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Moderating Terror: The Relevance of the Paris Attacks for Islam in Germany

0 Comments 🕔11.Aug 2015

This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

“M like Muslim?” – McDonald’s branch in Arabic, Munich, Germany. Photo credit: Marco Bellucci

by Tilman Lanz


Angry Young Men

In the aftermath of the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket in Paris, it was widely and frequently stated that the attackers were, simply, angry young men. Andrew Hussey, for instance, pointed out that, “Today global jihad is an ideology that is floating around like the cloud. And angry young men, wherever they are, will lock on to that ideology” (Philips 2015). In this article, I discuss some of the consequences and implications of the Paris attacks in terms of the situation in Germany. In the same interview from which the quote above is taken, Hussey is asked whether such attacks might also happen in Britain or Germany, and he answers in a clear affirmative. In what follows, I discuss the potential for replicability of the Paris events in other major European countries since, for the moment, such comparisons merely lead to further questions: Why might attacks like these not have happened in Germany yet? Why do German angry young men not attach themselves, violently and murderously, to global jihadism like their French counterparts?

Few have understood the problematic and complex situation of young male immigrants in Germany better than Katherine Ewing. In her Stolen Honor, she shows that much of the debate about immigrants in Germany, especially about Muslim immigrants, has focused on girls, deemed in need of saving and, crucially, also savable (Ewing 2008). Young immigrant girls need to be saved from their parochially entrenched families because they subject them to wearing headscarves, take them out of school at an early age, force them to marry older men from their former homelands, or, in extreme cases, kill them for adopting a Western lifestyle. German public discourse focused on ‘saving’ young immigrant girls from their backward, oppressive homeland cultures. Ewing argues that the German discourse about young immigrant men is not much different; but while girls are seen as victims of non-Western misogynist cultures, young men are regarded as perpetrators and self-proclaimed guardians of these same cultures. As a consequence, young immigrant men are deemed a lost cause for integrational efforts and prevented from benefitting from integrational measures – a good education, welfare state benefits, protection from their parents, a decent job, an apartment, etc. In the 1990s, the response to this vilification was resignification, a process through which these young men accepted their marginalization and resignified it into a positive hybrid identity. This movement revolved around the derogatory, then positively resignified German slur ‘Kanake.’ Pop-art writers such as Feridun Zaimoğlu or immigrant comedians such as Muhsin Omurca significantly contributed to this amalgamative process of hybridization: it was, in its outlook, internationalist, inclusive, and deliberately negated the specifics of ethnic and religious heritage (<>; Zaimoğlu 1995). However, the days of heady cultural hybridity, happily catapulting global migrants into an era of Third Space, are long gone.

Today, many immigrants have integrated into German mainstream society, largely ignoring or even downplaying their immigrant status or their heritage of immigrant parents. But those who have not integrated through upward social mobility have, in many cases, rediscovered the ethnic and religious roots of their parents or grandparents. In the case of Muslims, this has largely taken the shape of an imagined return to early Islamic communities (e.g., Salafism), sometimes resulting in an attachment to the more radical or violent of its forms (Lanz 2010). As a result, the earlier spirit of cultural hybridity has today been replaced by one of ethnic and religious sectarianism, disseminating a spirit of antagonistic particularism. The case of Islam is unique insofar as it offers its followers the possibility of aligning with the umma, the globalized Muslim community, thus giving this specific version of returning to the roots a distinctly globalized note (Esposito 2004).

Among the roughly 3.5 million Muslims living in Germany today, only a very small minority is radicalized in aggressively rejecting the values of civil society and a secularized public sphere. Like in many other European countries, the strongest appeal of the Islamist international currently emanates from the burgeoning Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. While solid numbers are hard to come by, German officials estimate that around 500 extremists from Germany have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight in the ranks of the ‘Islamic State’ (Schwarze 2014). The German public has, in view of 9/11 and similar subsequent events, reacted with great concern and suspicion to Islamist activities within Germany. Also, German security forces have consistently warned against Islamist activities and have counseled changing legislation to better monitor and, possibly, apprehend Muslim radicals preemptively (Brühl 2014).


France as a Model: The German Gaze across the Rhine

In the past, discussions within German civil society about the place and role of Islam have often mimicked, mirrored, or followed patterns in France. When the infamous affaire foulard broke in 1989, German discussions on this subject were lagging behind by about a decade (Bowen 2008; Korteweg and Yurdakul 2014). From 1989 onwards, French society was debating whether the cultural practices of Muslim women wearing headscarves were more important than their right to be protected by the state and society against alleged discrimination. In Germany, it was the case of aspiring school teacher Fereshta Ludin which brought the headscarf issue onto the front pages of German national papers. The case went through various legal battles from 1997 until 2003, and it was finally decided by the German constitutional court. The question was: Could a primary school teacher in Germany wear a headscarf in the classroom? The case ended with a frustrating result for radicals on both sides. The highest German court decided that, in principle, Ludin could wear a headscarf, but that individual German states also had the right to pass future legislation banning headscarves for teachers. Thus, while Germany had its very own headscarf affair, it did not result in anything as radical as the 2004 ban of religious symbols in French schools (cf. Badiou 2006). In Germany, such matters continue to be decided on a case-by-case basis, as was common practice in France as well until 2004. The whole discourse around headscarves was, the final result notwithstanding, framed very similarly to the French model, with positions frequently imitating it.

