Muslims in Germany: The long road to acceptance and the ‘integration’ paradigm

In an article appearing on Qantara, Deutsche Welle‘s online platform seeking to foster cross-cultural dialogue with, broadly speaking, the Islamic world, journalist Tonio Postel takes stock of Muslim life in Germany between participation and exclusion, integration and Islamophobia.

Growing participation of Muslim migrants in society

The exercise is a welcome one. Given the plethora of more or less informed daily commentary on the issue, as well as the large number of (often contradictory) scientific studies on German Muslims appearing at ever-increasing frequency, some analytical clarity is badly needed.

The general picture Postel paints is a positive one. Quoting renowned researcher Yasemin El-Menouar, he concludes:

“The overall trend is clear and Muslim migrants are moving further into mainstream society with every generation. The speed of this process depends not just on migrants’ willingness to integrate; the educational system and labour market policy also factor in.”1

Educational and employment also play a part where Muslim populations fail to participate in social structures and institutions – mainly in underprivileged urban centres that have suffered from de-industrialisation.

As the German manufacturing economy went into crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, many of the so-called ‘guest workers’ lost their jobs: they had toiled in the factories whose production was now being outsourced to East Asia; or in the iron and coal mines that were closing down for lack of profit. They subsequently remained stuck in degrading urban areas with high poverty levels, few social services, and rising crime levels.

De-Islamicising migrants

These elements provide a helpful corrective that manages to ‘de-Islamicise’ migrants to a certain extent. While guest workers as well as their children and grandchildren (who often hold German citizenship) were perceived as ‘foreigners’ until the turn of the millennium, in recent years migrants have been overwhelmingly cast in the role of ‘Muslims’.

This does not necessarily square even with the crudest empirical facts: the men, women and children who arrived mainly as refugees in the years 2014-2016 were consistently presented as a thoroughly Muslim group in public parlance; yet in fact only half of them were at least nominally of the Islamic faith. (Beyond that lies the much more complex question what importance that faith actually has for the individuals sweepingly subsumed under the ‘Muslim’ category; an issue that is barely ever considered.)

Labour market dynamics and social class

Taking concrete aspects of social life – such as educational attainment or labour market participation – into focus, the obvious becomes clear: migrants and their descendants are not only ‘Muslim’, forming an exceptional social group uniquely defined by their religion. Rather, their lives are shaped by dynamics that affect society as a whole.

Here, the variable of social class plays undoubtedly a significant role: it is not only former guest workers who were hit hard by the industrial transformations of the late 20th century. As the rising vote share for the far-right AfD party in former socialist strongholds in the Ruhr area attests, white blue collar workers have beenjust as vulnerable to the decline of the coal and steel industries.

The ‘integration’ paradigm

Nevertheless, what is missing in the general debate – and here Postel’s article for Qantara forms no exception – is a genuine reconceptualization of these overarching social dynamics. It is still ‘Muslims’ as a group that are the object of concern; and they are still presented as requiring ‘integration’ into ‘mainstream society’.

The existence of this ‘mainstream society’ is always taken for granted; what remains unclear is who is included in that designation. The German word most often used to render the notion of ‘mainstream society’ is actually Mehrheitsgesellschaft – ‘majority society’. This term evokes quite explicitly evokes an image of a social body that is divided into a white-German majority and its minoritarian, ethnic ‘other’.

‘Majority society’

Yet the division of society into these ethno-religiously charged categories of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, with the latter gradually catching up with the former, may not make much sense. To return to the example of the AfD-voting former blue collar steel workers: Are they part of ‘majority society’? Or are they excluded from it by their inferior social status?

In fact, the ‘majority society’ journalists and academic experts conjure up in their articles for high-brow newspapers may turn out to be much smaller than they would like to think. In a society increasingly riven by value-based and distributional conflicts, their perception of their own majoritarian position may reveal itself to be nothing more than what Pierre Bourdieu once termed the “ethnocentrism of dominant groups.2

Broadening horizons: a ‘post-migrant’ society

If this is indeed true, what is required is a radical break with the commonplace language centred on the notion of ‘integration into mainstream society’. In particular, the concept of ‘integration’ – much more prevalent in German political and scientific discourses than their Anglo-American counterparts – is irredeemably associated with an outlook that conceives of Muslims as a monolithic problem group, standing outside of real society and requiring assimilation into it.

What scholars such as Naika Foroutan have sought to highlight, however, is the reductionist nature of this paradigm. Foroutan and others have called for a social theory and political practice adapted to the ‘post-migrant society’ (postmigrantische Gesellschaft) – a society that is marked by experiences of mobility and migration, yet where the cleavages between ‘autochthons’ and ‘migrants’ are no longer the only salient social divide.

Speaking about the necessary priorities for Germany’s new government, Foroutan asserts that

“the most important thing is that in the coming years we no longer think only of migrants [when talking about] integration. I wish for a perspective that is unequivocally ‘post-migrant’, in which the federal government no longer focuses only on migrants but also on those groups that are weak, that are becoming alienated from state and democracy because they lack all opportunities for social advancement. The government would need to become cognisant of the fact that integration is a job for the entire society today.”3


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  2. Bourdieu, Pierre (1987). “The Force of Law: Toward a Sociology of the Juridical Field”. The Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 38, p. 847.