Clash of cultures

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2007, 12:00am

Just how much Islam can a liberal western society accept?

It's a question Germans, concerned by sporadic violence and unrest involving Muslims in neighbouring European countries, are asking more frequently these days. And as Germans attempt to sketch out the limits of tolerance towards the Islamic faith, they are also starting to demand the growing number of Muslim citizens make a greater effort at integration into their society.

Recent history suggests it's likely to be a bumpy and difficult journey for both sides. Whereas many Muslim immigrants and their offspring seem unwilling or unable to embrace modern Germany's customs - refusing to send their daughters to co-ed sport classes, for example - German residents in the Bavarian city of Munich have actively been opposing the construction of a new mosque near a Catholic Church.

But few incidents have highlighted secular Germany's struggle to reconcile its liberal traditions and tolerance with Islam so well as a decision earlier this year by a female judge in Frankfurt.

Judge Christa Datz-Winter rejected a speedy divorce for a German-born Moroccan woman on the grounds that verses in the Koran permitted domestic violence. The woman had been repeatedly beaten and abused by her husband. Even after they had separated, his abuse, including threats to kill her, had continued.

The judge was apparently attempting to be culturally sensitive. 'For this culture, it is not unusual that the man has a right to punish the woman,' she wrote. 'Though born in Germany, the plaintiff must have been aware of this when she married the defendant, who was raised in Morocco.'

The judge was eventually removed from the case, but not before the incident had caused such an uproar that even Germany's normally sober Der Spiegel magazine ran an issue titled 'Mecca Germany: the quiet Islamisation'.

The magazine cited other examples, like that of a Lebanese-German sentenced to probation after choking his daughter and beating her unconscious with a bludgeon because she didn't want to marry the man he had picked out for her.

'German society has a lack of self confidence,' said Seyran Ates, a prominent Berlin lawyer and integration proponent. 'It needs to stand up for its own values. It's not about pushing for assimilation or provoking xenophobic sentiments.

Germany hasn't yet experienced widespread unrest like that caused in France by immigrant North African youths, faced race riots involving Pakistanis as has Britain, or even dealt with the level of intercultural violence seen in the Netherlands. But that's not to say the country's 3.4 million Muslims - 4.2 per cent of the total population of 82 million - are all integrated members of society.

Clearly sensing it was better to take action before the situation deteriorated to the extent it has elsewhere in Europe, the German government decided last autumn to hold a reoccurring 'Islam Conference' in an attempt to strengthen the dialogue with the country's Muslims.

Only recently has a majority of Germans come to accept their country has become a multicultural one. Many Turkish 'guest workers', who came to help drive West Germany's booming economy in the 1950s and '60s, set up their own parallel societies in many cities. While most now consider Germany home, plenty of second and third-generation Turks born near the North Sea or at the foot of the Bavarian Alps refuse to give up their Turkish passports for German citizenship.

It's a pattern replicated to a lesser degree by the other smaller communities of Bosnians, Moroccans, Iranians and Afghans. Few, however, live in neighbourhoods as depressing as France's banlieue (outskirt) suburbs, where disgruntled youths with North African roots rioted last year and last week protested against the election of French conservative Nicolas Sarkozy as president.

Berlin's colourful Kreuzberg neighbourhood might not exactly be like a Turkish bazaar, but it's about as close as you can get in Germany. The district's numerous Turkish residents for the most part mix easily with other immigrants and Germans who cherish the multicultural atmosphere there.

However, there are also countless establishments with glaring fluorescent lighting where Turkish men drink tea, talk and play tavla among themselves. Many of the patrons - German residents for decades - speak either broken German or none at all. More than a third of Kreuzberg's population do not have German citizenship and school officials there have been known to tell German parents to enrol their children elsewhere, lest they be the only pupils speaking the national language.

More that 90 per cent of Germany's Muslims come from outside the Arab world, which may have shielded the country somewhat from the sort of Islamist extremism extolled by the likes of al-Qaeda. But Germany's domestic intelligence agency does keep tabs on several groups, including the ultraconservative Turkish Islamic group Milli Goerues.

In the past, however, Germany has proven a convenient haven for Islamist terrorists. Several of those directly involved in the September 11 attacks in the US lived and studied in Hamburg for years. That knowledge, along with deadly bombings in London and Madrid, served as a grim wakeup call for the German authorities that they perhaps needed to pay closer attention to their own Muslim community.

The government hopes to avoid conflicts both big - such as Islamist terrorism - and small - everyday integration problems - through increased dialogue with the Muslim communities.

Part of the desire for greater communication is cultural: German society loves nothing more than working towards a consensus. It's partially why the country is hit by fewer strikes than other major European economies. Trade unions and employers here engage in marathon negotiations to hammer out wage agreements usually long before they descend into labour unrest. However, the countless official commissions and committees meant to discuss a myriad of issues can also appear to paralyse Germans from taking action.

That appeared also to be the case after the latest round of the Islam Conference. Ayyub Axel Koehler, chairman of the German Muslim Council, expressed concerns about future meetings. 'It can't go on this way, simply debating without

a goal. We need a road map,' said Mr Koehler, a German who converted to

Islam in 1963.

But is it even possible for a western democracy to reach a consensus on such seemingly inflexible aspects of Islam as sharia law? Members of a newly formed Co-ordination Council bringing together Germany's leading Muslim organisations failed even to have all participants agree to the basic German 'values' that a working committee had drawn up.

Many object to co-ed sports classes at schools or demand the right to wear a headscarf while teaching at a public institution - two points many Germans consider non-negotiable.

Aware of the large gap between the two sides, Mr Koehler stressed that Muslims remained committed to further dialogue: 'The conference is a process, a very important process, that we have to continue.'

There's also a clear split in German society on how, or even whether, to accommodate other cultures. The heavy burden imposed by the country's Nazi past has made many Germans overly keen to appear tolerant. But there are at least as many who bristle when they are confronted with the foreign.

Such a view was demonstrated by the Frankfurt case. 'It's hard to understand how a judge can make a decision like that in Germany. It stems from a naive, excessive tolerance,' said Ms Ates, who was born in Istanbul but moved to Berlin with her parents when she was six. Ms Ates has also criticised the justice system's sporadic tendency towards light sentencing for Muslim men convicted of so-called honour killings of female relatives.

At the other side of the spectrum are initiatives by Germans to block the construction of mosques where they deem them inappropriate.

In Cologne, a town meeting descended into ugly recriminations and outright prejudice when discussing the plans for a large mosque.

And in Munich, a group led by 67-year-old Bavarian woman has led the fight to stop the local Turkish community from erecting a house of worship on a pleasant square opposite a Catholic church. The Muslims in the neighbourhood currently pray in an old furniture warehouse.

'If they had respect for our indigenous culture, then they would abandon their intention and pick one of the many alternative locations,' said Helga Schandl, spokeswoman for the anti-mosque initiative Citizens for Munich.

In both cases, the municipal governments have supported the Islamic religious organisations' plans to build, but the message from some Germans is clear: you can worship as you please just so long as it's done out of sight and we don't have to hear the muezzin's call.

And that's a point that hasn't gone unnoticed by some commentators.

'Of course, as a non-Muslim one can demand Islam rid itself of violence, anti-Semitism, patriarchal tendencies, extremism, and laziness before it's truly welcome here,' wrote Nils Minkmar in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung. 'But such demands would be more convincing if we ourselves had these things completely under control too.'

Minority report

The percentage of Germany's population of 82 million who are Muslims. Most are of Turkish origin and have been in Germany for decades. There are also smaller numbers from Bosnia, Morocco, Afghanistan and Iran 4.2%