"For integration, read assimilation"

Islam expert Schirin Amir-Moazami says Europe must take a more critical look at the social and political conditions under which Muslims immigrated to Europe – and in which they now live. Interview by Claudia Mende

By Claudia Mende

Ms Amir-Moazami, "integration" generally carries positive connotations. What is it about integration that you are critical of?

Schirin Amir-Moazami: Integration is definitely better than the explicit exclusion or segregation of immigrants. When I take a critical look at integration, my intention is certainly not to extol what is generally viewed as the opposite of integration, namely racism, Islamophobia or exclusion.

A huge variety of political strategies are linked to integration. These range from measures that seek to achieve the participation of those immigrants and subsequent generations who do not already participate right up to the idea that immigrants and their descendants should conform to some kind of whole.

I became critical of the integration paradigm after examining how it works in political practice and, in particular, at state level in European societies and in Germany in particular. There, it doesn't primarily work – as it might initially seem – as a form of inclusion, but actually contains very specific exclusion mechanisms.

Cover of "Interrogating Muslims" by Schirin Amir-Moazami, published by Bloomsbury (source: Bloomsbury)
In her book "Interrogating Muslims" (Bloomsbury 2022), Berlin-based Islamic scholar Schirin Amir-Moazami analyses the lines of reasoning behind Germany's integration policy. "We must take a more critical look at the social and political conditions under which Muslims immigrated to Europe – and in which they now live," says Amir-Moazami. "Instead, stock phrases such as "freedom", "democracy" and 'human rights' are tossed into the debate and the only question that is asked is how Muslims should behave with regard to these things. Too few Muslim voices that would foster other narratives are being heard in the public sphere"

What exclusion mechanisms do you mean?

Amir-Moazami: Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the ideal of an intact whole is constructed, a whole into which the marginalised fringes, which are deemed problematic, have to incorporate themselves.

Although the origins of the term "integration" have nothing to do with immigration, it always comes into play when society is portrayed as being under threat and fragmented as a result of immigration.

The disintegration of the social cement that holds society together is, therefore, always projected onto the immigrated "other". This is the mechanism I set out to investigate in my book.

Interestingly, integration as a political agenda has become more prominent in Germany as immigrants have become a permanent aspect of the country's society.

That's paradoxical. If immigrants are already participating in society in a variety of ways, why do they need to be integrated and into what precisely?

So society is seen as a unit, meaning those on the outside need to be incorporated into it?

Amir-Moazami: Exactly. Or, to put it more accurately, this unit is invented and longed for: society is seen as a holistic whole and equated with the nation-state.

The notion of an idealised majority creates minorities that have to be brought into the social fabric of society, either through disciplining or through education. This scheme has striking similarities to assimilation.

The minority is seen as the problem

Is it possible to distinguish clearly between assimilation and integration?

Amir-Moazami: These are two different political strategies that – in some respects, at least – have very similar effects. The term assimilation has a very different history and actually comes from the field of biology. Assimilation is the absorption of one element into a larger organism. It has crept into social science from biology. As modern nation-states emerged, minorities were called on to leave behind their entire cultural ballast and to allow themselves to be absorbed into the body of the people.

While the term "integration" does have elements of assimilation, given the existence of institutionalised liberal freedoms, growing global interconnections and the reflection on this dark past, the term does have other connotations. Integration can also mean recognition or participation. But there too, it needs an authority that manages recognition or participation and specifies the conditions for recognition or participation.

Does that mean that exclusion is taking place under the umbrella of integration?

Amir-Moazami: When calling on people to integrate, it is only ever the minority that is portrayed as the problem. The majority, on the other hand, remains unmarked. This is not only a matter of exclusion, but also about bringing this minority, which is deemed problematic, onto the "right" path, to educate it, and to turn those who belong to it into obedient and responsible citizens. In short, the others should become the way "we" would like to be.

Yet this also means exclusion. Because – as the frequently invoked German integration formula of Fördern und Fordern (support and demand) implies – integration always comes with conditions. These conditions are in a constant state of flux, depending on those who define them. The conditions may be a kind of Leitkultur, or "defining culture"; sometimes they are abstract constitutional principles that are, when more closely examined, linked to concrete social conventions. We can therefore never quite know when somebody is deemed to have been truly integrated.



To what extent are old patterns at work here?

Amir-Moazami: In the case of assimilation in the nineteenth century, no matter what the Jews did – acting more German than the Germans themselves, abandoning all Jewish traditions or even condemning them vociferously – they remained the "unregenerate Jews" as sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman put it.

We are seeing something similar today. For example, while Muslims who vociferously praise the Enlightenment and European achievements are happily given a public platform, they are still pigeonholed according to their "descent" or their "origins".

You say that according to the integration paradigm, immigrants and their descendants first have to be educated as liberal subjects. You also describe the state's dialogue policy – which, for example, finds expression in the German Islam Conference (DIK) – as paternalistic. Why?

Amir-Moazami: I don't criticise the DIK per se because I am against dialogue. On the contrary, dialogue is important and right. However, the way this dialogue works has had very paternalistic characteristics right from the word go.

