A greater understanding of Islam and of Islamic culture on the part of the majority society is the key to successful integration of Muslim fellow citizens in Germany, writes Stephan J. Kramer, Secretary General of the Central Council of Jews in Germany
The relationship between the majority society and the country's Muslim residents is one of the foremost topics of public debate in Germany today. And this discussion often enough escalates into a dispute.
Muslim immigrants simply do not want to assimilate into German society, is a popular accusation from the ranks of the old, established majority. The majority of Germans, comes the reply from the other side, are hostile to Islam and try to exclude Muslim residents from public life in this country.
The reality is admittedly much more complicated than that, and this complexity must be acknowledged and appreciated.
An important part of this recognition is to illuminate the background against which the demands for integration must be met. Historically, the German identity has been shaped not only by the German language and culture, but also by the Christian faith. Anyone whose culture did not fit into these parameters was perceived as alien. The population group that experienced the effects of this exclusionism most painfully was the Jews, whose presence on German ground dates all the way back to the year zero. The tragic culmination of Jewish strivings to be accepted by the German people is only too familiar.
Today, Germany is a liberal democracy. Therefore, any parallels drawn between the Holocaust and the xenophobia that by all means exists today in Germany with regard to Muslims is not only an insult to the victims of Nazi genocide, but also reveals an utter disregard and ignorance of the democratic achievements of the Federal Republic of Germany since 1945.
Hurdles to integration
Nevertheless, the historically anchored self-image held by German society remains omnipresent and places a burden on the integration of immigrants and their children. This is not meant as a reproach – for it is just as impossible to impose a supraethnic national identity from above in Germany as it is in any other country – but it does make it all the more pressing for us to find a better model for coexistence.
For the majority society, the key tasks are to spread knowledge of Islam and the Muslims as well as to consistently inculcate respect and tolerance for others. I would dare to claim that most Germans are not familiar with the basic facts about Islam and the Islamic culture.
In debates about Islam, for instance, God is usually referred to as "Allah" – a different, separate, divinity, so to speak, more severe and unyielding than the Christian "God of love". And how many Germans know anything about Islamic social doctrines, jurisprudence or the duty to act charitably?
Hence, it is urgent that a more balanced view of Islamic religion and civilisation be imparted to the majority society. As long as this does not happen, or does not happen sufficiently, prejudices will proliferate.
Education and enlightenment called for
I know that knowledge transfer is no easy task. It requires the creation of teaching materials for schools and other institutions, the education of teachers, plenty of time and of course funds, which always seem to be scarce. And it is not always popular politically: people are loath to give up their old, cherished prejudices, which let them avoid coming to terms with uncomfortable themes.
And yet without a comprehensive effort at enlightenment on the federal, state and municipal levels, "Islamophobia" and hostility toward Muslims will continue to spread. This is not only immoral, but promotes divisiveness and cements the tendency of some Muslim social strata to set up parallel societies.
On the other hand, we must reject the demand made by fundamentalist Muslim circles that we should compromise our liberal, democratic basic order in Germany, for example the right to free speech or equal rights for women, to achieve successful integration of Muslims.
We must likewise refuse to condone the creation of areas where the German code of law is replaced by Sharia jurisdiction for Muslims.
Dissociation from anti-democrats
Naturally, every form of religiously motivated violence must be combated, whether directed against other Muslims or non-Muslims. In the process, the law-abiding and democracy-affirming majority of German Muslims must stand shoulder to shoulder with the law-abiding and democracy-affirming majority in our country.
In a free society democrats must dissociate themselves from anti-democrats – and not from Muslims and Christians or Jews. Therefore, leading figures in the Muslim community – politicians, religious leaders, community activists, authors and others – are now as before called upon to distance themselves from extremists in a way that is evident to all. The more resolutely they do so, the more they contribute to the integration of Muslims.
However, not only prominent members of the majority or minority societies bear this duty, but rather each and every citizen. All of us should not only advocate respect for others in theory, but should actually live by this precept in our daily lives.
And we must do so not only with our heads, but also, in keeping with the Bible's Third Commandment (3rd Book of Moses, 19:18): We-ahawta le-Reacha kamocha: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," also with our hearts. This is the only way to ensure a common future for the good of our country.
Stephan J. Kramer
© Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor