Myth Number One: Integration = Assimilation
In the current debate on integration in Europe, and in Germany in particular, it is often said that immigrants must 'adapt' or 'conform'. If one enquires further as to what is meant by this, one hears for example that Muslim women should not wear a headscarf. Such things have nothing whatsoever to do with integration. When new members of a group or society conform entirely to hitherto prevailing customs and ideas within that society, this is called assimilation. Requiring immigrants to do this would mean that immigrants would have to sever themselves from their roots and deny their cultural identity.
Integration means the acceptance within a community of others as others. A society is unified, or should be unified, by respect for laws that are applicable to all. This respect does not require all members of that society to observe the same customs.
They do not all have to have the same sexual orientation or wear the same clothes. They don't even have to speak the same language, as is clearly demonstrated by the example of our neighbours, the Swiss. There are a total of four different official languages in Switzerland. The idea that all citizens must be alike is a relict from the days of totalitarianism that does not correspond to the nature of democracy.
Myth Number Two: In Germany everyone speaks German
Naturally there is a need for a society to have a common language for the purposes of communication. But here too it is necessary to correct erroneous ideas.
Even before the waves of immigration that occurred in the last third of the 20th century, Germany was not a linguistically homogenous country. There is a standardized national language, but the Sorbian minority in the south-eastd the Danes in the north spoke then and continue to speak their own mother tongue alongside German. There are even bilingual place-name signs in the area around Cottbus/Chóśebuz.
Until 1918 a large Polish minority lived inside the German Empire. The rigid Germanization measures taken under Kaiser Wilhelm are among the less glorious chapters of German history.
Myth Number Three: Germans integrate readily abroad
One often hears that, unlike immigrants in Germany, Germans abroad 'conform' as a matter of course. In fact the opposite is true, as can easily be demonstrated by the example of Germans in the United States.
As is well known, there were numerous waves of German immigration to the United States throughout the 19th century. Between 1850 and 1914 it is estimated that between five and six million Germans arrived in the New World. The creation of 'ghettos' was entirely normal. In New York there was a 'Little Germany' with German churches, a German butcher, German bakers, German newspapers. In the countryside there were not only German villages, with names like 'Frankentrost' or 'Frankenmuth' that endure to this day, there were whole German parishes. The schools in these parishes only wanted German teachers, and the majority taught according to German curricula.
Germans in the United States regarded themselves first and foremost as Germans, and only secondly, or thirdly, or not at all, as citizens of the U.S.A. If they had been accused of wanting to establish a 'German parallel society' in the U.S.A. they would probably have responded, "Yes, precisely."
The entry of the United States into the First World War constituted the turning point for all Germans in the U.S.A. The government asked them point-blank: "Do you want to be Germans? Then we must intern you. Or are you Americans? Then you must go to war, even if it is against Germany." Almost all opted for citizenship of the United States.
War against Turkey is not something one would wish upon the Turkish community in Germany. The question of loyalty will not resolve itself as abruptly as it did for the Germans in the United States. But resolve itself it will – it is already doing so now, when citizens of Turkish origin serve in the German police, on works councils, as parliamentary delegates, and as ministers.
Myth Number Four: The primary obstacle for social integration is Islam
Isn't it astonishing that those who argue from a certain point of view ascribe such power of definition to the Muslim religion, whilst simultaneously opining that for decades now the societal significance of Christianity has been diminishing? Would it not be more accurate to regard religion as one element among many that shape the identities of both Muslims and Christians?
One should not, of course, base one's view of either community on the situation and mentality of those whose religion is also their profession, i.e. theologians, priests, imams, leaders of mosques. For the majority of 'ordinary' Muslims, the influence of religion on their everyday life is decreasing, just as it is for Christians.
The crucial obstacle that prevents Muslims from participating fully in the life of society is absolutely the same as it is for other immigrants and also for those who have lived here all their lives – namely, low income and a low level of formal education.
To put it another way: seeking cheap labour in the 1960s, Germany recruited and brought to the country uneducated workers from Anatolia who in Turkey had either never been to school at all or had, at best, attended for only a couple of years. It should not therefore come as a surprise when these people behave like any other citizen with a low level of education. One cannot simply expect that they will, for example, attend the school parents' evening as a matter of course. They are very well aware of how alien they are in such a situation, and that others will regard them as not belonging.