Wolfgang Schaeuble [of the then ruling Christian Democrats – ed.], who was minister of the interior at the time, said at the launch of the DIK in 2006 that Muslims in Germany should become German Muslims, that Islam in Germany should therefore become a German Islam. While this all sounds very benevolent, it is at the same time odd because most Muslims were at the time already German citizens.

He then followed this up by listing the problems he wanted to address in the dialogue: "Islamic gender norms", "the headscarf", "Islamism". He barely mentioned German society, which had taken so long to see itself as an immigration society and he said nothing about the smouldering or open racism in Germany or the unequal social baseline conditions for this "dialogue on equal terms".

Right-wing populists demonstrate at Berlin Central Station (image: picture-alliance/dpa/E.v. Jutrcznk)
Islamophobes protest in front of Berlin's main railway station: of course, the others are always to blame. The German state's policy of dialogue with immigrants is mostly about the immigrants' "duty to make a positive contribution". Then topics such as "Islamic gender norms", "the headscarf", or "Islamism" are addressed. "Hardly a mention of German society, which has taken so long to see itself as an immigration society and nothing about the smouldering or open racism in this country or the unequal social baseline conditions for a 'dialogue on equal terms'," says Schirin Amir-Moazami

Deficits are only ever seen in immigrants

From the word go, the deficits have only ever been seen in "the others". While they were encouraged to take part in the dialogue with gestures of welcome, why should people who have been living in a country for generations even be welcomed in the first place?

The very conception of the DIK made it clear that this was a forum that was supposed to tame Muslims. The history of the DIK goes back to Otto Schily [Social Democrat, former German minister of the interior – ed.] who conceived it above all as a security dialogue in the wake of 9/11. In other words, the security aspect was key right from the very start. Incidentally, Schily spoke quite openly of "assimilation".

So, while it was also about the recognition of Muslims – at least a politically symbolic recognition, not necessarily the legal recognition of Islam – the first and overarching dimension was that of security policy.

"Taming" is a very strong word. Can you describe the kind of Muslim that is wanted? And would that person even still be a Muslim?

Amir-Moazami: I would never dispute anyone’s Muslimness; there are very different ways of being a Muslim. But it is clear that the voices most likely to make themselves heard publicly and politically are those that uncritically praise European achievements, with no mention of colonialism or racism.

The notion of how Muslims should be when they are integrated is based on a litany of wishes that has little to do with social realities. Things like "tamed religion" or "secularised religion" – in other words concepts that German society claims for itself – are constructed within the framework of such dialogue events like the DIK, while the "other" is seen as incompatible, as lacking and as not being up to scratch.

Other narratives are rarely heard

The same questions are raised over and over again in the integration debate. Take, for example, the debate after the riots on New Year's Eve in Berlin: once again, it was said that Muslims are – by virtue of the fact that they are Muslim – incompatible with society, while the social factors associated with these kinds of problems are not taken into account at all. Do you see any chance of this narrow focus being widened?

Amir-Moazami: I do indeed see potential for critically addressing this one-sided line of questioning and the "Islamicisation" of social problems. In the field of research, there has long been a critical discussion about this. Individual Muslim players are also questioning this attitude. But then there is also the media discourse, which seems to becoming more rigid the more criticism of the discourse framework is stirred up.

The media debate about Islam is catastrophic, but there are also alternative publics that discuss critical or decolonial perspectives or that call out racism. Sometimes, some of this spills over into the mainstream media.

We must take a more critical look at the social and political conditions under which Muslims immigrated to Europe – and in which they now live. Instead, stock phrases such as "freedom", "democracy" and "human rights" are tossed into the debate and the only question that is asked is how Muslims should behave with regard to these things. Too few Muslim voices that would foster other narratives are being heard in the public sphere.



But such voices do exist.

Amir-Moazami: Yes indeed, these voices do exist. But they are not heard. In my opinion that has a lot to do with the failure to reflect the size of the framework and the unequal baseline conditions regarding who is permitted to interpret the situation. Part of this framework is the observation that the secular constitutional state is not neutral, but imbued with Christian privileges.

If these unequal baseline conditions were to be more clearly stated, perhaps we could achieve greater equality. Instead, over and over again, the invocation is repeated that "we are all the same, and everyone has access to the same liberal freedoms". In practice this is not the case at all.

What can the criticism of the integration paradigm change in practice?

Amir-Moazami: If one becomes aware of the narrow focus of the integration paradox, one can ask oneself: "what can I change?" Such changes are already taking place, but there are still reflexes where we are experiencing a backlash: structural inequalities cannot be eliminated by making cosmetic changes to integration.

Precisely because there is always talk of reciprocity, a better ethic of listening and critical self-questioning needs to emerge. Instead of constantly asking whether religious minorities can adapt, the question should be asked how European nation states can do justice to growing pluralisation without the focus ultimately returning again and again to a national core.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2023

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Schirin Amir-Moazami is professor of Islam in Europe at the Institute of Islamic Studies at the Freie Universitaet Berlin. She conducts research into religious policies in Europe, secularism, political theory, gender issues, and Islamic movements in Europe.