BERLIN — On a trip to the beach, a German friend recently saw two teenage Afghan refugee boys stare in shock at female bathers in scanty bikinis. She overheard one youth agitatedly ask the German volunteer accompanying him: “Where are their fathers? Where are their fathers?”
The good news is that the boy spoke German and had a German friend who could explain the culture gap between Afghanistan and Europe.
The bad news is obvious: Germany has an overwhelming task trying to integrate many of the million or so Muslim migrants who arrived in 2015.
And a debate has gone public over a subject that was once considered unmentionable in public here: whether Islamic precepts are compatible with the West.
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A sizable number of migrants are from the educated middle class, especially those arriving from Syria, around 40 percent of the total. But many others are young men from poorer backgrounds in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. They were sent ahead to establish a family beachhead in Europe — or escape the army. A good number are unaccompanied minors.
Many Germans — not just members of the anti-immigration or populist movements — worry that such youths are tempting targets for Islamists. They also wonder whether the gap between Germany society and conservative Arab Muslim cultures may be too wide to bridge.
“Fear toward Islam is increasing in Germany,” says Thomas Volk, coordinator on Islam and religious dialogue at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. “Fifty-seven percent of the non-Muslim population thinks Islam is dangerous or very dangerous. In May a poll showed that 60 percent think Islam doesn’t belong to Germany.”
Those polled don’t distinguish between Islamist ideology and the Muslim religion, says Volk.
The German public’s warmth toward refugees faltered after a New Year’s Eve episode in Cologne, where hundreds of young Arab men accosted German women during street celebrations. The men were mostly North African, not war refugees, and many were here illegally.
Yet this awful event also spurred a necessary public debate about how to integrate the newcomers quickly — and how to avoid the emergence of Arab Muslim ghettos, or “parallel societies,” as the Germans call them, where Islamists — or criminal gangs — could take root.
At present, the government sees providing jobs for immigrants as the main antidote to Islamization. But it appears to be paying less attention to another critical issue: Who will fund the mosques and imams that serve the new influx of Muslims? At present, around two-thirds of Germany’s roughly 4 million Muslims (5 percent of the population) are of Turkish descent, and Turkey’s religious ministry provides around 900 imams.
This arrangement was long viewed as satisfactory until the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began Islamacizing what had been a secular country.
However, the new immigrants are largely — though not all — Arabic speakers. The German press reported last year that Saudi Arabia offered to build 200 mosques in Germany for the newcomers (the Saudis have denied this), which sparked controversy.
In an astonishingly frank interview with the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag in December, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned: “We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over. Wahhabi (Islamic radical) mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia.”
However, a proposal by the conservative Christian Social Union party that Germany ban foreign funding of mosques and train its own imams gained little traction.
This is a hot-button issue that won’t go away.
Four theological schools have begun training German-speaking imams, leading some to hope Germany can produce a unique variant of European Islam that emphasizes tolerance and the peaceful aspects of the religion.
However, the largest Turkish Muslim association in Germany has made clear it will not accept the newly minted imams. It is also unclear whether they would be welcomed in mosques created for Arabic newcomers.
They might still prove immensely valuable in teaching “European Islam” in schools, since religious education is required in Germany. At present, official Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious bodies oversee training of teachers who give religious instruction in public schools.
But there is no one organization that speaks for all Muslims in Germany. “Maybe the way is to emphasize training in schools,” says Deniz Nergiz, a Turkish-German expert on integration, “where these new theologians would teach, but would not be in the mosques.”
The question of how to ease young migrants into German society and culture touches on the nerves of those who fear youths may be easy targets for radical proselytizers outside of school. Puritan salafi Muslims — of whom there are said to be about 9,000 in Germany — have been caught trying to infiltrate refugee shelters.
“We are afraid of recruitment, particularly among unaccompanied minors,” says Deidre Berger, the Berlin representative of the American Jewish Committee which has concerns about threats to Jewish life in Germany.
Can the Afghan boys on the beach find a way into German society where they can practice their faith but don’t feel alienated by their surroundings? And can the debate over clashing cultures be addressed without encouraging a racist backlash that alienates those whom Germany is trying to integrate?
At this point no one can say.