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.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/dbrutus/ TM Lutas

    Properly flying flags is a *very big deal*. I cannot say for certain what the FRG protocol is but flying a foreign flag without a domestic one is ususally considered a statement of actual or incipient insurrection. This is not merely a matter of christian sensibilities as when the shoe is on the other foot (as was the case in Constantinople where it was the Greek flag flying over the ecumenical Patriarch’s domain) muslims are just as easily outraged. Doing it in time of war is especially momentous.
    There are protocols to be honored in the proper display of flags. Violating them should be done in a calculated way if they are to be violated at all because you *are* going to get pushback from the locals and courting that without good reason is just plain stupid.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Thanks for the comments, TM.
    I don’t doubt that it is unwise and potentially illegal to fly a foreign flag in many places and situations.
    What I object to is the dimestore psychoanalysis and the lack of acknowledgement of how complicated relations between Turks and the rest of German society are.
    Preaching about patriotism to people who weren’t allowed to even be citizens until recently is a cheapshot.

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    I was born in Germany and come from a German background. You wrote an excellent article and outlined many of the issues at play.
    I always thought it odd when Germans wondered why Turks didnt integrate, yet until recently even third generation Turks, born and raised in Germany, had to carry a Turkish passport.
    Many of these Turks in Germany speak no Turkish, communicate solely in German, and have little or no ties back to Turkey. They are German in every sense of the word. It is hard to integrate when the society that claims to want to have you integrate puts you are arms length.
    The Turks were originally imported into Germany to do the work that the Germans felt themselves too good to do. Sweep streets, pick up trash, sewer work, you name it. Only when the economic crunch came did it become an issue because then even Germans felt they might “lower” themselves to do these jobs.
    In large German cities you often have little “Bantustans” where the local community is almost entirely non native. This wasnt by design by the immigrants, but the Germans seem happy to keep it this way.
    Recent set backs in civil liberties also show how strained the relationship is. A Federal Court ruled it was okay for a school teacher to be passed over for promotion because she wore the hijab.
    Unlike France, where this is supposed to be about secularism, although argument can be made about that, here we are talking about Germany where the state collects church taxes to distribute to the “offical church” in the given area.
    Germany has a long way to go.

  • svend

    Thanks very much for sharing your interesting insights, Abu Sinan.
    Your comments remind me a bit of the “beur” generation of North Africans in France, who often speak little or no Arabic, are 100% French, and feel little connection to their “homeland”. They at least generally have citizenship. (Not that it seems to make much of a difference,judging by how economically, socially and politically marginalized they are from French society.) Their families too were shipped in a generation ago and left to rot in the ‘hood.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Fadzilah/ Fadzilah

    Well I agree with what you say mostly, but as for the ‘So what?’, I’ve to say the issue here is with the flag. Security arrangements, ‘stoic faces’ by themselves don’t signify as much as the flag, which is a powerful marker of sovereignty, and it’s hard to downplay its meanings and symbolism. The onus is not on ‘normal’ Germans to prove their ‘German-ness’ as I’m sure you know. They’re already considered true Germans and don’t need to wave the German flag to prove it. To the Germans, all the Turks are encouraged to do is not to wave the Turkish flag in this particular case. They don’t have to wave the German flag.
    It’s not as if we’re sure the Turks meant the flag as a backlash against the Germans who had rejected them as citizens. You yourself imply that they want to BE Germans. So what of the display of the Turkish flag then?
    The hard truth is preaching about patriotism to people who weren’t allowed to even be citizens until recently may be a cheapshot, but a legitimate one in this case.

  • svend

    Thanks for the feedback, Fadzilah.
    The problem here is the overwrought rhetoric of an outsider (and a seemingly poorly informed one at that) that misrepresents a complicated situation and adds fuel to the fire.
    Whether they mean the flag as a message to the surrounding society or whether its a manifestation of their quite natural (and until recently government sanctioned) identification with Turkey, there is context that must be acknowledged if you want to be part of the solution.
    I agree that the topic should be discussed. But this wasn’t a “discussion”. It was a string of cheapshots from an outsider who won’t have deal with their consequences.

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    I am not sure how I feel about the new growing sense of patriotism in Germany. On one hand, I love being German. Who can come from the country of Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven and not feel a pride in that?
    The problem is that all too often the Germans that feel the most “pride” are not those who would point to Heinrich Heine or JS Bach, rather the ones who would point to Heinrich Himmler.
    One of the things that drew me to Islam was the idea that race or nationality didnt matter, at least in theory. We know that in practice this isnt the case.
    I am not big on national anythings, which is why I only half heartedly get into the World Cup, even though I LOVE football. Now, send me to a Celtic match or FC St Pauli, that is another story completely.

