Controversial Study of Muslim Attitudes

Implied Contradiction between Democracy and Islam

A study of the relationship between violence and Islam in Germany, sponsored by the German Interior Ministry, has been much discussed but little read. Ülger Polat says the study exhibits methodological flaws

German Muslims pray in a park in Freiburg, southern Germany, December 2007 (photo: AP)
Unbridgeable antagonism between Islam and the fundamental principles of modern Western society: according to Ülger Polat, the study's conclusions were already part of its brief

​​The study, which was carried out by the Hamburg Institute for Criminology and commissioned by the Federal Interior Ministry, was intended to determine not just the level of integration of Muslims in Germany, the barriers to their integration, their religious attitudes, and their attitudes to democracy and the idea of a state ruled by law; it was also intended to find out the potential for politically and religiously motivated violence among Muslims in Germany.

The Interior Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, writes in an introduction that Islamist terrorism, operating throughout the world, is today "one of the greatest dangers for our security." Germany, he says, is obliged to undertake particularly strenuous efforts towards integration because of the "phenomenon of 'homegrown terrorism'."

In other words, from the start, concerns about security on the grounds of alleged religiously motivated violence were the driving force behind the decision to undertake the research.

Clichés instead of scientific accuracy

For the survey, four groups of people were questioned: 970 Muslim immigrants were interviewed by telephone, around 150 Muslim school students and 195 tertiary sector students were given standardised questionnaires, and qualitative interviews were carried out with 60 young people who were connected in some way to Muslim organisations.

In accordance with the study's purpose of determining the potential for violence among various groups of Muslims in Germany, categories were developed which placed the focus of the study on religious commitment, the patterns of religious orientation, attitudes to democracy and the idea of a state ruled by law, and attitudes to religiously and politically motivated violence. The choice of these categories sets alarm bells ringing: they assume an implicit connection between being Muslim and holding anti-democratic attitudes or exhibiting specific behaviour patterns – all the way to having a propensity to religiously motivated violence.

What is truly scandalous, however, is not just the selection of categories but the way in which they are put into effect. For example, in order to show a fundamentalist religious orientation, the researchers confronted their subjects with six statements.

Implied antagonism against Islam

The six statements are as follows: 1. Someone who does not follow the rules of the Koran literally is not a genuine Muslim. 2. I think it is important that the teachings of Islam should be adapted to the conditions of the modern world. 3. People who modernise Islam destroy its true teaching. 4. I believe that every good Muslim is obliged to convert non-believers to Islam. 5. There should be a ban on trying to get Muslims to change their religion. 6. Non-Muslims are cursed by God.

While the study's purpose was to analyse the fundamental religious orientation of its subjects, in fact the topics which have been chosen for the survey in no way demonstrate the quality of the inner relationship of a Muslim to his religion as a value on which he is not prepared to compromise and the basis of his loyalty to his faith. Instead they work with polarisation, and thereby cement an opposition between Muslim beliefs and so-called basic modern Western principles which is assumed to be unbridgeable.

Polarisation is a motif which lies behind the study in many ways. Polarisation brings with it a fundamental and implicit devaluation of Muslim religious principles. The positions which are implicitly presented to the Muslim subjects of the survey as the range of choices open to them are rather a mix made up of the ignorance and intolerance of the researchers. That has the effect of producing exactly the stereotyping and exclusion which the researchers themselves have defined as a characteristic of Muslim religious principles.

Two-dimensional view of the world

This becomes particularly clear and worrying with regard to the category "Denigration of Christian and Western society". The researchers seem to believe that they can deal with this whole topic with just two propositions:

1. In Germany one can see clearly that the Christian religions are not in a position to ensure morality. 2. The sexual morality of Western society is completely decadent.

It is completely naive to assume that the only relevant contact which Muslims have to Western society is on the level of sexual morality. In addition, there is an assumption in the choice of propositions that Muslim religious principles are congruent with rigid, authoritarian prudishness.

The failure to differentiate between "Christian" and "Western" is also problematic.

But it is not just from the point of view of methodology and content that this study by the Hamburg Institute for Criminology can be criticised. It was technically inadequate to base the survey on just 970 telephone interviews if one wanted to reach general conclusions about the Muslim population of Germany. The number of interviewees is not large enough to allow such conclusions, and the telephone interview is not a suitable method for finding out with any degree of thoroughness about a range of topics which touch on the deepest feelings of the individual.

The qualitative part of the research is more revealing. Here the sixty young people were given the space to express themselves about their relationship to their religion. In the interviews, the young people report on the experiences of discrimination which they have repeatedly suffered as a result of their being part of a particular social group.

Religion as a potential factor for integration

They criticise the Islamic organisations for serving merely as a place of refuge for the first generation of migrants, and they call on them to be more of a bridge to the host society. The interviews show that the young people see religion as providing them with an orientation in their lives which is not to be judged as rigid, anti-democratic or violent.

When Muslim orientation in itself is seen as inappropriate for current conditions, when it is even defined as a threat, then this is not just a matter of Islam being denigrated and defamed, but it also means that the potential of Islam as a means of integration within Western society is also being ignored. In their interviews, the young people who were interviewed were concerned to distance themselves firmly from hate preachers and radical Islamists.

Unlike in the more substantial quantitative part of the study, the reader has the opportunity in this section to identify with the feelings of the young people on the basis of what they say, without the researchers evaluating their statements before they are made.

All in all it must be said that the study does not meet professional standards. The imprecise methodology and the tendentious evaluation of the results are not so much the result of empirical social research as "knowledge stemming from specific interests." As a result, the study cannot lead to useful insights into the life of Muslims in Germany.

Social problems which are linked to violence have to be dealt with at the point where their true causes lie. The old patterns of description, based on stigmatisation of the religion in its cultural expression, are scarcely helpful.

Ülger Polat

© 2007

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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