Islam in Germany

On Overemphasizing Religion

Endless debates and controversies on "the Muslims" and "Islam" in Germany continue to rage while a whole range of problems is completely ignored – the legal and economic situation of immigrants. By Mark Terkessidis

Endless debates and frequent controversies on "the Muslims" and "Islam" in Germany continue to rage while a whole range of problems is completely ignored – the legal and economic situation of immigrants. By Mark Terkessidis

Veiled muslim woman in Frankfurt (photo: AP)
Emphasizing religious attributes only helps to promote the scenario of a permanent "clash of cultures," writes Terkessides

​​Immigrant youth projects in Berlin of the 90s gladly bore names such as "Disco and Doner." At the time, an effort was made to highlight cultural differences, yet in a manner particularly palatable for the locals. Thus, the doner kebab.

The multiculturalism of those days can justifiably be accused of having its unspoken focus on snack bars and restaurants.

Today, the public mood has changed noticeably. Multiculturalism has become a scapegoat. One frequently hears, and not only from conservative quarters, that its proponents were naïve, and dangerously so. This is because the multicultural model has promoted the emergence of "parallel societies."

What's this thing called "Integration"?

"Integration" is once again the magic formula. What this word exactly means remains to a large extent unclear. If one looks carefully at the debate swirling around the issue of integration, it seems remarkably similar to the incriminating concept of multiculturalism.

In fact, there is now a new multiculturalism that has less to do with culinary pleasures and a great deal more with spiritual matters – religion, or to be more precise, the mosque.

It is not for nothing that the centrally located new mosque in Cologne has taken on national political significance. When discussion turns to the topic of Germany as a country open to immigration, then hardly any other issue receives more attention than that of Islam.

The fate of the "Muslim woman" is a long-running theme. The relationship of Islam to terrorism is a matter of unending debate. And in a specially scheduled "Islamic summit," the aim is to determine the future role of Muslims in society.

Despite all opposition, the inclusion of Muslims is already settled. They are to be a sort of junior partner to the Christian faiths – not shoulder-to-shoulder, but at least symbolically visible at the architectural level.

As such, Islam is a religion that remains on trial. While Christian churches are regarded as modern and secular, there are still historical reservations concerning Islam.

"For 1400 years Islam has neglected to pose critical questions and to distance itself from politics," believes the "Islam critic" Necla Kelek. Muslims are thereby called upon to view blasphemous theater works or even to organize a reading of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in a mosque in Cologne.

It is clear that a double standard is being applied here, as no one would demand that a Catholic parish should invite Church critic Karl-Heinz Deschner to speak.

Who's a Muslim, who's a Christian?

When all is said and done, the question remains – who is actually referred to by the term "Muslim"? One frequently hears in the media nowadays that there are "some two to three million" Muslims living in Germany. In fact, not even 20% of "Muslims" are organized.

All of the others, even when they are strict atheists, are simply declared to be Muslims. The reverse conclusion is made when stating that the other 80 million inhabitants are Christians living in a Christian country.

The other thing criticized about the multiculturalism of the 1980s is that all of the inhabitants of a country are declared to be representatives of its culture, even though we live in a society that finds itself in an advanced state of detraditionalization.

Meanwhile, we have all become representatives of "our" religion. This is, however, similarly far removed from reality. No matter how many successful mega events such as the Ecumenical Church Day, the Christian churches continue to diminish in importance.

Half-hearted attempts to combat discrimination

While we are diligently debating the matter of "the Muslims," a whole series of structural problems are completely hidden from view – and the legal and economic situation of immigrants is of practically no concern.

For example, in recent years the simplification of attaining German citizenship has been burdened with so many immense constraints that fewer and fewer people are eligible – or even want it. There have only been extremely half-hearted attempts to combat discrimination in the area of education.

And with respect to the horrific level of unemployment among immigrants, the "National Integration Plan" only offers an orgy of declarations of intent. Discussion here is of "promoting" a "more intensive commitment" or of "developing a concept." One will find very little in terms of concrete proposals.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

In addition, the specific difficulties of other immigrant groups are completely ignored, such as the extremely high proportion of pupils of Serbian origin attending remedial classes, the educational catastrophe suffered by those of Italian origin, and the over-proportional rate of unemployment among Greek immigrants, despite their high level of education.

Finally, emphasizing religious attributes only helps to promote the scenario of a permanent "clash of cultures." And it is hardly surprising then that such emphasis also affects the perceptions of minorities about themselves.

A number of polls show that people of Turkish origin increasingly characterize themselves as religious, although this self-projection does not correspond with their actual behavior – the majority still do not attend the mosque.

Looking at the experiences of other countries, such as Britain, a clear conclusion can be drawn – it is not advisable to pursue the current mix of stressing religious differences, continued discrimination, and economic isolation. That is unless one truly desires a "clash of cultures."

Mark Terkessidis

© 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Mark Terkessidis has a doctorate in psychology and works as a journalist and author focussing on topics concerning pop culture, migration and racism.

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