the weekly Der Spiegel, praised Sarrazin for challenging "the politically correct branch of Germany's consensus-based society" and for forcing politicians to listen to the public's demands for Muslims to embrace German ways.

"They are sick of being cursed or laughed at when they offer assistance with integration. And they are tired about reading about Islamist associations that have one degree of separation from terrorism, of honor killings, of death threats against cartoonists and filmmakers," Matussek wrote in his blog for Der Spiegel's online edition.

The heated debate has left leaders struggling for a response.

Merkel, who had been quick to denounce Sarrazin's book, raised eyebrows last week when she heaped praise on the Dane whose cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad five years ago sparked protests across the Islamic world. She called him a champion of free speech.

Also last week, her government put forward a new plan for integration — organized ahead of the book's release — that called for better teaching of German to immigrant children.

Government research found that 37 percent of the 15- to 19-year-olds of immigrant background lack a high school diploma, required for nearly any form of employment here, and that 72 percent of Turkish-descended men aged of 20 to 64 lack basic job training.