Muslim Perspectives on the Immigration and Integration Debate in Germany Today
The massive influx of refugees to Europe during the past year has prioritized issues of integration and immigration on the German political agenda and has resulted in a heated public debate.
This refugee debate is deeply shaped by economic, security, and cultural issues. This includes concerns about the costs of immigration and by the question of how well society can include and accommodate the new arrivals. Recent terrorist attacks in European capitals have given rise to worries about security, which are then strongly intertwined with the issue of Islamic extremism and violence. Furthermore, there is a cultural-religious dimension to the integration debate in Germany, characterized by opinions about Islam and Muslims’ ability to integrate. Thus, Islam and Muslims raise important issues within different parts of the contemporary German debate on immigration and refugees.
This essay addresses the question of Islam in the current refugee debate. It illustrates how Muslims are dealing with the challenges of immigrant reception and with an integration debate that addresses them with highly expectant and accusatory voices, while increasingly recognizing their welfare work in society.
The 2015 Refugee Crisis: A Catalyst for a Broader Debate on Immigration and Integration
As a result of people fleeing war and conflict in the Middle East and Africa, the Federal Statistical Office reported an increase of (recorded) new immigrants by almost 50 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year, with the total number of migrants registered in the Central Register of Foreign Nationals growing from 8.15 million in 2014 to 9.11 million in 2015. These numbers sparked concerns across Europe, and the new figures presented by the German Minister of the Interior for March 2016 document a decrease in the influx of refugees from southern regions as a result of the latest European efforts to stem the tide of people entering: while in February 2016 about 60,000 refugees entered the country, the number declined in March to about 20,000 newcomers.
In August 2015, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees received 33,447 initial applications for asylum, with 30.2 percent of the applicants Syrian and 24.6 percent Albanian, followed by Afghans and Iraqis. Other countries of origin were Serbia, Kosovo, Eritrea, Macedonia, Pakistan, and Montenegro.
Given that most of those states of origin are Muslim-majority countries, it is generally presumed that the vast majority of the new immigrants are of the Muslim faith. Nevertheless, this assumption is made without any information on religious affiliation and certainly not on the individual beliefs, ideologies, or lifestyles of immigrants.
Despite this lack of evidence, the political and media debate on refugees and their integration often displays an association between new immigrants and the Muslim faith.
As a consequence, the German refugee debate of recent months has been often dominated by issues linked to Islam. At a conference held by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation on 6-8 April 2016, Riem Spielhaus, a scholar on immigration and Islam, pointed out the connection between the discourse on Islam and the refugee debate: the basic assumption is that refugees are mainly Muslim. With the arrival of thousands of refugees in Germany, critics have called out the supposed lack of German Muslims’ engagement in caring for incoming refugees, despite the refugees coming from predominantly Muslim regions. Furthermore, more people are voicing security concerns about the radicalization of refugees in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in European cities.
Last but not least, the traditional question of Muslim integration remains, putting an emphasis on collisions of norms and cultures. These factors have all come in to play in the refugee debate over whether Muslims can adapt to democratic or German values.
The Impact of the Refugee Crisis on German Muslims
The refugee crisis has created a paradox: Muslims’ ability to integrate is being questioned even as there are increasing calls for partnership with Muslim communities in providing aid to the refugees.
On the one hand, Muslims in Germany are experiencing a growing demand for and appreciation and support of their voluntary social contributions, which is expected to improve the perception of Muslims as constructive members of society after long being primarily considered as recipients of integration assistance—not as civil society players and partners in social aid.
On the other hand, the revived debates surrounding the compatibility of Islam and western democratic values, along with the perception of violence associated with Islam, has cast suspicions on German Muslims. Populist movements and parties are using widespread concern and fear to foment hatred and tension in an effort to gather increased support. The electoral success of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in the recent state elections in Germany shows how successful and effective populist propaganda against Muslims, especially refugees, can be.
However, the long-established Muslim population is largely ambivalent toward the new immigrants. The Muslim population’s concerns and fears regarding the refugees and their impact on social and economic limits, cultural integration, globalized extremism, and Islam are quite similar to overall German concerns. Beyond these general fears, many German Muslims also worry that the newcomers’ behaviors—which are not adapted to their new environment—could cause a set-back for their efforts to achieve social acceptance and recognition of the Muslim community in Germany.