  • Marcus Richter

    In all fairness to the author he seems to be conversant with the limits of German hospitality. I did visit the altMuslim site to read the entire article and I found that his key point, which you fail to even discuss, is quite valid:
    “With Islamophobia on the rise in most western countries, grand displays of Islamic religiosity – the mosque is indeed fabulous – combined with overt, in your face displays of allegiance to foreign nations can only be described as spectacularly stupid.”
    I think Turkish Muslims who have been campaigning for equal treatment by asserting that they are as germans as anyother German, should not fly foreign flags. German churches do not fly Irish, or Italian or Russian flags.
    As a German who advocates multiculturalism, I really admire that author’s criticism of Germany that you seem to have missed.
    “Germany has a long way to go. Even though it does not have foreign policy problems like the U.S., it has several domestic policy issues. First Germany must recognize Islam. Germany has been for decades a multi-ethnic society but very few Germans imagine Germany as a multicultural society. German intellectuals brag a lot about being secular, well how about secularizing the German State and dumping Christianity and Judaism from the national budget.
    German identity is rooted in the past and is culturally tied to race, and ethnicity. Becoming German is very difficult even for those who are born in Germany; speak German better than most natives but happen to look like me rather than Boris Becker.
    German intellectuals must begin to imagine a Germany as a political community that is a composite of values, rather than a nation-state based on a specific ethnicity. In the age of globalization, narrowly defined identities are untenable. Germany as an integral part of the emerging global society must define itself in terms of global values that are sensitive to cultural, racial and religious differences and become a role model for other European nations like Ireland and Portugal that will soon face similar problems.
    Muslims who live as minorities in the west or anywhere else, must understand that their demand for tolerance for religious and cultural differences is a just cause. But they must align their political and economic interests with those of their neighbors [whose acceptance they seek] and not with those who live in foreign lands.
    There is room for Islam in America and Germany. We can and we will build bigger and more spectacular mosques in the West, but there is no place for Saudi flags, or Turkish or Pakistani flags in Western mosques. They have their embassies and that is enough. They should not be allowed to use our mosques.”

  • Marcus Richter

    The author seems like a very profound intellectual, I just visited his website, and found a wealth of articles.

  • Marcus Richter

    Opps, the url did not show: http://www.ijtihad.org. There is a picture of the mosque too at his webpage see: http://www.ijtihad.org/Mosques-Flags.htm

  • AslanK

    Marcus, thanks for the link, I have actually prayed in this mosque in berlin, even the Imam is on the payroll of the turkish government.
    I have seen this dude Muqtedar Khan on German TV on a number of occaisions, he is quite popular with educated German Muslims and is seen as very critical of Germany, as can be seen from his comments on Germany.
    I agree with him, it is we, the descendents Turks in Germany who wanted to be treated as Germans and then to fly a Turkish flag is stupid. The germans love it, they say you love Turkey, good, go to Turkey, why stay in racist germany.
    BTW Marcus, thanks for the link to his website, I will forward it to Turkish groups. It is interetsing to see that the article was published in so many Muslim contries, Al Ahram in Egypt, Daily Times in Pakistan …

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Thanks for the comments, folks.
    The problem is taking complex social phenomena and reducing them to shallow soundbytes.
    It’s very easy to take shots at Muslims today when their every fault and misstep is put under a microscope and analyzed endlessly by hostile critics. It’s a lot harder to give constructive criticism and discuss them as like normal people.
    I’m afraid this is part of a pattern. Whatever his intentions, he seems to regularly burnish his “dissident” Muslim credentials by making grand public declarations about complex problems involving Muslims that are so simplistic and myopic that I think they do more harm than good.

  • http://omar.dgatto.com OmarG

    Salams Svend,
    >>The problem is taking complex social phenomena and reducing them to shallow soundbytes.
    I call it “popularization”. I read how you’re taking up grad school in Islamic Studies. Awesome. As a fellow grad student in the same field, I insist on not locking myself in an ivory tower. THe whole purpose of intellectual pursuit as specialists is to investigate, wiegh the evidence and make a judgement. Then, and here’s the important part, is to reduce it to a sound bite so the general population of non-specialists can “get it”. Academia is worthless and we are worthless if we can’t use our brains and devotion to this speciality to find solutions to these grand and even not so grand problems. Worse yet, what happens if we can’t communicate our contributions to people who matter, but don’t have the time to learn sociological theory or figure out what hermeneutics means? Ya know.

