Debate on Islam in Germany
Anxiety Sparked by Ignorance

Headscarf discussions, battles about newly built mosques and the Islam-critical best-seller by Thilo Sarrazin. At the same time that German Federal President Christian Wulff is declaring that Islam is part of Germany. But he has by no means been able to persuade the Germans to agree with him. The debate on Islam is arousing more controversy than ever. A report by Kersten Knipp

Minaret with a German national flag (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Is Islam taking root in Germany? Many German citizens are ill at ease because they see their way of life being called into question by the presence of Islam, writes Knipp. Pictured: minaret adorned with a German national flag

​​ Thilo Sarrazin, former state senator for finance in Berlin and just a short time ago on the executive board of Germany's central bank, the Deutsche Bundesbank, has written a best-seller: "Deutschland schafft sich ab" (Germany Does Away with Itself). He blames the dire future he predicts for the country above all on Islam and the uncontrolled immigration of Muslims. Most Muslims have different values than the Germans, he writes. They ostensibly hold God higher than the constitutional state and democracy. This is the reason, he claims, why Germany will gradually do away with itself if it doesn't carry on an active immigration and integration debate.

Germany as a land of immigrants

These theses are meeting with a great deal of approval. But at the same time Sarrazin is also encountering opposition. Michael Bommes, for example, a sociologist teaching at the University of Osnabrück, notes that the debates currently being conducted on the subject of Islam indicate primarily one thing: that most people have yet to grasp the fact that Germany has long since become a country of immigrants with a correspondingly complex diversity of values and viewpoints.

German president Christian Wulff (photo: dpa)
Even a fact can be a scandal: Germany's president Christian Wulff called on Germans to recognise that Islam is a part of Germany

​​ "Through modern international immigration, world religions such as Islam have now arrived in Europe," says Bommes. The Muslims have to adjust to this situation, and the citizens of the European nations do too. We have to rethink the relationships between politics, law and religion. People have always had to find compromise formulas for these three elements. And Islam is making this necessary once more in today's world.

Fear of headscarves and mosques

Many German citizens are ill at ease because they see their way of life being called into question by the presence of Islam. The headscarves and veils worn by Islamic women annoy them especially. They wonder whether these women are being oppressed. The same concerns are also expressed in the results of a study just published by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. Oliver Decker, who led the study, speaks of a "very distinct increase from previously 34 per cent to over half the population who agree with statements hostile to Islam". Many Germans are also sceptical with regard to the building of new mosques, he says.

Navid Kermani (photo: dpa)
Identity as the opposition of the 'Other': Islamic scholar Navid Kermani presumes that Germans see their identity being threatened by Islam

​​ Where do these negative appraisals of Islam come from? Islamic scholar Navid Kermani presumes that Germans see their identity being threatened by Islam. Identity, he explains, is formed when we distinguish ourselves from other groups. Every social group defines itself by how it differs from other groups. That's why it seems logical to keep one's distance from Islam. After all, Westerners tend to be unfamiliar with Islamic symbols, making this religion seem especially alien. The process of differentiation itself is then only natural. But it becomes problematic when the Other is declared to be the enemy.

A sometimes superficial discussion

Seen in this light, there is nothing reprehensible about the debate on Islam. It seems to reflect primarily the struggle for a new German self-image and the difficulties connected with the fact that Germany has become a country of immigration. Nevertheless, political scientist Claus Leggewie contends that the discussions about Islam are often conducted on too superficial a level. Most people make little distinction between the various currents within Islam. Nor do they make sufficient allowance for the differences between moderate and radical Muslims.

Claus Leggewie (photo: University of Duisburg and Essen)
Superficial discourse: "I believe that most Europeans tend to develop more of a schematic image of Islam," says Claus Leggewie, professor for political science

​​ "I believe that most Europeans tend to develop more of a schematic image of Islam," says Leggewie. He finds it simply astounding that Europeans, who do so much travelling and know the world so well, whose opinions on all other issues are so carefully formed and objective, are often so quick to make superficial judgements when it comes to Islam.

But the debate on Islam didn't exactly appear out of thin air, either. It stems from the fact that religion has regained a great deal of power in the Middle East itself. Of course people in Germany have taken note of this resurgence, explains Navid Kermani. The problem is that, in the Muslim world as well, many issues are being viewed through a religious lens. For many years, religion played no role there on the political front. Now all that has changed. And Germany feels threatened, fearing an increasing melding of religion and politics on these shores as well.

Islam as aid for defining Europe

First and foremost, the battle about Islam is an inner German struggle. It's about how open Germany and the Germans want to be. Since the end of the Nazi dictatorship, Germans have agonised about their history, and have developed a wrought relationship with their national identity. Whoever makes a statement about Islam, explains Claus Leggewie, is also indirectly speaking out on an entirely different issue – namely, how international Germany should be.

"There are Islamophobic tendencies on the one side, and Islamophilic leanings on the other," says Leggewie. "And, as we know, they have historically very frequently been interrelated, even when they seem on the outside to be diametrically opposed. This very obviously means that Islam continues to play an essential role in our construal of what Europe means, i.e. in the collective identity of the Europeans."

Kersten Knipp

© Deutsche Welle/ 2010

Translated from the German by Jenifer Taylor

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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