Most politicians in Germany have gotten the message: The quickest way to spark a career-damaging controversy is to make a facile comment about Nazis or the Holocaust. Media critics and political opponents are quick to pounce.
But that isn't the only way to attract unwanted attention, as Jochen Hartloff, the interior minister of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, found out this week. In an interview with the Berlin tabloid BZ, Hartloff said that Sharia law, in a "modern form," would be acceptable in Germany. In comments published on Friday in the center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, he added that Islamic moral code "is certainly conceivable when it comes to questions pertaining to civil law."
Hartloff, a politician from the center-left Social Democrats, made clear that he was referring specifically to family law issues such as divorce settlements and alimony, but also certain instances of contract law in which devout Muslims seek to avoid paying interest. Applying Sharia rules, he said, could help avoid hostility in such cases.
Reaction, perhaps predictably, has not been entirely supportive. Jörg-Uwe Hahn, the justice minister in the state of Hesse, lambasted Hartloff, telling the mass-circulation tabloid Bild that "German courts are here responsible for the law. We don't need special Islamic courts."
He was seconded by Stephan Mayer, a parliamentarian for the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Mayer, a legal expert, demanded Hartloff's resignation. "It is inconceivable that a justice minister fosters such ideas," he told Bild. "There is no room in Germany for Islamic law. The Sharia is barbarous and inhuman in all its forms."
Many Westerners associate Sharia law with the kinds of brutal punishments meted out to criminals in places like Saudi Arabia, such as stoning for adultery and chopping off the hands of thieves. But some elements of the Sharia are much less horrifying, regulating such mundane social conflicts as divorce cases and property disputes.
If Germany were to introduce parts of Sharia law, it wouldn't be the first European country to do so. Sharia councils have long been operational in Britain, most often focusing on issues dealing with marriage and divorce. Such courts also exist in parts of Greece, much to the chagrin of conservative politicians in Athens.
Some politicians in Germany, however, are not opposed to at least considering Hartloff's proposal. Michael Frieser, expert on integration issues for conservatives in German parliament, said that Muslim justices of the peace could perhaps be used to prepare the groundwork for a civil law judgement. He told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that he has nothing against immigrants seeking judgements according to the legal systems they are used to.
"That can ultimately serve the cause of integration," he said.