By Michael Kiefer
The vast majority of everyday contacts have nothing to do with religion. It is high time the debate on Muslim immigrants and integration in Germany was de-Islamicised, comments the Islam Studies scholar Michael Kiefer
The overwhelming majority do not define themselves purely in terms of their religion. Yet this plays only a negligible role in the continuing rowdy and polemical debate on Islam that has gone out for its latest spin on Germany's op-ed pages in recent weeks. The so-called Islam critics in particular have constructed an allegedly irreconcilable "us" and "them": in one corner the seemingly "enlightened" and far too "tolerant" host society, in the other the "backwards" Muslims, plied with further negative attributions such as "distance from democracy", "intolerance" and an "exaggerated concept of honour".
This perception harbours much potential for conflict. In the final consequence, it leads to the exclusion of all that is "different" and "foreign", as we can see from the large number of prohibitions suggested by determined opponents of Islam, from the bans on headscarves and minarets to those of the burqa or even the Koran, as the Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilder propagates.
Fertile ground for prejudices
But even if we ignore such extreme positions, the very logic of this two-camp ideology is fertile ground for prejudices against the respective other group. Numerous minor conflicts in everyday life are symptomatic of this development – for example at schools where non-Muslim teachers come into conflict with Muslim pupils and parents. Even on the most banal issues of missing homework or unpunctuality, they appear incapable at times of reaching a constructive dialogue. The trenches, however, are not the best place to foster a rewarding coexistence in society – all that is left is fronts.
If we view all the problems in our society solely through the lens of religious affiliation, we make life harder than necessary for ourselves. We need to take a sceptical stance where all conflicts are blamed on Islam – and equally where the only solution suggested is Islam.
The same applies to a policy that calls for academic training for imams, enabling them to bring the members of their communities into line as integration pilots, spiritual guides and family advisors. This is beside the point: the vast majority of problems facing Muslim immigrants in everyday life are not of a religious nature. That has been empirically proved and repeated ad nauseam, yet the message has not yet hit home.
If we want to make integration a success, we therefore need to de-Islamicise the debate. Nor should religion play any major role in everyday integration work, in schools, kindergartens and youth centres. Instead, the focus ought to be on seeking the largest possible overlap of interests and negotiating practical compromises on this basis.
Emphasising common interests
What people of all religious and ideological orientations have in common is that they want equal opportunities on the labour market, a good education for their children and decent residential areas – a zebra crossing, for instance, so that their children can cross the road in safety.
The idea is to emphasise these common interests. In a society characterised by a myriad of diverse ways of life, that is not always an easy task. Most institutions charged with education and community work on the local level fail to do adequate justice to the diversity of an immigration society.
This goes for Germany's major interest groups for the socially disadvantaged on a secular basis, along with the German Red Cross and the various Christian and Jewish welfare organisations. All of them reflect the ideological and religious spectrum of 1950s and 60s West Germany. A welfare system resting on such predominantly religious foundations, which even imposes religious regulations on its employees' private lives in some cases, can hardly guarantee plurality and openness.
A further issue aggravates the problems. Integration takes place mainly on the local administrative level. Yet integration policy, which is put into practice by state and non-state actors in kindergartens, schools, community and youth clubs and family support services, has regarded immigrants to date mainly in asymmetrical client relationships.
Equal rights at eye level
On the one side are professional helpers with their expert knowledge, and on the other their clients with their "background of migration", their passive basic stance permanently confirmed by the system. In this model, immigrants rarely appear as confident, independent actors shaping their own lives and futures. Local authorities must rethink this pattern, with the aim of understanding immigrants as individuals with equal rights at eye level.
An integration policy that looks to the future would have to open up greater possibilities for immigrants to shape their lives, at the same time demanding greater responsibility of them. To do so, practice would have to address young immigrants directly in their residential communities by means of education and training – for example on how to gain local authority funding for their projects.
Ultimately, what Germany needs is new structures; in their existing form, the migrant organisations have outlived their usefulness. Placed on the lowest echelons of local politics via committees for immigrants and integration, they have been allowed to play along with virtually no effect on policy.
It would be better if immigrants were to be regular actors and partners in future, without such diversions. Integration through participation is the motto. And that means kindergartens, youth centres, educational institutions and family support services run by immigrants for immigrants – and of course for everyone else living in the residential areas.
Michael Kiefer is a journalist with a PhD in Islam studies. He and his colleague Irka-Christin Mohr recently brought out a book on teaching Islam at German schools: Islamunterricht an staatlichen Schulen, published by transcript (Bielefeld 2009).
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Source: © Qantara.de 2010