Germany has welcomed more than a million refugees and asylum seekers from Muslim-majority countries since 2015, more than any other European country. The issue of their integration has provided fodder for far-right voices in German politics, who used incidents like the 2016 attack at Berlin’s Christmas market and New Year’s sexual assaults in Cologne to suggest that Muslim newcomers are a threat to Western society. At the height of Europe’s refugee crisis, the extremist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) polled at 15 percent, drawing heavily on fear of refugees and rhetoric against the “Islamicization” of Germany.
But this isn’t the first time Germany has experienced a large Muslim influx. Before 2015, Germany was already home to some 4 million Muslims, mostly Turks who came 60 years ago to help rebuild the country after World War II. Many are poorly integrated into German society, living in social enclaves within big cities where they speak more Turkish than German and attend mosques run by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), an organization linked directly to Turkey’s government authority for religious affairs.
The preexisting Muslim community has had limited contact with the wave of newcomers. Churches and secular organizations run most of the shelters and relief programs, while many refugees don’t even go to mosque, saying that those at Arab mosques are too conservative while those at Turkish mosques speak a different language. Refugees I’ve spoken to complain that preexisting mosques’ members are overbearing and that the teachings there are irrelevant to their concerns: integration, trauma, and finding footing in a new society. They say older Muslims in Germany focus too much on identity politics and self-victimization, perhaps because they’ve felt like alienated minorities for decades. Many newcomers haven’t abandoned their culture or their faith, but they don’t want to hear this talk when they’re busy trying to fit in.
During Ramadan last month, 27-year-old Avin Alyusuf and her 28-year-old husband Rezan Dersewi walked into the Iftar hall next to the Cologne Central Mosque, pushing their baby daughter in a stroller. It was two hours before sunset, but the room was already set up for breaking fast, with several Turkish women hovering over large vats of rice intended for hundreds of attendees. Turkish and German flags hung from the ceiling. Alyusuf and Dersewi, two Kurds who’d fled Qamishli, Syria, and came as refugees to Germany two years ago, approached one of the Turkish women.
“I want to know if there are classes for women at this mosque,” Alyusuf said in halting German. The Turkish woman frowned, confused. Alyusuf threw out words in Arabic and German, making signs with her hands: “Quran, classes, mosque, Arabic?” The Turkish woman called a man over to speak with the Kurds. He gave Alyusuf and Dersewi a card for the mosque. “Call this number and ask them tomorrow,” he said in German.
“Danke schön,” Dersewi said. The Kurds passed a large group of women in hijabs as they walked out. Alyusuf glanced at them and shook her head. “All Turks,” she said. They wouldn’t be able to communicate.
Alyusuf and Dersewi had come to the Turkish mosque because they’d heard it was one of the biggest in Germany. Ever since they came to Cologne, Alyusuf said, she’d been looking for a place to openly discuss Islam without feeling pressured to become more conservative. “I want to find a mosque that’s recognized by Germans, where I’m sure people aren’t extremist,” she said. She’d tried some of the Arab mosques, but felt there was no way she could ask the questions she had there: whether it was all right to take off her hijab, for example, or how to raise her son as Kurdish, Muslim, and German at the same time.
“We’re in 2017. Our religion needs to catch up with the age,” Alyusuf said. “These people are living a thousand years ago. All they talk about is customs and traditions.”
Most of the mosques in Cologne are too identity-driven, Dersewi added. “They are just trying to put more people in their group, and make you just like them.” Maybe they’d return to the Turkish mosque, but only if there was Arabic, he said.
Inside the mosque, refugees and older immigrants—Turks, Arabs, Persians, and others—gathered for the Iftar meal. A call to prayer sounded as everyone was served heaping plates of food, without questions about where anyone was from. One of the Turkish managers waved his arm across the room, telling me in formal Arabic that DITIB was sponsoring this: opening the doors to all kinds of Muslims, refugee or not.
But then a Syrian walked by and laughed, quipping in quick colloquial Arabic, “Why are you asking him about refugees? They’re all Turks. They haven’t been to the camps and they don’t talk to Syrians. They don’t know anything about our problems.” The Turkish man didn’t understand the Syrian’s Arabic.
DITIB is the largest Islamic organization in Germany, with 950 mosques and member organizations across the country. Yet their engagement with the refugee response has been limited because Muslim organizations are smaller and less politically connected than Christian ones, according to DITIB Secretary-General Bekir Alboga. “Almost all support and work for refugees are paid from the government to church organizations. Our financial revenues are much smaller,” Alboga said.
Germany’s Catholic and Protestant churches hold a status called Körperschaft des öffentlichen Recths (KöR), a type of registration that allows them to own land, make government contracts, and even collect tithes through state taxes. Islamic groups, in contrast, are mostly only eingetragener Verein (e.V), a type of voluntary association akin to a tennis club or bridge society. DITIB is trying to found a registered Muslim welfare organization at KöR level, Alboga said, but has not yet been successful. “We want this recognition so we can work with the state, so we are seen as legitimate and not like strangers,” Alboga said.
DITIB is widely viewed as suspicious in Germany because of its link to the Turkish government. DITIB imams don’t have to be German citizens, and they receive direct salaries from Diyanet, the Turkish government’s religious authority. Last year, some DITIB preachers were caught spying on suspected supporters of the attempted coup in Turkey, on behalf of the Turkish government. Yet Alboga insisted that DITIB takes no orders from the Turkish government. As for fostering parallel societies that don’t speak German, Alboga said that the mosque should not be blamed.
“We want all our people to speak German and be German, but we also want them to know the culture and religion of their roots,” Alboga said. “Mosques bring religious and cultural enrichment in an intercultural, interfaith society. If you don’t want that, then you’re asking for assimilation, not integration.”
