Please don’t tell Jakim about the German religious tax
APRIL 21 — I was in Germany in February 2010 for a two-week International Academy for Leadership organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty. There were 25 participants from 22 countries, including Palestine, Israel, Tibet, Ghana and Indonesia. I was the only one from Malaysia.
There was also a good mix of religions. There were Muslims, Christians, Jew, atheists, and, I became good friends with Yeshi the Buddhist monk.
The Academy explored various issues from the role of religion in the state to religious groupings in political parties. We spoke to state legislators, federal parliamentarians, political party workers, academic experts, and community activists. We visited a synagogue (where for the first time I wore the Jewish kippa hat), several churches as well as the state parliament of Bavaria (where I saw the biggest cross I have ever seen!).
Germany claims to be a secular federation. Religion does not have an official place in the state structure. But the visit showed to me that religiosity and religious people certainly do have their place in politics.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is from the Christian Democrats Union (CDU). In the state of Bavaria, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) is the party in power. I assume by their names they to want show that they still hold to Christian values.
Although many may argue otherwise, just try asking any of the party activists if they would agree to drop the word ‘Christian’ in their party names. You will see that the sentimental value of religion is still close to their hearts. And perhaps that is also why no significant leader in either party has proposed a change of name.
It is interesting to note that the CDU/CSU partnership is now governing Germany in coalition with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). In Bavaria, the state where Pope Benedict XVI was born, the CSU governs the state — in coalition with FDP. I am still undecided whether these are pure accidents or a divine intervention to make a point about religion and liberalism.
As part of the seminar programme, we listened Pascal Kober, a Member of the federal Parliament from the liberal FDP. Kober is a Lutheran pastor who is a member of the “Christians in FDP” group. He spoke about how his worldview is shaped by his religion and how his politics is, in turn, influenced by his worldview. As I said earlier, within the secular German system, religiosity has a place.
Let me be clear. I do not see any problem whatsoever with politicians drawing inspiration from religion. The freedom to be religious, including in politics, is something that must be defended even — and especially — if we do not subscribe to that religion. What we should fight against is the illiberal imposition of beliefs and ideas on others.
But one thing I found very odd about ‘secular’ Germany is how the state acts as an agency of certain religious groups. Recognised religious groups in Germany are allowed to tell the state how much money they want collected from their believers in percentage terms. Once a percentage is agreed, the state will use their mighty tax machineries to collect money which is then channelled to the religious groups directly.
Organised religions that are ‘recognised’ by (read: have struck a deal with) the government will be able to fill up their coffers with full assistance from the full force of government tax offices. Believers have no choice but to pay the tax. The only way to not pay is by declaring that you are leaving your religious community.
I guess this is similar to the way some Muslims in Malaysia pay their zakat via state-sponsored schemes run by the various state Majlis Agama Islam. But at least here in Malaysia it is an opt-in scheme where you consciously decide to pay to the Majlis. If I disagree with the way the Majlis Agama Islam manages the zakat fund, I just don’t pay to them.
Indeed I currently don’t pay my zakat to any Majlis Agama because I don’t want to further enrich that state agency. But I don’t have to leave my religious community for that.
I just hope zakat collecting bodies in Malaysia do not get a sudden divine inspiration to follow the German system. That would be disastrous.
But by far the most interesting part of the visit for me was to see how German politicians defend the religious tax. Well, I expected the more religious politicians to defend religious tax. But to see how some liberal politicians awkwardly try to defend it was painful.
One political observer I spoke to opines that even though it is difficult to reconcile having a religious tax in a secular state, campaigning to abolish it would be a political suicide. It seems clear that the ultimate calculation for any politician is how to win votes.
Just like Malaysia and everywhere else — and Germany is no different — principles can be and are being compromised for political gains. Unfortunately that is the reality of politics everywhere.* Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.IDEAS.org.my). With funding from the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit, he participated in the Internationale Akademie für Führungskräfte (IAF) on Liberalism and Religiosity in Germany on 7 – 19 March 2010.* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.
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