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

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.
Von Siobhán Dowling
Young women wearing headscarves in Berlin.

Young women wearing headscarves in Berlin.

Foto: ddp

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.

'Stigmatization, a Lack of Challenges, Low Expectations'

The report cites the creation of the Islamforum in Berlin 2005 as a positive development in promoting participation in civic life. The forum provides a platform for representatives of Muslim organizations to meet with politicians representing the disctrict and the city on a regular basis. Those interviewed said they saw more possibility of having an influence on the local politics in Kreuzberg than on a city or national level.

Yet this isn't just a rosy picture of successful integration. Muslims in Kreuzberg face regular discrimination in their daily lives. Almost four in five of those asked said they had been subjected to at least one incident of racist discrimination in the previous year; and 74 percent had experienced religious discrimination. The most common complaints were related to education and the labor market, as well as the housing market.

The first instances of discriminations many Muslim children face is dealing with the prejudices of their own teachers. The system is already stacked against them because many with immigrant backgrounds are brought up in a language other than German. In school, they are often steered toward the Hauptschule, the lowest of the three-tier German schools in an education system based entirely on tracking, rather than the vocationally oriented Realschule or the university preparatory Gymnasium. Mühe says that teachers' negative images of Islam is often projected onto the children, who become victims of "stigmatization, a lack of challenges and low expectations."

Barriers in Education and Jobs

Many of the Muslims interviewed thought that a better mix of Muslim and non-Muslim children would lead to an improvement in education and regretted that ethnic Germans sometimes moved out of the area when their children were of school-going age or chose to send their children to schools outside Kreuzberg.

Parents also voiced concerns about the particular discrimination faced by girls who wear headscarves. They expressed a perception that teachers often assumed they were oppressed or less intelligent and that they did not get as much attention as other pupils for that reason.

The issue of headscarves also created barriers for Muslim women on the labor market, according to the report. In 2005, the city of Berlin implemented the Neutralitätsgesetz, or Law on Neutrality, which bans the display of religious symbols in schools and other public services. This has effectively led to a ban on the wearing of headscarves by public employees, effectively cutting off many potential career paths to some Muslim women. To add to this, the OSI report found that there was evidence of a knock-on effect, with similar discrimination against women who wear headscarves in the private sector. One of the report's key recommendations is that Berlin politicians take another look at the law in view of its discriminatory affect.

A Positive Example

Another recommendation made in the report is that the city introduce better documentation of cases of discrimination, particularly in schools, so that children have somewhere to turn to if they run into prejudice or negative stereotyping.

One criticism of the report is that it chose to focus on Kreuzberg, which has a relatively affluent and tolerant population, compared to other poorer districts in Berlin with large Muslim populations. Neighboring Neukölln to the south and Wedding to the north, for example, are often described as "problem districts" and also have more diverse Muslim communities, compared to the predominantly Turkish population in Kreuzberg.

Mühe says that the choice of Kreuzberg was deliberate. "Kreuzberg has many very positive political measures, many positive attitudes, where diversity and the acceptance of diversity are an example for integration." She hopes that the positive experiences there could be applied to other districts and areas in Germany.

"Perhaps Kreuzberg could serve as an example for how we view our society. To help us answer the question of what it means to be German, what it means to be a Berliner," Mühe says. "Do I have to be ethnic German or can I be someone with a Turkish background who wears a headscarf and still be a perfectly ordinary German?"

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