On expecting second-class citizens to be flag-waving patriots.

A recent article in alt.muslim ("Mosques With Foreign Flags") illustrates much of what’s dead wrong with discussions in Washington of Muslims, immigration and assimilation.  I try to ignore silly statements of this nature in the media, but with this mix of irresponsible rhetoric and indifference to elementary considerations of historical and social context coming from a prominent Muslims I’m irritated enough to comment. 

I have to shake my head in amazement at these ill-informed potshots and flimsy generalizations.  I’d expect more nuanced and evenhanded analysis from the average journalist  lacking any background in Islam or Muslims, much less a Muslim and a scholar on Muslims.  It’s really quite shocking.

The author complained about a Turkish-majority mosque in Germany that he recently visited in connection with a conference.  Its offense was flying a Turkish flag unaccompanied by a German one.  He then implied that Turkish Muslims were retrograde communalists who refuse to assimilate into the welcoming bosom of German society 

As I looked at the mosque with its Turkish flag flying proudly, the high walls, the iron gates and the stoic faces, I suddenly realized that this was not a mosque – this was a sort of embassy, a foreign enclave, an extention of Turkish sovereignty in the heart of Germany.

The melodramatic assertion that German sovereignty is being undermined by the existence of  this private, ethnically oriented mosque seems unwarranted by the evidence provided, not to mention more than a bit inflammatory (more later).  Sure, it flies a foreign flag, has a modicum of security arrangements,  and is visited by congregants with "stoic" faces (whatever this means).  So what? 

How in the world does this demonstrate egregious communalism, given Germany’s past and present strained relationship with its Turkish minority, not to mention its own lukewarm brand of nationalism?  The link certainly isn’t self-evident.

As for the walls and gate that the author finds so imposing, it’s unfortunate that the author doesn’t bother to mention which mosque he attended nor the type of neighborhood the mosque was in.  Many buildings  have walls and/or gates (sometimes for purely esthetic reasons), and crime is not exactly unknown in Germany.

Also, he writes as if he were blissfully unaware of the steadily rising tide of violence against foreigners there:

"Hardly a day goes by without some new act of hatred," says Paul Spiegel, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. "Attacks on foreigners, swastikas daubed on synagogues, violence against ethnic minorities. I thought this sort of thing had been consigned to history. I am very worried."

Then there’s the bizarre quip about "stoic faces", which sounds more like the observation of a clueless tourist than a travelling scholar. For one thing, the targets of this barb would probably like to know since when Germans have become known for being so outgoing– Germans, like many northern Europeans, can be pretty reserved in public compared to many other societies.   At best, this remark seems an anachronistic and anthropologically inept observation about members of an unfamiliar culture. (It could’ve been drawn from the memoirs of a 19th century Sahib observing the exotic "natives" of the Raj.)  At worst, it sounds like xenophobic speculation about Turks being alien to Germany society.

As if all that’s not enough, the author claims that German "sovreignty" is being undermined the these separatist Turks, with their "in your face" flags, security measures and cold stares.  Note the disturbing similiarity of this alarmist discourse to the hysterical  and openly bigoted "Eurabia"-type  rhetoric of Muslim-bashers like Oriana Fallaci.  The presence of a single minor detail (a flag on a mosque) is cited as proof positive that civilization is under siege. The odious implication is that for Europe’s recent arrivals to visibly demonstrate their entirely natural attachment to their lands of origin–an instinct all the more understandable in a German context, for reasons I lay out below–constitutes a nebulous threat to the national identity, and an affront to national pride to boot. 

The biggest issue with this article, though, is how it’s based on what can only be called a very myopic reading of the "problem". 

This charge shows neither awareness of the fitful and ambiguous way the assimiliation process tends to naturally progress among immigrants everywhere,  nor how common it is for Americans to identify passionately with other countries without in any way belying their patriotism. The assimilation process takes time, especially when the surrounding society differs significantly, and even more so when it rejects you and contrives to keep you a "guest worker" as opposed to fellow citizen (see below).  There is nothing sociologically unusual about recent immigrants or even their offspring striving to maintain visible links with the "Old Country".  While holding America up as a mirror, the author fails to note how unremarkable foreign flags are in American life.  (I can’t count the number of "proud" Irish or Italian flags I saw growing up in Boston in the Seventies and Eighties.)

Another elementary sociological insight that is lacking from this simplistic reading is how the assimilation process in Germany has been inevitably and quite predictably retarded by hostile social and political circumstances, such as extremely high rates of unemployment and decades of the legalized discrimination. 
Though the author notes in passing that Germany has problems integrating its immigrant population and that "becoming German is very difficult [for non-whites] even for those who are born in Germany […and] speak German better than most natives", he fails to explore the fateful implications of this fact, which greatly undermine his generalizations about Turkish Muslims in Germany.

Until quite recently, German-born Turks were barred from obtaining German citizenship regardless of their mastery of the German language, their politics or beliefs, or what flag they waved.  In many places around the world,de facto second-class citizenship exists to one degree or another, but thanks to Germany’s anachronistic race-based citizenship laws, until 2000 German-born Turks (most of whose mother tongue was German and whose cultural background was overwhelmingly German) were de jure (i.e., formally) second-class citizens.  As one report puts it, "Unlike in the United States and elsewhere, these children were  not granted German citizenship at birth and were treated as foreigners in a  legal sense."   Not exactly how you foster feelings of belonging among immigrants.

