10 February, 2015

Ausländer sind auch Menschen (Immigrants Are People, Too)

"Ausländer sind auch Menschen." I saw this phrase graffitied on a wall in Karlsruhe once and it has really stuck with me since then. It means "immigrants are people, too," and as an immigrant in Germany myself, I took it as encouraging. But on the other hand, the fact that someone wrote this reminder means that there are immigrants in Germany who are not being treated with the respect they deserve. This graffiti is just a small example of one of Germany's current social issues coming to the surface.

Germany, like the United States, has a growing immigrant population. But unlike the US, Germany's history of immigration is more recent, which is affecting the country in interesting ways. In America, immigration has been a driving force of our culture and society since even before the United States existed, and people from all over Europe who immigrated to the "New World" are now known simply as Americans. Since Germany has not historically been the melting pot that America has been, some Germans are made uncomfortable by non-Germans entering Germany in large numbers, especially when those non-Germans are Muslims. Many are concerned that immigrants, particularly those from predominantly Muslim countries, are not integrating into Germany society and that this lack of integration is threatening the dominant culture of Germany.

Even before last month's deadly terrorist attack targeting the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, many Germans were already growing increasingly concerned about the supposed "Islamization" of Germany. The growing unrest began to bubble over late last year in the form of anti-Islam, anti-immigrant demonstrations in several German cities, led by a group known as Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West). The goal of these demonstrations is to express disapproval with the growing number of immigrants living in Germany, specifically those from Muslim countries, and the supposed Islamization that their presence causes. Demonstrations have been particularly active in several eastern German cities, including Dresden. Ironically, the loudest protests are coming from the areas with the fewest immigrants: in Dresden and the surrounding area, only two percent of people are immigrants and even fewer are Muslims.

The sign reads, "Against religious fanaticism and all kinds of radicalism. Together without violence."
 Image credit: Pegida Demonstration In Dresden Am 05 01 2015 via free images (license)

This recent wave of anti-immigration demonstrations, which are seen by the majority of the public as spreading intolerance and hate, have prompted counter-demonstrations advocating for an open and tolerant Germany that supports immigration. Those participating in pro-immigration counter-protests have succeeded in showing the tolerant, welcoming side of Germany, which is the image the majority of Germans would like to maintain.

It's clear that many Germans are scared. They wouldn't take to the streets in such large numbers if they weren't. They are scared of terrorism, the religion that so often seems to breed it and therefore the people who follow that religion. But what they are forgetting is that many Muslims who come to Germany are fleeing exactly the same terrorism in their home countries that Germans fear will reach Germany. People die from terrorist attacks in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq nearly every day, and the people fleeing from this violence and seeking a better life are unlikely to willingly bring it with them to their new home. It seems that those is us living in the Western world ignore the violent reality of day-to-day life in many other places in the world while simultaneously fearing the people who come from those violent places. The only violence that seems to merit our attention and our mourning is violence committed against Europeans or Americans by Middle Eastern Muslim extremists. The reality is, Germans have little to fear when it comes to terrorist attacks, and even less when it comes to so-called Islamization. Most of Europe has little to fear. And yet as soon as something happens that instills fear, many are quick to blame an entire religion and vilify the people who practice it.

The main mistake that Pegida supporters, and others with anti-Islam attitudes, are making is equating Islam with Islamic extremism. They are basing their assessment of an entire religion of people on the actions of a few extremists who have managed to manipulate and brainwash other people into committing horrible acts that are not supported by Islam. Pegida and like-minded others use this basic misunderstanding as an excuse to promote intolerance of Muslim immigrants, most of whom are not extremists. A better response would be to recognize the extremists who are out there, arrest them for the crimes they commit and sentence then accordingly, just like with any other criminals. According to an article I read a few days ago in the Stuttgarter Nachrichten (a newspaper from Stuttgart, Germany), the state government of Baden-Württemberg (the state in Germany where I live) has begun a special program specifically for this cause. The program creates a total of 131 new government positions specifically aimed at working against Islamic terrorism. This program will research suspects and their terrorist connections and will keep then under surveillance if there is evidence that they were involved in terrorist activities in other countries. As for the majority of Muslim immigrants who are not terrorists, we should ensure that they have the opportunity to learn the language, get an education and have productive professional lives.

The fact of the matter is that productive, professional people are exactly what Germany needs. What the anti-immigration activists are perhaps forgetting is that Germany needs immigration in order to remain the economic powerhouse it is today. With the German birthrate slowing and the population aging, Germany needs young people in the workforce, both to fill the jobs and to maintain the necessary level of tax income to care for the older population. With German families shrinking and many German women putting off having children in order to pursue their careers, Germany is looking beyond its own borders for the required pool of young workers. Many people from Eastern Europe, China and Northern Africa now call Germany home, and the number of immigrants, including refugees from conflict areas, entering Germany from all over the world continues to growWhile the Pegida supporters harp about a loss of German culture, immigration supporters rightly recognize the good that immigration is doing for Germany.

