Multicultural Germany Course: Week 6 Summary (Oct. 5 & 7)

Migration brings both culture and religion. This week in our course we focused on religion and secularism, acknowledging the complexity of the terms in context of past and current migrations related to Germany. Our discussion found its beginnings in questions such as: Does religion form part of collective memory? Which conflicts arise around differing religious practices? How are these resolved?

Before one can begin to answer these questions, relevant texts such as the foreword by Charles Taylor in Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship and the third chapter of Secular Submissions by Fatima El-Tayeb provide crucial information and input on the topic that enable us to discuss religion and secularism in a well-rounded way. Furthermore, the collection of texts Germany in Transit provides multiple texts in chapter five, in which the focus is religion and diaspora, which enable us to understand the topic in Germany better, both historically and today.

Our weekly course presentation found us highlighting cruel facts: Europe’s “failures” in multiculturalism and multi-religion.

A clip from the 2014 Indian satirical science fiction comedy film PK gave us a scene where several individuals of varying religions were dressed in garbs associated with particular religions. The catch? All these individuals wore garbs associated with religions other than their own and were mistaken for being associated with the religions to which they were dressed. The message, its relevance to Germany and the way we look at religion are clear, one cannot pass judgment based solely on appearance.

When one associates appearance with religion or appearance with something negative without understanding, problems arise as they did in the film PK. Take for example the restrictions in Switzerland regarding the building of minarets. The association of minarets (a common architectural feature of mosques) with Islam and Islam with outsiders and negative connotations can be said to contribute to this restriction in Switzerland, why else would Switzerland ban the minaret and not other architectural structures? These negative connotations include the connection with terrorism and invasive culture many make with Islam. Such questions bring to light the debate in Europe, including Germany, over the use of religious symbols and religion as a whole in society, especially with regard to social and public structures such as schools and government.

With the word secularism on the tongues of governments, a conflict arises as European eyes look first to religions that do not have the deeply rooted histories in Europe that Catholicism and Protestantism do – namely Islam today. The wearing of headscarves in schools was, and continues to be, a heated topic of debate in France and Germany. A German teacher wishing to wear a headscarf faces greater opposition than a German teacher wishing to wear a cross. This issue today is something that finds its roots in the history of religion, primarily with the fact that Europe’s population has been experiencing a recent change in religious affiliation. Although Europe historically lacked large populations of Muslims, today’s Europe is experiencing a shift in its religious composition due to the growing Islamic population, something many countries fail to prepare for adequately or understand.

With this change the word integration comes up and defining such a word in this context is extremely difficult. Mechanically, integration means to join parts into a whole something our class discussion resolved is very much not the case in Europe. Integration in Europe, based on this simple definition, is more like one part dominating the joining and the other being dissected and barely acknowledged in the creation of the new. The “other” parts are the new people in Europe today, the migrants, their children and grandchildren. With them come new religions and cultures. The “new” is the Europe of today and the future, one that is currently still dominated by a tendency to stay in line with the past when a new future is upon them. Assimilation has also been used as a way to describe the way which Europeans wish newcomers to join their countries. Where integration looks to join two parts, assimilation attempts to make one group resemble the other. Somewhat a softer way of creating a new whole, assimilation has, like integration, been defined in many ways and thus remains a difficult way to define the way countries should identify their general culture and population.

This week we had a guest speaker, Yael Almog, a former UC Berkeley alumna who now works in Berlin at the Center for Research in Culture and Literature. She spoke about her work and its relevance to religion and secularism in Germany. Some key points of her talk involved the recent history of Jews in relation to Germany as well as the significance of the long history of Jewish populations in Europe. The complexity involved in separating religion from general identity is very much present in the Jewish population living in Germany, which consists of Jews who are descendants of Holocaust victims as well as Jews who have no relation to the Holocaust and come from other countries such as the Mizrahi Jews. Identification issues within the Jewish population exist, and then one must also consider how they identify when it comes to nationality. More precisely, there is a dichotomy between being Jewish and being Israeli. These complexities add to the difficulties of how one identifies oneself.

We are faced with complex questions in religion, more than just how to create a society that can have them all alongside one another in harmony, but how we define religions and the people belonging to them. One such question is if Judaism is a religion? A culture? An identity? This specific question was raised in our class and relevant to any religion. Now the question Germany faces today is more than how to integrate, or create a harmonious nation where multiple religions can exist, but also what kind of culture the future Germany will associate itself with.

– Kenneth Cromer

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