Sunday, 5 September 2010

Islam, Integration and the West

A new discussion over the integration of immigrants has broken out in Germany in recent days; set off by a book published by a social democrat member of the board of the Bundesbank (Germany’s central bank). In it, Thilo Sarrazin argues that Germany is facing major problems because of immigration, in particular because of Muslim immigrants. They are not interested in integration, they form a counter-culture which has no interest in accepting the values of the country in which they live, are interested in taking as much as they can while giving as little as possible and are going to outbreed the Germans.

Sarrazin’s arguments are badly researched and many of them are just plain wrong – for example, his thesis that intelligence is genetically determined, more, that this genetic determination has a racial basis. He has been roundly condemned by the whole political and public establishment, it looks like the German president, Christian Wulff is going to fire him from the board of the bank (something that’s legally complicated) and the social democrats (SPD) are getting ready to throw him out of the party.

There’s one problem with the whole affair. Opinion polls reveal that somewhere between a third and a half of all Germans agree substantially with the man, or at least feel that his opinions don’t warrant him being sacked. Obviously Sarrazin has touched a nerve among ordinary Germans. This is one of the things which makes established politicians so nervous about him and which has caused near unanimity to break out between all the main political parties. The shadow of the swastika is long indeed.

So, is Germany experiencing a reawakening of Nazi sympathies? I don’t think so. Uneasiness about immigrants with an Islamic background is widespread throughout Western Europe; in December last year the Swiss approved by referendum a prohibition of minarets, France has banned the hijab in schools and hospitals, and the party of the Dutch populist, Geert Wilders, running on a radical anti-Islam programme won over 15% of the vote in the recent general election, becoming the third biggest party in the Netherlands.

So what we are seeing is a general European phenomenon, rather than a resurgence of Nazism in Germany. And, if I am to be honest, spiting my deeply held liberal principles, there’s a part of me that understands it, dare I say, even sympathises with it.

Remscheid, the town in which I live, has around 15% non-Germans, by far the largest group being Turkish and this figure does not include the large number of second and third-generation Turks who have German passports. There is a sizable area of the town frequently called “Little Anatolia,” where the proportion is much higher, and walking the main streets you sometimes have the feeling that every second woman is wearing a long coat and a headscarf.

I don’t think that Germany has a general problem with the integration of immigrants. The repeated waves of Gastarbeiter since the late fifties, who came to work and stayed to live from countries like Italy, Spain, Greece, former Yugoslavia, Portugal, have largely fitted into German society, the second and third generations mostly feeling completely at home here. The last wave of immigrants, those claiming some kind of German ancestry, from Eastern Europe and the former USSR in the 80s and 90s is also – with a few exceptions – finding its place within society. Many Turkish immigrants have also integrated themselves into the wider German society; Lower Saxony recently got its first government minister (a woman at that) with a Turkish background, and Cem Ösdemir, the son of Turkish immigrants, is the chairman of the Green Party. Such examples, as well as the thousands of lawyers, journalists, engineers, businesspeople, etc., make a nonsense of Sarrazin’s racial intelligence theories.

But there is also a large group of Turkish (and, to a lesser extent, Arab) immigrants who are not integrated and my view is that much of this has to do with cultural factors, where Islamic identity seems to play a large part. Most of these come from areas in Eastern Anatolia where the culture is deeply traditional, conservative and patriarchal. Arranged marriages are common in this group, frequently involving a spouse from the native village back in the homeland.

This can, and often does have worrying consequences. Young men, who have grown up in Germany, are married by their families to younger women, who come to Germany without any knowledge of or preparation for life in a very different, complex, western society. They don’t speak the language and are completely dependent on others for survival. Their children grow up in households where little or no German is spoken and the main child-rearer knows nothing of the culture in which they all live. The children start school and are immediately at a disadvantage because they don’t speak or understand the language well and their mothers are unable to help them with homework – are, indeed, frequently unaware of the problems which are growing. The kids perform badly at school, have increasingly meagre prospects in our competitive societies and, by the time they are teenagers, already have the feeling that they are losers. And this, in their view, is the fault of the host society, which discriminates against them, which offers opportunities but then says that they are excluded from them. And so a pool of angry young men forms, full of wounded pride, machismo and inferiority complexes – fertile ground for extremist Islamicist recruiting agents. Remember the recurring riots in the Paris suburbs? The three Al Qaeda members convicted in London last year in relation to the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot all grew up in the UK.

