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Study Shows What Germans Think About Islam

June 7, 2003

A new survey probing German attitudes towards Islam has thrown up surprising results -- many Germans are tolerant towards the religion, but wish Muslims living in the country would reciprocate the feeling.

Muslims pray in the Mevlana mosque in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood.Image: AP

A survey commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Germany to study how people here perceive Islam is set to shake the foundations of the widespread view that western societies are uncomfortable with the religion.

Called "What do the Germans Think about Islam?" the study, which involved 1,000 western Germans and just as many eastern Germans, found that almost two-thirds of those questioned believed Muslims living in Germany should be allowed to practice their religion without any restrictions.

Most of the 2,000 surveyed also showed themselves to be largely free of prejudice. Ninety-one percent said they believed all people were equal before God and more than two-thirds rejected the notion that Christianity was superior to Islam.

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff, who carried out the survey for the respected foundation which maintains close ties to Germany’s conservative opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), called the results "surprising."

Even Emine Demirbüken, who has worked as a commissioner for foreigner affairs in Berlin for 15 years and oversaw the poll, told Deutsche Welle the results were unexpected. "It surprised me positively because in the overall societal atmosphere, something different is shown. That is, the Germans are against Islam, that they have nothing to do with it and that Muslims living here are obliged to adapt and aren’t allowed to visibly practice their religion," she said.

Deep doubts about Islam, too

But the survey also uncovered some less comfortable findings.

Almost half of those questioned doubted that Islam was a tolerant religion, and 46 percent said they didn’t believe that Islam and Christianity represented the same values. Two-thirds opined that Muslims living in Germany should be more considerate towards Germans while practicing their religion.

Wilamowitz-Möllendorff said tolerance towards Islam was most conspicuous among the educated classes and among those Germans who have contacts to fellow Muslims. Germans from formerly communist eastern Germany also showed more reservations than their counterparts in the west.

Demirbüken said what’s needed is more intensive dialogue between Muslims and Germans. "We urgently need a strong discussion, we need to deal with the topic Islam more thoroughly. But not as a political movement, rather Islam as a religious tenet."

Cordial relations

With close to 4 million Muslims living in Germany, Islam is the third most commonly practiced religious faith in the country -- after the Protestantism and Catholicism.

Though relations between Germans and Muslims have been largely peaceful, tensions have arisen in the past in the form of local resistance to the construction of mosques or disagreements over whether Muslims may use loudspeakers in residential neighborhoods to call the faithful to prayer.

Relations between the two communities faced additional strains after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the U.S. and the subsequent discovery of the Hamburg terror cell, where a handful of the perpetrators lived. There have also been instances where German constitutional law has conflicted with Islamic practices or raised issues of religious freedom, such as the recent case where a Muslim teacher in the state of Baden-Würtemberg was forbidden from working because she refused to teach without a headscarf. She has now taken her plea to the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, Germany's highest court.

"I find it very regrettable that the headscarf debate is being hustled into legal paragraphs and courts. I also find it almost unbearable that it’s being touted as a symbolic act," Demirbüken said.

Bridging the divide

Demirbüken thought that one way of bridging the gap would be for the German states to officially recognize and support Islam studies the same way they endorse Christian religious lessons.

Currently Islam religious lessons in schools, which are offered in some places in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, are the prerogative of Islamic organizations. Demirbüken said that’s precisely what makes Islam a special case and hinders people from getting correctly informed about it.

"It would be ideal if one perceived and accepted the customs of this society (the Muslims), which includes the wearing of a headscarf, as normal. But naturally that needs education, which first has to be rooted in schools, where someone wearing a headscarf would simply be accepted as a teacher and not as a person wearing a headscarf," she said.