What causes urban violence? That's the question being tackled by a Franco-German research team in Berlin and Paris. Their project will examine how attacks occur - and how to prevent them.
With a freezing cold wind gusting through the skyscrapers, tainted with the smell of old cooking grease, Potsdamer Platz is not exactly at its best on this winter morning.
Nevertheless, this is the spot in central Berlin that Teresa Koloma Beck has proposed as a meeting place. Since the first of November, she's been working as a conflict researcher for "Urbane Gewalträume" ("Urban Violence"), a joint research project undertaken by the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin and the Centre interdisciplinaire d'études et de recherches en Allemagne (CIERA) in Paris, along with a number of other research institutes in Germany and France.
Koloma Beck and her French colleague, Ariane Jossin, will be working on the project for the next five years, in conjunction with the network "Saisir l'Europe - Europa als Herausforderung (Understand Europe - Europe as a challenge)." They will examine why violence can occur in big cities, with a focus on social, ethnic and also religious conflicts.
"Potsdamer Platz as a meeting place may be surprising," says Koloma Beck. "But it's at this tourist hotspot that an event took place that is of great interest to my research."
Focal point for global conflict
That event was in May, when a group of Muslims distributed free copies of the Quran to passersby at an information booth in the square. Nearby, around 20 demonstrators gathered to protest against the group, including some with posters of the nationalist Pro Deutschland party and some with caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
The stand was one of many that had been established across Germany as part of the "Lies!" (Read!) campaign, an initiative organized by German Salafist groups. But many Muslims who do not hold extremist views also showed up, leading to fierce discussions and, in some cases, aggression – like at Potsdamer Platz.
Over the course of the project, Koloma Beck will consider the international perspective of such events. With increased globalization, it's become clear that many conflicts sparked in cities can have global origins. For this reason, she thinks it's possible that the violent tendencies of the Salafist movement in Germany could have been sparked by globalization and the intensification of the conflict between Islam and the West.
To understand the reasons for urban violence, one must also understand the greater global conflicts, says Koloma Beck, naming the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington and the subsequent "war on terror" as key events.
"While globalization is something that concerns the whole world, it does take place in specific locations," she says. It's in such locations that even minor violent incidents are very significant, from a social point of view.
It's for this reason that the scuffles between Muslims and protesters - and, subsequently, between Muslims and police - at the Berlin information stand were fiercely debated. Some felt that these incidents confirmed their view of Islam as a religion that promotes violence, thereby rendering it incompatible with Western democratic principles.
Others, however, said it was exactly this argument - as well as the actions of the police - that indicated that the majority of society was unwilling to give Muslims a place to which they, as city inhabitants and citizens, are entitled.
The scene turned violent after protesters attempted to prevent the Salafists from handing out Qurans
Searching for a catalyst
The research team is interested in the fundamentals. With the world in upheaval, what will distinguish the new societies? Who will be left behind? Koloma Beck says an unequal distribution of wealth, unemployment and xenophobia are all examples of the direct consequences of neoliberal reforms, such as the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries. As such, she thinks these developments require a closer look.
Koloma Beck hopes to reconstruct the public turmoil that can result from these developments as accurately as possible. "If, for example, in the case of such an event where a group of Muslims, a German nationalist party and the police are facing off, a Muslim person attacks a policeman with a knife, as was the case in Bonn last year, then it's not enough to just speak with the attacker," she says. "It's important to speak with all the players in order to find out how the violence came to pass."
To do such work, Koloma Beck can't be confined to a desk. Instead, she seeks out contact with the involved parties, asking to meet and talk with them. She took a similar approach in Angola and Mozambique, where she interviewed victims and perpetrators of the violence that occurred during the decades-long civil war.
New research avenues
Considering all sides of the issue makes their research project special, and it's for this reason that when it comes to causing conflict, Koloma Beck sees religion as being of equal importance as global socio-economic developments.
"Whether it's the austerity protests in Athens or the riots at the G8 meeting - the same questions are being dealt with in different locations," she says. "These are global phenomena." The aim of the researchers is to systematically challenge these questions and find hidden connections.
The study on urban violence is one of three research projects in "Saisir l'Europe - Herausforderung Europa" - the other two being studies on sustainability and the welfare state - that are intended to promote a Franco-German exchange of ideas. For the last 20 years, the Centre Marc Bloch has carried out interdisciplinary research projects with a focus on comparative history, politics and law. But can the situations in Germany and France be compared?
"France has been preoccupied with the consequences of immigration for a much longer time," says Gabriele Metzler, a professor at Berlin's Humboldt University and a project officer. "In the closed city environment of the outer suburbs, discrimination and the unequal distribution of opportunities has been visible for a much longer time than in Germany."
Germany vs. France
In plain language, this means that the exclusion of disadvantaged members of French society was already taking place in the 1960s, not only on a social level but also geographically, with these people being banished to the suburbs - the banlieues - and their ghetto-like sleeping quarters.
German cities are much more socially mixed, a politically mandated outcome that while somewhat successful has still not managed to completely eradicate this form of exclusion in the last two decades. It has, however, been able to keep in check any outbreaks of violence such as those seen in the Parisian suburbs in recent years.
The question now is whether this research project will lead to the development of long overdue policies to deal with urban violence. "Of course, there is always the hope of influencing policy," says Metzler, at the same time stressing that "Saisir l'Europe" is not intended to be a think tank.
"Nevertheless, the goal is to supply those addressing security issues at the political level with knowledge, and to develop specific ideas which could be used to preemptively address urban violence."