‘Diversity’ and its pitfalls: The role of Muslim representatives in German parliaments

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Ahead of this year’s federal election in Germany, it is worth taking stock of the current assembly and its composition. More particularly, given the particular focus on issues of immigration and integration in the election campaign, the number of Muslim representatives it is worth scrutinising. To what extent do German Muslims actually have the possibility to contribute politically to debates and legislative reforms on issues that their own community will be most affected by?

A growing number of MPs of ‘migration background’

When it was elected in September 2013, the 18th Bundestag, as it is referred to in official nomenclature, was the most diverse in the Parliament’s recent history: of its 630 members, 5.6 per cent or 35 MPs had a ‘migration background’. In German parlance, this refers to an individual that is either an immigrant or has a at least one parent born outside of the Federal Republic.1) http://www.migazin.de/2013/09/24/bundestag-abgeordnete-mit-migrationshintergrund/

This represents a marked increase over the previous legislative period, in which only 3.4 per cent of representatives had such a background. At the same time, these numbers remain a far cry from the 19 per cent of the overall German population who have at least one parent born abroad.2) http://www.migazin.de/2013/09/24/bundestag-abgeordnete-mit-migrationshintergrund/

A higher number of Muslim representatives

A similar picture obtains with respect to Muslim representatives. The number of Muslims living in Germany is an unclear – and, by now, politically contested – figure; yet some estimates put the number of Muslims living in Germany at the moment of the 2013 federal election at roughly 4 million, equivalent to 5 per cent of the country’s population.3) http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/umfrage-zahl-der-muslime-in-deutschland-wird-deutlich-ueberschaetzt/10975728.html

At the same time, only roughly half of Muslims living in the contry also held German citizenship in 2013. A fair share of these two million Muslim citizens will, furthermore, be underage and thus not hold the right to participate at the polls. The Federal Office of Statistics thus estimated in 2009 that only 750,000 German Muslims were eligible to vote.4) http://www.huffingtonpost.de/yasin-bas/parteien-islam-muslime_b_9819518.html

In spite of this, the Muslim share of the German population is still underrepresented in parliament: a mere eight of the current Bundestag’s members are of Muslim faith, making for slightly less 1.3 per cent of parliamentarians. At the same time it is worth noting that the number of Muslim MPs more than doubled in comparison to the previous session of parliament (2009-2013), which included only three Muslims.5) http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/abgeordnete-im-neuen-bundestag-fieser-freiherr-trifft-film-kommissar-1.1798554-4

Split along party lines

With four of their 63 lawmakers adhering to Islam, the Greens supply the largest number of Muslim parliamentarians. One of the party’s leadership figures, Cem Özdemir, had, in 1994, become the country’s first Muslim MP.6) http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/abgeordnete-im-neuen-bundestag-fieser-freiherr-trifft-film-kommissar-1.1798554-4

A very vocal presence has been the first ever Muslim member of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Cemile Giousouf. Nevertheless, in terms of their voting behaviour and political affiliation, German Muslims have traditionally been closer to the Social Democrats than to the Conservatives; a fact potentially influenced by the working-class background of many of the so-called ‘guest workers’.7) http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/migranten-und-politik-diese-parteien-waehlen-einwanderer/14851994.html

As Euro-Islam reported, a group of Turkish Muslim politicians is currently seeking to challenge this status quo, by building a Muslim platform within the CDU. Whilst offering potential electoral gains by increasing the Conservatives’ share of the Muslim vote, their initiative has been viewed with some suspicion by the party leadership.

Divergences at state level

Data is much harder to come by for Germany’s 16 state parliaments, let alone for local administrations. Browsing through the lists of state representatives published by the respective assemblies, however, confirms the broad trends observable at the national level.

Policy-makers of an immigrant and/ or Muslim background tend to fall on the left of the political spectrum. Often the roots of their political activism lie in the labour movement. What is more, a glance at the list of elected decision-makers from the urban city-states of Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen – all traditional strongholds of the left – consistently (and perhaps unsurprisingly) show higher levels of MP diversity.

Conversely, the parliaments of the traditionally conservative, territorially larger and more rural states of the German south such as Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria scarcely contain members whose names do not strike the voter as immediately ethnically German.

Interestingly enough, this pattern is replicated in the capitals of these two states, Stuttgart and Munich, in spite of the fact that these two cities are among the most ethnically diverse in the country. Low degrees of representativeness of immigrants and Muslims cannot, therefore, be simply a function of an lower share of immigrants and Muslims in the population at large.

Going beyond mere numbers

The number of Muslims and persons of different ethnic backgrounds in state and federal parliaments is, undoubtedly, important. These figures do offer important insights into the dynamics that allow or disallow all sectors of the population to participate in political life. In this respect, obvious deficiencies are apparent: Germany’s parliaments are clearly do not ‘represent’ – in a very basic sense of the word – the diversity of the country’s population.

Beyond that, however, we may also ask what the Muslim members of parliament actually do. In this respect, it is striking – even though again not necessarily surprising – that many of them fill the offices of ‘commissioners for immigration’ or ‘integration ombudsman’ or other ostentatiously ‘diversity’-oriented positions.

To be sure, this is nothing to object to in principle: it seems logical to entrust for instance issues of migration to people who, perhaps because of their own biography, might have an affinity and a passion for the issue at hand. In a political climate in which voices from all sides of the spectrum talk of ‘integration of Muslims’, it is key that a Muslim voice is also heard in the relevant governmental departments; otherwise, the conversation becomes one that is always about Muslims but never involves them as actors.

Poster children of ‘diversity’

Yet this lopsided participation of Muslim and immigrant representatives in governmental functions also seems indicative of a dynamic in which all those whose names and physiognomy indicate ‘diversity’ are first and foremost shunted into departments and positions in which they deal with ‘people of their own kind’.

On this somewhat unkind but arguably realistic appreciation of Muslim representatives positioning on the political scene, mere numbers are not necessarily indicative of equal participation. Surely many of Germany’s aspiring Muslim politicians or even politically interested youth would be interested in pursing other political offices not oriented towards ‘diversity’.

No hijabs to be seen

Finally, in none of Germany’s parliaments there are female members wearing the hijab. In part, this is undoubtedly due to the abovementioned fact that leftist parties are more likely to include Muslims (or women, for that matter). Conceivably, the secularist views of left-wing parties’ female Muslim members mean that they are simply less likely to wear the headcovering.

At the same time, the saga of judicial wrangling about issues of ‘state neutrality’ has been long and is ongoing. Consequently, prohibitions on the display of religious symbols in some domains of the public sector are in force in some of Germany’s federal states. Against this backdrop, a hijab-wearing MP would be a major challenge to the status quo.

In 2014, Muslim associations reported with contentment that a female Muslim student wearing a headscarf had completed an internship in the Bundestag office of her local Conservative member of parliament.8) http://islam.de/24212.php Whether she and other young Muslim women will be able rise to the position of MP in the future remains to be seen.

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