The gov­ern­ment of Ger­many has announced that it will place more strin­gent demands on all immi­grants in an effort to better inte­grate them into society. Since then, a growing debate about mul­ti­cul­tur­alism has brought to light issues of reli­gious and cul­tural intol­er­ance in Ger­many and across the globe.

Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Inter­na­tional Affairs Berna Turam, the author of “Between Islam and the State: the Pol­i­tics of Engage­ment,” offers insight into the ten­sions that exist between sec­ular states like Ger­many and their Muslim pop­u­la­tions. Turam teaches in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties at North­eastern University.

What are the polit­ical impli­ca­tions of these neg­a­tive view­points toward immi­grants, espe­cially Mus­lims, pro­lif­er­ating throughout Germany?

Mus­lims have come to the fore­front of the debates on immi­gra­tion and cit­i­zen­ship in Europe, par­tic­u­larly in Ger­many. Four mil­lion Mus­lims live in Ger­many, most of whom are “Gas­tar­beiter” (immi­grant laborers) and their descen­dents from Turkey, who have been accepted since the 1960s.

How­ever, Ger­many is not alone in this matter, and must be sit­u­ated in the larger geo­graphic and sociopo­lit­ical con­text. Western Europe con­sists of coun­tries that are self-​​confident in their sec­ular democ­ra­cies and human rights. Recently, these democ­ra­cies have been increas­ingly chal­lenged by the growing pres­ence and par­tic­i­pa­tion of Mus­lims in daily life, insti­tu­tions and polity.

The Danish car­toon flap, in which an anti-​​immigrant party had a con­test to draw images that ridiculed the prophet Muhammad, was fol­lowed by sev­eral other con­tro­ver­sial events, such as the French ban on Islamic head­scarves, the ban of minarets in Switzer­land, and finally the poll in Ger­many, which revealed a pop­ular demand for the restric­tion of reli­gious prac­tices of Mus­lims in Germany.

What are these leading democ­ra­cies of the world missing that they fail to accom­mo­date Muslim immi­grants, their piety and reli­gious ways of life? Many scholars and politi­cians answer this ques­tion by pointing to the failure of mul­ti­cul­tur­alism and the type of nation­alism in a given nation-​​state. But as a polit­ical soci­ol­o­gist, I would like to high­light another issue here: the global chal­lenge of reli­gious faith, par­tic­u­larly public prac­tices of Mus­lims, to sec­ular democracies.

While the recent debate relates to all immi­grants, Mus­lims are being sin­gled out. Why has the spot­light turned to Islam specifically?

Unlike the United States and Canada, Euro­pean nation-​​states have had a much harder time responding to the demands of the pious, par­tic­u­larly the demands of Mus­lims for public dis­plays of Islam. There are two major rea­sons. First, sec­u­larism, defined broadly as the sep­a­ra­tion of reli­gion and pol­i­tics, has had a dif­ferent his­tor­ical tra­jec­tory in North­western Europe, as it set non­nego­tiable and often hos­tile walls between the state and the church, which pushed reli­gion away from the public to the pri­vate sphere. Second, as the nation– and state-​​building of these old Euro­pean democ­ra­cies have not been based on the idea of “cohab­i­ta­tion” of immi­grants, they have had dif­fi­culty dealing with the rapidly growing Muslim pop­u­la­tion, their agency, freedom and demands.

Should Muslim immi­grants be expected to assim­i­late to the cul­ture and lan­guage in non-​​Muslim coun­tries? How can they nav­i­gate issues of cul­tural identity?

In the Euro­pean con­text, “mul­ti­cul­tur­alism” has become a proxy for “immi­grant assim­i­la­tion.” Con­sid­ering the his­tor­ical and polit­ical nature of these Western states and their failure to respond to new demands of pious Mus­lims, it would be a mis­take to blame these immi­grants for the failure of mul­ti­cul­tur­alism. To the con­trary, making good Danes or Ger­mans out of Muslim Turks vio­lates the basic prin­ci­ples of mul­ti­cul­tur­alism prop­erly understood.

Mul­ti­cul­tur­alism suc­ceeds in coun­tries like Canada, where the state makes a con­scious effort to main­tain immi­grants’ cul­tural, ethnic and reli­gious iden­ti­ties and com­mu­ni­ties. Hence, the fact that Mus­lims in Ger­many refuse to assim­i­late does not sug­gest the failure of mul­ti­cul­tur­alism, but the failure of state accom­mo­da­tion of Muslims.

How will recent events affect the per­cep­tion of Muslim cul­ture and reli­gion glob­ally? What can ulti­mately be learned from this sit­u­a­tion on issues of immi­gra­tion and tol­er­ance?

Con­trary to Euro­cen­tric views of pol­i­tics, democ­ra­ti­za­tion must be under­stood as a never-​​ending process across the globe, and a duty of respon­si­bility for all states. Rather than obsessing with the con­sol­i­da­tion of democ­racy, ongoing democ­ra­ti­za­tion must be encour­aged and insti­tu­tion­al­ized as a means of main­taining the dia­logue between the states and ordi­nary people, par­tic­u­larly immigrants.

Dias­poras, including those of Muslim pop­u­la­tions, play a major role in demanding and pres­suring self-​​confident sec­ular democ­ra­cies. They have come to the fore­front to remind these states of the con­stant need for re-​​adaptation to the demands of globalization.

Because Mus­lims in Europe find them­selves chal­lenging the nar­cis­sistic ten­den­cies of these states, which have little capacity for self-​​doubt and empathy for others, Muslim immi­grants have increas­ingly come to be seen as the problem child of Euro­pean civility.