Muslims in Germany: A Post-Crisis Update

The rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe has been one the most of worrying trends in the wake of the euro crisis. Surprising gains by far-right and far-left parties in the recent European Union parliamentary elections pose a fundamental challenge to Europe’s identity. If “anti-immigration” policies become part of the political mainstream, what does this mean for the future of an integrated union based on the free movement of people, capital, goods, and services?

The answer to this question is of strategic consequence both for the United States and Germany. Weak birth rates in Germany mean it will rely upon new immigrant populations to maintain a vibrant workforce.  The United States also has a strong interest in the successful integration of immigrant and minority communities, not least to root out those ideologies and networks that inspire violent extremism.

This essay examines what is still one of the most complex challenges for modern Germany: the integration of its large and diverse Muslim community. There are a number of areas in which the U.S. and Germany can learn from each other regarding the social inclusion of religious or ethnic minorities as recent studies have shown.[1] Below is an overview of the Muslim population in Germany, its political organization, and the role of leadership in responding to what has often been a tense public debate.

A Demographic Comparison[2]

German and American Muslim communities with backgrounds in migration (first generation immigrants, second and third-plus generations born in the two countries) differ along a number of indicators, but they face common challenges in today’s world. The number of German Muslims stands at around 4 million or 5 percent of the population, [3] whereas the figures in the U.S. are 2.6 million and 0.8 percent respectively. [4] German Muslims are overwhelmingly of Turkish background (63 percent)[5] whereas American Muslim origins trace back to many different countries (with Pakistan as the largest single country at 14 percent, and Arab countries the most significant region with 26 percent).[6]  Only 45 percent of German Muslims[7] have German citizenship whereas the figure in the U.S. is at least 70 percent.[8] Compared to the non-Muslim population, in socio-economic terms (education, income, employment profile, language, and social skills), American Muslims in general fare better than their German counterparts.

Both countries also have significant numbers of young Muslims: 42 percent of German Muslims are between the ages of 0 and 24; [9] in the U.S., 59 percent of Muslims are between the ages of 18 and 39.[10] Previous dialogues between German and American Muslims, including at a recent AICGS workshop, have shown that young Muslims care about many of the same issues as their non-Muslim peers, including their economic outlook, civic participation, and the use of social media and the internet.

Both young and old immigrants and refugees from North Africa and the Middle East still flock to Europe’s southern and eastern borders in hopes of securing a better future for themselves and their families, which has fueled anti-immigrant sentiment. Germany has recently accepted 18,000 Syrian refugees and has offered to take 5,000 more, pushing it in second in the world behind the United States in terms of net immigration. Besides Syria, the largest increases of migrants to Germany have come from predominantly Muslim Somalia and North Africa, but also Italy, Russia, and Spain.[11]

Rising migration flows have emerged as a pressing challenge for many other European Union states. In the run up to the recent EU elections, far-right parties successfully campaigned with anti-immigrant platforms. The consequences of this may be reflected in the EU’s most recent draft strategic plan that underscores the importance of dealing with migration and integration. It states that it is “a matter which requires solidarity and responsibility, and also modern management of the Union’s external borders.” Specific measures to help channel and control migration include increasing support for those with “specific skills,” dealing “with irregular migration,” and fighting terrorism and radicalization.[12]

Civic Participation and Organization

Citizenship is the most basic requirement for participation in a democracy. Even in mature democracies like the United States, the path to citizenship for new migrants is a contentious issue. Germany has also struggled for decades with fully integrating its Turkish residents, many of whom have been living in the country for decades but still do not have a German passport.  Germany’s 1999 citizenship law made eligible those who have at least one parent who is a legal resident, but they must decide by the age of 23 whether to retain the nationality of their parents or German nationality. Though this is far from the U.S. experience of allowing dual citizenship (in most cases), it is progress in comparison to the more arduous path to German citizenship in previous decades. This may have a transformative effect as a new generation of native-born Germans with full citizenship will be eligible to vote in 2017.

