Don’t Be Fooled: Integration in Germany is Making Progress

March 12, 2012

With his highly selective summary of a 700- page integration report—focusing on the one in four “non-German Muslims” who resist majority society—Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich confirmed his pattern of expressing skepticism about Muslim integration in Germany.

From the moment Friedrich took office, he updated the 1990s conservatives mantra that “Germany is not a country of immigration” for the post-citizenship reform era by arguing that Islam did not truly “belong” to Germany. He thereby inserted himself in a decades-long tradition of conservative politicians in denial of the country’s ethno-religious diversity.

Germany is lacking the mainstream political leaders who can take away the punchbowl of nationalism and assume the adult role of informing the German public that they are now a diverse society. The new nationality law may mean that most Turkish-Germans would be born with German citizenship from 2000 onwards, but German politicians have still not fully digested the implications of cultural diversity that follow from that reform.

Diversity Deniers

Friedrich is the latest in a line of diversity deniers who have preferred to wear blinders rather than break the news to the German electorate. These politicians share a basic refusal to accept that the categories of Muslims and German might not be mutually exclusive.

The views of Hans-Peter Friedrich have a long pedigree that crosses partisan lines. They don’t appear so different from those of Thilo Sarrazin, the former federal banker who argued that migrant stock was “dumbing down” the country, and who said he felt justified by the recent study.

Sarrrazin, in turn, had significant overlap with former CSU Interior Minister Günther Beckstein in Bavaria, who was an ideological successor to the former Berlin/Brandenburg Interior Minister Jörg Schönbohm.

This national kabuki surrounding the place of Islam in German identity, however, is increasingly belied by a number of encouraging trends in German Muslims’ citizenship and institutional integration.

Positive Development

Oddly, the transfer of a Turkish-German prisoner to Düsseldorf last month may turn out to be a far more meaningful event for the future of Turkish-Germans in the Federal Republic. The family of Murat Kaya, a Turkish German sentenced to four years in a Serbian prison, sought the aid of German authorities to allow him to serve his term at home in Germany – and against expectations, their wishes were granted.

The Kaya family had reason to despair. Germany’s track record of offering diplomatic protection and claiming “ownership” of Turkish-Germans in the pre-citizenship era had been mixed.

The 1998 Bavarian deportation of “Mehmet,” a 14-year-old juvenile delinquent raised in Germany, who spoke only German and who was sent “home” to Turkey, seemed to illustrate perfectly the country’s ambivalence toward this minority.

Kurnaz Saga

Turkish-Germans growing up in the decade after “Mehmet” then witnessed the saga of Murat Kurnaz, born and raised in Bremen, who spent five years in American custody (mostly at Guantanamo) after being arrested but never charged on terrorism suspicions.

Shortly after Kurnaz’s release in 2006, Green Party chairman Cem Özdemir met with the vindicated Bremen resident and asked in (news magazine) Der Spiegel: “Would it have been possible to get Kurnaz out of Guantanamo sooner?”

Generations spent as “native-born foreigners” intensified the feeling that institutional life lay beyond reach, becoming a self-fulfilling obstacle to Muslims’ political integration in Europe.

But the six years since Murat Kurnaz returned to Germany from Guantanamo have seen vast changes in the institutional integration of Turkish-Germans, from the extension of full consular representation to the accommodation of Islamic religious requests alongside other recognized communities.

This time, German federal authorities fought hard to convince Serbians to transfer Murat Kaya to Germany, including making arguments about required medical attention. A publicity campaign by a major regional news outlet contributed to public pressure.

The Milli Görus federation, an Islamist group that seeks ties with German authorities, greeted the news with gratitude for officials’ extensive efforts on Mr. Kaya’s behalf: “The Justice and Foreign Ministries have sent a strong and positive signal to people with a foreign background. Such signs build trust and strengthen the feeling of togetherness.”

Institutional Inclusion

This episode is the latest demonstration of the important role played by gestures of institutional inclusion that German governments have undertaken for the past six years, from the Chancellor’s integration summit to the Interior Ministry’s German Islam Conference, from local schools making space for Islam within their religious curriculum, to universities training theologians and religion teachers.

Since policy competency over religion falls under local state control – not Berlin’s – progress is most visible at the local level. The end of 2011 proved to be particularly eventful. Germany’s most populous state (North Rhine-Westphalia) recently announced it would offer Islamic instruction in 130 schools, alongside existing religious classes, for the state’s roughly 320,000 Muslim public school students.

This fall, the first class of German Muslim theologians began doctoral studies at four different universities. The University of Tübingen launched a new teacher-training program for instructors of Islamic religion, while Osnabrück University has stepped up its efforts to provide supplementary training to imams for a German context.

Local Efforts

Two local state-mosque forums – inspired by the German Islam Conference – also recently saw the light of day. First, the 40 participants in Baden-Württemberg’s “Islam Roundtable” discussed Islam’s public image, education, basic liberties, and gender roles and “concrete measures to improve the integration of Muslims and Islam in Baden-Württemberg.”

And second, the government in North Rhine-Westphalia initiated the “Islam Dialogue Forum,” chaired by the local integration minister, to “intensify and improve the dialogue and cooperation with Muslims and Muslim organizations” that will address integration, education, and inter-religious dialogue.

There are now no fewer than three state-government level ministers in German Länder who are of Turkish origin: Bilkay Önay in Baden-Württemberg, Aygül Özkan in Lower Saxony and Dilek Kolat in Berlin.

The recent arrival on the scene of these three up and coming political stars is a solid rebuke to anyone who thought Cem Özdemir’s success was a flash in the pan of German “diversity politics.” (Adding to Turkish-German pride, Foreign Policy named Özdemir one of its top 100 global thinkers.)

Who would have guessed, so soon after Thilo Sarrazin’s anti-immigrant best-seller “Germany Does Away with Itself,” the endless debates about whether Islam is “from” Germany or not, and then the recent revelation of a gruesome series of neo-nazi murders of Turkish-German residents that daily political integration is going better than expected?

Lamenting Wulff

The national and Land-level governments and Muslim organizations are getting to know one another better, and community leaders are being drawn into a context that encourages their continued adaptation to life as a minority in Europe.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that German Muslims lamented the recent resignation of German President Christian Wulff, who defied his Christian Democratic party colleagues by declaring that “Islam belongs to Germany.”

Muslim groups across the political spectrum spoke out on his behalf to say: “Hey, that’s Our President.”