A new book sheds light on the ‘paradoxical’ nature of integration in Germany and beyond

Aladin El-Mafaalani in 2015

In 2018, German sociologist Aladin El-Mafaalani scored a somewhat surprising best-seller: his book Das Integrationsparadox (‘The Integration Paradox’) shot into the top ten of German book sales, providing a counterweight to gloomy and populist pamphlets on immigrants’ failure to ‘integrate’ and of Germany’s impending ‘Islamisation’ otherwise dominating the commanding heights of the book market.

Successes of integration

El-Mafaalani’s central claim is that integration has been happening at a quickening pace. And as the book’s subtitle – Why Successful Integration Leads to More Conflicts – indicates, he sees growing social debates and tensions as the healthy outcome of this development: while earlier generations of the so-called ‘guest workers’ had been neither able nor interested in becoming part of public debates, their children and grandchildren have become active claimants of rights in the public sphere.

It is such increased willingness of different groups to make their voices heard that signals their integration into society at large, El-Mafaalani argues. Yet if this is true, then integration necessarily involves conflict, as more and more groups seek to claim a seat at the table and have a say in the future of the Federal Republic.

Far from being wrecked by the emergence of ‘parallel societies’ and dynamics of ‘disintegration’, Germany is in fact experiencing the growing pains of the transformation from an ethnically homogeneous and closed society into a globalised country of immigration, or so El-Mafaalani argues. Present-day rancorous conflicts – e.g. over the place of Islam in the country – are a symptom of this process.[1] https://en.qantara.de/content/non-fiction-aladin-el-mafaalanis-das-integrationsparadox-demanding-a-seat-at-the-table

Integration does not equal harmony

El-Mafaalani’s book surely is timely; and its overwhelming resonance – published in mid-August, the book was already in its fourth printing by early December[2]https://twitter.com/AladinMafaalani/status/1071914505947496449 – is not only due to its popular science appeal. Rather, it is also a testimony to the fact that it offers a much-desired counterpoint to the doomsayers.

Perhaps the book’s most important contribution is to challenge the idea that ‘integration’ should be synonymous with ‘harmony’. Although academic commentators have generally sought to highlight the distinction between the two, in the German context ‘integration’ often seems to stand in for a soft form of ‘assimilation’: on this account, if integration is successful, immigrants will adapt to the cultural norms of the majority, and there will be no change at all to the existing societal status quo.

El-Mafaalani highlights that the maintenance of such (artificial) harmony is in fact bought at integration’s expense: for instance, if for decades there were no public and legal battles surrounding Muslim women’s right to wear a hijab in the court- or classroom, this was because Muslim women were not seen as potential teachers, lawyers, or judges. Rather, they were confined to the margins of society, perhaps cleaning schools and courthouses but not occupying any position of authority.

Rave reviews

Against this backdrop, it is perhaps not surprising that El-Mafalaani’s book has been welcomed by many – in particular by the descendants of (Muslim) immigrants constantly being called upon to ‘integrate’. Writing for the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, journalist Dunja Ramadani called the book “refreshing” and lauded its willingness to place agitated contemporary debates in a longer historical trajectory.[3] https://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/aladin-el-mafaalani-das-integrationsparadox-buchkritik-1.4113608

Green Party politicians Ario Mirzaie and Ali Baş tweeted their endorsement: instead of being led to believe that integration had failed, “factual, constructive contributions” such as El-Mafaalani’s demonstrated that it was in fact minorities’ enhanced integration contributing to the present far-right backlash.

Support for El-Mafaalani’s “shrewd book” also came from Armin Laschet, the Merkelite CDU prime minister of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW). Under Laschet, El-Mafaalani has taken up a leading position in the local Ministry on Children and Family Affairs, coordinating the Land’s integration policies. Fittingly, Serap Güler, NRW’s State Secretary for Integration, could be seen handing a copy of El-Mafaalani’s book to Chancellor Merkel.

Cautious criticisms

At the same time, the book also leaves a number questions unanswered. Notably, the emphasis on the salutary effects of contentious public debates of matters of diversity sometimes runs the risk of valuing such discussion for discussion’s sake – without, however, questioning the substance of what is actually being talked about.