This is only one description of the many mechanisms behind alienation and failed integration for, as Oscar Wilde once commented, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.” In fact, this is one of the major problems in most of the public discussions concerning Islam and integration, the subject is complex and many-layered, with failures, prejudices and misunderstandings on both sides. In this respect, simplified and simplistic sound-bite discussions such as those sparked off by Sarrazin are – at the very least – counterproductive.

But I have stated that part of me even sympathises with some of the critical popularising theses being bandied around with relation to Islam, immigration and integration, and I feel the need to explain this. There are aspects of Islamic teaching, or at least the cultures with an Islamic background, many of whose immigrant representatives claim are Islamic teachings, which I find both personally offensive and incompatible with basic values of western societies – values such as secularism, pluralism, separation of church/mosque and state, equality, respect for the positions of others, the rights of women. There is a difference between a grudging acceptance of secular values in society in which one is a minority and the positive affirmation that the separation of religion and state is superior to systems regulated by Sharia – including societies in which Muslims form the majority. I find it offensive as a man to be told that a woman should cover herself in swathes and layers of clothing and veils so as not to arouse my baser instincts. I do not think that it is right for a first-grade boy to tell his teacher that she has no right to tell him to do anything because she is only a woman and I do not like the fact that children are being brought up with such attitudes in thousands of families in the society in which I live and whose values I cherish. I find it reprehensible that teenagers are married off to others who they do not know because their fathers order it. I have little sympathy with attitudes which do not place a high priority on obtaining basic competence in the language of the country in which one lives. I actively dislike a religious teaching which denies basic rights to non-believers (apart from some exceptions for Jews and Christians, the other “peoples of the book” – and what is my position, as an “apostate” ex-Christian in such a world-view?).

Western society poses a major challenge for Islam. But that challenge is not to the existence of Islam as such, but rather to develop an enlightened, sophisticated, modern view of itself as part of the contemporary world, in confident, secure dialogue with society; contributing to its richness but also learning from its diversity and insights. This process is not easy for any religion; although the Enlightenment (the intellectual source for most of the agreed values of modern western society) originated within Christian culture, the Christian religions have themselves had major difficulties in finding their place within pluralist, secular systems – the Catholic Church needing around 200 years before finally making general peace with “liberal” views of society with the publication of Gaudium et Spes, “The Constitution on the Chruch in the Modern World” as part of the Vatican II process in the 1960s (and there are not a few voices, within both Protestant and Catholic fundamentalism which continue to reject secular values).

If people with an Islamic cultural background are to find an enduring comfortable place within societies which are predominantly non-Muslim, then there is an urgent need for an enlightened, moderate, open interpretation of Islamic teaching, which can represent them and enter into dialogue with their host societies, which can claim authority and the high moral ground in speaking for Islam and not leave this position free for simplistic, fearful, aggressive fundamentalism. There is a challenge to western society to critically examine itself with relation to questions like tolerance, prejudice and openness to others – but this is a continual challenge to open societies everywhere with respect to all sorts of issues; the challenge to self-examination and continuous critical dialogue. But the challenge to Islam is just as great – to show that it can be a part of complex modern society, to positively affirm tolerance, multiplicity and the other Enlightenment values and find justification for them within its own religious context. And to take on and defeat in argument and debate the simplistic, simple-minded fundamentalists who claim to represent the teaching of Muhammad and the Muslim traditions. A moderate, open expression of Islam which speaks for, and is seen to speak for the vast majority of Muslims.

Sarrazin continues to make waves in Germany. In a poll published today, 18% of Germans said that they would vote for a new right-wing populist party led by him (such a party, fortunately, does not yet exist). This tendency to simplistic, slogan-driven, right-wing populism is worrying. It has broken out in many European countries, including the Netherlands and the UK in their most recent general elections and can be seen as the European expression of the Tea Party movement in the USA. We need them all about as much as we need a repeat of 9/11. And if the majority of decent people world-wide don’t resist their siren calls, promising easy solutions appealing to our baser nature, we’ll get both. Or worse.

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