It would be a mistake to rely on Muslim organisations alone on integration issues. Religious initiatives do, of course, have an influence. But the secular organisations are more important, says Götz Nordbruch
Muslim civil society in Germany is on the rise. Numerous initiatives have been founded in recent years, contributing to Muslims' integration into society. And in view of the fact that there are some three million Muslims in Germany, this development is long overdue.
The work of these initiatives is as diverse as it is professional, ranging from children's play-schemes to psychosocial advice in prisons. In many cases, the activists are teenagers and young people, who find the activities of the traditional mosque organisations between prayer, Qur'an teaching, Islamic funerals and teahouses don't go far enough.
Organisations such as "Lifemakers" and "Lichtjugend" reflect the wide spectrum of Muslim life in Germany.
"Education is possible and pays off!"
"Mitwelt", for example, is a German-Arabic newspaper project dealing with ecological subjects. "Inssan", a nationalwide organisation of young Muslims, recently organised the first blood donor session in a mosque in Berlin's Charlottenburg district, in cooperation with the German Red Cross.
And the Mahdi group works with school pupils, organising a public ceremony for ethnic minority school-leavers who achieved university entrance-level qualifications at the end of October. The message is loud and clear: education is possible and pays off!
These initiatives fall on fertile ground, not least due to the public pressure on Islamic organisations to make statements on terrorism, forced marriage and "honour killings". Even migrants who previously saw Islam as a purely private part of their lives have suddenly felt the need to actively and openly profess their belief, its content and practices.
The new visibility of Islam coincides with a newly awakened confidence on the part of Christianity, in the form of Catholic enthusiasm for the Pope or demands for educational and social policy based on Christian principles.
As a counterpart to various church organisations, the newly emerging Islamic initiatives represent a much called-for naturalisation of Islam into German society. Nevertheless, they do prompt questions that can also be asked of Christian associations.
The issue is not only a question of reservations towards the ideologies and objectives that some of these organisations stand for: initiatives such as "Muslimische Jugend" (Muslim Youth), which writes more about the devil than social and political matters, are discredited as a dialogue partner simply through their reactionary view of society.
Muslim organisations exercising public functions
Bearing in mind the fuss over Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble's Islam Conference, for example, the much more fundamental question concerns the role that religion should play as an instance for mediation in society at all.
Muslim communities appear a cheap alternative to youth and social work plagued by cuts in public spending in alleged "problem areas". Many an Islamic association is better equipped with internet access and homework sessions than the youth centre around the corner – to such an extent, the state's call for Islamic dialogue partners is far from selfless.
There have been numerous attempts at co-opting Islamic stakeholders for law and order objectives in recent years.
France is a prime example of this development, with Muslim hospitals built to accommodate a small police station as early as the 1930s – recognition and control went hand in hand. Nicolas Sarkozy's call in November 2005, as Interior Minister, for French Islamic umbrella organisations to take action to curb rioting in the banlieues, was very much in that same tradition.
Islam as a force of law and order
Again, the message was clear: when the state is unable to offer political solutions for conflicts and injustice in society, it is willing to fall back on Islam as a force of law and order. Instead of boxing trainers and social workers, the local imams were suddenly awarded the prestigious role of the mediator.
But the result was a remarkable flop – even after a fatwa was announced to condemn the rioting as "un-Islamic", it carried on regardless. No surprises there, as religious convictions were of no concern to most of the rioters.
Nevertheless, it is probably only a matter of time until German politicians also start approaching mosques and Islamic cultural organisations more frequently, for the tasks of providing law and order and welfare. Islamic representatives often suggest turning to mosque and community officials in cases of conflict with young people, a seemingly very attractive offer.
And in view of the growing significance of Islam as an identification factor for young migrants, imams could in fact play an increasingly major role in future. The only question is what consequences that might have for society, beyond the immediate pacification of the conflict itself.
Religious and secular migrant groups
One cannot emphasise enough that social, economic and residence status problems faced by young Arab and Turkish people usually have little to do with their self-image as Muslims – if they do in fact consciously see themselves as Muslims. So there is no reason to overestimate religion as part of a solution strategy.
If young migrants are addressed first and foremost as Muslims, the loser is clear from the outset – the secular networks that have evolved in migrant communities over the past decades, mainly in the trade union and human rights sector.
The mottos of the 1980s and 1990s, "Don't touch my mate!" and "Permanent residence rights for all!" launched by Turkish, Kurdish, Arab and Iranian workers' and cultural organisations, seem to hail from a bygone era. In contrast to the current debates, specific political and social rights were at stake then; religion was of no importance whatsoever.
Despite their influence, including over young people, these non-religious networks are almost regularly ignored as possible mediators in conflict situations. And not without reason, one suspects: meeting their demands would mean having to seriously address issues of social justice and possibilities for political participation by migrants.
Many an integration strategist, it seems, sees institutional recognition of Islam, which can be linked to security concerns and presented as a sign of religious openness, as the better deal.
© Götz Norbruch
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire