Muslims in Germany

Islam Implicated as Motivating Factor behind Social Conflicts

The political and social climate for Muslims in Germany has deteriorated significantly within the last year, says Ebehard Seidel, as for instance the newly introduced "convictions tests" in the state of Baden Württemberg show

Group of Muslims in Germany (photo: Deutsche Welle)
Some voices in the German media demand Muslims in Germany to clearly avow their commitment to tolerance, democracy and the Western system of law

​​For many years, it was possible to reproach the citizens of Germany for many things, but not for being hostile to Islam. The xenophobia of the 1980s and 90s was not directed against Muslims. Instead, it targeted (Catholic) Angolans, Roma and Sinti, the homeless, members of subcultures or (secular) Turks as well as Poles and Arabs. The German brand of racism formed along ethnic and cultural dividing lines. It was only in the case of anti-Semitism that religion played the leading role.

Even after the shocking events of September 11, 2001, the appeal for tolerance was the foremost response on the part of the German majority. Unlike in England or the Netherlands, assaults on Muslim residents were few and far between. And whenever anti-Islamic sentiment did flare up, politics and the media could be relied on as corrective forces. In fact, the Germans were sometimes so starry-eyed in their efforts to show understanding for Islam that for decades they failed to recognize the challenge posed by totalitarian Islamist movements.

Today, many things have changed. The murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on 2 November, 2004 by an Islamist triggered a "moral panic" in this country as well, as the Dutch journalist Geert Mak called the eruptive spread of Islamophobic attitudes. The horror evoked by the incident sparked in Germany a free-from debate that verged on hysteria. At the center of the discussions was not so much an interest in learning more about radical Islamist groups, but rather a focus on Islam in general.

Muslims perceived as security risk

Hence, since 2005, Muslims have been lumped together indiscriminately as a threat to domestic peace. Rather than continuing to enjoy their former status as an integral part of our society, Muslims are seemingly viewed today as a foreign element and a security risk. Voices from various quarters have joined in the shrill-pitched debate taking place on Islam, Islamism, the EU candidacy of Turkey, Muslims, arranged marriage, parallel societies, the repression of women, Islamicized anti-Semitism and the end of the multicultural society.

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Further agitation was incited in February 2005 when a young woman named Hatun Sürücü was allegedly shot by her brother in Berlin. This Kurdish family's tragedy still preoccupies the public months later, and is closely associated in people's minds with the problems of Islam.

Although the murder was condemned in no uncertain terms by the overwhelming majority of Muslims and their organizations, many Germans ask themselves: How can it be that right in our midst, Muslim women are kept prisoner, abused, forced to marry and murdered – all in the name of honor?

Fear of the liberals of being considered racist

Critics increasingly feel compelled to drag out the heavy artillery. In a March 2005 interview in the right-wing weekly magazine "Junge Freiheit," for example, the Mayor of Berlin-Neukölln, Heinz Buschowsky (SPD), blamed a "mafia of bleeding hearts" and "socially romantic multicultural dreamers" for the failure of integration.

Buschkowsky's views are shared by sociologist Necla Kelek, among others. Her charge: for fear of being considered racist, the "liberal Germans" have condoned untenable situations in the Turkish communities without a word of criticism. This somewhat simplified analysis proved suitable talk-show fodder and set a precedent for the style of the subsequent discourse.

In fact, however, a cursory glance over the integration debates of the past ten years rapidly reveals the absurdity of such remarks. Ever since the early 1980s, the German media have continually reported on the fault lines emerging in the Turkish community. Up until 2005, however, it was rare that Islam was implicated as a motivating factor behind these conflicts.

And something else was new as well in 2005. Unlike in the past, polarizing cultural stereotypes were no longer being spread only by populist politicians, but even by the so-called "information elite." If one were to take the published descriptions at their word, the following picture of Germany would emerge: a country inhabited by Turks and Arabs who refuse to learn how to read and write, who force their daughters to marry and who will stop at nothing to erect a theocracy in their parallel world.

The only thing to do about this politically, it is suggested, is to get things under control as rapidly as possible, before an open civil war breaks out.

2005 was not a good year for Muslims in Germany. After every attack by Islamist terrorists, pressure on the minority increased. Like a mantra, the demand is constantly repeated that they demonstrate their democratic convictions – no matter whether they actually have anything to do with Islamism or not.

Denouncing violence seems not enough

Although all of the important umbrella organizations, such as Milli Görüs, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, and the Islamic Council, have at the latest since 9/11 denounced any form of violence in the name of Islam, this does not stop people like Klaus Jansen, for example, Chairman of the Federation of German Criminal Investigators, from complaining (following the bombings in London) that the Muslim communities do too little to fight the extremists in their midst.

And the newspaper Die Welt commented: "The more attacks there are, the more urgent it becomes for the Muslims living here to clearly avow their commitment to tolerance, democracy and the Western system of law. Many Muslims have not yet comprehended this."

These are formidable accusations directed at the "many Muslims." They insinuate cognizance of, and privileged access to, the clandestine groups of Islamist terrorists, simply by virtue of religious affiliation. From here it is merely a short step to conspiracy theories and cultural pigeonholing, from which, for Muslims, there can be no escape.

The "convictions test" in Baden Württemberg

The extent to which the general suspicion entertained against a religious minority has already found an echo in government policy is evinced by the "convictions test" candidates for naturalization must undergo in the state of Baden Württemberg as of January 1, 2006.

The test is tailored to new citizens from "Islamic cultural circles," as the countries of origin of Muslim residents are referred to with increasing frequency. An excerpt from the list of questions: "What is your opinion of a man in Germany being married to two women at the same time?" Or: "You find out that people in your neighborhood or your circle of friends or acquaintances have carried out, or are planning to carry out, a terrorist attack. What do you do?"

The debates of the past year manifest a deep feeling of unease on the part of Western society. Diffuse fears have replaced a rational confrontation with the terrorist threat on the one hand and with pressing integration problems on the other. A dangerous process, because a culture of prejudice and suspicion always results in repression and violence against the minority. In order to prevent this, the dialogue between the majority society and the Muslim minority needs to revert to a climate of open-mindedness and reason.

Eberhard Seidel

© 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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