One Last Observation: Some Refugees Will Be Muslim Fundamentalists

One last observation before I switch to the one-post-a-week policy. Let's say Germany grants some form of legal residency status to millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

This is quite the decent thing to do. However, the mere fact that these people are fleeing conflict does not automatically make them good fits for German society. Now many, perhaps most Syrian refugees are from the educated middle classes (they have savings they use to pay for tickets and smugglers) and are relatively progressive, by Middle East standards. Their women don't wear headscarves and are eager for education.

They'll fit right in, no problem.

However, some fraction of the refugees are going to be conservative Muslims. A smaller portion of them will be extremely conservative Muslims. Some may even be Salafists. They will be grateful to Germany for giving them refuge, but they will not change their fundamental beliefs, because that's not how humans work.

Consider, for example, the al-Nusra Front. It's a Syrian Sunni Jihadist group with links to Al-Qaeda. It's not the most radical opposition militia in Syria, that dubious honor belongs to ISIS, which considers al-Nusra to be too soft. Al-Nusra has carried out suicide bombings, and is considered a terrorist organization by about 10 foreign governments, including France and Turkey. It's also by most accounts the strongest component of the anti-government Syrian opposition. According to Wikipedia, al-Nusra is a "formidable force with strong popular support in Syria".

It's hardly far-fetched to supposed that thousands of those strong popular supporters have already fled and may flee in the future if their territory is taken over by government forces or ISIS. Once they reach Germany, what are their opinions going to be about gays? About women wearing headscarves? About pop music? About multiparty secular democracy? About swimming lessons for girls? About religious education? About cartoons mocking Mohammed?

About -- ahem, cough cough -- German policy toward Israel? (remember that Palestinian refugee girl who cried during a town meeting with Angela Merkel and then said in a follow-up interview that Israel shouldn't exist?)

About Jews? 

Germany's record on assimilating conservative Muslims (or, if you prefer, the record conservative Muslims in Germany have in integrating into German society) is mixed, to say the least. According to a recent study (g), 60% of European Muslims would not befriend a homosexual, and 45% say Jews cannot be trusted. I wonder if a fresh influx of 100,000? 200,000? 300,000? is going to make things easier?

Pay Your Church Tax or No Wafer for You

Rod Dreher, a conservative American commentator, can hardly believe his eyes when he reads about the German church tax (Kirchensteuer):

In Germany, as in a number of other European countries, if you are a member of a church or mainstream religion, you have to pay a pretty significant tax to the government, which distributes the money to the churches. From the Wall Street Journal:

German church members must pay an additional 8% to 9% of their gross annual income tax and capital gains tax bills to the church. That is typically steeper than in many other parts of Europe. A registered believer, for instance, paying a 30% income tax rate, or €30,000, on an income of €100,000, would pay another €2,400 to €2,700 in church tax.

To American eyes, that’s stunning. Now, the German government is closing a loophole having to do with capital gains, which means an effective tax increase for its officially registered Christian believers....  The church tax issue has become a big deal with the German Catholic bishops taking the lead in trying to liberalize the universal Catholic church’s rules on married and divorced people receiving communion. Look at this report from theNational Catholic Register:

In response to the numbers de-registering, the German bishops issued a decree in September 2012 calling such departure “a serious lapse” and listing a number of ways they are barred from participating in the life of the Church.

The decree specified that those who do not pay the church tax cannot receive the sacraments of Confession, Communion, Confirmation, or Anointing of the Sick, except when in danger of death; cannot hold ecclesial office or perform functions within the Church; cannot be a godparent or sponsor; cannot be a member of diocesan or parish councils; and cannot be members of public associations of the Church.


The critics point out that while Cardinal Kasper and most of his fellow German bishops have been leading the charge to allow those in “irregular” marital situations — those who are divorced and remarried — to receive Communion, they have simultaneously denied the sacraments, including even Confession, to those who opt out of paying Germany’s “church tax.”

In both cases, the German position is at odds with Church teaching: admitting to Communion those formally not allowed; and forbidding those whom the Vatican says can validly receive the sacraments.

The German definition of mercy, critics say, is a “pay to pray system” that has its “financial” limits.

The bishops in Germany “are notoriously the most merciful in wishing to grant Communion to the divorced and remarried, but at the same time are the most ruthless in de facto excommunicating those who refuse to pay the church tax, which in their country is obligatory by law,” Vatican analyst Sandro Magister wrote Oct. 29 in his “Settimo Cielo” blog for Italy’s L’Espresso newspaper.