The diverse Turkish community in Germany has typically voted for socialist or ecological parties. In the elections held in Germany in 2013, the number of Turkish-origin Bundestag members doubled from five to eleven (5 SPD, 3 Green, 2 Die Linke, 1 CDU). This does not suggest, however, that there is any semblance of a “Muslim vote” in Germany as not everyone with a Turkish background is religious. Neither ethnic nor foreign politics has been a serious election issue in contrast to bread and butter topics like taxes or health care reform. However, this has not dissuaded recent Turkish prime ministers from traveling to Germany to court the 1.6 million residents with Turkish passports. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Berlin last February in a bid to appeal to these voters, regain trust that he had lost after the Gezi Park protests, and secure Germany’s support for Turkey’s stalled accession bid to the European Union.[13]

Umbrella Organizations

In Europe, Islamic organizations trace their roots back to the 1950s, when political refugees, students, dissidents, and visiting prayer leaders of various stripes emigrated from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.[14] The persistent lack of professional organization led to ad hoc interaction with local government and migrant workers, prompting concerns that more established actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood and foreign states would use their embassies to exert control over nascent Islamic religious communities. But as recent scholarship by Boston College Professor Jonathan Laurence has made clear, the Muslim organizations that emerged did not seek to win votes, hold elected office, or shape national policy. Indeed, outside actors made rather weak claims to be spokespersons for the average European Muslims’ view of international events:

“Despite the existence of clear linkages of political-Islam federations with Islamist parties and with pan-Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, it would be difficult to describe the federations’ activities in Europe as a strategy of political integration […] their leaders may retain allegiances and symbolic membership in international networks, but their daily activities—and their constituencies interests—are undeniably domestic and routine in nature.”[15]

The two institutions that now dominate the landscape in terms of membership and interaction with the government in the Germany and the United States are the Türkisch-Islamische Union der Anstalt für Religion (DITIB) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The Islamic Society of North American (ISNA) is one of the oldest and most established Muslim organizations in America. It emerged over fifty years ago and has since instituted 2,000 to 3,000 Islamic centers throughout the United States. DITIB is less structured and has only recently shifted away from an older generation of leaders that was reluctant to engage the broader public. Today, DITIB is more interested in engaging the broader German public and the national discussion about Muslims in Germany. Recent efforts in this direction include the recent opening of a stunning new mosque in Cologne[16] with a public arcade and outreach to the small, but growing, Jewish community. DITIB also strives for recognition at the European level in Brussels, Berlin, and the other major European capitals. There are also a range of smaller organizations in both Germany and the United States that represent both religious and social welfare interests, including women’s issues.[17]

In recent years, Germany has attempted to deepen its relationship between the government and organized Islam through the German Conference on Islam (Deutsche Islam Konferenz). The conference achieved some success in 2006, but was heavily criticized by the participants and outside observers in 2011 when the German government focused on security issues.[18] Muslims and non-Muslims have pointed to the lack of priority accorded the forum by political leaders, the weakness of Muslim representation, the over-focus on security, and the terrorist threat at the expense of other issues central to the daily lives of Muslims like Islamophobia.[19] The Junge Islam Konferenz, facilitated by the Stiftung Mercator, has sought to address some of these issues in its meetings since 2013.

Media and Public Opinion

Since the attacks of September 11, few minority groups have been as heavily scrutinized in the media as Muslim communities in the United States and Europe. Ongoing debate on the challenges of integration, radicalization, and terrorism continues to shape public opinion, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring and the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Partly as a result of this media attention, a 2011 Pew Global Attitudes survey showed widespread concern in Europe about Islamic extremism among the broader public and a lingering perception that Muslims living in the West wish to remain distinct from the rest of society.  While 57 percent of U.S. respondents had a “positive opinion” of Muslims (an improvement on a 2006 Pew survey), only 45 percent of the Germans agreed. A more recent poll in Germany by the Bertelsmann Foundation showed that approximately 51 percent continued to see Islam itself as a threat.[20] The proportion of Germans who consider relations between Muslims and Western countries as generally bad remains the highest of all Western countries.

Recent studies in Germany and the United States, however, show the majority of Muslims identifying with the nation, as opposed to their religion or ancestral home, and think that it is important to continue the process of integration.[21] This has been a particularly difficult issue for Germany’s Turkish minority. When asked in a 2012 poll whether one could be “a good Muslim and a good German at the same time,” 86 percent strongly or somewhat agreed. A strong majority (83 percent) also considered the German language a key to success as an immigrant and two-thirds did not regret their decision to come to Germany.

