Zeitgeist of Fear and Prejudice
Since the beginning of this year, a so-called "conscience test" has been sent out to all the 44 regional offices of the state of Baden-Württemberg. The test is to serve as a guideline for checking whether Muslim immigrants fulfil the conditions for naturalisation as a German citizen.
The test, which was developed by the state interior ministry, consists of thirty questions which should be asked orally of the applicant, and which should give an indication of the applicant's attitude towards democracy and basic democratic values.
Testing the migrants
In this questionnaire, applicants are tested as to their religious tolerance as well as to their tolerance towards other ethnic groups and people with homosexual tendencies.
In addition, they are asked to make clear their attitude to religiously motivated terrorism, to the issue of social and political equality and self-determination for women, as well as to possible culturally defined codes of honour, customs and traditions.
The answers are noted down and given to the applicant to sign, so that the answers they have given can be referred to, if necessary, in future years.
Following intense criticism on the part of Muslim organisations, as well as from political parties, it has been decided to modify the questionnaire, and to extend it to all immigrant groups.
All the same, when the test was first introduced, it was justified as a response to what was seen as a purely "Muslim" problem. According to the interior minister of Baden-Württemberg, Heribert Rech, the questionnaire was needed because it could be assumed that, when Muslims stated their commitment to the German constitution, as all applicants for citizenship are required to do, the commitment did not match "their deepest convictions."
Rech justified this assumption on the basis of reports of the maltreatment of Muslim women in Germany by their husbands or other male relatives. His initiative came right in the middle of a public discussion about so-called honour killings and forced marriage among Muslim immigrants.
Anti-Islamic mood as background to the debate
It is no mere accident that this discussion has become the justification for a new naturalisation procedure. The discussion itself emerges from an anti-Islamic mood which is currently being felt across the whole of Europe.
The causes can obviously be found in the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 in New York, as well as the attacks which brought terrorism to Europe on 11th March 2004 in Madrid and 7th July 2005 in London. A turning point in public perception of Muslim migrants in Europe occurred when the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh was murdered on 2nd November 2004 by a Muslim migrant.
Since then, as never before, members of the majority communities in Europe feel themselves threatened by Muslims – and the threat seems to face them right in front of their own front door. In addition, according to a report in March 2005 by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, the number of Muslim migrants who complain against discrimination and stigmatisation in daily life has never been as high as it is now.
Specifically in Germany the report shows that more than 80 percent of those questioned associated the term "Islam" with "terrorism" and "oppression of women."
Looking at migrants as merely a cultural phenomenon
In this emotionalised atmosphere, individual migrants have been able to make a killing with tearful reports of their own maltreatment by members of their Muslim families. Among them was Necla Kelek, who is now an advisor to the federal interior ministry and had a major role in the concept behind the Baden-Württemberg "conscience test."
It seems to be a symptom of the current overheated climate that Kelek's tendentious and populist presentation has put entirely into the shade a forty-year-old tradition of migration studies in Germany. It's a tradition of scholarship which itself has only with difficulty and with considerable effort emerged in the last few years from a culture-based approach to Muslim migrants.
The test itself also seems to reflect the current zeitgeist of fear and prejudice, rather than to be based on a rational analysis of the conditions under which Muslim migrants actually live. With alarming openness, the test has taken over all the current clichés about Muslims which are currently doing the rounds of German society and its institutions.
Muslim applicants find themselves now in a situation in which they have to justify themselves in the face of characterisations and accusations which are not just personally insulting on account of their religious and cultural origin, but which also implicitly draw an unbridgeable moral gulf between the values of the majority society and those of the Muslim minority.
If they want to pass the test, applicants are required to distance themselves from a specific conception of what Muslims are like. They are confronted with a catalogue of negative characteristics and behaviour patterns which, it is assumed, they are likely to identify with.
Among the least offensive accusations are that they will have a limited ability to deal with criticism of religious positions, and that they will display a tendency to disregard German law on the grounds of their ideological biases.
In effect, simple membership of the Muslim religious community is linked with the oppression of women, forced marriage, honour killings, polygamy, terrorism and racism towards other minorities, especially Africans and homosexuals.
A negative social signal
This "conscience test" does not communicate "knowledge about our constitution, our culture and our values," as Maria Böhmer, the federal official responsible for the integration of foreigners, expects of such a test. It does not take the slightest notice of the realities of migrants' lives or of their efforts to integrate into German society. On the contrary, Muslim applicants for citizenship are tested as to whether they are civilised enough to be able to become German.
The signal which is sent out by this irresponsible and defamatory test could scarcely be more worrying. It shows a climate of disrespect and racism on the part of state institutions. It is a climate which makes dialogue with Muslim fellow-citizens and organisations – a dialogue which has never been more urgently needed than now – only more difficult.
Such a test once more provokes mistrust among Muslim migrants towards German institutions, if not towards German society in general, and encourages them to turn towards extremist groups.
The current atmosphere also makes daily work with migrants on the social level more difficult and hinders efforts to establish a differentiated picture of their situation, to understand their problems and conflicts in the context of their lives, and to look for solutions. What is at stake is no less than the peaceful coexistence of Germans and Muslim migrants in Germany.
By now, the main conditions for integration are well known: education and work. But it is precisely these two resources which are inadequately available to migrants.
That fact in its turn gives rise to social problems and conflicts, such as unemployment and poverty and the family and personal problems which are a consequence of these. Social conflicts have to be solved objectively, without generalised, defamatory or culture-based attempts to explain behaviour which are remote from the understanding those concerned have of their daily reality.
For that to come about, there is a need for a policy of integration which, on the one hand, sees Muslim migrants as a part of society, and, on the other, takes concrete measures to promote their educational and vocational integration.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton
Dr. Ülger Polat researches migration issues and teaches intercultural social work at Hamburg Technical College. She is also working as a social work psychologist with Turkish women and girls.
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