And it goes without saying that fear and prejudice between Turk and
mainstream German are on the rise in Germany today with the problems
political problems involving Muslims, both inside and outside Germany.

The point is not that Germany is a terrible place, that Turks shouldn’t assimilite into German society, or even that Turks
have had it bad there  (a complicated question upon which I couldn’t
even venture an opinion).  However, Germany’s relationship with "its"
Turks has been decidedly ambivalent over the years, so one shouldn’t be
surprised if German Turks’ attitudes towards their host country is
characterized by some of the same ambivalence. 

Then there’s how hazy the very notions of German patriotism and nationalism are today even among "normal" Germans.  It is not unusual for Germans to be ambivalent about and/or fearful of German patriotism, an understanable fact given the chilling catastrophes that unrestrained German nationalism had for it and humanity earlier in the 20th century.  Here’s an appropriate observation from a report entitled "German National Identity: Patriotism and Stigma":

In light of German history, this distinction between patriotism and nationalism makes German national identity intriguing and deeply problematic. Although nationalism, especially in its extreme forms, may meet with criticism in most sociopolitical contexts, many Germans perceive a strong national and international norm against any expression of German patriotism. In the wake of two world wars and the Holocaust, a threefold stigma against German nationalism as militaristic, extremist, and ethnocentric has developed. While taboos against nationalism do not necessarily proscribe patriotism, recent controversies reveal that many Germans blur this distinction. In fact, a prominent politician’s March 2001 comment that he was “proud to be German” drew massive criticism and ignited a debate that stretched on for months and focused national attention on German patriotism (Br¸ning, Krumrey, Opitz, & Stock, 2001).

So, let’s get this straight.   Outsiders can berate as unpatriotic members of a minority that for decades was officially classified by the State as a guests (and increasingly unwelcome ones at that), one which was  legally prevented from integrating fully into society–remember, they were forced to retain foreign passports for decades–and a community that is now facing rising prejudice and even violent attacks from hard-line nativists?  All this is justified because we naively explect that Turks turn overnight into flag-waving, "Das Lied der Deutschen"-singing patriots, and despite the fact that this is not common even among "normal" Germans (until recently, it Germans were so uncomfortable with expressions of patriotism that they wouldn’t root for their own soccer team) .

Is this a joke?  Has fairness become verboten? Is this how a scholar discusses social problems?

The saddest thing of all is that this sociologically and historically slipshod approach is becoming the dominant prism through which "the Muslim Problem" is viewed by  much of the Western media and political class.

Integration is a legitimate goal.  It certainly is important for all parties concerned that Muslims adapt themselves–as all immigrants eventually must–to and work hard to contribute to the socieites in which they live, but it is equally crucial that their fellow citizens realize that, as one observer insightfully points out (seemingly in response to the article in question), "integration is a two-way street".  And it doesn’t happen overnight, especially when you have a legacy of mistrust and discrimination.

When it comes to ethnic ghettos, it takes two to tango.  Blaming immigrants for social problems that aren’t  of their own making and stereotyping them in ways that increase prejudice only exacerbates those same problems and dooms society to even greater communalism and misunderstandings.  It’s doubly sad to see a Muslim expert seconding this trite rhetoric.

Finally, replace the word "assimilation" with "democracy" in this rhetoric and you get a picture of the dangerously simplistic and historically uninformed way many in Washington view the Muslim world’s political problems.  There is a widespread and deepseated unwillingness to honestly discuss the significant role repeatedly played by outsiders in setting the stage for problems for which Muslims are under fire today.   

P.S.  If anyone knows which mosque was involved, I’d be interested to find out.

Update (2006-06-19): 

I’m including a very interesting and apropos news item that I came across quite serendipitously after writing this post.  Note how new the notion of "normal" patriotism is Germany.

Also made a few stylistic tweaks.

From The Week Magazine:

Say it loud, we’re German and we’re proud.

Markus Hesselmann

Der Tagesspiegel

Germans are beginning to shed their long taboo against patriotism, said Markus Hesselmann in Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel. With the national soul-searching that followed World War II came a deep distrust of flag-waving, saluting, and anything else that smacked of nationalistic fervor. At a soccer World Cup final in the 1970s, not only did the German fans refuse to sing the national anthem, so did the victorious players. Cheering on Germany was so problematic that most Germans didn’t even try, and instead allied themselves with teams from other countries, such as England or Brazil. “The Cameroon team was a German favorite” for quite some time. This knee-jerk rejection of the “fatherland” reached its peak after the reunification of East and West Germany, when many leftists here feared that Germany would once again succumb to fascism and territorial aggression. But that didn’t happen. Germany has grown up, and so have Germans. Slowly, we’ve learned that “progressive, internationalist thinking needn’t be incompatible with patriotism.” Now that the German national team is “a multi-culti, diverse group,” with several foreign-born and even two black players, supporting it “is actually fun.” And it’s something Germans can do proudly, without those old pangs of guilt.

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