Read the whole thing.  If I were a German Catholic or Protestant, I would be enormously offended by this whole thing. It’s outrageous that if you are a German Catholic who wants to go to confession, the priest will deny it if you haven’t paid the church tax. How is this much different from Johann Tetzel’s indulgence business, selling salvation to Renaissance German Catholics?

So, who agrees with Dreher? Not being religious, I don't have a dog in this fight. Well, at least not in the title bout -- although as someone who pays German taxes I do subsidize many relgious activities with my tax dollars. Further, coming from the United States, I tend to regard estabilshed churches with a skeptical eye.

But even setting aside these biases, I've often thought the church tax was a particularly clumsy way of regulating church-state interaction. Nevertheless, Dreher can calm down somewhat: You aren't going to be denied Communion at a Catholic church in Germany if you haven't paid your Kirchensteuer unless you tattoo that fact on your forehead, and probably not even then. Germans are famous for dropping out of the church they were raised in as soon as they become adults, thus saving themselves the Kirchensteuer. Then, if they decide on a church wedding, they re-join, since getting married in church is complicated enough transaction that the church will demand you be a member to enjoy this benefit. But despite the Bishops' huffing and puffing, I've never heard of an ordinary German Catholic being denied Communion for not having paid the Kirchensteuer. But then again I don't travel in churchy circles, so I might not know.

Wiblingen Monastery Library and Bleg: Joseph Nickel

A few years ago I bicycled around the Allgäu, a succulent part of Germany on the border between its two large and influential southern states, Baden Württemburg and Bavaria. Gentle hills, meter-wide brooks, and frothy South German baroque churches.

I happened to ride by Wiblingen, which hosts a Benedictine monastery church with a library that looks like this:

Wiblingen Monastery Library

The camera was a Canon Powershot G11, nothing special. The photographer in me regrets the overexposed bits, but overall, it's an eye-feast, and the monastery itself works the magic. Most of what looks like solid marble is actually plaster that resounds when you tap it.

The bleg is this: I paid a couple of euros to visit the museum here, which was detailed -- maps of the monastery's shifting domains, dioramas of the practical winemaking and woodworking and property management of the industrious ora et labora Benedictines, and maps illustrating the fascinating legal history of the local Benedictines: when they were granted their first clerical fiefs, which pieces of land they lost during the War of the Moravian Pretender in 1715, what percentage of their land they rented to tenant farmers, etc.

All relentlessly informative and dull, even for a lawyer. But then one of the pull-out wooden information tablets (the curator had gotten pretty frisky) spoke of The Benedictine Monks receiving the Blutrecht (literally blood-right) from the local prince in the early 1700s. This meant they had the power to enact their own criminal code and inflict corporal penalties. The abbey had become a large local landowner, and the local prince was tired of policing it, so he transferred that authority to the monks themselves. They enacted a crude criminal code, punishing unrepentant blasphemers by death.

Here, the (likely tendentious and unreliable) monastery records describe an interesting case. A local man named Joseph Nickel came to monks' attention. He'd studied in Paris and then returned to Wiblingen to spread his free-thinking views and eke out a living as a highway robber. He even robbed a monk. He was punished a few times. Then one evening he was overheard in a tavern denying the divinity of and blaspheming Mary. He denied nothing at trial, and the monks sentenced him -- as a repeat offender and blasphemer -- to death. They had to have a special scaffold erected since they'd never done this before. He was hung by the river in front of a crowd. The historical account in the museum stressed that the monks were awfully broken up about having to hang Nickel, and, if memory serves, never hanged anyone again.

I remember reading this and being more than a bit surprised, since I'd never heard of a monastery acquiring sovereignty, enacting a criminal code, and actually hanging someone. Perhaps I'm naive.

In any event, that's the story as I remember it, from my memory and blurry photos of the card. I think it's about 80% accurate. My bleg to you is if anyone can find me some other written sources about Joseph Nickel? 98% sure that's his name, because I drilled it into my memory. But I've never found anything more about him. An educated, free-thinking vagabond hanged by monks in the 1700s interests me. Can anyone point me to more information about Joseph Nickel?

There are No Atheists in Prison Cells

This from Salon:

This week, Pew Research Center published the results of a survey conducted among 40,080 people in 40 countries between 2011 and 2013. The survey asked a simple question: is belief in God essential to morality? 

...In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, the majority says it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. “This position is highly prevalent, if not universal, in Africa and the Middle East,” says the report. No surprise there, but Asian and Latin countries such as Indonesia (99%), Malaysia (89%), the Philippines (99%), El Salvador (93%), and Brazil (86%) all fell in the highest percentile of respondents believing belief in a god (small G) is central to having good values.