Yet some Syrians explicitly reject the way Turks interact with German society. In Berlin, Humam Nasrini, a former philosophy professor from Aleppo, leads a group of Syrian refugees who are trying to found a cultural center to better engage with Germans. “We want to do something different from the Turks. We don’t want to be here for 60 years and still be separate from the society,” Nasrini said. The problem with mosques is not religious, he said, but demographic, in that spending time in the mosque means being only with other Arabs, at the expense of German language practice and integration.
The other challenge Syrians face, Nasrini added, is one carried over from the beginning of their revolution: to separate civil identity from religion. “We want to achieve our image of a modern, progressive Syrian society,” he said, “which doesn’t mean being non-religious, but being a civil society. So you can be religious or not, but either way, you should not force or pressure others to be so.”
Few of the existing mosques are open to that kind of thinking, refugees said.
“Most of the Muslims here are closed-minded. They make you hate religion,” said 29-year-old Sowmar Kreker, a Syrian who sought refuge in Jordan before crossing the sea to Germany in 2015. He lives in Solingen, a small town outside Cologne. Resettlement has been good policy-wise, but lonely, he said. Most residents of Solingen are elderly citizens. His landlord is a Turkish man whose wife speaks no German and whose family lives mostly off welfare. Kreker has only been to mosque once, during Eid, but found the message pointless.
“Everyone talks about tradition and social expectations. They don’t talk about faith as faith, faith as real religion,” Kreker said. “How about something that applies to us today? Why not talk about justice, for example? They just say, ‘We are fasting.’ Why? We don’t know, just because we have to.”
Another reason refugees veer away from religion is because for many of them, religion and its politicization are linked to deep and ongoing trauma, said Elke Heller, a Berliner who runs an integration project in the Karow neighborhood. “It’s something that separates them. It’s the elephant in the room,” Heller said. “Imagine if you have Yazidis living with Arabs, and they’ve just fled from an ‘us versus them’ situation. They try not to touch this for a long time.”
Many people are praying daily for relatives under siege who are suffering from bombings, hunger, and terror. They do not care to hear politicized rhetoric about what religion should force you to do or whether your religious identity makes you good or bad, in or out. There’s a man in Heller’s area from Khan Shaykhun, for example, who lost his family in the chemical attack there in April. It’s agony for him just to be alive, trying to learn German while knowing how his loved ones burned and choked to death.
“Their bodies are here, but their minds are in Idlib, Aleppo, Homs—it’s very difficult. When you go deeper, you hear about brothers who disappeared, mothers without medicine,” Heller said. “They are here, they are in peace, yes, and the birds are singing, but they don’t hear the birds.”
While many refugees ignore the preexisting Muslim community, religion has caused problems within some refugee communities, especially in concentrated environments. The newcomers have been in Germany for almost two years, yet many are still living in makeshift shelters. Hundreds of asylum seekers are crammed into flimsy rooms separated by curtains in large conference halls, or are living in trailer camps in suburbs.
Nayer Incorvaia, an Iranian German who came as a refugee 30 years ago, directs a refugee camp run by a Christian nonprofit in the Pankow area of Berlin, where she said some of the ultraconservative refugees had demanded separate food lines for men and women. “I didn’t want that, because my job is to integrate them in this country,” Incorvaia said. “We’re in Germany, so we want to have German values, especially on freedom and women’s rights.”
When Incorvaia insisted that the men and women in the shelter mix, tensions arose. Just two or three men were pressuring all the others, she said. “They were putting guilt on people, like, ‘You are a Muslim, why act like this?’” In the end, those refugees were sent elsewhere. The other camp residents moved into trailers.
When Incorvaia came to Germany at age 13, she said, she didn’t speak in school for a year. “I was really rejected. I didn’t want to learn or be German. I hated it,” Incorvaia said. She only embraced Germany when she met some Christians who treated her kindly. “They were nice to me. I wanted to drink tea in big cups because they drank tea in big cups. They liked me, so I wanted to be like them,” Incorvaia said.
While refugees should learn and accept German standards of civil rights, Germans should help integrate newcomers by not treating them as a distinct demographic group, Incorvaia said: “When you say, let’s make a special prayer room for Muslims, that’s the kind of ‘tolerance’ that still makes them foreign, special, not ‘part of us.’ As long as you look at them as Auslander [foreigner], they won’t be integrated.” In this regard, she worries especially about young, single, male refugees.
“When you feel rejected, you become radical,” she said. “If they are not accepted, if no one talks to them on the U-bahn, then radicals will come and say, ‘Be part of our group.’ Then bam, you have terrorists.”
Although feeling rejected by no means necessarily leads to radicalization, Incorvaia’s message is that the threat to German society and to refugees themselves is not Islam, but the refugees’ loss of identity. One resident of the Pankow camp, a single 24-year-old Afghan, spent three months trying on different alter egos, Incorvaia said. One day he’d wear all pink with purple hair; the next he’d walk around in a suit like a businessman. He’d blast hip-hop music in the camp and refuse to speak Persian. Then he suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized. “He tried so hard to be German that he became like a chameleon and collapsed,” Incorvaia said. In the hospital, he showed her burn marks on his arms. “I can’t find myself,” he told her.
That case was extreme, Incorvaia said, but it’s this kind of alienation that might make refugees vulnerable to radical groups’ recruitment. Most refugees in Germany are more concerned with integration and survival than with religion. Many are currently trying not to become like the older Muslims, avoiding mosques because they feel no sense of belonging there. Yet that same estrangement could also render newcomers susceptible to non-integration and withdrawal into a parallel society later, if they don’t find the answers they seek within mainstream German society. “They will integrate wherever they find acceptance,” Incorvaia said.
Reporting for this piece was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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