When one considers that citizenship tests in the United States are old hat, it’s astonishing that their recent introduction in Europe has raised such controversy, and that there is doubt about their ‘liberal’ credentials. How liberal are the new citizenship tests? (You can see the British version, ‘Life in the UK Test’, here.) To ask for competence in the host-society language and knowledge of the principles and values of liberal democracy is an undeniably legitimate core component of all citizenship tests in Europe and other Western states. And few would doubt that it’s equally legitimate to ask for knowledge of key events in the host country’s history, and how it developed into a liberal democracy. So where is the problem?
A test that seeks to uncover the ‘true’ values or beliefs of an individual, even if they conform to the principles of liberal democracy, is pernicious from a liberal point of view. The most infamous example is the so-called Gesprächsleitfaden (Interview Guideline) which the Land government of Baden-Württemberg issued in 2005 to aid the officers responsible for granting immigrants naturalization as German citizens. Its professed purpose was to check whether a citizenship applicant’s written ‘declaration of loyalty’ (Bekenntnis) to the German Constitution (which has been a component of the German naturalization procedure since 2000) also corresponded to the applicant’s actual beliefs or ‘inner disposition’. This practice was questionable in two respects. First, it originally applied only to citizenship applicants from member states of the Islamic League, thus it discriminated against Muslim applicants for citizenship. The guideline consisted of 30 trick questions (obvious to everyone except the half-witted) about applicants’ views on parental authority, religion, homosexuality, gender equality, terrorism, and other issues. In doing so, the guideline construed the liberal democratic order primarily as one that is contrary and opposed to the presumed values of a specific group, i.e. Muslims. But perhaps even more importantly, by invading the intimate and private sphere of the person, the interview guideline violated the liberty rights of the Constitution itself, especially the freedom of opinion and conscience. This, indeed, is repressive liberalism, and demonstrates the illiberal potential of liberalism: a liberalism that becomes an identity, an ethical way of life to which everyone is expected to conform, and which is brought forward with an unabashedly exclusionary intention against liberalism’s presumed ‘Other’, i.e. Islam and Muslims.
However, the provincial German state’s scrutiny of citizenship applicants’ morality raised eyebrows precisely for being exception to the liberal norm. Note that the federal German citizenship test introduced in autumn 2008 deliberately abstains from ‘matters of conscience’. It would certainly be unwise to reject all the new citizenship tests as illiberal based on the 2005 guidelines issued by Baden-Württemberg. In fact, the move towards standardization and formalization of guidelines may well be a net gain in liberality since it increases the naturalization procedure’s calculability on the part of citizenship applicants, who are no longer subject to the whims of an open-ended, individual interview procedure.
Christian Joppke’s new book, Citizenship and Immigration, provides a succinct overview and assessment of citizenship and immigration, as well as presenting a fresh and original argument about changing citizenship in our contemporary human rights era.