By Christopher Caldwell
Published: June 26 2009 19:42 | Last updated: June 26 2009 19:42
When Wolfgang Schäuble convoked a multi-year “Islam Conference” in 2006 to ease relations between German society and its Muslim minority, the interior minister made a statement – “Islam is a part of Germany” – that was viewed as a groundbreaking and generous concession.
Today it looks more like a statement of the obvious. At the final session of the conference on Thursday, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) released a study on “Muslim Life in Germany”. It found that there are vastly more Muslims in Germany than most specialists and pundits had assumed. Where most estimates held the Muslim population at around 3m, the more comprehensive BAMF study places it around 4m, and possibly as high as 4.3m. That means Muslims make up not 4 per cent of the population, but 6 per cent.
Does this matter? Of course it does. The new numbers are grist to the mill of those who say the authorities have not been straight with them about the scope of immigration. More important, the size of a community affects a country’s options for integrating it. The bigger it is, the harder it is.
Against this, the BAMF study offers one basic reason for optimism: diversity. We should think not of a monolith of millions of like-minded newcomers but of a mosaic of communities, 10,000 here, 10,000 there. If Germany’s Muslims cannot agree among themselves, then how, in the end, can they develop a loyalty or allegiance to anything other than the German state? The multi-facetedness of German Muslim life is an implicit rebuttal of the sense that Muslims are “taking over”.
But there is a problem. Relative to that of other immigrant countries, Muslim life in Germany is not diverse. Almost two-thirds of German Muslims (2.6m) are of Turkish descent. No similarly preponderant national-origin or linguistic group exists among, say, Sweden’s or Italy’s immigrants. A third of Germany’s Muslims live in one state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and 98 per cent live in the former West German Länder.
What is more, Germany’s immigrants of Muslim background are religious in a way that natives are not. According to the BAMF study, 87 per cent describe themselves as either very religious or rather religious; 81 per cent obey Islamic dietary laws and 31 per cent of women wear the headscarf. Only 4 per cent describe themselves as not religious at all.
No Muslim communities diverge much from this religiosity, though the report draws comfort from the fact that Iranians (70 per cent believers) are not quite so religious. Muslims, whether they are one community or several, have certain shared values they can be expected to pursue – and are entitled to pursue – in the public sphere. A lot of important political questions today, from gay marriage to sexual education, revolve around how deeply religious principles ought to inform public law. How diverse, politically speaking, will German Muslims be?
While Mr Schäuble’s Islam Conference can be applauded as a gesture of welcome, its focus on the diversity of Muslim communities is beset with contradictions. If Islam in Germany is as diverse as the BAMF report says, then why is a big national initiative the right way to deal with it? And what is the desired outcome?
A conclave such as the Islam conference tends to elevate the invitees to semi-official status as community representatives. This gives them a strong incentive to forge a “Muslim community” where none existed. The lesson of decades of such conferences from the US civil rights movement is that they make the groups they deal with less diverse.
Necla Kelek, the Turkish-born sociologist and essayist who was a member of the Islam Conference, believes that the failure of immigrants and their descendants to integrate is “becoming the central problem of the entire society”. She cites some astonishing numbers about immigrants’ tendency to marry within their ethnic group. Only 8 per cent of Turkish men who grow up in Germany marry German women and only 3 per cent of Turkish women who grow up in Germany marry German men. In a speech last month, she placed the blame on the Muslim extended family. “What a lot of people here in Germany view as a model for security and mutual care,” she said, “often comes at the price of individual autonomy.” Freedom means freedom to practise Islam.
We should listen very carefully to such descriptions as Ms Kelek’s. A common stereotype about the particular difficulties of assimilating Muslim immigrants is that they come from a repressed culture and have trouble getting used to western freedoms. But that is not it. The Muslim way of life in Germany, Kelek warns, rests on a vision of freedom, different though it is from Germans’. Fifteen per cent of Muslim parents, the BAMF found, keep their daughters out of sexual-education classes. What should be done about that? The report recommends Überzeugungsarbeit – an effort to convince traditionalists of the error of their ways. Should the state compel families to send their daughters to sex-ed? If so, who has the problem with liberty?
This is why the size of immigrant communities is important. It is not that Muslim efforts to Islamise local institutions, where they occur, are fanatical. It is that they are natural, sensible and in line with western democracy. Most people want a society that reflects their values. The problems with Islam in the west are something more complicated than problems of oppression. They are problems of freedom.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. His book, ‘Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West’, was published in May
More columns at www.ft.com/christophercaldwell
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009