Benoît Wolff interviews theologian and religious scholar, Ulrich Hemel, on the issues raised by globalisation, immigration and the transport and mingling of religions.

Is Immigration essential for the creation of nations?

In no way. There are many concepts of what is a nation, a nation state or a federation of states. There are two major ways to be mistaken concerning migration and nation-building.

Migration, Immigration, Emigration – All of a Human Kind – An Interview with Ulrich Hemel

Benoît Wolff interviews theologian and religious scholar, Ulrich Hemel, on the issues raised by globalisation, immigration and the transport and mingling of religions.

Is Immigration essential for the creation of nations?

In no way. There are many concepts of what is a nation, a nation state or a federation of states. There are two major ways to be mistaken concerning migration and nation-building.

One mistake is to think that nations absolutely should be promoted by a common idea, e.g. a democratic leitmotif like in the United States. The conclusion is that such a nation-building is completely independent of the ethnic origin of citizens- as long as they are loyal to their (new) state and its most important ideas. Immigration then becomes part of nation-building. This can be a good thing but it is not essential for all kinds of nations. And we should not forget the danger of persecution for those who are or seem to be critical against the foundation mythology of such states. The McCarthy era offers enough illustration for this point.

The other mistake is the plea for an ethnically homogeneous nation. In reality, most States do have a more or less marked presence of ethnic, religious or other minorities – for example, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before 1918.

In the context of the idea of a homogeneous nation, this may become troubling. Why do those others wish to have their own schools? Why do they want to speak their own language in court or in public life? In some cases, the idea of a homogeneous nation has been combined with “resettling” programmes – from the “exchange” of Greeks living in Turkey in 1923, to the displacement of 3 million Germans from today’s Czech republic in 1946 or even worse – the “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s or in Rwanda during the last decade.

In some respects, it even comes back to Clinton’s famous “it’s the economy- stupid”. In some countries, a lack of employment leads to emigration trends such as in Ireland in the 19th century. In others, the lack of skilled labour leads to strong immigration – as in Germany in the 1960s.

What do you think of Thilo Sarrazin trying to link immigration to cultural and intellectual degeneration?

It is not difficult to link one concept with the other and to find some evidence for one side and for the other side of reality.

If well-educated people leave their poor home country in order to raise a family say in Switzerland or in Canada, we speak of a brain drain. This is the case of some doctors coming from a poor country in Africa for example. It is also true for several thousand German medical practitioners who find better income in the UK or in Sweden.

Even in that case, most of these people support their families at home or come back after a while. So things are not as unilateral as it may seem.

The other side of the coin is the immigration of unskilled labour into a country which needs unskilled labour. This was the case of Germany in the 60s. In this case, the concept of immigration itself has to be checked: What kind of people are being needed? Has there been sufficient preparation for their long-term integration?

Obviously, this was not the case in Germany. Initially, nobody expected an Italian or a Turkish worker to learn the language. People thought they would go back after a while, so why take an effort of integration?

Now, reality has changed. And as people like to have a bright future, it would be a big surprise if the next generations of such immigrants would not seize the chances of better education for their children and families. History would repeat itself – just on a higher educational level.

Still, we should not forget the basic truth: Nations need an idea of the profile of immigrants- and of their future in the country. Without that, social tensions will become inevitable!

With regard to German immigration policies such as the Zuwanderungsgesetz (in-migration law as opposed to immigration law Einwanderungsgesetz) which does not imply a definite stay of immigrants, one could argue that Germany is still reluctant to be a country of immigration and to open up to the unknown. Is a mainly Christian-democratic and conservative government the right one to decide on immigration and integration?

In a democracy, governments come and go. So every government has its chance, its time and its opportunity to shape the country. Generally, this will not happen against the will of the majority of the population.

Actually, our perspective on events and on decision-making changes with the perception of our needs. In Germany, the demographic swing starts to be really strong. And once people see that schools or hospitals must be closed due to a lack of demographic demand, they tend to think twice over the matter. Even more so in the economy: more and more companies find it extremely difficult to get the right candidates for their jobs. It is more than logical that this will stir up a new debate on qualification-based immigration, quite independent of the political colours and ideologies of the acting government!

The real point, however, is global governance. We cannot judge the migration issue from the standpoint of one country alone. The Institute of Social Strategy ( pleads for a UN Migration Authority, with the simple task of a common and public register of demographic needs in terms of skills, languages and others. In such a case, regions (not necessary countries) can hand in their file of needs; other might prefer to offer people and labour, on a strictly voluntary base. Global mobility would be fostered – increase of tolerance across nationalities and religions can be expected. In this moment, around 140 million persons in the world work in a country where there have not been born. Why not go and professionalise the process of migration world-wide, e.g. via such a new UN institution?

The President of the Federal Republic of Germany Christian Wulff once stated that « Islam is a part of Germany ». At the same time, the planned construction and opening of mosques all over the country, like in Cologne for instance, leads to protests by German civil society. In 2008, demonstrators in Berlin even claimed that the ongoing islamization of the German society would end up with the destruction of the democratic basic order. How true is Wulff’s statement? And how right are the critics?

Contacts between Christians and Muslims are as old as both of these religions, even in Germany. Most of these contacts have been peaceful, fostered by curiosity and reciprocal learning, e.g. in case of the medieval medicine or in case of trade contacts e.g. via the silk road in today’s Central Asia.

During the last 40 years, however, Germany has experienced a new dimension of contact with Islam, due to the arrival of millions of Turkish immigrants. What happens now is a situation of religious competition between Christian churches, Muslim communities and others, with or without an explicitly religious background.

It is understandable that new situations may raise questions. On the other hand, a democratic country will not set up obstacles to the freedom of religion. So one thing is understanding fears, another is the promotion of democratic ideas. This, however, must hold true also of Muslim countries where Christians mostly face a lot of resistance or even persecution. Freedom of religion includes basic rights – which are not respected in those countries where the building of Churches or the practice of Christian religion are forbidden!

In that sense, the idea of a religion being part of or belonging to a country is rather a notion of the last century. People want to live their own lives, be it in Frankfurt or in Istanbul, in Oslo or in New York!  Once countries are open enough for the practice of religious freedom, they still can highly appraise their own religious traditions but they will not impose something like a “politically correct” religion upon each and every citizen!

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.