THE BLOG
09/29/2015 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Merkel's Kindness to Asylum Seekers Could Reflect a German Soft Spot for Islam

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When German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would take up to 800,000 asylum seekers this year, many wondered whether the lady had slipped in the tub and banged her head or was high on weed. Almost single-handedly she helped to change the mood towards refugees. Ordinary citizens were holding up signs with "welcome refugees" and policemen in uniform were handing out sweets and toys to the arriving children. Parents seeking asylum in Germany were naming their children "Angela Merkel" and Syrians stranded in Hungary chanted "Germany, Germany, Germany." While many in her country supported her, others, and not only members of Pegida, objected.

The pope had already boldly reached out to the desperate refugees emerging out of the deadly waters of the Mediterranean and was seen by them as Francis the Fearless. The German chancellor now basked in a new glow as Merkel the Magnificent. In contrast, other European leaders appeared shrunken and reduced. The British prime minister with his miserly intake was seen as Cameron the Curmudgeon and the Hungarian prime minister with his aggressive rejection of compassion as Orban the Odoriferous.

The scale of Germany's generosity is blurred because when the world looks at anything German its gaze invariably shifts to the horrors of the last century. Commentators thus suggested that Germany was compensating for the death and destruction it inflicted on the world during the Nazi era. Others looked elsewhere for explanations, with some arguing that Germany needed a young able-bodied and trained workforce to fill the vacuum in its aging and declining population.

It is an irony of history that the same Germany that had set out to exterminate one group of "Semites," the Jews, in the last century is now laying out the welcome mat for another Semitic group, the Arabs -- considering that the majority of the migrants are from the Middle East -- in this century.

So what caused the springs of human kindness to gush forth in German hearts? My current research suggests another way of interpreting their generosity: it is based in what anthropologists call the deep structures of history and what I term as a German soft spot for Islam. I will be exploring the question in my forthcoming book "Journey into Europe," which is based in fieldwork across Europe, to be published by Brookings Institution Press. The following are some preliminary observations.


From the earliest times Germans saw Islamic civilization as powerful, resourceful, sophisticated and different: a worthy friend or, if the circumstances were not propitious, then a worthy enemy. They knew from their history that Islam had defeated their Germanic kin, the Visigoths, on the Iberian Peninsula and many Germans would have noted that twice in two centuries Ottoman armies laid siege to Vienna, in the heart of Europe. As a result, German speakers learned to drink coffee and eat croissants shaped like the crescents worn by Turkish soldiers as emblems of identity. The Ottomans represented an exotic world of dazzling art and architecture but one also that fielded mighty armies with brave warriors. Alliances between German kings and Ottoman sultans resulted in permission to built cemeteries and even mosques in Germany.

Because it began at the early history of Islam the soft spot would be embedded in German self-perception to re-emerge regularly over the centuries in the thoughts and actions of Germans. Let me give a chronological list of some prominent Germans and their attitude to Islam through the course of history. Let us start with Charlemagne.

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Charlemagne (742-814)

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Portrait of Charlemagne. Painting by Caspar Johann Nepomuk Scheuren. DeAgostini/Getty Images.

The king of the Franks, Charlemagne, or Karl der Große as he is named in German, is one of the great founders of both modern France and Germany. The first Holy Roman Emperor, he was the first leader to unite Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. During his reign in the 700s and 800s, he became among the earliest European leaders to interact with the Muslim world, particularly on his southwestern border in Andalusia. While his relations with the Umayyads in Spain were often contentious, he did not stand in complete antithesis to the Muslim world. Charlemagne developed an unusually warm relationship with Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad, who even gave him an elephant as a token of appreciation for his outreach. Furthermore, Charlemagne allied with the Muslim governors of Barcelona, Saragossa and Huesca to help them contain 'Abd al-Rahman's reign in 777 -- demonstrating a dominance of power politics above all else in his interactions with the Muslim world.

Frederick II (1194 - 1250)

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Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194 - 1250). Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images.

