Religiosity, integration, participation: new survey on the attitudes and experiences of citizens of Turkish descent in Germany

A research unit dedicated to the study of the interaction of religion and politics at the University of Münster has published the results of a survey in which a sample Germany’s population of Turkish descent was asked to assess their own situation in the country.1 40 per cent of respondents were born in Germany; 36 per cent hold German citizenship. The survey reveals a general trend towards more participation and success in German society while also highlighting generational divergences, as well as tensions surrounding issues of social acceptance and religiosity.

Empirical findings: social participation and the perception of religiosity

While 90 per cent of the 1200 respondents assert that they feel at home in Germany, more than half do not feel socially accepted. However, this feeling cannot be traced back to material or socioeconomic factors: 44 per cent of respondents are of the opinion that they ‘receive their fair share’ compared to their fellow citizens – a percentage equal to that of West Germans and higher than the level of satisfaction in the former East, where more citizens feel disadvantaged. Indeed, numerous social and economic indicators point to higher participation levels of the second and third generation: only 13 per cent of the later generations have no secondary school qualifications (compared to 40 per cent of their parents), 94 per cent attest themselves a high level of fluency in the German language (compared to 47 per cent). A large majority of second- and third-generation (Muslim) Turks has contact with Christians and Germans on a regular basis, in contrast to their parental generation.

What is lacking even among the later generations, the head of the survey team, Detlef Pollack, notes, is “the feeling of being welcomed and accepted”. This is closely connected to the drastically diverging views on Islam held by persons of Turkish descent and by the rest of the German population. While two thirds of the former assert that Islam ‘fits’ into the Western world, close to three quarters of the overall German population think the opposite. Turkish respondents perceive Islam as peaceable (65 per cent), tolerant (56 per cent), respectful of human rights (57 per cent), and solidary (53 per cent). In the general population, only 5 to 8 per cent of respondents associate Islam with such positive qualities; yet 82 per cent of the German public sees Islam as connected to the oppression of women, 72 per cent as related to fanaticism, and 64 per cent as linked to a propensity to use violence. Among Turkish respondents, only 20, 18, and 12 per cent connect Islam with these negative characteristics. Interestingly, Turkish respondents had an equally high opinion of Christianity as they did of Islam. In this last respect, they mirror the positive picture the overall German population has of the Christian faith.

The research team at the University of Münster thus argues that “the problems of integration can mostly be found at the level of perception and acceptance. It is as important that the population treats immigrants with appreciation as it is [for immigrants] to find an apartment and job.” Since from the perspective of the Muslim minority Islam is a religion that is under assault and that needs to be safeguarded from injury and prejudice, a protective reflex appears to be especially strong among members of the second and third generations: only 52 per cent think that they ought to adapt to German culture (compared to 72 per cent of their parents). Conversely, 86 per cent of the successor generations believe that they ought to stand by their origins – a higher degree of self-assertion than among their parents (67 per cent). Among the second and third generation, Islam has become a prime marker of identity and belonging: their levels of religious observance are lower – they are less likely to go to the mosque or to engage in personal daily prayer than their parents. Yet nevertheless, the later generations see themselves as more religious than do their parents (72 compared to 62 per cent).

The question of ‘fundamentalism’ and the reception of the study in the media

However, the study also warns that attitudes and views indebted to a ‘fundamentalist’ understanding of Islam are widespread, with half of respondents asserting that ‘there is only one true religion’, and with 47 per cent among them deeming it more important to abide by the commands of Islam than by the laws of the state. 36 per cent are convinced that only Islam can solve the demanding problems of our era, and a third believes that Muslims ought to return to the social order of the time of the Prophet. However, the survey again reveals a generational divergence, with 18 per cent of first-generation respondents espousing a firm fundamentalist worldview according to the study’s criteria, compared to only 9 per cent of their children and grand-children. It also appears that the study might not be fully immune from criticism with respect to its classification of ‘fundamentalism’ – many ‘moderate’ Christian believers would surely think it more important to abide by the (moral) commands of their faith than by the laws of the state, to take just one example. In any case, it would remain to be seen what Muslim/ Turkish respondents deem to be the relevant ‘commands of Islam’ that it is worth forsaking the state’s legal framework for.

Almost as interesting as the actual results of the survey were the ways in which different voices in the media chose to present the survey responses. The university’s own press release opened with the header ‘Half of people of Turkish descent do not feel accepted’; and the liberal left-leaning Die Zeit followed this interpretation by titling ‘German Turks feel integrated but on the sidelines’2. In contrast to that, the headline of the conservative daily Die Welt stressed the finding that ‘Nearly Half [of Turkish immigrants] think that the commands of Islam are above the law’3. Focus magazine titled ‘Those of Turkish descent closely connected to FRG, Islam more important than laws of the state’4, and Der Spiegel opened with the title ‘Study: Young Turkish-Germans behave more and more religiously’5. The Bavarian public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk opted for an even more brisk yet sensationalist tone by titling: ‘Qur’an instead of Basic Law’6. Most media outlets did then go on to present the more nuanced findings in the body of their articles; yet their initial framing of the topic was predominantly threatening and negative.

This does not bode well for the university researchers’ appeal that state and civil society institutions ought to foster more contacts between Muslims and non-Muslims. Whilst Muslims need to address the hard-line tendencies within their own communities, they ought to receive support for their quest and understanding for their often difficult position, or so Detlef Pollack argued. The fact that his survey has given “a more positive picture of the personal circumstances of persons of Turkish descent living in Germany than one would expect given the prevailing state of the discussion on questions of integration” does perhaps offer some rays of hope.

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  1. A brief overview of the study’s main findings (in English): The full results of the study (in German):