Nonetheless, a sizable number of respondents to the same study (49 percent) felt “unwanted” in Germany. [22] Representatives of two of the larger Turkish German organizations echoed these concerns.  A former deputy director for Islamische Gemeinschaft Milli Gorus (IGMG) said “I have lived here since I was one year old and yet I still do not feel German because every day it is shown to me that I am different” and a spokesman for DITIB echoed this, “I do not feel like we are treated equally—it is as though Muslims are always under a general suspicion.”[23] The poor state of relations in Germany has been attributed to a number of factors, including difficulty in obtaining citizenship, one-sided media coverage, and perceived heavy-handedness by government authorities.[24]

It is also worth noting the importance of social media, as it has enabled young populations in particular to organize and discuss sensitive issues online, leading to both new opportunities and dangers. One study from 2012 comparing Muslims in Britain and Germany, concluded that nearly four-fifths of Muslims in Germany do not feel like the mainstream media fits their needs. Thus, they consume a higher percentage of media targeted specifically for them in popular chat forums about contemporary life, religion, and politics (89.7 percent of Muslims use social media versus 77.2 percent of non-Muslims in Germany).[25] While Muslim youth can work out issues in a broader dialogue with their peers online, new forms of communication also give them access to more extremist views that encourage intolerance and the use of violence.

Political Leadership and Integration

Governments have had a difficult time in responding to a divided public and this fast-moving media landscape. In 2010, less than a few weeks after German President Christian Wulff stated that “Islam has also now become part of German identity,” Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism in Germany had “utterly failed” and that immigrants needed to make more of an effort to integrate.[26] Both speeches were in part a response to the uproar and surprising popularity of a 2010 best-selling book by Thilo Sarrazin (“Germany Does Itself In”) that suggested Muslim immigrants were unable to integrate into German society.

Last summer, a public trial began in Germany that once again exposed these fissures and prompted a parliamentary investigation. A domestic extremist group, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), stood accused of murdering ten people—most of whom were Germans of Turkish descent. Media reports have claimed that the authorities repeatedly ignored the possible danger of far-right groups for years, prompting concern by Muslim minorities that they are not being protected.[27] The trial itself could last years, drawing out long-standing grievances in the media and once again raising questions about Germany’s commitment to building a diverse society.

The United States has a much longer experience dealing with these challenges than modern Germany, but American leadership also has struggled with addressing the long-term challenge of immigration reform.  In thinking about the path forward, both U.S. and European leaders would do well to remember a lesser-known speech by President Woodrow Wilson to a group of newly naturalized citizens on the eve of America’s entry into World War I against Germany. Wilson was not known to be especially compassionate toward other cultures or religions, but he did offer this thoughtful message:

…And if some of us have forgotten what America believed in, you, at any rate, imported in your own hearts a renewal of the belief. That is the reason that I, for one, make you welcome. …
Philadelphia, May 10, 1915 [28]

 Parke Nicholson is the Senior Research Associate at AICGS.

The author is grateful to Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman for her insights into and analysis on this topic.

[1] On Muslim communities, see in particular Ariane Chebel d’Appollonia, Lily Gardner Feldman, Mathias Rohe, Raida Chbib, Rauf Ceylan, and Tara Bahrampour, The Many Sides of Muslim Integration: A German-American Comparison, AICGS German-American Issues 13 (Washington, DC: AICGS, 2010). On the policy challenges of integration, see Spencer P. Boyer and Victoria Pardini, “Current Immigration and Integration Debates in Germany and the United States: What We Can Learn from Each Other,” Wilson Center Global Europe Program (June 2013) and the Congressional Research Service, “Muslims in Europe: Promoting Integration and Countering Extremism” (7 September 2011).

[2] Portions of this section are provided by Lily Gardner Feldman from a 2013 project proposal for AICGS entitled “Muslim Voices in Germany and the United States: Involving the Third Generation.”

[3] BAMF, Muslimisches Leben in Deutschland – im Auftrag der deutschen Islamkonferenz (Nürnburg, Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, 2009): Table 6: Anzahl: der deutschen und ausländischen Muslime in Deutschland nach Herkunftsland.

[4] PewResearch, “The Future of the Global Muslim Population,” 2011, (24 June 2014).

