Multicultural Germany Class: Week 6, Religion

This post is part of a series in which students reflect on their discussions in the UC Berkeley undergraduate seminar “Multicultural Germany.” This week’s summary is by Victoria Brinkerhoff:

This week’s Multicultural Germany class readings and discussions delved into religious variation, contention, and representation within Germany today. We focused on questions and debates surrounding secularism, Muslim identity in Germany and representations of the female body, as well as the preservation of memory in the context of Judaism post-Holocaust. Throughout our discussions, we found that deeming groups of certain religious affiliations as the “other” within Germany society certainly exists today, as it has throughout Germany’s history. “Othering” functions to exclude groups from the identity of those perceived as compatible with secularism and German society’s predominant cultural values and attitudes.

Our class discussion began with the topic of secularism. Germany does not have a strict policy of separation between church and state, as it facilitates religious classes held within public schools. According to one of our course readings, a forward titled “What is Secularism?” by Charles Taylor, secularism asserts three principles: liberty, equality, and fraternity. No one must be forced into the domain of religion, there must be equality between people of different faiths or beliefs, and all spiritual families must be heard. Within his analysis, he articulates issues accompanying the European perception that Muslim ideals are inassimilable to democratic customs. As immigrants, Muslims experience tremendous pressure to assimilate to mainstream cultural practices associated with non-Muslim religions; when attempting to retain their original identities, they develop alienated, or excluded, counter identities. Importantly, Taylor claims that secularism is a negotiation among equal parts of the religious conversation, which an excluded immigrant identity works against. Teddy Lee’s presentation demonstrated this very phenomenon; he discussed case studies in which Muslim women’s rights, like having a driver’s license, have been revoked because they wear a niqab in their license photograph, for example. We spoke of important questions in reaction to such cases: where is a hijab deemed acceptable to wear in European societies, and what do non-Muslims feel the hijab represents, as opposed to a crucifix? In the revoking such rights, Muslim women’s identities become further entrenched in exclusion, diverging from the secularism and equal representation in consensus building that Taylor calls for.

Our class discussion then shifted to examine Muslim identity in Europe and representations of the female body. We specifically analyzed an article by Fatima El-Tayeb titled “Secular Submissions.” El-Tayeb argues that Muslim youths—the violent male and the veiled young woman—become the central “other” in unifying Europe, exemplifying everything it is and cannot be, exactly at the point when the existence of a native European Muslim population is an undeniable reality. El-Tayeb’s article importantly points out that culture is made into the focal point of contention in these debates, rather than the issues of religion or race that underlie them. Christian Europeans criticize Islam as provincial, close-minded, and intolerant, while they refer to themselves as modern, tolerant, and enlightened. We viewed videos portraying Europeans’ perceptions of Islam and its cultural attitudes through the representation of a woman’s body. A video displayed a female with scriptures tattooed on her body, as well as lacerations on her back, in order to convey the inherent violence of the scriptures and their callings. While Christians juxtapose themselves with Islam, we discussed that it is crucial to note that an identity is only formed in relation to another; however, who gets to interpret whom, and who gets to participate in identity formation? Whose voice is heard, usually deeming the contrasting group the “other?”

Concluding our discussion, we spoke of the preservation of memory, specific to Judaism after the Holocaust. We explored important questions such as: who has a responsibility or impetus to preserve which memories? Also, what kinds of memory institutions are necessary to commemorate or display the culture of those “othered” for various reasons within German society? These questions are especially complex in the context of Judaism in Germany. My classmate, Preethi Kandhalu, gave a presentation that displayed current examples of Jewish memory commemoration through religious restaurants and educational museums in Germany. She discussed an excerpt we read from Germany in Transit titled “The Hype Over the Star of David,” by Meike Wöhlert. While Jews were once firmly deemed an “other” outside of mainstream German society, Wöhlert claims that eating at trendy Jewish restaurants or engaging in such superficial cultural interactions does not adequately educate the public about Jewish life in Germany. Instead, stereotypes are capable of spreading, and the public fails to come to terms with Jewish society’s real history devoid of folklore. Wöhlert’s article raises critical questions: when engaging in memory commemoration, to what extent does the consumable packaging of cultures serve as an acceptable form of remembrance? In addition, how can a group lose its identification as an “other” through various forms of education and commemoration?

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