The hot-button issue of Muslim integration in Germany

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SHAFAQNA – The topic of integration of Muslims has become a “hot-button” issue in Germany. Many wonder whether people whose roots are in the Islamic Middle East can succeed in integrating. They are afraid of parallel societies and refer to an alleged reluctance of the newcomers to adapt to German society. Immigration and integration were a major topic in the televised election debate between Angela Merkel and the chancellor’s Social Democrat challenger Martin Schulz.

When Turkish immigrants came to Germany as “guest workers” about half a century ago there was no integration policy. Why should there have been? Once the work had been done, they intended to return home. But they stayed, and made their way in German society, without language courses and state programmes, often with good neighbours and personal initiative. Now they have grown-up grandchildren, third-generation Turkish Germans.

Those families are, for most people in Germany, nothing unusual. So can the integration of Muslims in Germany be called a success story? In many areas, notwithstanding the scepticism, integration has made considerable progress, despite the poor starting conditions, according to a recent study by the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Muslims from immigrant families assimilate with the indigenous population across generations in language skills, standards of education and employment rate, in Germany and in other European countries studied.

The integration of Muslims is no different from that of immigrants of other faiths. In Germany this process is working because much has been achieved in terms of integration policy, especially over the past 10 years. Today, children of immigrants have early support to learn German. There are obligatory integration and language courses for adult immigrants.

Another driver of integration is the labour market, because skilled workers are needed, but also because access has been facilitated for immigrants by an accelerated process of work permits and jobs initiatives. Nevertheless, Muslims still often occupy low-paid jobs. The perception of Muslims as being not well integrated, which some people still have, can be traced back to the perception of their religion.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung survey shows that many Muslims in Europe are more religious than other groups. They also retain their connection to their countries of origin over generations. How this is perceived depends on what you understand by integration. For a long time the prevailing view in Germany was that those who come should adapt. That has largely happened.

But Muslim immigrants keep their faith and are also changing Germany more visibly. For instance, there is an increasing number of mosques. For some they are a symbol of a lack of integration. But why? Here we can see the influence of radical Islamists who have shaped a public image of Islam that does not reflect the reality of the majority of Muslims.

Rightwing populists have been able to exploit this. What lessons can be learnt? We should not be misled by extremists or people with a divisive populist agenda. Growing diversity is not a sign of a lack of integration or a risk to social cohesion. It can be a resource, and the Muslim faith, like any other belief or world view, can enrich our country, as long as everyone abides by common rules.

Muslims want to participate, and to be accepted as Muslims — as German Muslims, and the majority of them have a strong connection to our country. Successful integration is not a one-way street: immigrants are challenged by the new society to adapt and to reinvent themselves but also the indigenous population is challenged to take seriously its own claims to plurality. Or more concretely: it depends on the civic involvement of everybody in Germany. We learnt that this is possible in 2015. When refugees of the war-torn countries of the Middle East arrived at German railway stations, they were welcomed by many.

However, there also were — and still are — concerns and fears about whether it will be possible to integrate so many people. But if we look at what has been achieved — often in the absence of integration policy — we can be confident that, given the new projects and measures applied since 2015, that integration of the newcomers will succeed. Integration requires, not least, exchange and understanding.

When various social groups merely live alongside one another it intensifies prejudices. Instead we must be willing to talk with one another about where we are different and about what we share. We have already achieved much of this in Germany — even if we do have a long way to go.

By Yasemin El-Menouar – The writer is a social scientist and project lead for the Bertelsmann Foundation

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