Activist and Islamic feminist Kübra Gümüşay picked up upon this issue: while she lauded the book for showcasing that meaningful processes of integration would always be fraught with tension, Gümüşay pointed out that this did not necessarily warrant sharing El-Mafaalani’s optimism: “I’m more pessimistic when it comes to the manner in which these topics are being discussed”, she asserted – pointing out that these ‘debates’ frequently end up stereotyping immigrants, their culture or their religion as responsible for most of German society’s ills.[4] https://bildungsklick.de/schule/meldung/vielfalt-ist-nicht-immer-schoen/

Another issue revolves around the question of who is actually party to the discussion. In his otherwise positive book review, blogger Akif Sahin saw this as a major unresolved issue: while El-Mafaalani fervently argues that Germany has become an ‘open society’ in which diverse groups have ‘a seat at the table’, Sahin observes that “decisions at that table can still be made and negotiated by a select and pretty inaccessible circle of participants”.[5] https://www.akifsahin.de/2018/11/13/aladin-el-mafaalani-das-integrationsparadox/

The merits of ‘talking to each other’

More broadly, one is left to wonder whether The Integration Paradox might not underestimate the complex workings of discursive power. Across Germany, there has recently been a newfound enthusiasm for certain forms of dialogue and discussion. Epitomising this trend are various initiatives – both government-sponsored and organised by civil society – that seek to bring together people with different political opinions. A 2017 book Talking to Right-Wingers: A Guidance has been hailed as the quintessential response to the political challenges of our age.[6] https://www.klett-cotta.de/buch/Gesellschaft_/_Politik/Mit_Rechten_reden/84708

Sometimes, El-Mafaalani seems to offer a similar dispensation. Aside from his celebration of vigorous debates on contentious issues as a signal of societal progress, El-Mafaalani touts his book as containing “the necessary ‘weapons’” for “[t]hose who have been struggling to cut a good figure in discussions against pessimists and demagogues”.

But this does not capture that – notably with the rise of the AfD – the terrain on which these discussions take place has shifted massively to the right. An anodyne celebration of the virtues of ‘talking to each other’ dodges the question of how one should deal with particular arguments and discursive styles that might be less inclined to accept the norms of polite conversation.

What are the important questions?

Finally, one might doubt whether contemporary political debates are good at zoning in on the most salient of all issues. For instance, the question ‘Does Islam belong to Germany?’ has been argued over for more than a decade. Yet it is not at all clear whether this is a particularly meaningful question to ask if one is interested in addressing any set of actually existing social challenges.

A similar observation can be made with respect to the very notion of ‘integration’ – a term which is of course taken for granted in El-Mafaalani’s Integration Paradox. Young Muslim activists have long asserted that “the word ‘integration’ has become a trauma”.[7] https://www.cicero.de/innenpolitik/das-wort-integration-ist-zum-trauma-geworden/48635 For them, incessant calls to integrate are a constant reminder that, no matter whether they have been born on German soil, they will never count as fully German.

Introducing El-Mafaalani’s new book, journalist Özlem Sarikaya of the Bavarian state broadcaster could not prevent a certain dosage of exasperation from filtering into her otherwise level voice: the debate on whether ‘integration’ is succeeding or failing has roared back to life since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015, she observed – even though integration is “a term that, then as now, almost everybody is sick of hearing.”[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seuGlISUEsg

Questioning the focus on integration

The left-wing Der Freitag newspaper sarcastically concurred: “In German lands, the question of integration seems like an unending repetition in minute variations of a never-changing drama.”[9] https://www.freitag.de/produkt-der-woche/buch/das-integrationsparadox/paradox_einblicke

Initiatives that seek to enhance the diversity of the German public and media landscapes have been enthusiastic about The Integration Paradox.[10] http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/mesut-oezil-und-rassismus-integrierte-mitbuerger-machen-stress-a-1220156.html Yet they, too, have long criticised the kinds of questions being asked and the kinds of ‘dramas’ being played under the label of ‘integration’. Notably, they criticise this label as perpetuating a reductionist focus on ‘immigrants’ while failing to address broader social challenges.[11] https://neuedeutsche.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Pressemitteilungen/18_08_30_Pressemitteilung_Chemnitz.pdf


What Aladin El-Mafaalani does not offer is a clear-cut glance into the future. To be sure, incipient in his Integration Paradox is a kind of unstated teleology: there is a drive towards a more open, more accepting society; and the current anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim surge is a mere bump in the road. This, after all, is the basis for the optimism that animates the book.

Yet as El-Mafaalani himself acknowledges in a tweet on Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral victory in Brazil, ‘backlash’ against the onward march of history might be fierce.

It is thus fitting that El-Mafaalani’s optimistic take was only one voice in the ‘debate’ raging in Germany in 2018. And – in spite of its vivid reception – it was not the most popular contribution on the bestseller lists: towering at the number one spot for weeks on end was Thilo Sarrazin’s  Enemy Takeover: How Islam Hinders Progress and Threatens Society – a successor to his wildly successful racial pamphlet Germany Does Away with Itself from 2010.[12] https://www.buchreport.de/bestseller/buch/isbn/9783959721622.htm/

The paradoxes of integration are indeed in full play.

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