Interestingly, clear majorities in all highly developed countries do not think belief in god to be necessary for morality, with one exception only: the U.S.A.

Only 15 percent of the French population answered in the affirmative. Spain: 19%. Australia: 23%. Britain: 20%. Italy: 27%. Canada: 31%. Germany 33%. Israel: 37%.

So what of the U.S.? A comparatively eye-popping 53 percent of Americans essentially believe atheists and agnostics are living in sin. Despite the fact that a research analyst at the Federal Bureau of Prisons determined that atheists are thoroughly under-represented in the places where rapists, thieves and murders invariably end up: prisons. While atheists make upward of 15 percent of the U.S. population, they only make up 0.2 percent of the prison population.

The result for Germany's a bit surprising -- just a reminder that despite green energy, a gay foreign minister, and swinger-club sex-and-suckling-pig parties (g - as a friend of mine once said, 'the ultimate integration test for foreigners'), large parts of Germany are still quite conservative. Also, these results are yet another reason no lazy reporter should ever mention 'Catholic Spain/Italy' again.

The atheist result is pretty interesting, although I'm sure it's mostly an artifact of the fact that atheists are richer and more educated than the general population, and are therefore less likely to end up in prison for various reasons. But still, if the New Atheists need a rallying cry, why not 'There are no Atheists in Prison Cells?' NAs, you can have this one for a reasonable licensing fee.

USA Getting More Secular, Less Nationalistic

God guns guts

From a recent survey:

When Americans were asked if they think the United States is the greatest country in the world, there were sharp differences in the responses across generations. In total, 48% of Americans believe the United States is the greatest country in the world and 42% believe it is one of the greatest countries in the world, but a significant portion of the Millennial generation responded differently.

Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. That number progressively increases among the Gen X (48%), Boomer (50%) and Silent generations (64%). Millennials were also the most likely generation to say America is not the greatest country in the world (11%).

Millennials also are less likely than their elders to express patriotism. A majority of Millennials (70%) agreed with the statement “I am very patriotic.” But even larger percentages of Gen Xers (86%), Boomers (91%) and Silents (90%) said the same. This generational gap is consistent and has been identified in surveys dating back to 2003.

The annoying 'generation' names can be ignored -- the key thing is that the younger an American you are, the less likely you are to call yourself 'patriotic', which (if you'll pardon a bit of snark) describes the mental state Americans denounce as 'nationalistic' whenever non-Americans display it. In related news, the number of non-religious Americans is on the increase -- about 20% of Americans now fits this category.

Sociologists have long puzzled over the U.S.: given its levels of prosperity, technological advancement, and education, it should be a lot less religious and nationalistic than it is. Put crudely, the richer a country gets, the less religion it needs, and the the more educated its citizenry, the less prevalent the cruder forms of nationalism and tribalism. We seem to be seeing a gradual end to this aspect of American exceptionalism: in 20 years, the psychological profile of the average American will probably be much closer to the average European, Canadian, or Japanese.

I would be willing to wager the Internet has had something to do with this, but that's pure speculation. So here goes: If you seek critiques of religious faith, all manner of them -- from the ridiculous to the cogent to the sublime -- are no more than a mouseclick away. It's hard to enforce conservative sexual mores in the age of Internet porn, where any anyone can see people having loads of fun with their genitals, and afterward suffering no disease, ostracism, or scorn at all. As for the nationalism angle, you can hardly swing a dead cat in cyberspace without hitting a website that shows you that many people (1) distrust the U.S., and have legitimate reasons for doing so (yet who aren't anti-American cranks); and (2) don't consider the U.S. paradise on earth, and think the quality of life they enjoy in their own country superior to that of the U.S. It's a bit hard to maintain the fantasies of your country's superiority and innocence in the face of these competing narratives.

Six Years for Multiple Cop-Stabbings

A self-described German Salafist stabbed three police officers during a demonstration, injuring two severely. In Court he shows not a trace of remorse, saying he was justified in his actions because the German state allowed right-wing demonstrators to show caricatures of Mohammed.

And now he's just been sentenced to a not-so-whopping six years (g) in prison, which means he may well get out in 3 or 4. You won't often hear this from me, but this sentence strikes me as ludicrously light. A potentially deadly knife attack against three uniformed police officers must be, in anyone's book, an extremely serious crime. Further, according to news reports, the defendant was sober and sane, acted out of ideological conviction, showed no remorse and indicated he would be a future danger, since he considered himself only accountable to Allah for his actions.

I don't know if the tabloids are complaining about this, but if they aren't, they should be.

Circumcision: A Thought Experiment

There have been lots of interesting comments on my circumcision piece here and at the various other places it's been posted, and I'm working on a longer reply.

