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Being a Young Muslim in Germany
September 29,2016   By:chinahumanrights.org
Being a Young Muslim in Germany
 
Synnøve Bendixsen
 
Introduction
 
Europe and North America are today the home of a significant part of Muslim minorities who are no longer migrants, but are their residents and citizens. Many of them are children or even grandchildren of migrants who arrived to European cities in the 1960ies for work purposes as there was an urgent need for labourers in Europe. Many stayed and were joined by their families, making European societies ever more plural and posing new challenges in creating a social, political and economic coherent society. The various European societies continue to have different policy directions on how to manage cultural and religious differences,  find ways to plan for pluralism in order to accommodate the new population in terms of citizenship rules and ‘multicultural polities’. As Max Frisch famously put it: “We called for guest workers, and human beings came”.
 
Yet, Muslims in Europe are continuously viewed as the Other and as not belonging in Europe, Germany included. The shift from being identified as a ‘migrant’ or ‘Turkish’ to ‘Muslim’ escalated post 11th September 2001. The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 unleashed a global and all-encompassing crisis, affecting a wide array of life’s levels, political, cultural, economic, and psychological (Halliday 2002: 31). One of the consequences is that religion has become the main marker of identity for ‘Muslims’ living in Europe, disregarding the diversity among Muslims.
 
In light of this short socio-historical context, in this short presentation I would like to focus on what does it mean to be a young Muslim in Germany. How are youth trying to live as a Muslim in Germany? And what impact does their religious identity have on their feelings of belonging in Germany? My discussion draw upon fieldwork and semi-structured interviews with young Muslims living in Berlin.
 
Mosque and Islamic organisations in Berlin
 
Berlin is the most diverse city in Germany with more than 24 percent of its population coming from a minority background (Muslims in Berlin, Open Society Institute 2010). The Muslim population in Berlin accounts to approximately 213.000 people estimated on the immigrants’ country of origin and converted Germans (F?rber and Spielhaus 2006).  The city offers a variety of religious movements, mosques and Islamic organisations. 
 
Being a young Muslim in Berlin
 
The youth that I will talk about today participate in the religious youth organization Muslim youth in Germany (henceforth MJD) which was established in 1994. MJD targets on the local level Muslim youth of both genders who wish to live as religious proximate or ‘correct’ Muslims in Germany; as well as young so-called ‘born’ Muslims who are religiously ‘inactive’ or not performing the ‘real’ Islam. On a national level MJD takes on a public role to represent Islam in Germany through dialogue with politicians, journalists, and interfaith projects (Bendixsen 2013). Many of the youth talked about how the so-called headscarf debate had an impact on their religious identity and feelings of belonging in Germany. In short, the headscarf debate refers to a national public discussion initiated by the demand that a teacher who wore the headscarf was asked to either remove her headscarf or withdraw from her position. The public discussion centred around the practice of wearing the headscarf, and politicians and public figures argued that women wore the headscarf because they were forced by parents; they were traditional and rejected modernity; or had false consciousness (“the girls think it is right, but it is not good for their emancipation”). In the media, the youth’s argument that they wore it for religious reasons, in order to become better and pious Muslims, and thus reach paradise after death, were not given much credence. Instead, the youth felt they were stereotyped as suppressed or “stupid” at various places, including at school (by teachers and co-pupils), work places or in the streets by strangers. Paradoxically, this negative view and approach by strangers on the street contributed that some of the women started to not feel that they belonged in Germany. While until now they had felt at ease in Germany as a practicing Muslim, and sought to include themselves in society, strangers’ effort to define them as outside the German society because they wore a headscarf had negative impacts on this feeling of belonging. As Aishe said:
 
Many youth felt as if they were representing Islam on the street: because they were viewed as foremost Muslims in the street, this called for particular responsibilities. Being “living examples of Islam” meant for many that they had to consciously think about how they behaved in public. The youth worked on how to be good Muslims in order to ‘correct’ and improve the stained image of Islam among non-Muslims. This included smiling to strangers on the street, to be helpful, and to not dress in black colours as that might appear frightening. It also included to be concerned with getting a good education and job in order to contribute to society. More generally, the youth were particularly concerned with promoting and following an Islam that did not create a distinction between being Muslim and being German, but rather combined these two ways of belonging. I will next turn to how they tried to combine these two identity politics without creating a hierarchy of belonging.
 
Creating new ways of being a Muslim 
 
The MJD differs from other Muslim organizations in Germany in particular five ways, in relation to which its’ relevance in Germany should be understood; 1) it represents a generational change in the configuration of a Muslim organization. One of the main reasons why MJD was established, according to Fatima (31), was that young people did not feel comfortable in the mosques established by their parents. The creation of new structures where youth are teaching youth about Islam should open up for new ways of identifying as a Muslim in Germany; 2) it emphasizes a distinction between ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ in its teaching about Islam. This is on purpose not an ethnically homogenous place. Instead, most members of the group in Berlin are born or raised in Germany with parents from different nationalities or ethnic groups, including Bosnia, Egypt, Kurds from Turkey and Iraq, Turkey, Palestine, Syria and Sudan. One of the main aims of the organization is that the youth should identify themselves foremost as Muslims, and then potentially by ethnicity or nationality. This is partly the reason why the organization is explicitly German speaking. Most of the participants are born in Germany, and feel more proficient in the German language. The members stress argues that it is possible – and important - to be both German and Muslim. Many work to alter the negative stereotype that there is necessarily a hierarchical relation between these identity positions; 3) it uses specifically the German language in all its activities. The vision is that learning Islam in the German language facilitates communication on their religion to non-Muslims in Germany; 4) it attracts educated and upward mobile young Muslims; and 5) its’ outreach is larger than its low membership numbers as its members’ are active in several organizations in Germany and there are similar European branches. 
 
