Muslims in Germany Life in a Parallel Society

In Germany, Islam is often equated with fundamentalism and fanaticism, a perception that imposes a heavy burden on the country's 3 million Muslims. Their relationship to Western society is divided between integration and sometimes self-imposed exclusion.

By Norbert F. Pötzl


The name of the salon is German -- Goldene Finger (Golden Fingers) -- but the services it offers are listed in the window in Arabic and Turkish. In the front of the shop, 40-year-old Palestinian Toufic al-Rifae gives men haircuts and trims their beards. Veiled women disappear into a back section behind a curtain, where female hairdressers do their hair and, using thick lines of the traditional Middle Eastern cosmetic preparation known as kohl, apply their makeup in the Arab style.

Diagonally across the street, Ris A, a restaurant specializing in grilled meats, advertises its poultry as "halal," or slaughtered according to Islamic religious rules. The place is reminiscent of a McDonald's fast-food restaurant, with its colorful plastic tables and chairs and tiled floor. In an open kitchen in the corner, 72 chickens are being roasted over coals on a large rotating grate. The name of the restaurant, explains the owner, a 35-year-old Lebanese man, "means in Islam: 'What Allah has bestowed upon me'."

Al Sundus is a shop specializing in "Arab lingerie," Arab water pipes, known as shishas, are bubbling away in the El Salam café and neighborhood bakeries sell rectangular cakes coated in white cream or decorated with bright green pistachios. One Middle Eastern business after another lines the northern end of Sonnenallee, a prominent street in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood.

For some, Sonnenallee is a colorful, quirky shopping street. Others refer to it derisively as the Gaza Strip.

Most businesses that are not in the hands of Arabs are Turkish-owned: Mehmet Özçelik's bakery, which sells sweet baklava; a Turkish Airlines travel agency; the supermarket run by Nazik Balabanoglu and her husband Ergin; the funeral home owned by Mustafa Mutlu, whose employee Islam Cenaze Servisi makes arrangements to send the bodies of deceased Muslims to their native countries or organizes their funerals in an Islamic cemetery next to the grand Sehitlik Mosque on Berlin's Columbiadamm Street. The unemployed Turks killing time at the Taxi Café call the neighborhood "Little Istanbul."

Being able to speak German is not a requirement for daily life in this immigrant neighborhood, where the street scene is one of bearded men wearing knit caps and women in headscarves. Not all businesses are Turkish or Arabic, however. German senior citizens congregate on Tuesdays for dance evenings at Zum Ambrosius, one of Berlin's traditional corner pubs, which seems exotic in this environment. But even this traditional German establishment was recently purchased by a man of Lebanese descent.

Some would call the souk in downtown Berlin picturesque. The Neukölln Museum, an institution run by the district administration, now offers guided tours through the Muslim "kiez" or "hood." Abeer Arif, an Iraqi-born German citizen, is in charge of the "Oriental Tour of Discovery."

But there is also something oppressive and ghetto-like about this Middle Eastern business district in the middle of Germany's most densely populated Muslim neighborhood.

The Neukölln district is home to 300,000 people, and half of them live in the northern part that Sonnenallee runs through. One-third of Neukölln's population are immigrants -- including about 60,000 Muslims, who are concentrated almost exclusively in the northern section.

There are 20 mosques in Neukölln alone, out of about 80 in all of Berlin. Few of these houses of worship are recognizable as such from the outside. Most are reached through gates or rear courtyards, where former workshops and factory buildings have been converted to prayer rooms with colorful patterned carpets laid out on the floor. Sweets, tea and soft drinks are sold in adjacent shops.

Neukölln, like a specimen under a microscope, is proof positive of something that is slowly dawning on the rest of the country: Islam, this mysterious religion, both fascinating and alarming, has gained a foothold in Germany, which is now home to more than 3 million Muslims. But the close proximity between long-established Germans and outlandish Muslims is also a potential source of conflict, triggering resentment and fear on both sides.

Since the religiously motivated terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, many Germans perceive the faith in Allah principally as a threat. There are growing fears that jihadists will begin launching attacks and suicide bombings in Germany, fears fueled in part by repeated warnings coming from German security agencies. Amid such fears, suspicion is easily extended to include the entirety of the Muslim faithful, despite the fact that there are likely no more than a few hundred Muslims promoting terror in Germany.

These suspicions, in turn, prompt many Muslims to feel excluded and rejected by the German majority. Federal Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble sees this as one of the central challenges of integration policy. "Muslims are part of society and our common future," Schäuble, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), stressed at a February conference on the image of Islam in Germany. The difficulty, Schäuble pointed out, lies in the public's growing tendency to equate Islam with fundamentalism and fanaticism.

  • Part 1: Life in a Parallel Society
  • Part 2
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