I had a hard time writing this post, and despite the fact that it's not any longer than my other posts it took me much longer to write. This is such a complex topic and there are so many related issues that I wasn't sure exactly what to highlight. I urge anyone who is interested in this topic to do more independent research and to form their own opinions. While writing I made an effort to convey the facts of the situation as best I could, but I also naturally wrote from my own political perspective, which has resulted in an obviously biased assessment. My biased position is that everyone should have an opportunity to make a better life for themselves, and we in the Western world have no right to deny that opportunity to those who flee from violence and poverty to the safety that we enjoy. I base that position on a simple, basic belief: immigrants, including Muslims, are people just like the rest of us, plain and simple. As that graffiti I saw put it, Ausländer sind auch Menschen. Pegida supporters could stand to remember that.

Articles used for reference during the writing of this post: 

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/13/world/europe/big-anti-immigration-rally-in-germany-prompts-counterdemonstrations.html?_r=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/06/world/europe/pegida-rally-dresden-germany.html

4 comments :

  1. A really good post, I live in Leipzig where we have Legida and also Anti-Legida. I've been to some of the protests of the latter and last week I inadvertently ended up in the city right where the Legida people were coming. 4000 police in riot gear running your way is seriously scary! Like you mention in your astute and well written post, there are very few Muslims in East Germany, especially Dresden and Leipzig. I have seen perhaps 5 visibly Muslim people (by dress I mean) in 8 months. In my sprachschule people from Pakistan and Syria are here escaping war and the lack of safety in their homes. I suspect most Germans have never knowingly met a devout Muslim person. Of course, the problem as always is a lack of job opportunities (unemployment here is high, especially as many young people leave school early and do not have qualifications for the higher paid jobs) and then the perception that foreigners are taking the jobs...of course this is obscured by the reality that we know, that it is very difficult to get work in Deutschland without highly competent Deutsch so their fears are not exactly accurate!

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    1. All of this is very true. There are definitely more Muslims here in southern Germany than anywhere in the East, or so I assume; I see people who appear to be Muslims based on how they dress nearly every day, and I'm sure there are more who don't catch my eye because they are dressed like me. That is even in a town of around 7,000 people. Even so, I suspect that even if people here have knowingly met devout Muslims, they do not interact with them much. I think I have had more interactions with Muslims than the average German, also because of my language classes, and I talked to one woman about her experiences in Syria and why she came to Germany. I think if Germans would have conversations like these with their neighbors who come from other places, a lot of misunderstanding and prejudice could be avoided.

      Here I don't think the issue is so much about job opportunities, since many Germans are well educated, but there has been some bad press about immigrants from Turkey, etc moving here and living off the welfare system without learning the language or making an effort to integrate. I think that's the most frustrating thing here for some Germans.

      Also, something that I didn't end up working into the final post is that most Muslim immigrants do not have the advantage of "blending in" racially with Germans. I have that advantage because I'm white and I can pass as German, and most Germans I meet don't seem to consider me an immigrant in the same way they would consider a Muslim an immigrant. Even my German friends have at times made negative comments about immigrants in my presence, not realizing that they are also talking about me.

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  2. Interesting post. I agree with your stance. Just recently I was discussing the very same issue as it pertains to Mexico and the United States. It seems so unjust that a certain population of the US can prevent another population from coming into the land and making a life for themselves, ESPECIALLY because most of the people who cry foul are white Americans, who are descendents of immigrants themselves. If there is such a thing as true Americans, that would be the Native Americans, not the Dutch, German, British, Spanish, Portuguese and French descendents that are now the majority, and you don't see them talking about "them mexicans taking all our jobs". There so much else that's wrong with this whole notion of land rights but I think I could go on for pages if I were to articulate all of it, and I understand why it took you so long to write this post!

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    1. This is also so true. Crying foul about immigrants is especially hypocritical in the case of the United States, where many immigrants, and I'm branching out from just Mexicans here, emigrated from their home countries as a result of American military interventions which made life unstable and dangerous. Sometimes it astounds me how nearsighted American ideas about immigration can be. When Irish and Italian immigrants were coming to America in large numbers, everyone thought that was the end of the world. Now those people are considered Americans just like the people who were there before. How can people claim that America is a melting pot and the "land of opportunity" and then in the same breath complain about all the Mexican and Central American immigrants entering the country?

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