HAMBURG Germany's inflamed public debate about Islam and integration risks serious overheating as politicians compete to make ever tougher statements criticizing Muslims immigrants they accuse of refusing to fit in here.
The escalating row, sparked off when a Bundesbank board member slammed Muslims as dim-witted welfare spongers, has mixed some social problems and some Muslim customs into a vision of Islam as a looming menace to German society.
When President Christian Wulff tried to build bridges by saying Islam was now part of German society, critics retorted the country was based on "Judeo-Christian values" and should not accept any more immigrants from foreign cultures.
Amid the uproar, many politicians and media have lumped together about four million residents -- Turks, Arabs, Afghans, converts and others, many with German citizenship -- simply as Muslims and tarred them all with problems many do not have.
The debate crackles with harsh terms like "Germanophobia" and "integration refusers" that signal growing frustration with the difficulty Germany has had with people it allowed into the country but did not welcome into the society.
"The discourse about Muslims in Germany is gradually taking on hysterical forms," wrote Andreas Petzold, editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Stern. "It's very off-putting to watch this cascade of debates that, in the end, all focus on Islam."
The criticism comes mainly from the ruling Christian Democratic (CDU) and Free Democratic parties, whose ratings have slumped so badly this year because of economic problems that their opponents accuse them of using Islam as a scapegoat.
Concerns about Muslims have also risen after police shut down a radical Hamburg mosque linked to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and several countries issued security warnings based partly on suspected terror cells in Germany.
Officials in the CDU's conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), say they need to tackle these issues head on so no extremist leader emerges to their right like Geert Wilders has established himself in the Netherlands.
RISING RESENTMENT OF MUSLIMS
A new study last week gave some statistical shape to the tense debate by showing what it called "a rise in decidedly anti-democratic and racist views ... and a slight increase in social Darwinist ideas of inequality."
Polls by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is close to the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), showed 58 percent of those surveyed said Muslims' rights to practice their religion in Germany should be considerably limited.
The group agreeing with the statement "I don't like Arabs" rose from 44 percent in a 2003 poll to 55 percent this year.
The study said opinions once limited to the neo-Nazi scene were now spreading across German society more widely. "A highly level of right-wing extremist views can be found throughout different groups of the population," it said.
The current debate flared up in August when Bundesbank council member Thilo Sarrazin published a book portraying Muslims as a lumpenproletariat due to outbreed native Germans.
He resigned under pressure from the bank, but polls showed many Germans supported him. The bright red cover of his polemic "Germany Abolishes Itself" stands out like a warning signal on best-seller tables at bookshops around the country.
Wulff acknowledged a demographic fact in his October 3 German Unity Day address when he said Islam was now part of Germany because of all the Muslims living here, but several politicians have since rushed to deny this.
Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU) in heavily Catholic Bavaria, called for an end to immigration from "foreign cultures" and insisted German society was based on "Judeo-Christian values" that Islam did not share.
Noting reports of some immigrant youths bullying German pupils in school, Family Affairs Minister Kristina Schroeder warned about a rising "Germanophobia," a jarring new term meant to describe a kind of Muslim reverse racism against Germans.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has reacted by ratcheting up her own comments, declaring that sharia could not replace German law -- an issue almost nobody was debating -- and that Germany's attempt to create a multicultural society had "utterly failed."
LATE RECOGNITION OF GROWING PROBLEMS
In fact, Germany never really tried to be a multicultural society and long denied that it was a country of immigration while newcomers and German-born residents with a so-called "migrant background" grew to become one-fifth of the population.
The troubles in poor immigrant communities -- delinquency, drugs, academic failure, language problems -- are undeniable and some will require tougher policies by the state to correct.
These problems also plague another immigrant group, ethnic Germans who emigrated from Russia, but these non-Muslims are overlooked in the uproar.
A small minority of Muslims cling to customs like forced marriages and full face veils that do not fit into western society. Religious practices like daily prayers or eating halal meat may grate on some Germans but do not break any laws.
"Muslims have come to symbolize all immigrants, but not all Muslims are migrants and not even half of all immigrants to Germany are Muslims," Islam expert Riem Spielhaus wrote in the Berling Tageszeitung.
Analysts say the real problems are broader than the Islam issue Germans have focused on. Strained by reunification with eastern Germany and economic crisis, the once cozy West German welfare state is being rolled back. Germans and immigrants alike now face an increasingly harsher and competitive society.
"Suddenly all the talk is about integration because many people realize that an integrated society no longer exists," wrote Moritz Schuller in the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)