[5] BAMF, Muslimisches Leben in Deutschland – im Auftrag der deutschen Islamkonferenz (Nürnburg, Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, 2009): Figure 10: Muslime nach Herkunftsregion (in Prozent).

[6] PewResearch, “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism: Nativity and Immigration,” 2011, (24 June 2014).

[7] BAMF, Muslimisches Leben in Deutschland – im Auftrag der deutschen Islamkonferenz (Nürnburg, Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, 2009): Zentrale Ergebnisse.

[8] PewResearch, “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism: Nativity and Immigration,” 2011.

[9] BAMF, Muslimisches Leben in Deutschland – im Auftrag der deutschen Islamkonferenz (Nürnburg, Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, 2009): Figure 14: Vergleich der Altersstruktur der Personen mit Migrationshintergrund mit der Altersstruktur der Bevölkerung in Deutschland aus dem Mikrozensus 2007 (in Prozent).

[10] PewResearch, “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism Muslim Americans: Gender, Age and Family Status,” 2011.

[11] “Germany overtakes Britain and Canada to become world’s No 2 migration destination,” South China Morning Post, 21 May 2014, sec. World, For details, see also “Immer der Arbeit nach” Die Zeit, (May 28, 2014)

[12] Valentina Pop, “New EU ‘strategy’ fudges British, German and Italian demands,” EU Observer,  25 June 2014,

[13] See the recent AICGS publication by Nilgün Arisan Eralp, Rana Deep Islam, and Joshua W. Walker, EU Membership for Turkey: Endless Negotiations? AICGS German-American Issues 16 (Washington, DC: AICGS, 2014).

[14] For a unique and extensive look at this history, see Jonathan Laurence, The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims: The State’s Role in Minority Integration (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[15]  Ibid., p. 94

[17] AICGS Event Summary, “The Role of Jewish and Muslim Communities in the Politics of Germany and the U.S.,” 23 April 2014, /events/2014/04/the-role-of-jewish-and-muslim-communities-in-the-politics-of-germany-and-the-u-s/.

[18] Eckart Loshe, “Wohlfahrt statt Extremismus,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, sec. Politik, 25 February 2014, (23 June 2014).

[19] “Islamkonferenz: Muslimische Verbände kritisieren Friedrich,” Der Spiegel, 7 May 2013 and Volker Kauder, “Merkel Ally, Says Islam Is Not Part Of Germany,” Huffington Post, 9 April 2012.

[20] Bertelsmann Foundation, “ReligionsMonitor,” 28 April 2013,

[21] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” 22 May 2007,

[22] “Deutsch-Türkische Lebens und Wertewelten 2012,” Info GMBH and Liljeberg Research International (July/August 2012).

[23] Quoted in “Islam and Identity in Germany,” International Crisis Group Europe Report No. 181 (14 March 2007).

[24] “Muslims in the EU: Cities Report – Germany,” Open Society Initiative for Europe (December 2009).

[25] British Council, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Vodafone Stiftung Deutschland, “Muslims in the European Mediascape,” (23 June 2014).

[26] Bundespraesident Christian Wulff, “Speech to mark the Twentieth Anniversary of German Unity,” 3 October 2010, and “Merkel erklärt Multikulti für gescheitert,” Spiegel Online, 10 October 2010,

[27] “NSU inquiry report released, authorities blamed for incompetence,” Deutsche Welle, 22 August 2013).

[28] Patricia O’Toole, A President Speaks Out on Immigration, The American Scholar,

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Parke Nicholson

Parke Nicholson was previously the Senior Research Associate at AICGS. He was selected to participate in the Munich Young Leaders 2016 program at the 52nd Munich Security Conference. Previously, he worked at the Center for the National Interest and the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2008, he served on the foreign policy staff at Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters. He has also worked abroad in Austria and Germany: in 2005 through the Fulbright Program in Klagenfurt and in 2010-2011 as a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow working in the German Foreign Office for the Coordinator of Transatlantic Cooperation and for Daimler AG’s Political Intelligence unit in Stuttgart.

Parke has recently published in Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, The Baltimore Sun, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He received his MA in International Relations from The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University and a BA in History and Violin Performance at The College of Wooster in Ohio.