BERLIN — Is Islam part of Germany? How well integrated are Muslims in our society? There's no topic polarizing public discussions more than the one at the heart of these questions.
Considering the large number of Muslim refugees who have recently arrived, people are increasingly skeptical, especially since past experience has shown that Muslim immigrants have a harder time integrating in Germany than other groups. Some 50 years after the arrival of the first guest workers from Turkey, one third of the ethnic Turkish population in Germany lives below the poverty line.
There are of course a handful of artists, entrepreneurs and politicians of Turkish origin who have had impressive careers. Yet success stories such as these belie the fact that disproportionally many German-Turks struggle with social advancement. Although they are often part of the second or even third-generation living in the country, Germans of Turkish origin still lag behind their peers from other major migrant groups when it comes to education levels and vocational qualifications.
And this issue isn't limited to Germany. In other European countries, too, Muslims trail behind in the employment market. That's true for the Turks in Germany and in Austria, as well as for the North Africans in France and Belgium, and the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Britain.
Dutch migration scientist Ruud Koopmans, who lives in Berlin, believes that more than discrimination, a lack of willingness to adapt to the different culture of the adopted country is to blame. His studies reveal that Muslims tend to keep to themselves more than other groups of immigrants, moving to specific neighborhoods and effectively creating ghettos.
Communication problems shape everyday life, especially since these communities' preferred newspapers and TV shows are often in their native language rather than the local language. Friends and acquaintances usually belong to the same ethnic group, as do husbands and wives, who often follow from the home country.
Especially when it comes to the role of women, there is a major, persistent culture clash at play. Compared to native French, British and German women, fewer immigrant Muslim women work outside the home. This helps explain why they frequently miss out on interactions with locals, which take place more naturally for most other foreigners. As a result, integration for the next generation does not become any easier.
It all starts in school
Most of the Muslims living in Germany who have successfully climbed the social ladder either have turned their backs on problematic immigrant neighborhoods, or have not grown up there at all. But too many others are trapped: Children who attend the same kindergartens and schools as other immigrants are often denied the opportunity to properly learn German.
That's fatal. Because the key to successful integration lies not with the job market, but with the educational system. Studies have shown that in classes in which more than 40% of students have not mastered the German language, the quality of teaching drops significantly.
German Quran — Photo: Shia-forum
The stakes are high for everyone. In order to prevent children – with or without a foreign background – from dropping out of school, it's crucial to focus on improving the retention rate of Muslim students.
Influential education experts now recommend that teachers use fewer specialized terms in class, out of consideration for migrants. However, instead of lowering standards for all students, educators should be reinforcing language instruction in kindergartens and primary schools, so that each child gets the same opportunity for education and learning. Nobody will benefit on the job market if education standards are lowered.
Canada offers an example of successful integration of foreign children in its educational system. New immigrant minors must go through an intense language program that starts immediately upon their arrival. Of course, the fact that their parents usually have benefited from a solid education themselves, and often already speak English or French, helps. And unlike in Germany, the number of immigrants is pretty stable in Canada, which makes it easier for schools to plan ahead.
In Germany, local educational institutions have been overwhelmed lately by the sudden surge in the number of refugees — and it is often unclear which of the immigrants will ultimately be allowed to stay. But in order to improve the educational opportunities for those who do stay, refugees must be settled in equal numbers all over the country, because it has already become clear that certain ethnic groups prefer to congregate in specific cities.
That's where the planned law for integration starts. But without the support of those directly concerned, it will be very hard to permanently settle groups of immigrants in certain locations; there is a real danger of new ghettos emerging.
But perhaps the most important question concerns the role of women. If immigrant women don't succeed in assimilating in Germany, it is unlikely that their children will, either. Too much well-meaning tolerance harms not only Muslims, but society as a whole.