Passport

What’s Arabic for ‘German Constitution’? Syrian Migrants Are About to Find Out

Germany is giving newly arrived refugees an Arabic language version of its constitution.

A young refugee boy looks out of a bus window reflecting the German nation flag after he arrived at the main train station in Munich, southern Germany, on September 05, 2015. Hundreds of refugees arrived in Germany on September 5, 2015 coming from Hungary and Austria. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE        (Photo credit should read )
A young refugee boy looks out of a bus window reflecting the German nation flag after he arrived at the main train station in Munich, southern Germany, on September 05, 2015. Hundreds of refugees arrived in Germany on September 5, 2015 coming from Hungary and Austria. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE (Photo credit should read )

The German constitution is a document that puts human rights front and center. Shepherded through by the Allied powers in the wake of World War II, it was aimed at making sure nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen again: It emphasizes the dignity of all people, social responsibility, and democracy. Article 1, paragraph 1, opens with a sweeping statement: “Human dignity shall be inviolable.”

Now, the document is being distributed in an Arabic language version to Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving in Germany.

The German government has printed 10,000 copies of the first 20 articles of the constitution for distribution at refugee registration centers, according to Reuters. Those first 20 articles lay out the fundamental rights of German citizens, from freedom of assembly to privacy of correspondence, and articulate the nation’s political ethos, covering topics ranging from governing principles (“all state authority is derived from the people”) to social values (“the state shall protect the natural foundations of life and animals”). Article 16, meanwhile, enshrines the right to asylum for those facing political persecution.

The handouts are part of an effort to make sure refugees begin the process of integrating as Germans as soon as they step foot into the country and to try to ensure that they embrace German political traditions. Many European countries have struggled with how to most effectively integrate Muslim immigrants, particularly those who reject core European values like tolerance for other religions and equal rights for women. Those tensions, in turn, have helped fuel the rise of right-wing parties across the continent which, in many cases, have explicitly anti-Muslim political positions.

“I am convinced that the first 20 articles of our constitution are what shape our culture,” German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told the German newspaper Bild. “No one is forced, when he comes to Germany, to change his religion, to alter his private life. But what is important for our culture is that the principles of our democratic society apply to everyone.” The remainder of the constitution that has not yet been translated into Arabic describes the mechanics of the German system of government, including the functions of each branch of government.

The German government has translated the national constitution to nine different languages, including Arabic and Turkish.

The United States, by contrast, has translated the preamble to its Declaration of Independence and its Bill of Rights — two founding documents akin to the first part of Germany’s constitution — into 51 different languages, from Amharic to Yoruba.

Photo credit: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Oct. 1, 2015: The German government translated its entire constitution to Arabic before the refugee crisis. A previous version misstated that it was translating sections of the constitution to Arabic now for the first time.

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. @HenryJohnsoon

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