At the same time, Muslims are compassionate toward the refugees and try to provide them with support in their new country. As they offer assistance, Muslim organizations have made further steps to professionalize their aid to refugees and to develop their institutions, often in cooperation with public authorities.
Calls for Muslim Engagement in Refugee Assistance
Since the summer of 2015, particular attention has been given to Muslim engagement in refugee assistance. The accusation by Ali Ertan Toprak, president of the Kurdish Community in Germany, that Islamic associations and mosques have shown “no interest and involvement” in helping refugees triggered a debate on the extent to which much Muslim communities contribute to refugee aid, with some German politicians calling for Muslims to shoulder more responsibility. Bilkay Öney, the SPD integration minister in Baden-Württemberg, for example, has called upon Muslim groups to be more engaged in the integration of new immigrants.
In response, numerous Muslim groups have joined the public debate in order to highlight their many relief efforts, which have so far been unrecognized in the media and by the public. The most well-known Islamic umbrella organizations, such as the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) and the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), have issued public statements stating that material donations, visits to reception camps, psychological aid, and other forms of support have long been offered by Muslim communities. They have done this despite the limited possibilities of volunteer work within the scope of their associations, as the German Islam Conference (DIK), an institutionalized dialogue platform between representatives of the German government and Muslims, has pointed out. Unlike churches and their charity organizations, Muslim communities lack access to government financial support. Inadequate personal and financial resources, together with the local community-level nature of their efforts, help to explain the low visibility of the charity work carried out by Muslim communities.
In their recent official meetings, the members of the DIK decided to expand the field of Muslim welfare, which had been chosen as one of the main topics of the third round of the Conference, in order to include the issue of refugee aid. They examined how past efforts in volunteer work by Muslim associations could be fostered and professionalized, and a federal government program was set up to promote model projects on refugees and Islam in Germany. Meanwhile, Islamic organizations have advanced the structures of their refugee work fairly quickly. Some of the Islamic umbrella organizations are not only interested in enhancing their social aid work and creating special organizations, but also in presenting themselves as experts and actors in refugee work and joining in the public debate.
As the public takes note of the commitment by Muslims to refugee assistance, it has led to an increasingly positive perception of Muslims and their congregations as civil society actors and partners in refugee work. But this has simultaneously also strengthened the connotation of Muslims with immigration and immigrants, a lens through which even German-born Muslims are mainly perceived.
Factors Influencing Perceptions of Muslim Integration
The increasingly positive media coverage of Muslims’ participation in civil society has not been able to protect them from the renewed wave of destructive debates on Muslims’ ability to integrate that has resulted from various refugee-related incidents.
Reactions to Violence and Assault on New Year’s Eve
Controversy over immigration and religion has escalated dramatically in the aftermath of the events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Current findings indicate that groups of young men of North African descent stopped and encircled women in order to harass and rob them at the city’s main train station. The ensuing discussion has quickly drawn a connection between these sexual and predatory assaults and the Islamic religion and culture of the perpetrators.
Right-wing radical groups reacted quickly with demonstrations against—as they say—“attacks on their German women committed by foreigners.” One week after the incidents, a local branch of the far-right “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident” (Pegida) movement, together with Pro-NRW, the small right-wing party in North Rhein-Westfphalia, demonstrated, as it says on their website, in sympathy and solidarity with the female victims “of the Islamic mass rape” in order to urge politicians to stop their “multi-cultural madness.” Both groups are demanding more restrictive immigration rules, particularly for Muslims.
The debate has also been shaped by statements by so-called “Islam-critics.” One is the sociologist Necla Kelek, who took advantage of the Islamized refugee debate to remake her old theses, claiming that Muslims need an enlightenment: “for most Muslim refugees it will be difficult to dissolve from the traditional rules and ideas of Islam,” she argued on German public radio.
The debate resulting from the New Year’s Eve attacks has primarily offered cultural-religious explanations for the criminal acts of the drunken suspects, i.e., the main cause for their misbehavior is their religion and its culture in the countries of origin. This is reinforced by so-called “witnesses from inside” (Muslim communities or countries), such as Egyptian author Samed Abdelsamad, who is known for publicly using his own biographical traumas to discuss Islamic issues. In the magazine CICERO he explains: “In Egypt and Morocco I saw cases of collective abuse firsthand. […] Yet, despite these regulations—or perhaps even because of them—it is impossible to say that sexual abuse has nothing to do with Islam, because these stringent sexual morals, this hierarchical structure, and this complete separation of the sexes tend to suggest the opposite.”