If the soft spot theory for Islam has a champion it is surely Frederick II, widely called "Stupor Mundi," or the "Wonder of the World." Of the House of Hohenstaufen and one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperors of Europe, his enormous energy and ability allowed him to play a central role across the continent and even into the Middle East. In a masterstroke of negotiation that should be taught in the field of diplomacy today, Frederick obtained Jerusalem during the Crusades -- which had been taken from the Christians by Saladin -- without bloodshed. He spoke multiple languages including Arabic; celebrated Muslim festivals in honor of the prophet of Islam; was protected by a Muslim bodyguard; and his imperial coronation mantle, which was made by Muslims for his grandfather, the King of Sicily Roger II, became the coronation mantle for every Holy Roman Emperor until the 18th century and bears Arabic inscriptions. Frederick II promoted learning, especially philosophy and poetry, in his court and was particularly impressed by Islamic sources. He helped to spread Islamic scholarship in the West, sending the work of Muslim philosopher Averroes, whose studies attempted to reconcile faith and reason, to European universities.

His enmity with the pope, who referred to him as the "antichrist" and which led him to be ex-communicated, was in inverse proportion to his affinity for al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt. In his famous deal with al-Kamil for Jerusalem, the two rulers agreed that Frederick would receive Jerusalem but the Muslims would control the mosque complex at al-Aqsa. Frederick arrived, accompanied by his Muslim bodyguard, and proceeded to enter Jerusalem and crown himself king. Shams ad-din, the eminent qadi of Nablus who was assigned by the sultan to host Frederick, silenced the muezzin, who recites the call to prayer, out of respect for the emperor. Yet after Frederick's first night in Jerusalem, he complained to the qadi, saying, "'O qadi, why did the muezzins not give the call to prayer in the normal way last night?' Shams ad-din replied, 'This humble slave prevented them, out of regard and respect for Your Majesty.'" Hearing this, Frederick said with disappointment, "'My chief aim in passing the night in Jerusalem was to hear the call to prayer given by the muezzins, and their cries of praise to God during the night.'" When Frederick and Shams ad-din entered the al-Aqsa mosque, Frederick voiced his delight at its construction and the beauty of the mihrab. Holding the hand of Shams ad-din in affection, Frederick left al-Aqsa and saw a priest with the gospels trying to enter the al-Aqsa forcefully. Furious, Frederick shouted at him, "'What's that you have brought here? By God, if one of you tries to get in here without my leave, I will have his eyes out. We're the vassals and slaves of this Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. He has granted these churches to me and to you as an act of grace. Do not any of you step out of line.' The priest made off shaking with fear."

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)

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Albrecht Dürer, From El Mundo Ilustrado, Published Barcelona, 1880. Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images.

Albrecht Dürer is widely considered to be the greatest northern European Renaissance artist, and in the words of one art historian, "one of a half-dozen of the world's most renowned artists." Dürer, who was proud of his German identity and signed paintings "Albrecht Dürer, German," appears to have been intrigued by Muslim society and drew a range of Muslim subjects in works, including "Oriental Rider," "Three Orientals," "A Turkish Family" and a portrait of Suleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman sultan.

Dürer's depiction of Suleyman is especially interesting. Suleyman had just ascended to the throne and would go on to take the Ottoman Empire to the zenith of its glory. His period would be renowned for the general tolerance shown to the different peoples living within Ottoman territories and its artistic and architectural attainments. What is significant is that Dürer took time off from painting nationalist themes to pay tribute to this most renowned of Muslim rulers. Dürer's portrait is in black and white and its simplicity only enhances the dignity of the subject. Although it is only a head painting, Suleyman is depicted as a strong, dignified man with a certain compassion in the eyes, a hint of a smile on the lips and strength in the chin. His turban reinforces the stateliness of the man. There are no robes or swords or medals or jewelry on him. Except for the simple bulbous turban, there is no other hint of Suleyman's Islamic identity. The portrait challenges the stereotypes of a sultan considered by his contemporaries as probably the most powerful monarch of his day. This man of immense wealth, pomp and circumstance is portrayed by Dürer in his bare essence and yet he conveys a certain majesty. That is the genius of the artist. Considering the extent and meanness of the caricatures and cartoons of Muslim figures in Europe today, one scrutinizes the turban or the face in vain for any sign of ridicule or caricature. In this regard, Europe seems to have regressed half a millennium after Dürer's time.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786)

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Portrait of Frederick II of Hohenzollern, known as Frederick the Great. Oil on canvas, by Antoine Pesne (1683-1757). Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images.