But for now, I'd like to throw out what you might call a Gedankenexperiment, although I'm no Einstein.

It's as follows:

  1. Many German commentators on the circumcision decision call male circumcision 'mutilation' or 'assault' or 'a barbaric custom that permanently deforms'. I hardly have to provide links, do I?
  2. Yet, the parents of the Muslim boy in question voluntarily had their own son mutilated and deformed.
  3. Any parent who insists on having their own child be deformed and mutilated by means of a criminal assault is incapable of acting in their own child's best interests and should have their parental rights terminated -- right? Imagine a parent who, for instance, encouraged their young child to participate in knife fights, or who threw their child down a hill to 'toughen them up'. At the very least, there should be a thorough investigation into their fitness to raise all of their children.
  4. Yet there has been no attempt to track down the parents of this 4-year-old Muslim boy and investigate their fitness as parents. Nor has there been a nationwide policy of questioning the parental fitness of Muslim and Jewish parents who have their male children circumcised.

The Gedankenexperiment is simple: why is this so?

Answer in comments, if you're inclined. My proposed answers are below the fold:

Continue reading "Circumcision: A Thought Experiment" »

My Take on the Cologne Circumcision Case

Here is my take on the famous German circumcision judgment. Thanks to the friendly folks at for cross-posting this.


The Cologne Landgericht decision proclaiming religious circumcision to be a form of illegal assault will apparently soon be superseded by legislation permitting the practice under certain conditions. Nevertheless, the mere fact that the decision came about – coupled with its endorsement by many members of the German criminal-law community and the fact that approximately half of Germans want to see religious circumcision punished by law – points at a continuing controversy. Circumcision also presents an interesting cross-cultural case study, since it is not expressly regulated in either the United States or (yet) in Germany. An enlightening 2002 analysis by Geoffrey P. Miller shows that all U.S. published U.S. court cases about male circumcision involve botched operations or problems with obtaining parents’ consent. It appears that no U.S. court has yet addressed a situation in which a doctor has been criminally prosecuted for competently performing a circumcision with the consent of the child’s guardians.

Even were such a case to emerge, it’s difficult to imagine a similar outcome. Following the First Amendment’s explicit ban on ‘established’ churches, the Supreme Court has limited government interference in private religious rituals. A line of Supreme Court cases has called for the government to display a ‘wholesome neutrality’ toward all religions, and to avoid unnecessary ‘entanglement’ of church and state. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has forbade American government entities from pronouncing on internal church administration, drawing government administrative boundaries to accommodate religious sects, or banning controversial religious practices under the pretext of public safety. This basic suspicion of intermingling secular administration and religion is widespread among legal officials. The average District Attorney, presented with a case in which a third party complained about a properly-performed circumcision, would almost certainly use her discretion not to prosecute.

The second (somewhat related) strand of jurisprudence emphasizes family autonomy. In a landmark 1972 case, Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court upheld the right of Old Order Amish families to withdraw their children from formal education at the age of 16, observing that though there is no explicit guarantee of family autonomy in the Constitution, ‘the values of parental direction of the religious upbringing and education of their children in their early and formative years have a high place in our society.’ The state, for example, may not ban parents from sending their children to private religious schools or even educating them at home, as long as curricular standards are met. The fundamental Constitutional principle of American family law, repeated in case after case, is to presume that “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children”. When parental autonomy is bound up with religious practice, the rationale for judicial circumspection becomes even clearer.

And indeed, the decision of the Cologne court demonstrates the problems that occur when courts intrude in this area. Considering its worldwide resonance, the decision itself is astoundingly brief, just a few paragraphs long. At one point, the court accuses the doctor (and, by implication, the boy’s parents) of infringing the boy’s right to choose his own religious affiliation. Yet the mere fact that a child is circumcised doesn’t irrevocably commit him to Islam, as the 55% of American males who are circumcised can attest. Second, the court can hardly have thought through its proposed right for children to freely choose their religion. Both of Germany’s established religions provide for elaborate public rituals in which children are brought into their parents’ or community’s faith long before they are of age to make binding legal commitments under German law. Granted, these induction ceremonies don’t involve circumcision, but the court did not bother to limit its principle only to these cases. Like many legal commentators, the court also confidently proclaimed circumcision to be against the child’s best interests without ever suggesting why the child’s parents, who obviously had different views, should be ignored.

