Divided by politics, united by the concept of ‘integration’: Two authors’ books cause debate in Germany

For years, ‘integration’ has been an omnipresent concept in Germany’s public debates on immigration and Islam. Even more so than in other European countries, this notion reigns hegemonic in the German context – even if it is mobilized for a range of very different political diagnoses and projects.

Public broadcaster ZDF brought together two of the leading figures in public debates on integration in its Forum on Friday show, a 15-minute debating segment catering to Muslim viewers and Islamic perspectives: Ahmad Mansour, a Palestinian Israeli psychologist and writer, and Aladin El-Mafaalani, a German sociologist of Syrian origin, met to debate their clashing views on the subject.

Two opposing diagnoses on the status of integration

The titles of their recently published books already highlight their opposing stances. Mansour’s Klartext zur Integration: Gegen falsche Toleranz und Panikmache (“Straight Talk on Integration: Against False Tolerance and Panic-mongering”) admonishes German society to deal more harshly with its unruly Muslim minority, whose integration has – by and large – failed in Mansour’s rendering of the story. Pedagogical initiatives as well as a law-and-order approach are thus necessary to impress upon Muslims the ‘values’ of the German constitution: “Integration is not the celebration of differences but the establishment of rules”, Mansour asserts.

By contrast, El-Mafaalani’s Das Integrationsparadox: Warum gelungene Integration zu mehr Konflikten führt (“The Integration Paradox: Why Successful Integration Leads to More Conflicts”) starts from the assumption that integration has been thriving. It is because they are integrated that Muslims are increasingly vocal in voicing social and political claims in public: “Integration means more opportunities of participation”, Mafalaani says. “And that means that there are also more grounds to quarrel.”

Muslims’ failure to integrate

Mansour opens the exchange, observing the superficial state of much of the debate on integration. The reason lies, according to the 42-year-old, in the fact that uncomfortable issues are rendered taboo by a liberal-leftist mainstream.

Many Muslim migrants “reject and hold in contempt the values [Werte] of the German Basic Law”, according to Mansour. Initially leaving these values undefined, he subsequently lists four areas of concern: patriarchal gender norms, the rejection of freedom of religion and freedom of opinion, as well as the repudiation of Germany’s “historical responsibility” vis-à-vis the Jews and the state of Israel. These four issues are traced by Mansour to a particularly retrograde understanding of Islam.

The ambit of the Basic Law

El-Mafaalani rejoins by questioning the extent to which Mansour can claim the mantle of addressing ‘taboo’ subjects: According to him, “there are no taboos anymore” – a fact partly responsible for the present polarized social atmosphere. (The discussion event did indeed take place in the context of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade fair for books, complicating Mansour’s self-representation as a lone fighter for truth.)

El-Mafaalani also criticises his counterpart for his references to the ‘values’ of the German constitution; a manner of speaking which El-Mafaalani deems too sloppy. The ambit of the Basic Law is far-reaching, he points out: Notably, it gives parents wide-ranging freedoms to educate their children as they see fit; it also allows them to hold conservative religious views or to support a foreign president, irrespective of the latter’s anti-democratic leanings. The last point is a thinly disguised reference to German Turks’ real and/or imagined sympathies for the current Turkish leader.

Integration as a source of conflict

According to El-Mafaalani, ‘integration’ should be less about forcing Muslims to adapt to an ill-defined set of convictions stylised as German but rather about enhancing their possibilities of social and political participation.

And, significantly, the participation of a larger number of social groups will, at least in the short and medium term, lead to more social conflict: As minority groups are no longer excluded, they will demand an increased share of the distributional pie – as well as a say in the shaping of what it means to be German. That these claims are sometimes confrontational is unavoidable, according to El-Mafaalani, particularly given the fact that they come after decades of discrimination.

Authors’ conciliatory stance

Despite the almost visceral dislike they have for each other’s arguments, El-Mafaalani and Mansour get on well on a personal level. Consequently, El-Mafaalani defends Mansour from the accusation of catering to the political far right. Indeed, Mansour has joined the ranks of a number of liberal or secular Muslims routinely called upon by right-wing politicians and pundits for seeming to support their political agendas.

According to El-Mafaalani, Mansour’s conclusions about the failures of integration are not per se wrong; yet they apply only to a small minority among Germany’s Muslim population. During the debate, Mansour reciprocates this show of courtesy, albeit somewhat less graciously.

Hegemony of the ‘integration paradigm’

Irrespective of all their disagreements, both authors nevertheless remain firmly committed to the notion of ‘integration’ as such: their debate takes place under the assumption that integration is a helpful analytical term with which to conceptualise issues ranging from education and labour market participation to personal values and convictions.

Yet the term comes with distinctive strings attached. Midway through the discussion, the Forum am Freitag’s host, journalist Abdul-Ahmad Rashid, poses an innocuous question: why, he asks both El-Mafaalani and Mansour, do your books – which purport to address ‘integration’ as a general issue – only deal with Muslim populations? (After all, Muslims constitute only a quarter of the 20 million German citizens and residents who have either migrated themselves or have at least one immigrant parent.)

The shifting sands of integration discourse

This is indeed a notable shift in German integration discourse: During the 1980s and 1990s, it was ethnicities and nationalities that were problematized, with public debates focusing on the (lack of) language skills and educational attainment among, most notably, ‘Turks’ and ‘Italians’.

During the 2000s, however, the focus of the debate changed. Just as the children of the former so-called guest-workers began to catch up with their peers in terms of language and schooling, it was the ‘values’ Mansour is referring to that came under increased scrutiny: ‘Turks’ were now seen as ‘Muslims’; and problems of their integration were increasingly thought of in terms of an Islamic religiosity supposedly alien to a set of norms deemed to be quintessentially German and universal at the same time. (Concomitantly, ‘Italians’ ceased to be an object of public concern altogether).

Integration and the ‘Muslim question’

This double refocusing of debates – zoning in on Muslims and problematizing their Islamically-infused values – has meant that ‘integration’ has become virtually synonymous with ‘the Muslim question’.

As Mansour’s interventions highlight, integration talk has come to revolve around references to the norms and values of the German constitution, the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) – an injunction that also lies at the heart of the federal government’s controversial Islam Conference, to be restarted in November.

These allusions to the Basic Law are deeply embedded in Germany’s post-1945 national identity: the constitution is revered as the basis for a successful German democracy, in contrast to the failed experiment of the Weimar Republic. Yet the invocations of the Basic Law inspired by this perception meander in the uncertain grey zones between constitutional patriotism and the assertion of a thicker form of national self-assertion, between civic universalism and a much more restrictive particularism.

Displacing ‘integration’

Against this backdrop, one might wonder whether conceiving of the fate of Germany’s Muslims in terms of their ‘integration’ is the most productive way of thinking about issues of social participation, identity, as well as of equality and justice. Yet alternative ways of addressing such concerns continue to be side-lined in a public policy and research agenda dominated by the integration paradigm.

A third recent contribution to these debates might appear as a salutary corrective to this fixation: just as Mansour and El-Mafaalani were publishing their respective integration-themed books, dramaturg Max Czollek released his polemical essay Desintegriert Euch! (“Disintegrate Yourselves!”) – a frontal assault on the notion of ‘integration’ itself and on the role it plays in stabilizing Germany’s national imaginary.

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The debate between Mansour and El-Mafaalani can be found here: https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-19-oktober-2018-100.html