Germany's identity debate bodes well

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

BERLIN - Early last month, a German judge provoked an outcry by citing the Koran as grounds for denying a divorce to a German Muslim woman whose husband beat her.

Last week, Der Spiegel ran a scare story on the case with a cover showing an Islamic crescent rising over the Brandenburg Gate. But the most fascinating aspect of the case was neither the clash between liberal Western and conservative Muslim values nor the misplaced multiculturalism of the judge.

The most gripping element was that the judge's ruling drew outrage not only from women's groups and politicians, but from Muslim leaders as well.

Germany - like most Western European nations - is wrestling with how to integrate its growing Muslim population. The issue has become more intense since Sept. 11; Mohamed Atta organized the plot from Hamburg.

Germany's population of 82.4 million includes a Muslim minority of 3.2 million to 3.5 million, the largest in Western Europe after France. And the numbers are steadily rising. But the intense public debate here on issues of identity, religion and belonging makes Germany's prospects for coping seem more promising than France's.

About three-quarters of Germany's Muslims, including most of the 800,000 who have become citizens, are immigrants from Turkey and their descendants. (Only about 5 percent are of Arab origin.) Turks came as guest workers in the 1960s and 1970s, and stayed.

Unlike the Algerian immigrants in France, Turks come from a country that was never colonized by Europeans and looks to join the European Union. Turkey has not been convulsed by Islamism, and has not exported such thinking to Germany.

Unlike the ugly concrete suburbs of Paris known as banlieues, where North African Arabs are stashed and angry youths riot, Berlin's Little Istanbul neighborhood in the central district of Kreuzberg feels peaceful. It is filled with Turkish restaurants, bakeries, and travel agencies hawking cheap fares to Turkey. Older men in baggy pants and knit caps followed by elderly wives in scarves and long black coats speak Turkish. But you hear ethnic Turkish parents speak German to their children.

But even Little Istanbul has serious problems. Most Turkish immigrants come from rural Anatolia with a village outlook that keeps women in thrall. Second- and third-generation men bring over young wives from Anatolia who speak no German. Many Turkish and other Muslim children do badly in school.

Germany only recently admitted that it is an immigration society in which citizenship does not depend on bloodlines. In the United States, hyphenated Americans are the norm, but the concept of hyphenated Germans is new.

Wolfgang Schauble, the interior minister in Germany's conservative government, is wrestling with how to create immigrant loyalty to the liberal values of the German state. He has started the German Conference on Islam, which brings leaders from Germany's organized Muslim religious groups and independent Muslim personalities together with government representatives to discuss controversial issues such as the wearing of head scarves, religious education, and the training of Muslim imams.

Schauble wants to institutionalize such dialogue. German officials are nervous about the possibility that Turkey may one day enter the European Union.

"In the next 30 years we may have 6, 7 million Muslims," says the Turkish German writer Zafer Senocak, who writes about the difficulties young Muslims have in bridging the gap between life in Germany and Islamic upbringing. (One of his essays is titled "Between the Sex Pistols and the Koran.")

"Schauble is trying to bring Muslims into the discourse and to show them they are part of society," Senocak told me. "But how can Schauble change Muslims? Muslims must change themselves."

Other prominent Muslims argue that Schauble's effort mistakenly aims to find a few religious representatives who can speak for all Muslims. "This is not realistic," says Omid Nouripour, one of a handful of Muslim members of the federal parliament. Germany's Muslims come from many different backgrounds, he points out, and only about 20 percent are mosque-goers. "The key to modernizing Islam is to keep pluralism. If you push them together, the one face will be orthodox."

All these criticisms are no doubt true. But what strikes me in Germany is that the debate is out in the open, with many Muslim groups taking part, including the Muslims who opposed the judge's ruling as contrary to the German constitution (the Frankfurt court ultimately removed her from the case).

This debate is healthy. The way toward integrating Muslim immigrants into European countries will be rocky. But only if the myths on all sides are confronted can progress be made.



Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at trubin AT





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