Making Room for Muslims7 November 2017 | 14:51 | Handelsblatt
Waves of immigration after World War II have dramatically transformed both Germany and the United States. One effect has been the diversification of the religious landscape, which has caused growing anxiety about — and hostility to — Islam, the most visible and contentious immigrant religion. In Germany, however, Islam is an even greater barrier for immigrants and their children than it is in the United States.
This may seem surprising in light of recent developments in the US. After all, Muslim immigrants in the US, as in Germany, face considerable prejudice and discrimination. Anti-Muslim statements have become common at the highest levels of American society. Not long after taking office, President Trump issued an executive order banning visitors from several Muslim countries.
But in the US, hostility to Islam has largely focused on security issues and on Islam as a threat from outside the country. In Germany, however, the hostility is based to a larger degree on perceived “civilizational” threats, such as the tension between European and Muslim norms about gender relations. This explains why the Alternative für Germany (AfD), the third largest party in parliament after the recent election, campaigned on the slogan that Islam doesn’t belong in Germany and supported its message visually with posters depicting scantily clad German women and the caption: “Burqas? We prefer bikinis.”
Why are barriers to integration for Muslim immigrants and their children so much greater in Germany? One reason is demographics. A much larger proportion of the immigrant population in Germany is Muslim, and it is rising sharply, as about a quarter of Muslims have arrived just since 2014; in the US, only 4-8 percent of immigrants are Muslim. Also, Muslim immigrants in Germany have a lower socioeconomic profile: Most Muslims in Germany are Turkish and often have limited education and proficiency in German, weak labor market positions and low rates of citizenship. By contrast, a large proportion of Muslim Americans are well-educated, middle-class voters.
A second reason why Islam is more problematic in Germany has to do with the place of religion in society. Americans are considerably more religious than Germans. About half of Americans in a national poll a few years ago said that religion was very important in their lives, more than twice the proportion in Germany. Public displays of religiosity in general are less accepted in Germany. When the religion is Islam, public shows of faith often lead to unease, anger and tension.
Third, and related, there is the historical role of religion in society. America has a history of religious pluralism, shaped by founding principles such as the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, and by success in incorporating Judaism and Catholicism into a predominantly Protestant national narrative. This history provides an accepted model for the inclusion of new groups.
Germany, by contrast, has no history of church-state separation – after the Thirty Years War, regional self-determination in choosing a dominant religion was the model. But in recent generations, the links between church and state have withered, as society has turned secular. Muslims in Germany face a general skepticism of everyday religious practice and faith.
They also confront an institutional dominance by the Christian confessions. According to the 1949 German constitution, the state must be neutral in religious matters, but there are still strong links between church and state. Long-established Protestant and Catholic organizations are recognized as public corporations entitled to church taxes that are collected through the federal income-tax system. These organizations also have the right to run state-subsidized religious services and hospitals. Judaism has the same institutional privileges. But Islam, the third largest religion, does not.
While Catholic and Protestant students receive regular religious instruction in public schools, Muslim students are taught Islam in only a few states. Public recognition of Christian holidays is taken for granted but denied to even the most important Muslim holidays. Christmas dominates public spaces throughout Germany, with Christkindl markets taking over town squares; large festivals and parades mark the onset of Lent in cities such as Cologne, where many shops, schools, and offices are closed for the festivities.
Over time, many of the children and grandchildren of immigrants are likely to assimilate and become successful even in Germany. The surge since 2000 of Bundestag members with Turkish backgrounds — the count is now up to 14 — is evidence of broader processes of social ascent. As they integrate, many of these Muslims will adopt mainstream Western ideas about the separation of state and religion and gender equality.
But some dark clouds loom ahead in Germany, where Muslims will keep experiencing greater barriers to inclusion than in the US. If social mobility (and hence integration) stalls among German-born Muslims, many in the native German majority will argue that Muslims will never fit in. While most second-generation Muslims in Germany do not support a politicized Islam, a minority do. The aggrieved sense of exclusion felt by some second-generation Muslims has created a pool of potential recruits for fundamentalist doctrines and extremist Muslim groups. Terrorist incidents by “homegrown” Muslims could stoke anti-Muslim hostility and rhetoric.
Fears about Islam in Germany have also been heightened by the surge in the number of asylum seekers since the fall of 2015, many of them Muslims from the Middle East. The refugee crisis has already had political repercussions, increasing support for anti-immigrant and anti-Islam parties such as the AfD. The arrival of so many refugees, including hundreds of thousands of school-age children with little or no knowledge of German, creates immense integration challenges.
Germany needs policies that “make room” for Muslims in mainstream society. For instance, recognizing Islam in the corporate structure of the German state would put Islam on an equal footing with other major religions. Changes to the educational system could reduce the concentration of German-born Muslims in the lowest secondary-school track. The potential benefits are huge, as young Muslim Germans can help make up for the coming demographic shortfall of working-age adults. The alternative is certainly worse.
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