Muslims themselves feel overpowered by the force of such a debate, which makes them as a whole appear sexually maladjusted. Nevertheless, some have tried to interfere with others to caution against undifferentiated and general accusations and their consequences—such as an increasing social divide. Lamya Kaddor, founder of the Liberal-Islamic Association explains: “There is not THE prototype of a Muslim, instead there are various Muslim cultures which are shaped and characterized differently by religion.”
To explain the incidents in Cologne, it would not be sufficient to merely focus on an alleged patriarchic pattern of behavior of Muslims. She stresses that the behavior of the men in this case was quite un-Islamic, being not compatible with the teachings of Islam: Their main ambitions were simply pickpocketing and robbery, she says.
Integration as a “Trauma” for Germany’s Muslims and the Handshake Debate
Even as the impact of the New Year’s Eve events has somewhat diminished, a debate has emerged following reports of harassment of Christian and other religious groups by Muslim refugees in the reception camps. Critics suggest that this points to religious conflict and intolerance among Muslims.
Currently, public discussions on the integration of Muslim immigrants—not only in Germany, but also in neighboring countries—focused on the so-called handshake debate after soccer player Nacer Barazite from FC Utrecht recently refused to shake hands with a female journalist. This incident was followed by many reports of teachers who complain about children or parents refusing to shake hands for religious reasons. With this focus on “Muslim misbehavior,” as it is generally perceived, the old demands for adaptation to German values have grown.
At first view, in the face of general public suspicion and defamation, Germany’s Muslims seem to have resigned themselves to the resulting difficulties in their everyday lives. Fatma Camber, a German-born Muslim and founder of the youth magazine Cube Mag, says on CICERO, “As with many other Muslims the term integration has become a trauma to me.” On Cube Mag’s website, Muslims are increasingly posting their reports of suspicion at airports, problems with job searches, and dark looks on the streets.
In-depth discussions within different circles of Muslim social players indicate that they are aware of their inability to carry the burden of the current crisis alone and that, despite their willingness to do so, they are unable to meet all the expectations from the surrounding society. Their communities are facing the challenges of integrating new Muslims under the terms of their own fears of terrorism and threats in the course of globalized conflicts, radicalization tendencies, and spreading Islamophobia.
Thus, Muslims are trying to raise awareness of the need for overall social cohesion in the public debate. They point to the contributions of Muslims in times of crisis and warn against the stigmatization of Muslims. Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), says that Muslims in Germany are required to act precisely in times like these, and that they already have done a lot. But they could achieve even more if state and society supported them. Mazeyk warned: “General mistrust of religion and fears of Islam—although Muslims themselves are victims and targets of terrorists—after the attacks in Paris would impair the refugee and integration efforts significantly.”
As far as the integration of immigrants is concerned, he advocates a policy of “promoting and demanding.” According to Mazeyk, imported religious conflicts have no place in Germany. He stresses the importance of rapid language learning and understanding of the German system and society. Information has to be provided to the refugees on “what our community looks like,” he says.
Creative Contributions to the Integration of New Muslim Immigrants
Overall, it is apparent that, despite ongoing suspicions and public pressure, and despite outdated platitudes of Islam critics who doubt the ability of Muslims to adapt to modern society, many Muslims are looking ahead while exhausting the many possibilities of social participation.
Muslim groups try, in their specific field of action and according to their resources, to contribute to the well-being of society and are not deterred by the current debate. Many of their contributions remain unrecognized, despite some projects benefitting from public funding.
For example, the German Muslim student organization (RAMSA) thinks about how to provide an orientation at state universities for new students from crisis countries. The Network of Muslim Women (AmF) explored possibilities at its annual summit for Muslim families to help children who have fled without their parents. For its May 2016 conference, the Zahnräder Network specifically invited what it calls “Newcomers” (refugees) to present their ideas for their new host country. It is also providing funding to ensure their participation—an effort to make them feel part of society. The Zahnräder conferences provide a platform where young Muslims, together with non-Muslims, can present their projects that aim for positive change in society.