Similar statements can be made about the way the German state responded to the pressing need to address the more general relationship between its growing (and increasingly vocal) Muslim minority with German society. France, once again, led the way. In 2006, Germany initiated a process called the Islamkonferenz (Islamic Conference), a federally sponsored council set up to initiate dialogue between representatives of Muslim organizations and various levels of German government; in addition, a few scholars on Islam were also invited to partake. Leadership of this new body was in the hands of then federal minister of the interior, Wolfgang Schäuble. The body was clearly set up with the French model of the Conseil de France du Culte Musulman (French Council of Islam) in mind, which preceded its German counterpart by about three years. The German Islamkonferenz was widely criticized regarding the manner of its implementation, the focus of its work, and the respective members elected to partake (or, variously, left out). While it is still in existence today, its impact seems to have been fairly limited over the past nine years. Yet, its impact should not be underestimated because it allows Muslim organizations, polyvocal as they might be, to gain a voice at the national level and partake in German civil society discourse.

However, if both examples above are indicative of similarities between the German and the French situation, they also point to important differences. In the headscarf affairs, the outcome in France was that, in 2004, a national law banned all headscarves from public buildings, including schools. In Germany, such determinedly blunt secularist action was never taken. There are important differences in the second example, the respective conferences on Islam, as well. While the German Islamkonferenz was addressing specific problematic issues in German Muslim/non-Muslim relations, the French counterpart came up with the controversial proposal to develop a specific, French version of Islam that would become domesticated and, hence, less dangerous to the French state and society. This proposal to develop a French version of Islam was widely rejected by Muslims in France as jeopardizing the universality of the Islamic faith (Bowen 2011).

“A Muslim Woman in München.” Photo credit:


Unique Aspects of the German Situation

Despite the many similarities and parallels between the French and German case, there are also a number of relevant differences between them.The following two are of particular importance:

Unlike in France, in Germany Integrationsbeiräte (Integration Councils) and Ausländerbeiräte (Foreigner Councils) exist. These councils advise policymakers at the local level to ensure some informal representation of foreigners, migrants, immigrants, and recently naturalized citizens. These councils were initially implemented across Germany in 1971, but their set-up and function widely varies, as they are designed to serve local and communal needs. Their efficiency also varies, depending on whether the council represents a variety of different political, ethnic, and religious groups, or whether it has been hijacked by just one (Plackert 2007). This system has seen many changes over time, but it remains an efficient and well-adapted tool for immigrants to voice their concerns and opinions at a local level. The system ensures that top-level government decisions are moderated through integrative local implementations. The system thus contributes to maintaining dialogue between different groups, even in cases of serious disagreement between indigenous and immigrant populations.

A second key difference concerns the role of religion in the school system. While in France, schools have, in the republican tradition, been liberated from religious instruction, the German approach has been more complex. Education there remains a prerogative of individual German states, and religious instruction – in Roman Catholicism and Lutheran Protestantism – has been a part of the curriculum in most cases. Starting in the 1970s, ethics was introduced as a subject for those who did not want to follow either one of the two Christian alternatives. This resulted in the uncanny yet comical situation that Muslim students frequently knew far more about, say, idealist German philosophy than their German counterparts. Throughout the past 20 years, a complex process has aimed to complement Christian religious instruction with teaching Islam. While progress has been slow and difficult due to Muslim factional strife or governmental delays, the process is underway. Its immediate effect is a greater influence of the German state and public on how Islamic education is conducted and, consequently, a decreased influence of radical elements in this regard.

In free societies there is no perfect guarantee against attacks such as those in Paris or the more recent attacks in Copenhagen. This is also true for Germany: On the weekend of the Copenhagen murders, the carnival in the German city of Braunschweig had to be canceled because of an Islamist terrorist threat. But despite this, a number of factors can be identified that set the German case apart from the French. The more integrative German approach reduces the likelihood of such attacks. A more integrative approach toward young immigrants is surely necessary throughout Europe, as the continent will hopefully come to terms with the reality of immigration. Merely trusting security forces to deal with the situation will not suffice – the problem is a complex socio-cultural one and must be addressed as such.


Tilman Lanz is a European Cultural Anthropologist working with Muslim communities in Germany, Spain, and France. He is also working with the Catalan minority in Spain. At present he is located at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in the Netherlands where he helps building a new program on Minorities and Multilingualism.


This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.


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