The sociologist Nikola Tietze has been studying forms of Muslim identity in Germany and France. Susan Javad spoke to her about the different ways of approaching Islam in the two countries
How did you come to the idea of researching into Islam and Muslims in Germany and France?
Nikola Tietze: Initially I was interested in the question of how people deal with difference and strangeness. When I came to France in the nineties, I noticed that the debate here was different from the debate in Germany. It wasn't so much about the opposites "foreigner/home-born," but more specifically about Islam itself.
I found it fascinating not to be talking any more about foreigners and nationals, but to be discussing specific questions and topics while at the same time being quite clear about the fact that "We are all French." This was what made me interested in the way in which people in the two countries dealt with Islam.
There was already plenty of literature on the topic in France, whereas at that time very little had been published in Germany. And what there was tended to be things like "The Turks and their religion," and never anything more general than that.
What's the difference between the relationship of the majority community to the Muslims in Germany and France?
Tietze: The German majority community – and in this I believe it's different from the French – sees a Muslim automatically as a foreigner. Muslims are treated as foreigners, even if they have German citizenship.
In addition, people make much more of cultural differences in Germany than they do in France. No-one here would think of asking questions about religion in normal life, and then making a problem out of it.
That way French society makes it easier for immigrants to feel as if they belong. In Germany, on the other hand, it's always the divisive factors which are emphasised.
Is France further along with the integration of "its" Muslims than Germany?
Tietze: Naturally, France was confronted with the topic much earlier than Germany as a result of its colonial history and so it dealt with the issue much sooner.
But the different definitions of citizenship also play a big role. Most of the Muslims in France have had French citizenship for many years. If they were born here, they got it pretty well automatically.
That means the question "What should we do with the Muslims?" always has to be considered under the premise that they are all French. And, at least theoretically, there's the Republican principle: "So long as you don't bring your cultural or religious characteristics into the public space, you have every possibility of climbing the social ladder – in other words: integration is possible for you too."
In Germany integration only became an issue with the reform of the citizenship laws in the year 2000. Only since then has every Muslim in Germany been a potential citizen.
Before that, the responsibility for training imams or teaching religion was always left to the countries from which the Muslims had emigrated.
All the same, something does seem to have gone wrong in France – or how else do you explain the unrest in the suburbs in 2005?
Tietze: The fact that France dealt with the problem earlier of course doesn't mean that it got everything right.
I think that what happened there was very important for French society because it revealed social problems which had been simmering for a long time. But the unrest had little to do with French Muslims or with Islam.
The unrest showed above all the failure of the French ideal of integration, in which integration is mainly seen as a socio-economic issue. Unlike in the past, upward mobility doesn't work any more under current conditions.
You can see that very clearly in the structure of the cities, in the relationship of the cities to their suburbs, which are increasingly finding themselves excluded from the social and economic life of the centres.
Those who are pushed out have made their voices heard-loud, violently and fairly awkwardly. The events were retrospectively "ethnicised" and exploited politically.
For example, the Interior Minister, Nicholas Sarkozy, poured oil on the fire with many of the comments he made about what was happening.
Could we see similar scenes in Germany?
Tietze: I'm no oracle, but I have the feeling that we won't. A confrontation between "youth" and "the state" wouldn't be possible in the same way. The federal structure of Germany is one thing which would make that impossible.
In Germany much happens on the level of the individual states, or even on the communal level. If you wanted to protest, there'd be sixteen different authorities to protest against.
In Germany too, there's also not the same polarisation between the city centres and the suburbs, which was one of the major contributing factors to the unrest in France.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton
Nikola Tietze works at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. She wrote her doctorate on Forms of Muslim Identity in Germany and France, and won the "Norbert Elias Prize" in 2003 for her book on "Islamic Identities," published by Hamburger Edition.