BERLIN (AP) — Shop signs in Arabic and Turkish, storefront mosques and women wearing headscarves in the streets are evidence of how new arrivals have found a slice of home in Berlin’s heavily immigrant Neukoelln neighborhood.
For years, Germans viewed such neighborhoods as a sign of a tolerant, multicultural society. But the Nov. 2 slaying of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh allegedly by an Islamic radical has raised alarm in next-door Germany, which is home to more than 3 million Muslims.
Fears that growing alienation between immigrants and majority Germans could lead to strife have prompted politicians including Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to send a message to Muslims immigrants: Learn German, fit in, commit to democratic rules.
In Neukoelln, where 80 percent of elementary school students are not German, some civic leaders say the debate underscores something they have said for some time: Immigrants are not going to conform to mainstream German society over time.
“Pointing out the problem doesn’t make you a racist,” said Leopold Bongart, who has taught German language courses in Neukoelln since the 1970s.
“We told ourselves that the process in many ways would take care of itself. That hasn’t worked.”
The government wants to counter the trend with a Jan. 1 legal change that presses immigrants and their children to take German language and civics courses, and makes it easier for authorities to deport Islamic hate preachers.
Days after someone firebombed a mosque in southern Germany, Schroeder warned Nov. 21 against letting Van Gogh’s killing trigger a “battle of cultures” between Muslims and Germans. Muslims, he said, must do their part by standing up “for our legal system and our democratic rules of play.”
More than anything, politicians and law enforcement officials worry that Muslims who reject German culture are more susceptible to radical Islam — a fear stoked by the fact that three of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots lived and studied in Germany. One politician has urged that imams be required to preach in German to help authorities keep tabs on them.
Germans would like to see more Muslim immigrants like Alev Ozbingol, 22, who recently left Turkey to join her Turkish-born husband in Berlin and look for a job.
“There was a time when there were a lot of jobs where you didn’t need German,” she said during a break in her language class. “Nowadays you do.”
And in response to Van Gogh’s stabbing on an Amsterdam street — Van Gogh was an outspoken critic of Islam — German Muslims recently organized a demonstration in Cologne that drew 25,000 people.
But 40 years after Turks first flocked to then-West Germany to help power the postwar economic boom, many immigrants in the big cities continue to live largely isolated from mainstream German society.
“The main ethnic groups have built complete infrastructures, from kindergartens and stores, lawyers, travel agents, banks to doctors for old-age care,” Neukoelln district Mayor Heinz Buschkowsky said.
He cautioned against equating that with rising Islamic extremism.
“This re-Islamisation, it’s also an aid for many who feel disoriented in the new society,” Bongart said.
Social problems run deep in Neukoelln, an inner-city mix of old tenements and new housing projects just 3.5 miles south of the Brandenburg Gate’s tourist bustle.
Amid the Turkish coffeehouses and Arab jewelers, the jobless rate is 23 percent, and 70 percent of non-German youths only finish junior high school or drop out before. Both figures are far above the national average.
Buschkowsky says it’s time Germany made a new push to reach out and integrate its Muslims.
“Those who feel shut out,” he warns, “become easy prey for hate preachers and criminal groups.”