In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, many Germans grew distrustful of the millions of Muslims living here. The news that a Hamburg-based terror cell planned the attacks only served to fuel those sentiments.
“Just after the attacks, the atmosphere here was very tense,” recalls Nadeem Elyas, who heads the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. Not a day went by, it seemed, without new reports of people and mosques connected with the Hamburg group that plotted the deaths of thousands in the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the four hijacked planes used in the most deadly terrorist attack ever.
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“Many Muslims were threatened — even with death threats — people were cursed at on the streets, and children and women with head scarves especially suffered.” The threats weren’t just directed at people, but also at numerous German Islamic institutions. In some incidents, radicals attacked mosques.
“Those incidents happened directly after (Sept. 11); and afterwards there was a big wave of solidarity that gave us hope,” Elyas recalls. Greater interest in Islam followed that wave, with Germans seeking to learn more about their Muslim neighbors.
Building a cultural bridge
That interest sparked a number of projects that sought to build an intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Churches, communities and universities organized speaking circles, forums and podium discussions with Muslim guests.
Suddenly, Germans began to take a closer look at their neighbors, including the 3.2 million people of Islamic faith living here. For more than four decades, Muslims — largely from Turkey — have established lives and families in Germany. Though many came as immigrants themselves, a good percentage of the country’s Muslims are children of workers who came to Germany to help rebuild the country after World War II. More than 300,000 of Germany’s Muslims are also citizens.
But much of the interest focused on radical Islamic terrorism in the name of Allah rather than the daily lives of Germany’s Muslims. And that’s a trend that gets under the skin of many young Muslims in Germany.
“I’ve noticed that this has awakened an interest that’s going in the wrong direction,” comments a Muslim pedagogy student in Cologne. “We’ve been living here for 40 years, we Muslims, maybe even longer, and everything that’s being shown in the media is stuff that has no place in Muslim culture: words like ‘terror’ and ‘bombing attacks.’ They aren’t actually showing what actual Islam is about.”
A religion under investigation
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the German government strengthened its domestic security laws in order to make it easier to catch potential terrorists before they act. Initially, the Central Council of Muslims supported the legislation — including measures to investigate students in Germany with Arab origins. But now Elyas is critical of the actions of some security officials.
“There have been an unceasing number of mistakes,” Elyas says. “Mosques have been searched during Friday prayers, mosques have been searched with boot-wearing officials, sometimes in the middle of the night.” He said such incidents created a “difficult situation” for Germany’s law-abiding Muslim residents. “They ask themselves why they are forced to suffer. Just because we’re Muslim? Despite the fact that we stand behind this nation and its constitution?” He added that the searches had weakened German Muslims’ level of trust in the government.
In the city-state of Berlin, home to 140,000 Muslims, officials have taken steps to avoid similar culturally-insensitive mishaps.
“Here in Berlin we conduct ourselves with a certain sensitivity to this issue,” says Günter Piening, the city government’s commissioner for integration. “Our office also tries to take up these issues through seminars and sensibility training for police. But I also think there’s a huge need for police to deepen ties with the (Muslim) community. That said, given the large and long-term presence of the (Muslim) community here, good cooperation already exists between police and the community.”
Unfortunately, the sensitivity measures taken up by the government often don’t make the leap into German households. Many Germans’ view of Islam is shaded by images of the violence carried out in the name of the religion, the oppression of women in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran and the intolerance shown by religious extremists toward members of other religions or, more generally, Western values. Such images can engender fear and resentment as well as sweeping prejudices about Islam and Muslims.
“They are — well, I wouldn’t exactly say resentments or prejudices — but they are some kind of obstacle that are very difficult for people to overcome,” says Mehmet Aksar, who handles community relations for the Turkish Islamic Culture Association in Bonn. “Maybe we need to help people along.”
Most, by now, have recognized that the two sides must meet each other at the halfway point. It’s also the responsibility of the Muslim community to engage more actively in public life in order to impart their viewpoint.
“My wish would be that the people, especially Muslims, would participate more actively in politics and other issues in order to take their rights more seriously and, perhaps, enforce them,” says Asksar. “Right now nobody’s doing that. People are doing too little to raise attention to themselves. People really need to get much more engaged and do a lot more in order to get ahead.”