Germany is home to some 3.5 million Muslims, the majority from Turkey. German Interior Minister Otto Schily has warned that "immigrant generations in Europe are building terror cells that at are least ideologically close to al Qaeda." Schily has said that the authorities are currently watching 500 Islamists and studies show that extremist ideas do find favor among some young Muslims.
DW-WORLD spoke to Cem Özdemir (photo), a German-Turkish member of the Green party and the European parliament who focuses on German and EU migration and integration policies as well as EU-Turkey relations, about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism within Germany, relations between Germans and Muslims and what can be done to clear the atmosphere of suspicion.
DW-WORLD: Since the July bombings in London, a discussion has arisen in Germany about the potential of Islamic radicalization among second and third generation Muslim immigrants. Reports and studies show that some young Muslims are susceptible to extremist ideas. How do you explain that?
Cem Özdemir: The reasons are multi-layered. It's partly an integration problem, particularly among young males in big cities, where we have huge problems with education and employment. And then we frequently see young people who feel cut off from society -- that's what the London example also showed. These youngsters are born and grown up here in Germany and should actually belong to our society, but who -- either subjectively or objectively -- have the feeling they don't really belong.
In addition, we're now dealing with a totally new phenomenon -- that of extremists apparently attempting to infect these youngsters with their fundamentalist poison. In London, we saw that happening in Pakistani schools and madrassas (Islamic schools). It's definitely important to find out if anything comparable is happening here in our country.
The debate in Germany has largely been dominated by suggestions to step up security. The interior minister is favors increasing surveillance of mosques and making it easier to deport hate preachers and imams. What do you think of such measures?
I don't believe it will help us any further if we build up defenses along religious lines. Rather, we only have a chance if we take action on the basis of common values, and if moderate Muslims work with each other as well as side by side with Germans in the fight against terror.
What we do need is a higher degree of readiness on the part of Muslims to work together with the police and the security apparatus and to make sure that the misuse of religion is prevented. I welcome the fact that many Muslim organizations have once again taken a clear stance after the recent attacks in London and condemned them. But they need to go a step further and be alert to the goings-on in mosques, observe what young people there are doing and, if necessary, also seek contact with the police and security authorities.
The current discussion is one that comes up unfortunately after almost every terrorist attack in Europe. But, what exactly has the Muslim community undertaken since the attacks of Sept. 11 in the US, to rein in Islamic extremism?
It's a fundamental misunderstanding to think that the majority of people who go to mosques are academics who can speak German fluently and are familiar with all aspects of society. Rather, most of them come from a working class background; they often have only basic training and stem from rural parts of the countries they originate from. In other words, these aren’t people who know how to organize demonstrations and initiate political processes. It's a naïve idea to expect these people to organize themselves against terrorism.
But, of course there are also people in the community who are knowledgeable about the society we live in, especially immigrants of the second generation. That means we definitely have a communication problem even within the community. The only way of solving the problem is by improving and intensifying cooperation among Muslims themselves in German society. I think that's the only way of going about it. And our society would be well advised not to lump together all Muslims but rather to support the moderate ones in their fight against fundamentalistic ideas within the community as well as to support their efforts to improve the integration of the young.
It's also important that Muslims increasingly view themselves as immigrants, at some time Germans -- and not as extended arms of the countries they originate from.
Continue reading to find out what Özdemir has to say on tense relations between Germans and Muslims
How can values like "freedom" and "equality" be better transported to Muslim immigrants?
By making clear that they are not primarily Christian values, but rather universal ones that can be embraced by everyone irrespective of their religion. Every person who lives in our country must be willing to swear allegiance to our constitution. It is the constitution that guarantees religious freedom and the vast majority of Muslims is aware of that.
What can be done to improve relations between Germans and Muslims, particularly with fear on the German side?
I understand the fear, but we have to be careful that we don't generalize and make the mistake of doing exactly what the fundamentalists want: confrontation instead of solidarity and harmony among people of different religions in our country. We shouldn't do the fundamentalists and terrorists a favor by isolating Muslims and placing them under general suspicion.
The strategy to counter it has to be two-pronged: We have to ensure that the security apparatus is a position to do everything it can to protect the population -- this is also in the interest of moderate Muslims -- and at the same time we have to make sure that the coexistence of different religions works better and we have more success with integration. It should be possible to say that I'm a German national and of Muslim faith. In other words, we must make it possible for Islam to be at home and part of a palette of religions in Germany.
What we need are new answers and a more discerning strategy based on preventive security measures on the one hand and integration and dialogue on the other.
How far away are we from that ideal situation?
There will always be people who withdraw into their so-called parallel worlds. But as long as it concerns small groups, one can deal with it. Our problem isn't that districts like Kreuzberg in Berlin are home to many immigrants -- that's normal in a western city in a globalized world.
The problem is that unemployment rates and the number of people on welfare are often higher in neighborhoods with a high immigrant population. And parents -- Germans as well as successful people from immigrant backgrounds who belong to the middle class -- send them to schools in other districts. That's when it becomes problematic. We have to take care to prevent such segregated neighborhoods from turning into social flashpoints.
There is a tendency in Germany to pretend that integration has failed. That only disheartens people who have been successful in their efforts at intercultural dialogue and integration. Again, that's akin to playing into the hands of fundamentalists by giving in to panic and saying that everything's hopeless. There are several successful examples Germans and non-Germans living together in harmony. There's also a lot of potential for innovation, change and new ideas among immigrants.
What we have to do is act where there are problems -- in schools, in providing access to education, fighting unemployment, encouraging those aspiring to the middle class and also in the development of a common consciousness as a German irrespective of ethnic origin.