Being Muslim and German
 
Learning to follow Islam as correct as possible is localized and situated in Germany as a non-Muslim society and as a place where “Islam is misunderstood”. Questions like “how can we live as Muslims in Germany” and “how to combine being Muslim and ‘German’” are recurring topics in the meetings, discussions, MJD-newsletters and workshops and emphasize the impact or reference to practicing Islam in a particular place and time. The project of MJD promotes identification as ‘being German’ with ‘being Muslim’ is partly made possible through the emphasis on ‘pure’, de-ethnized or de-nationalized Islam. Several tactics are drawn upon in this endeavor, including learning Islam in the German language, emphasizing certain common values and moralities between Islam and German culture, and trying to change the negative stereotyping of Islam in Germany. The following event proposes the different nodes of identification at work for these youth in this space:
 
At the three-day MJD meeting in 2004 about 1200 youth have arrived in buses from all over Germany. The males sit on the left side of the meadow, and the females on the right. Launching the first ‘fun evening’, one of the event-hosts from the meeting AG says, “Welcome Munich, Hamburg, Berlin and I have no idea who else is here? Frankfurt!” The youth react to the names of their cities by shouting enthusiastically ‘yes’. The hosts (one female and one male) of the evening-show ask for volunteers for the quiz. “What is it with the Berliners?” he asks as no one from Berlin volunteers. Noreen (16) gets up. The crowd claps as the young people step forward. In the first round of the competition males compete against males and females against females. The females are posed questions from pink papers, and the males from blue pieces of paper. When there is only one team of each gender left, the male team competes against the female team. The questions posed include: “What is the surname of the second caliph Al Farouq?”; “how many planets exist altogether in our planetary system?”; “which sura is as much as one third of the Al-Ikhlas Quran?”; and “who is the current party leader of the CDU?” During a break in the quiz competition the host introduces a Bosnian music group, originally from Turkey. “Hey, there we can hear the Turks!” he adds as some youth starts to shout enthusiastically. The singer comes on the scene, talks in English and in Turkish and sings a song about ‘Allah’. Some of the girls around me enthusiastically exclaim: “Hey, it’s in Turkish!” They know the words and join in on the song. After his first song, he says: “I am sorry, but I don’t speak German. I know that there are a lot of Turkish sisters and brothers here, and I would like to say hello to them in Turkish now. Are there any who speak Turkish?” The youth responds excitedly: “Yes!” 
 
Becoming emancipated through religious knowledge
 
In Berlin, I noticed that increased religious knowledge of Islam can provide the youth with self-confidence and legitimate foundation to challenge some restrictive attitudes held by the elder generation. By reading the Quran and familiarizing themselves with the rules and rights within Islam, the girls empower themselves. When parents try to restrict their daughters’ actions on the basis of Islam, the girls can ‘talk back’ or challenge parental prohibitions by referring to Islam and the Quran. Aishegül (31) made me aware of this. She is unmarried, lives at home and studies at the university. A few years ago, she joined MJD, started to wear the headscarf and to pray regularly. Her parents used to not allow her to take part in extra-curricular activities. Aishegül says: 
 
Islam can offer a “route out of ethnic absolutism” (Ali 1992: 115), and women can try to subvert men’s intentions by taking on ‘male’ rhetoric about religion. Aishegül here suggests how in some instances, MJD can feel like a free space compared to that of the family. The clear distinction which is made between ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ breaks down hierarchies of knowledge, since a person is able to wield the book-knowledge and sources of authority which are necessary for legitimate argumentation inside the group. This approach to Islam, together with enhanced education and knowledge of Islam makes it possible for young females to de-legitimize their parents’ positions by saying that these are based on ‘culture’. To some extent it leads to a ‘crisis’ of their parents’ authority (Khosrokhavar 1997: 144; Roy 2004): the youth do not discuss religious matters extensively or solely with their parents and, instead, feel that they know more about Islam than their parents, and can call upon “a higher moral authority and greater Islamic knowledge” (Mahmood 2005: 116; see also Brenner 1996; Jacobsen 2006; N?kel 2002; Sahlin 2003). Sometimes the young women attempt to shape their own mothers’ practices, such as inducing them to veil, and they assess their parents critically for their lax religious lifestyles (see also Amir-Moazami 2004; Jackobsen 2006). In consequence, the age hierarchy can be overturned, and to some extent the youth can become religious educators of their parents.
 
Final thoughts
 
The youth’s religious identification can assists in embracing identification as German and Muslim without this being viewed as a contradiction. By framing certain values as simultaneously ‘Islamic’ and ‘German’ the youth can produce a place where being German and Muslim is normalized. The clear distinction that the youth make between ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ on the one hand and ‘religion’ on the other makes it possible to feel as not ‘betwixt and between’ their parent’s home country and Germany.