These problems help explain the different reactions to the decision among German and foreign observers. Christian Germans (whether devout or nominal) are rarely circumcised. This is in stark contrast to the United States, where routine circumcision was adopted during the late 19th century on hygiene grounds (including the prevention of masturbation) which would now be considered dubious. Yet the practice remains well-accepted: The American Pediatric Association recently concluded that “scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision” and explicitly noted that it is “legitimate for parents to take into account cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions, in addition to the medical factors, when making this decision.” By contrast, circumcision in Germany has only been customary among two religious minorities, one of which was decimated during the Third Reich, and the other which only arrived in significant numbers in the last 40 years. The generally positive reaction to the decision among Germany’s socially conservative legal culture shows a lasting undercurrent of suspicion against customs and beliefs that have “non-European” roots – and of the parents who wish to pass them on to their children.

Two Models of Freedom and Responsibility

Yet there is another factor driving the circumcision controversy: a stronger emphasis on social cohesion. Again, the comparison with the United States is instructive. America is, in many respects, an an outlier in terms of governmentally-enforced social cohesion. There is no national identity card in the United States, and some 10 per cent of the population has no picture identification of any kind. American rules regarding home schooling and religious education are among the most liberal in the world. Unlike every other government in the world, the American state is constitutionally debarred from banning hate speech and propaganda in the name of social harmony. Aside from wartime, compulsory military or civil service has never existed in the United States. And, of course, the American social safety net is designed only to provide transitional, time-limited aid. The possibility that the devout might create self-perpetuating ‘parallel societies’, a perennial source of anguish in the European media, is largely absent from American public discourse. This is not because such parallel societies do not exist in the USA – quite the contrary is true – but because their existence is not seen as problematic as long as they do not encourage crime or exploitation. (Of course, these libertarian hallmarks coexist with a massive security sector and the highest imprisonment rates in the world – but exploring this paradox is beyond the scope of this post.)

Although the German political order also guarantees its citizens wide-ranging civil freedoms, the approach is subtly different. In an interesting article on the ‘German Idea of Freedom‘ Edward J. Eberle argues that Germany’s conception of individual liberty — while robust and deeply-rooted — differs significantly from that found in the United States. In contrast to the freewheeling American conception of individual rights (accompanied by an equally unfettered free market), the German conception of liberty ‘take[s] place within a moral structure erected on ethical concepts that include human dignity and its multiple radiations, people acting within the bounds of a social community with its ensuing reciprocal obligations, and a Sozialstaat.’ Further, the discussion of rights in Germany is coupled with ‘duties rooted deeply in the culture and community’.

This conception of ‘freedom’ conditioned by social integration (which, of course, prevails in many Continental European cultures) enables the state to make claims on its citizens that would be controversial in Anglo-Saxon countries. German court decisions, for example, permit government officials to reject parents’ chosen names for their children on a number of grounds, including that the name might subject the child to ridicule or does not clearly indicate the child’s gender. Until recently, military service was compulsory in Germany, although many young men opted out under liberal conscientious-objector laws. Germany also has a registration law, which requires Germans to timely inform their government of any change in address. Germany has comprehensive federal laws regulating everything from the permissible size of huts on garden allotments to the content of vacation contracts, and a sizable contingent of ‘order police’ (the Ordnungsamt) to enforce them. The German legal order does not provide for untrammeled free speech – pro-Nazi rhetoric is illegal, and media which publish insulting or privacy-intruding material may be confiscated and their owners fined.

The flip side of this intrusion is an impressive network of social rights and benefits. Despite recent reforms, German social welfare benefits are still much more generous than their American counterparts — but recipients may also required to submit to intrusive surveillance. Germany has universal health insurance provided by subsidized insurance companies which are run on the principle of ‘solidarity’. Germans receive large welfare subsidies for having children, and enjoy some of the most generous family leave policies in the world. Virtually all higher education is provided free of charge (or for nominal tuition) by government-funded universities. All workers are guaranteed several weeks of paid vacation per year. Even welfare recipients can petition for extra money to pay for a child’s wedding or a vacation.

To put it simply, the German social bargain permits the state to intrude more deeply into citizens’ affairs in certain areas, in return for providing them with an array of services designed to foster personal development and socialize common life-risks. Germans face more subtle pressure to conform to majority social norms, but in return enjoy benefits conferred by that majority itself. This ideology of ‘duties rooted deeply in the culture and community’ may have influenced the German court’s reasoning: Instead of simply endorsing parental autonomy tout court, the judges asked whether the parents’ choice would bind their child closer to the majority ‘culture and community’ of Germany. Because it would not, it was that much easier to second-guess. Yet the reaction to the court’s decision seems to mark a subtle shift in consensus-minded Germany toward accommodating beliefs and rituals which will always remain outside the mainstream.