In his aim to expand Prussian power and territory, Frederick the Great, the "enlightened absolutist," forged strong ties with the Ottoman Empire. In 1761 Frederick established trade relations with the Ottomans after courting them for two decades, and the following year the Ottomans provided the Prussians with camels during Prussia's campaign against Austria in the Seven Years' War. Frederick also welcomed the Turks to Berlin, reportedly saying while discussing the possible arrival of Turkish laborers, "If Turks come to Berlin, mosques must be built for them."



Frederick's openness to the Turks coincided with a general craze for all things Turkish, which the king himself observed with some amusement: "It is now the fashion in Berlin to eat dates; and any moment now the petits maitres will be wrapping turbans round their heads and those with enough money will set up harems. To be fashionable you have to have seen the Turk, everyone is telling stories which would make you fall asleep on your feet." Indeed, when the first Turkish envoy arrived in the city in 1763, he and his extensive entourage were given such an emphatic reception by the cheering Berliners that the bemused envoy wrote to the sultan, "the people of Berlin recognize the Prophet Muhammad and are not afraid to admit that they are prepared to embrace Islam."


Goethe (1749-1832)

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German poet, dramatist, scientist and court official Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reclining out-of-doors. Painting by J H Tischbein. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's greatest literary figure, was a true renaissance man who wrote prose, poetry, scientific pieces and many other influential works. Goethe developed a particular fondness for Islam and the Muslim world and his poem the "West-Eastern Divan" evokes Hafiz, the famous Persian poet. Goethe's comments on Islam have led to speculation about the extent of his commitment to the faith, for example, in the following verse: "If Islam means, to God devoted/ All live and die in Islam's ways."



No Muslim can be failed to be moved by Goethe's poem, "Mahomet's Song," dedicated to the prophet of Islam whom he calls "head of created beings." The poem compares the prophet to a powerful river that slowly but surely gathers other streams as it flows to its destiny in the ocean where it meets the divine. The poem is a powerful expression of the desire to discover unity in the universe while searching for the divine. Here is a flavor:



Ever, ever, on he rushes,

Leaves the towers' flame-tipped summits,

Marble palaces, the offspring

Of his fullness, far behind.

Cedar-houses bears the Atlas
On his giant shoulders; fluttering
In the breeze far, far above him
Thousand flags are gaily floating,
Bearing witness to his might.

And so beareth he his brethren,
All his treasures, all his children,
Wildly shouting, to the bosom
Of his long-expectant sire.

Mozart (1756-1791)

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Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Museum of Mozart And Duschek. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was among history's greatest composers. Born to a German father, he would have interacted with a variety of people from different cultures in Vienna, where Turks were among the city's inhabitants and Turkish influences are particularly evident in Mozart's work. The Turkish musical style fascinated Mozart and involved the use of "cymbals, bass drum [and] triangles with the characteristic thrusting Turkish beat." Turkish elements can be seen in works like Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major (known as "The Turkish" and the "most frequently played violin concerto ever written") and the Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, which concludes with the grandeur and beauty of the "Turkish March."

The clearest and most obvious example of Mozart's fascination, however, is his opera "The Abduction from the Seraglio" (1782), which tells the story of a Spaniard, Belmonte, who sails to rescue the woman he loves from an Ottoman pasha, Selim, who has locked her away in his harem under the authority of a cruel overseer -- a role intentionally designed to reflect stereotypes of Muslims and Turks. When Selim captures Belmonte and it is revealed that Belmonte's father is an old enemy of the pasha who had treated him cruelly and deprived him of his home and possessions, it seems the fate of the Europeans is sealed. Yet in the end, the pasha, to the surprise of the audience, reverses the common stereotype and releases the Europeans in a Saladin-esque magnanimous gesture, declaring "it is a greater pleasure to repay with good deeds an injustice suffered, rather than punish evil with evil." The opera's dramatic and joyous conclusion, depicted in the film "Amadeus," features the Europeans singing the praises of the pasha.