How bourgeois does one have to become before one is deemed to have integrated? Should the labourers from eastern Anatolia, who had never left their home villages before coming to Germany, suddenly start reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper and ordering beef bourguignon in restaurants in order to demonstrate that they are not isolating themselves in a parallel society?
Of course religion plays a role, but it is often only a secondary one. For example, people who feel alien in Germany may take refuge in a religion that used not to mean very much to them, but which now offers them a modicum of stability. In these circumstances a very strict religious framework for daily life can meet their need for security. People speak of 'fundamentalism' when what it in fact is, is the reduction of complexity: there is a need to simplify a societal reality that is experienced as confusing and threatening.
Myth Number Five: Germany is not a country of immigration
The sentence "Germany is not a country of immigration" is a longstanding grand delusion in German politics. Some politicians continued to repeat it ad nauseam even when the opposite was already clearly apparent. The workers recruited by Germany came, and after a delay of many years their relatives and dependents followed them. Refugees came from conflict zones such as Iraq. Russian Germans came; their Russian relatives came.
But there was a reluctance to acknowledge this truth. Until just a few years ago there was 'additional tuition in the mother tongue' for Turkish children in Bavarian schools. This tuition did improve their competence in the Turkish language, but only with the aim of preparing the children for their return to their "homeland" – for many this was the former homeland of their grandparents!
There was immigration – but for a long time there was neither an immigration policy nor an integration policy. Now this has changed. But on the whole there is still a lack of courage to tell it like it is: that the immigrants' presence is indispensible for social and economic life in Germany. Problems have arisen as a result of this immigration, but without it our problems would be far greater.
Myth Number Six: Integration is the obligation and responsibility of the immigrant
The talk about immigrants who "refuse to integrate" is perfidious, because the phrase is always used in reference to migrants. They "refuse" – so it is claimed – to integrate in that they do not speak enough German, or do not send their children to school. In reality integration is a process of change that affects both "new" and "old" members of a society.
Anyone who has lived abroad for a time – if only in one of our neighbouring European states – knows how difficult this can be, even if one speaks the national language well. One has to learn – to learn to live. Other people do not appear to need me, but I need them. And if people show me that I am not wanted here, it doesn't mean that I could simply get on a plane and go home. There is frequently no "home" to which one can return so easily.
The other side of the coin is that German society is also changing by virtue of its migrants. The question is simply whether it will accept these changes and consciously seek to influence their form. Take, for example, a woman like Alice Schwarzer. She and her fellow campaigners have spent almost the whole of their lives fighting the oppression of women, including religiously-motivated oppression. They have achieved a great deal.
And now, in her seventh decade, Ms Schwarzer is confronted with the sight of multitudes of women and girls wearing headscarves, which she cannot understand as anything other than a symbol of oppression. That such a piece of cloth can also be a sign of self-assertion is simply incomprehensible to her. Is the emancipation for which she fought so hard to be revoked? As far as Ms Schwarzer is concerned, the only solution she can see is a ban on headscarves. This she demands with such vehemence that even Thomas Steinfeld, the moderate features editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, speaks of an "educational dictatorship".
And then there is Thilo Sarrazin, the SPD politician who sparked controversy by claiming that Germany's cultural and economic development is severely flawed by Muslims and migrants . On a podium in Munich someone hit the nail right on the head when they described him as a "petty bourgeois who cannot handle a disorderly world". But the "upstanding Munich bourgeoisie" went wild with fury at this attack on its new idol. Theirs is the voice of denial, the refusal to accept a new social reality, the rejection of a process of learning and change that one suspects nevertheless is unavoidable.
It is hardly surprising that Sarrazin's approval rating does not draw primarily on the lower strata of society. His endorsement comes from those who are doing very nicely, who are d who therefore want everything to stay just as it is. But there is a saying by Erich Fried that is no less true now than it ever was: "Anyone wants the world to stay as it is does not want it to stay."
© Rainer Oechslen/Qantara.de 2011
Rainer Oechslen is the Protestant Church in Bavaria's representative for Islamic Affairs.
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins.
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de