In Bavaria, Muslim groups created a “Welcome to Germany” brochure specifically for Muslim refugees. The Islamic theologian Benjamin Idriz, an imam in Penzberg, had the idea for this faith-based integration etiquette guide to give the newcomers an overview of topics such as greeting, education, work, history, and German constitutional law. “Our aim was to make clear that life and values in Germany are compatible with Islam,” he says. It also aims to prevent the spread of radical views or isolation among Muslims.
With this initiative, Munich Muslims killed two birds with one stone: The allegation of an indissoluble ambivalence between Islamic and democratic values on the one hand, and a radical-Islamic justification of a dissonance between Islam and society on the other.
Raida Chbib works at the Center for Islamic Studies at Goethe University Frankfurt. She studied Political Science, Islamic Studies, and International Law at the University of Bonn. She participated as a researcher in projects on Religion in Modern Society at the Center for Religious Studies at Ruhr University Bochum (CERES). Her main research fields are forms of religious organization, migration and religion, and Islam in Germany/Europe.
 See the press release issued by the Statistische Bundesamt Deutschland No. 105 on 21 March 2016, https://www.destatis.de/DE/PresseService/Presse/Pressemitteilungen/2016/03/PD16_105_12421.html
 German Minister of Interior Thomas de Maizière presented new figures at a press conference in Berlin on 8 March 2016, as reported by Deutschlandfunk, http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/starker-rueckgang-im-maerz-de-maiziere-wagt-keine-prognose.1818.de.html?dram:article_id=350657
 See the press release issued by the German Federal Ministry of Interior on 9 September 2015, http://www.bmi.bund.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/2015/09/asylantraege-august-2015.html
 Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s annual conference, “Berlin Forum of Progressive Muslims,” 6-8 April 2016.
 See the press release of the Kurdish Community in Germany, https://kurdische-gemeinde.de/keine-solidaritaet-mit-fluechtlingen-islamverbaende-und-moscheen-meiden-fluechtlingsarbeit/
 In a committee meeting of the German Islam Conference on 10 November 2015, the issue of refugee assistance was discussed as an important part of Muslim welfare, see: http://www.deutsche-islam-konferenz.de/DIK/DE/DIK/1UeberDIK/Aktuelles/aktuelles-node.html
 Claudia Hauser, “Köln erhöht seine Polizeipräsenz,” Frankfurter Rundschau, 11 January 2016, http://www.fr-online.de/politik/attacken-auf-auslaender-koeln-erhoeht-seine-polizeipraesenz,1472596,33500024.html
 “Pegida will in K148ln demonstrieren,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 8 January 2016, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/pegida-demo-in-koeln-nach-uebergriffen-in-der-silvesternacht-14003601.html
 See interview in “Muslime brauchend drigend Aufklärung,” Deutschlandradio Kultur, 13 February 2016, http://www.deutschlandradiokultur.de/necla-kelek-ueber-fluechtlinge-und-integration-muslime.990.de.html?dram:article_id=345444
 Hamed Abdel-Samad, “Das hat auch mit dem Islam zu tun,” Cicero, 8 January 2016, http://www.cicero.de/berliner-republik/zu-den-ereignissen-koeln-religion-ist-mitverantwortlich/60341
 See “Kölner Muslime beklagen ‘neue Dimesion des Hasses,” Zeit Online, 11 January 2016, http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-01/silvester-uebergriffe-koeln-muslime-fremdenhass
 She says in an interview. See Fabienne Rzitki, “Imlamexpertin zu dem Übergriffen in Köln: ‘Muslime nicht unter Generalverdacht stellen,” Web.de, 9 January 2016, http://web.de/magazine/panorama/uebergriffe-koeln-silvester/islamexpertin-uebergriffen-koeln-muslime-generalverdacht-stellen-31263012
 See interview: “Das Wort Integration ist zum Trauma geworden,” Cicero, http://www.cicero.de/berliner-republik/das-wort-integration-ist-zum-trauma-geworden/48635
 “Zentralrat der Muslime sieht Aufnahmekapazität bald erschöpft,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 30 November 2015, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/fluechtlingskrise/zentralrat-der-muslime-sieht-fluechtlings-obergrenze-13940508.html
 Timur Tinc, “Integrations-Knigge für muslimische Flüchtlinge,” Frankfurter Rundschau, 18 March 2016, http://www.fr-online.de/flucht-und-zuwanderung/islam-integrations-knigge-fuer-muslimische-fluechtlinge,24931854,33965712.html