Germany Grapples with Immigration: As an Influx of Immigrants Challenges What It Means to Be German, Particularly within the Muslim Community, Politicians Fumble with a Potentially Explosive Issue. (World: Germany)

By Nichols, Hans S. | Insight on the News, September 30, 2002 | Go to article overview

Germany Grapples with Immigration: As an Influx of Immigrants Challenges What It Means to Be German, Particularly within the Muslim Community, Politicians Fumble with a Potentially Explosive Issue. (World: Germany)


Nichols, Hans S., Insight on the News


The second most commonly spoken language in Germany isn't French, Spanish or even English. It is Turkish, the language of the 2.5 million ethnic Turks who live and work in Germany as a postwar legacy of its guest-worker program.

Walking along the River Spree into the Kreuzberg neighborhood one immediately notices the warm smell of falafel shops, then the veiled woman hurrying from the grocery while men gather in coffee shops discussing issues of the day. Kreuzberg is to Berlin what Little Havana is to Miami: an island of immigrants in various degrees of assimilation. Many consider themselves German; others have no intention of adopting the culture of their host country and openly oppose it.

To some Germans, this type of multicultural nation is to be celebrated--all the more so, given its past treatment of ethnic minorities. A blessing or not, the existence of a large foreign-born population in Germany causes problems that need to be resolved before they explode.

Germany's first ethnic-Turkish Member of Parliament (MP) is well aware of the many problems unassimilated immigrants pose, and he comes down on the side of the German secular state and assimilation. He is Cem Vzdemir, a member of the Green Party who recently resigned in an unrelated scandal concerning frequent-flier miles. Vzdemir has been a strong advocate both of reforming Germany's immigration laws and taking his fellow Muslims to task for demanding special treatment.

"It is wrong when the administrative court in Berlin says that a girl from a Muslim family can be exempted from sex-education lessons" the ethnic Turk said in a televised forum on immigration. "That is precisely the wrong signal. It is an achievement of Western civilization that girls have the same rights as boys to find out about their bodies. And if we start following the view that they are Muslims, so they have the right to stop their children from having to confront that, we can simply dissolve our common society. Everyone has to obey the rules irrespective of whether they are German or non-German."

The question of Germany's immigrants, in particular its Muslim population, has been complicated and given a sense of urgency since Sept. 11. After all, it was an al-Qaeda cell in Hamburg, where some of the terrorists availed themselves of Germany's generous unemployment benefits, that appears to have been the command center for the entire operation. In August, German officials broke up a money-laundering ring that was funneling cash to Islamist groups in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Even before the terrorist attacks against the United States, the question of Germany's "guest workers" was a major political issue. In April 2001, when Germany was attempting to overhaul its immigration policies, there were many calls to require its 7 million foreign nationals to learn German as a requirement for staying in the country. Memet Kilic, head of the federal advisory council responsible for foreigners, shot back by demanding that German politicians learn Turkish.

The language barrier is a difficult one for the older generation of guest workers. When Turkish laborers were recruited for the car, steel and mining industries, they were offered mostly arduous shift work. At the time, they weren't required to take language courses, nor did their shift schedule make it easy to find the time.

Today, Turks account for roughly 30 percent of Germany's immigrants. Along with the waves of refugees and job-seekers from the Balkans and former eastern European countries, new immigrants are challenging what it means to be German. While the colonial legacies of France and Britain long have inured them to the sight of non-French and non-British communities in their cities, Germany is relatively new to these demographic trends.

Perhaps that is why Germany has made up for lost time and now is the least homogenous country in mainland Europe.

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Germany Grapples with Immigration: As an Influx of Immigrants Challenges What It Means to Be German, Particularly within the Muslim Community, Politicians Fumble with a Potentially Explosive Issue. (World: Germany)
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