  • Jennifer Arlen

    I am a sociology student at Oxford and I am researching the contrbutions of Western Muslim intellectuals like Tariq Ramadan, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Muqtedar Khan and Ziauddin Sardar.
    I must say that one thing that is consistent about all of these intellectuals is that they have consistently stood up for the values that they espouse even if it means being critical of Muslim practices.
    There is a Quranic verse that says standup for justice, even if it means against your own people…
    I particualrly like Muqtedar Khan’s work because his internal critique is often profound and meshes theology as well as politics. My personal favorites are his defense of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam [http://www.bangsamoro.com/mvoice/mv_061003_d.php] and his critique of the hijab [http://www.brookings.edu/printme.wbs?page=/pagedefs/53b6bfb4e661ff3e6afe2a210a1415cb.xml].

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Thanks for the comments, Omar and Jennifer.
    To each his or her own. I find his writings more focused on form (e.g., catchy slogans that people in Washington eat up) than substance or credible ideas for reform.
    Personally, judging him by his output and the tenor of his writings, I wouldn’t put him in the same category as the thinkers you mention. I view him more as a pundit or political commentator than a theorist or reformer. He’s capable of profound analysis, but catchy slogans aside more often than not he seems content to remain within the safe confines of the conventional wisdom or emotional slogans.
    He makes interesting points at times, but I’m not sure that his broader analysis contributes to serious debate. His religious commentary while colorful and passionate tends stay on the surface of the issues (even the piece on epistemological hijab you mention contains a host oversimplifications; and meanwhile he uncritically parrots the establishment line on female-led prayer), and his political analysis tends to tacitly accept the most harmful and counterproductive assumptions of policymakers.
    The Quran certainly enjoins standing for justice even if entails standing against one’s own people, but it also enjoins defending the oppressed, not validating the specious justifications for that oppression. Uncritically accepting politically expedient myths and oversimplifications that prevail in the halls of power is contrary to that noble end. Also, part of justice is speaking truth to those who have power rather than grandstanding at the expense of those who lack it.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/JimGibbon/ JimGibbon

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your post and the comments, and even though I’m joining the discussion a bit late, I thought I’d chip in my two cents.
    I have been in Berlin for the last 6 weeks interviewing imams and visiting mosques for my dissertation on Turkish Islamic sermons. I have visited the mosque Khan wrote about several times, have interviewed the imam, and have spent hours chatting with people coming there from prayers. I wrote about my first visit on my website: http://jimgibbon.com/2006/06/20/visit-to-ditib-mosque . My observations differ a great deal from Mr. Khan’s, and there is a particular factual detail that probably should have prevented him from writing the article.
    First, in my most recent visits to Sehitlik Mosque there were two flags flying high above the grounds–one Turkish and one German. I’ll ask when they were installed b/c I suppose it’s possible that word got back to the mosque about this story and they made changes over the past few weeks.
    Second, in the picture on Khan’s website, there is an Azerbaijani flag and another flag I can’t make out. Those flags are no longer there, so it makes me think there was some Turkic cultural day/celebration taking place. Just a hunch.
    Third, I have never seen scores of men watching the gate, but in any case, keep in mind that the mosque is on the site of Berlin’s oldest Islamic cemetary, which contains the remains of Turkish ambassadors and even soldiers from WWI. Seeing as how the cemetary is alongside a wide, dusty road where cars come at speed, I can understand the need for a wall to keep the dirt and noise out.
    Fourth, and this is the kicker, I’ve been told several times that Germany has actually granted the land of that cemetary and mosque to the Turkish government, who in turn has returned the favor in Istanbul at the cite of a cemetary containing remains of German/Prussian soldiers. Indeed, the mosque’s website explains that the cemetary belongs to the Turkish Ministry of Defense. On my first visit, the young man showing me around the mosque said, “Welcome to Turkey,” as we crossed over the threshold onto the grounds. In other words, it’s the same as when you visit a particular nation’s embassy (recall the “Simpsons visit Australia” episode). The mosque has a very friendly volunteer PR staff that could have explained this to him.
    In short, disregarding his thesis for the moment, Mr. Khan might want to find a different example to support his argument.

  • svend

    Thanks so much for the additional background and interesting report, Jim. Your comments are very enlightening and seem to confirm my suspicion that this is a very mundane situation being exploited as fuel for the latest Clash of Civilizations soundbyte.

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