Richard Wagner (1813 -1883)

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Portrait of Richard Wagner. Giuseppe Tivoli Photo By DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner is one of the most celebrated and controversial German composers who continues to have an impact beyond his discipline in fields such as philosophy and literature. His popularity was clouded after the Second World War because of his anti-Semitic views and the fact that his work was patronized by the Nazis. What is remarkable about Wagner's oeuvre for our purposes is his diverting from a focus on Norse mythology and writing the unfinished opera "The Saracen Woman," which depicts both Frederick II and his Muslim allies in heroic terms. The story concerns Frederick II's son and successor Manfred and Fatima, the mysterious Saracen woman he fell in love with.

"The Saracen Woman" reflects Wagner's fascination with Frederick II, who he called "the most intelligent of all the emperors" who imbued the world "with the heady perfumes of a fairytale." In the story, Frederick "the Great Kaiser, was neither Mussulman nor Christian; a god was he, and reverenced as god he lives still in the morning-land." The reference to "morning-land" is the world of Islam and contrasts with the "land-of-evening" or Christian Europe.

In Wagner's opera, Manfred's life changes when he meets Fatima, who appears in his court as a dancing girl and tells him she has been sent to him by none other than his deceased father, Frederick II. Fatima wants to restore the honor and glory of Frederick's house and every step of the way encourages Manfred to act as his father did -- to become a great king who can bridge the Christian and Islamic worlds -- and she prays to Allah she is able to accomplish her task. Encouraged by Fatima and falling in love with her, Manfred is emboldened to follow in his father's footsteps. For Fatima, the coexistence of Muslims and Christians in Italy depends on Manfred. In the Italian Muslim city of Lucera she tells her uncle Ali and the soldier Nureddin, whom she has loved since childhood, to unite behind Manfred so that they in the future may see "glorious days, the days when Christian brother is to Mussulman."

Nietzsche (1844-1900)

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Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th century (1956). Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images.

While it is well-known that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work contributed to fields such as existentialism and postmodernism, opposed Christianity, it is not widely known that he did not feel the same way about Islam. For Nietzsche, Christianity not only was a destructive force in Europe but also the Muslim world -- and he blamed it for the elimination of the advanced civilization of Muslim Spain. In "The Antichrist," Nietzsche wrote: "Christianity destroyed for us the whole harvest of ancient civilization, and later it also destroyed for us the whole harvest of Mohammedan civilization. The wonderful culture of the Moors in Spain, which was fundamentally nearer to us and appealed more to our senses and tastes than that of Rome and Greece, was trampled down."

Nietzsche goes on to condemn the Crusades, noting that instead of having "groveled in the dust" before Islamic civilization as the Europeans should have, they waged war against it. And challenging the notion of "progress" so common in his society, Nietzsche writes that late 19th century European civilization seems "poor" and "senile" compared with 12th century Islamic civilization. Nietzsche, like Wagner, praises Frederick II, calling him a "genius" and celebrating the fact that he fought the papacy while seeking "Peace and friendship with Islam."

Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941)

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Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, 1900. Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images.

Kaiser Wilhelm, the last German emperor in history who led Germany through World War I, spent his career working to elevate the German Empire on the world stage. In doing so, he forged ties with the Ottoman Empire that still deeply influence Germany and Turkey today. Wilhelm held the Turks in high regard and visited Turkey in 1889. In 1898 he entered Jerusalem in a visit that evoked Frederick II, who had arrived centuries earlier. Upon leaving Jerusalem, Wilhelm wrote: "My personal feeling in leaving the holy city was that I felt profoundly ashamed before the Moslems and that if I had come there without any Religion at all I certainly would have turned Mahommetan!"

His admiration for the great Saladin was unbounded and he had Saladin's grave in Damascus restored for protection as a "Khalif" and "friend." The Kaiser was known as "Hajji Wilhelm" in the Middle East, the title given to someone who has performed the Hajj in Mecca.

Adolf Hitler: 1889-1945

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Adolf Hitler. Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images.


