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Dispelling the Myth of 'Parallel Societies': Are Berlin's Muslims a Model for Integration?

By Siobhán Dowling in Berlin

Far from living in closed-off communities, Muslims in Berlin's Kreuzberg district live in a culturally diverse area. However, a new report finds that they still suffer from high levels of discrimination, particularly within the city's school system.

Young women wearing headscarves in Berlin. Zoom
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Young women wearing headscarves in Berlin.

Berlin's Kreuzberg district has a reputation for vibrancy, creativity and multiculturalism. Yet in the public imagination there is often a flipside to the area's cultural diversity with a perception that its large Turkish and Muslim populations live in " parallel societies," cut off from their ethnic German and non-Muslim neighbors and enclosed within their own communities.

A new report from the Open Society Institute (OSI) takes some steps to dispel this notion. This week, the organization released its "Muslims in Berlin" study -- with Kreuzberg firmly in the spotlight -- and the findings point to a decidedly positive story of integration.

The report is part of the organization's "At Home in Europe" project -- which focuses on 11 cities in Europe with sizeable Muslim populations, including Paris, Marseille, London and Amsterdam. The OSI, a non-profit founded by billionaire financier George Soros, aims to protect and improve marginalized communities as part of its stated mission is to work toward "vibrant and tolerant democracies."

The OSI's report on Berlin paints a picture of the city's Muslims that runs contrary to many public assumptions. "The district of Kreuzberg is a shining example of different cultures and different values co-existing successfully," project leader Nazia Hussain said ahead of the launch on Tuesday in Berlin.

Muslims make up roughly one-third of the population in Kreuzberg. And the report found that most share very similar concerns with their non-Muslim neighbors, that the groups have frequent contact with each other, and that the district experiences a high level of cooperation between local politicians and Muslim organizations. However, members of the Muslim communities do continue to suffer from discrimination despite a plethora of projects and initiatives.

Battling Discrimination

The researchers spent two years interviewing 100 Muslims and 100 non-Muslims on a range of issues. While the majority of the Muslims were of Turkish background, there were also interviewees from Iraq, India, Afghanistan and other countries. The non-Muslims were mostly ethnic Germans, though other nationalities were represented in the group. In addition, the researchers spoke to focus groups and held round-table discussions with local politicians and representatives of Muslim organizations.

What emerges in the report is an image of Muslims who are striving to establish good relations with their neighbors and participation in their local community while battling discrimination in the job market and at school because of their religion and ethnic background.

Most surprising perhaps is that the day-to-day concerns and problems of Muslims and non-Muslims did not differ greatly. "They found it important that their children gain an education, one that is of a high quality, that the streets are safe, that people get along well with each other and that there is contact with the other communities," Nina Mühe who headed the research project, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The Muslims particularly appreciated that there were not only many Turks or Muslims in Kreuzberg but many other types of people, and that the diversity was seen positively by non-Muslims. While the Muslims interviewed felt welcomed in Kreuzberg, they were often uncomfortable leaving the district, saying they felt more conspicuous for various reasons such as having too many children, or being perceived as too loud, or for wearing a headscarf.

Such concerns are reflected in the number of Muslims who said they identified with Kreuzberg -- 84 percent, compared to 76 percent of non-Muslims. This dipped slightly when it came to the city, with 72 percent of Muslims and non-Muslims alike identifying with Berlin, while only 40 percent of the Muslims and 52 percent of the non-Muslims identified with Germany. Despite the fact that half of the Muslims interviewed had German citizenship, only 11 percent felt that they were perceived as being German by others.

Nevertheless, what may surprise those who like to speak of parallel societies when it comes to the issue of Muslims in Europe was the level of contact Muslims and non-Muslims say they have with each other on a daily basis. There was relatively strong interaction between the groups. In particular, 80 percent of Muslims saying they had daily or weekly contact with people from different ethnic and religious groups. "When it comes to Kreuzberg we can refute the idea of a parallel society as it is usually understood," Mühe says. And while the groups said that they did not necessarily feel they shared the same values, there was a high level of trust between the groups and 80 percent of Muslims and 88 percent of non-Muslims said that neighbors were ready to help each other.

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2010
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