Muslims in Germany – Between political Islam and discrimination

By Michael Laubsch

Photo Credits: Csaba Peter Rakoczy

The number of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey in Germany is increasing, with the German Office for Migration and Refugees counting around 30,000 more asylum applications in the reporting year 2022 compared to last year. “The Balkan route is open again,” is often quoted.

At the same time German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) seems to ignore possible challenges resulting from those numbers, especially with regard to the so-called “political Islam” and possible supporters, who entered the EU-countries. She decided to end the work of the “Expert Group on Political Islamism” (EPI), set up under her predecessor. The group’s main task: knowledge about the influence of political Islam and the structures of its increasing influence. The “Office for the Protection of the Constitution”, Germany’s interior secret service, classifies around 28,000 people in Germany as potential Islamists, including representatives of legalistic Islamist organizations.

Those organizations do not violently increase their influence, but rather act on the cultural-political level and are often involved in refugee aid. Every Muslim or Muslim-oriented refugee in Germany can become a victim of his influence or come under pressure from fundamentalists.

But there is another side of the medal, showing not the “woke face” with tolerance and ignoring possible threats for our multi-cultural society in the 21st century. For a few weeks now, Germany’s largest mosque in Cologne has been allowed to sound the muezzin’s call over two loudspeakers. And for conservative politicians it is once again a welcome opportunity to pull the old wishful thinking of the Christian-Jewish Occident out of the box. Veterans of the conservative CDU justify their rejection of the Cologne pilot project with the point that “we don’t have an Islamic, but a Christian-Jewish cultural tradition”. But the story of an idyllic Christian-Jewish tradition is a bit, how should you put it: a rather one-sided affair. Sure, if you put aside centuries of exclusion and pogroms that ended in crematoria, the conservatives might agree. The suspicion arises that they want to smooth over Germany’s past in order to give Muslims their place.

However, longing for a society without Muslims is not just a Christian issue. The Jewish publicist Henryk M. Broder sees the muezzin call as a breach in the dam and warns of a “surrender in installments” to Islam: “Get ready for the daily muezzin, he will come,” he prophesies. There are also critics in their own ranks. The Muslim author Ahmad Mansour accuses the Germans of naivety in dealing with the Cologne mosque. He criticizes the muezzin’s call because he finds expressions like “Allah is great” and “Come to prayer” dangerous.

Actually, it’s about something else. About the question of what role the religions of the majority and minorities have in public. And it’s about the law: Following the debate about the Cologne muezzin call, many Germans remember the crucifix dispute in Bavaria in 1995. Three families went to the Federal Constitutional Court to take action against the crucifix on the wall in the classroom – with success: The court declared the mandatory affixing of the cross in the Bavarian school regulations to be unconstitutional, which triggered outrage in state politics. Dismayed by the decision, the then Bavarian CSU Prime Minister Stoiber announced: “Crosses belong to Bavaria like the mountains. Whoever wants to ban Christian symbols from the public, hits the lifeblood of our culture.” This brings us no longer to the question of religious freedom, but to the question of a culture of dominance and the privileges of the established according to the motto: “We Christians were here before you.” For the incumbent CSU country chief Söder, Christian values are “reasonable even for those who are not believing Christians or of the Christian faith”.

But it is not only about the “Christian values”, promoted by German conservatives and right-wing politicians. Ignoring the social situation of Muslims living in Germany leads not only to segregation, to a feeling not being part of the society, but it is also the chance for extremists from the Islamic fundamentalist faction: Mahmud fled the Kurdish part of Iraq with his wife and two children back in 2017 and lives in Cologne now. He says: “We came under more and more pressure at home, I’m secular, my wife is a converted Christian, we didn’t force our children to follow any religion.”

Now in Germany, bureaucratic hurdles stand in the way of employment in his old job as a health inspector or as a translator – he speaks five languages – because certificates are missing or have not been recognised. He has to renew his residence permit every year, and he has bad memories of the refugee home of confinement, inadequate hygiene, and arguments.

“Perfect conditions for extremist, fundamentalist ideas to thrive,” says Mahmud. “If you’re not treated like a human being, it’s not a long way to social hatred.” He recalls regular outside visitors in the camp, who preached the virtues of jihad to young Muslims.

His wife and children, who only spoke Kurdish at the time, were bullied by another man: Why don’t you speak Arabic, the holy language of the Quran? And his then nine-year-old son was made to recite the Islamic creed by a classmate in the welcome class at school.

Mahmud’s analysis after five years in Germany: Germany’s treatment of many migrants creates fertile ground for Islamists, to whom German politics is also quite blind.

“On the one hand, I’m surprised that a body like the Expert Group is being abolished, because there’s a lot of talk about growing Islamic extremism. On the other hand, I experience that there is a great deal of ignorance about Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why the state treats them with a shrug of the shoulders or even tries to get close to conservative to fundamentalist Islam perceived worldwide as a “symbolic victory”.

“I couldn’t stay in my country because of the conservative Islamic culture that prevails there,” says Mahmud. The reputation made him fear what else could be enforced in Germany in the future. “The Islamists are all about pushing boundaries, and the more you approach them, the more they want to take.”

Even if the claim of religious plurality hangs at the top of the church bells, in reality, Germany is a long way away from equal rights for Muslims. Nowadays, it is not the Jewish synagogues anymore, but the mosques that are viewed critically by large parts of the population. At the time, the head of the Jewish community in Frankfurt also got involved in the debate about the construction of the Cologne mosque: He defended the project on the grounds that he recognized a similarity in the argumentation patterns of the anti-Semites of the time and those of the Muslim enemies today.

A mosque is of great importance for the life of believers: it is a place where people pray together, where people meet and where they also cultivate social contacts. A muezzin call, on the other hand, is purely symbolic. The ritual of the public call to prayer is not mandatory in Islamic tradition and is adapted to the region and location.

Apart from the muezzin, the main problem is still that German mosque communities and Islamic associations are financed by donations and funding from abroad, such as the Turkish or Qatari government. Anyone who is afraid of muezzin calls spreading should know that most of the three thousand mosques in Germany are not located in the city center or residential areas, but in busy places such as industrial areas or next to sewage treatment plants. Even though imams have recently been trained with public funds at the Islamkolleg in the German city of Osnabrueck, according to a study by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, more than 90 percent of the imams working in Germany come from abroad. You don’t have to be a religious Muslim to realize that the promise “Islam belongs to Germany” from 2010 by the then Federal President Christian Wulff has not yet been kept.

A Muslim-sounding name is enough to feel the social double standard firsthand. For a study, the economist Doris Weichselbaumer sent 1,500 fictitious applications to companies to find out that female applicants are confronted with significant disadvantages if they have a Turkish name and present a photo with a headscarf. It is occasionally reported how Muslims are discriminated against in everyday life.

No, a muezzin call in Cologne-Ehrenfeld will not change that. And of course there are Muslims who celebrate the muezzin call on the street as a stage victory. However, most Muslims in Germany don’t really care whether the muezzin can be heard or not. For some, their muezzin app, which calls out of their smartphone a few times a day, is enough; the others only pray during Ramadan anyway, if at all.

It is obviously easier for Muslims and for the majority of society to get involved in a sham discussion about muezzin calls than to tackle the real challenges facing Muslims in Germany: challenging threats against Muslims and the whole society by Islamic radicals and the legalistic Islam together with the still ongoing discrimination of Muslims in a country like Germany.

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