Some no doubt will enquire about the position of that most monstrous and evil of men who murdered millions of people and almost destroyed Germany, Adolf Hitler, regarding the soft spot theory. In his case, we can also see evidence of the theory. Hitler voiced his admiration for Kemal Atatürk whom he called "a star in the darkness" and "the greatest man of the century." Hitler fancied himself, like Atatürk , a brilliant military general and a successful nation builder. Like Atatürk had done with Turkey, Hitler dreamt of forging Germany into a state based on a dominant ethnic group. Hitler even speculated about the possible consequences in history if Charles Martel had not stopped the Arabs at Tours, France, in 732 AD. The Germans, he then ruminated, may well have converted to Islam and "would have conquered the world."

During World War II, Nazi radio broadcasts to Muslims cast the English and the Jews as "the common enemies of the Arab-Muslim world and of Germany" and popular songs honoring "Hajj Hitler" were composed in both rural and urban areas in North Africa. Hitler counted among his allies Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, and Hitler presented the blonde and blue-eyed mufti with a certificate declaring him an "honorary Aryan." But the Hitlerian contempt for non-Aryan peoples was difficult to suppress as Hitler is on record referring to Arabs as "half-monkeys."


Annemarie Schimmel (1922-2003)

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Annemarie Schimmel. Photo by Moenkebild/ullstein bild via Getty Images.


I last met Professor Annemarie Schimmel, the famous German scholar of Islam, when she came to have lunch with me in Sibi, Pakistan where I was a government commissioner in the late 1980s. Nothing about the speaker was ordinary and neither was this statement. She was widely loved in the land and was particularly inspired by Allama Iqbal, the national poet of Pakistan. Both she and Iqbal are great bridges between German and Muslim culture, and in our fieldwork across Europe we had especially visited the sites in Heidelberg and Munich associated with Iqbal.



"I am here to search for a final resting place for myself among the Sufis of the Sindh," she said to me when we met. As she spoke, Professor Schimmel had a faraway look in her eyes as if she was already viewing a potential cemetery for herself, and it left me wondering why a German had such a deep connection with Islam.

Professor Schimmel spoke five languages of the Muslim world and served as the first woman and first non-Muslim to teach at the University of Ankara from 1954-1959 before going on to teach at Harvard from 1967-1992. With her numerous books, articles and lectures spread over a lifetime on Islam, and particularly Sufism, Schimmel goes down as both one of Germany's most prolific scholars and one of the world's greatest scholars of the faith.



Angela Merkel (1954-)



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Angela Merkel smiles during a press conference. AP Photo/Michael Sohn.

Angela Merkel's efforts at fostering Muslim integration in Germany have been noteworthy, as particularly seen in her condemnation of the Pegida rallies in December and January. The fact that the usually cautious and subdued Mrs. Merkel stated that "Islam belongs to Germany" and participated in the anti-Pegida rally organized by Muslims at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin suggests the soft spot theory is still applicable. Merkel was not only showing courage but wisdom in reaching out so dramatically to the Muslim community. No other European leader had made a similar or comparable gesture. Several months ago in Berlin, Merkel joined Muslims for the first time at an iftar dinner to break the fast in the month of Ramadan, and the German government announced that not only will Merkel herself host an iftar next year, but it will become an annual occasion for the chancellor of Germany.

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If I were to cite one or two of the individuals on this list as having a soft spot for Islam, it would be a fact worthy of investigation. I have pointed to a long list that contains such varied names as the greatest of German emperors, the greatest of philosophers, artists, poets and composers, the last German emperor and undoubtedly the most evil and bloody of men produced by the German people. The list surely suggests that the subject of the soft spot theory of Islam in German history is worthy of further research, especially in light of the remarkable welcome the Germans are giving the current Muslim refugees.

Because the soft spot theory implies empathy for and understanding of the Other, it is more needed than ever before considering not only the current state of crisis around Muslim communities living in Europe but also the too frequently terrible relations between different ethnic and religious communities across the world. The Germans have taken an important first step in this direction which other European -- and world -- leaders will do well to consider. It is a path on which they will find at least two fine companions -- Francis the Fearless and Merkel the Magnificent.

Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington, D.C.. His latest film (2015) and book (forthcoming from Brookings Institution Press) are called "Journey into Europe."