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“Islam is absolutely compatible with democracy and progress”

03.03.2011 - Interview

This interview appeared in the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung on 3 March 2011

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Minister, what does it feel like to be fêted in Tahrir Square in Cairo with more enthusiasm than you have ever experienced in German town squares?

Well, the cheers weren’t for me personally; the people were cheering Germany. But it is still true that it sends a shiver down your spine to have hundreds of Egyptians gather together at top speed and chant “Long live Egypt! Long live Germany!” I met so many people who were jubilant and in the mood for change. That of course sparks memories of the freedom revolution in our own country.

You give an impression of having found fresh enthusiasm for your job since old certainties started crumbling on Europe’s southern edge.All of a sudden, you are no longer being accused of not having found your feet in the role of Foreign Minister.

As a young man, I experienced Germany’s unification first hand. I was not yet thirty when I became a witness to that peaceful revolution. The enthusiasm felt then became a deep-rooted part of myself. Thanks to that, I eagerly empathize with those who are writing new chapters of world history in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Hardly anyone on the international diplomatic stage moved as quickly and demonstratively as you to stand on the side of the democratic movement.What are your motives?

I am a liberal Foreign Minister – and, when in doubt, we liberals always choose the side of freedom.

What lessons can be learned from the upheaval in northern Africa?

It has revealed the need to rethink two prejudiced assumptions. It is firstly clear that Islam is absolutely compatible with democracy and progress. Secondly, we are seeing that countries’ stability is not down to their governments but can only be guaranteed by stable societies.

The speed with which you reached a decisive stance compared to some other foreign ministers is going to lead to people having certain expectations.How do you intend to meet them?

I am very much working to keep what people in the affected countries expect of Germany realistically balanced. At the other end, I am calling for us in Germany to recognize and use the enormous opportunities opened up by this revolution.

What opportunities are they?

We are a country with connections. What is more, unlike for instance France, Italy or the UK, we do not have the shadow of colonial history hanging over any work we do in the countries of North Africa. Germany has an excellent reputation there. We are seen as politically reliable and economically successful. Wherever German companies operate in the region, they rightly enjoy a great deal of respect particularly with regard to standards of employees’ social welfare. That is something we can build on. When the middle classes in these countries grow as a function of freedom, there will also be a major economic opportunity for us.

So Germany is to look at the region as a particular target for investment?

Yes, I am in favour of a network of approaches ranging from foreign policy to the promotion of economic development to development cooperation. However, we can also contribute to the establishment of independent justice systems. We Europeans stand for liberal values. If, in this time of technological revolution, these values are now becoming globalized, then that can stand as the counterweight to the voices invoking a clash of cultures.

You are focusing on the opportunities of this revolution, but there are also significant risks.Must Europe expect to see a flood of refugees in the coming months because the people in North Africa are fed up of waiting for things to start changing for the better in politics and the economy?

That danger is certainly real. That is why I see such major and direct pressure to act. The people who have reached out for freedom must now also be able to create new hope for their own lives. Most of them took to the streets not for democracy alone but for democracy and jobs. We want to help with that.

Why are you against accepting a certain number of refugees from the revolutionary countries of North Africa?

The reason is that we want young people to work for the future of their own countries. Neither Germany nor Europe can take in everybody coming from North Africa, and nor do we want to.

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Interview conducted by Dirk Hautkappand reproduced with the kind permission of the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung

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