Monday, October 11, 2010

Auslaenders in Germany and the US

Today's online edition of Der Spiegel, Germany's principal newsmagazine (around 1 million subscribers per week), makes reference to the debate in that country about Muslim immigrants. Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer is quoted as saying that Germany does not need any more Turkish or Arabic immigrants because they don't integrate as well as others. Despite the efforts of German President Christian Wulff and Chancellor Angela Merkel to calm the heated debate over Muslim immigration, the debate rages on, fueled even further now by Seehofer's incendiary remarks. "It's clear that immigrants from other cultures such as Turkey and Arabic countries have more difficulties. From that I draw the conclusion that we don't need additional immigration from other cultures," Seehofer, who is leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told Focus magazine in an interview published on Monday. "I don't agree with demands for increased immigration from foreign cultures," Seehofer added. "We have to deal with the people who already live here. Eighty to 90 percent of them are well integrated. But we must get tougher on those who refuse to integrate."

When we lived in Germany, we became friends with many Muslims, mainly because their sons played regularly with our son. During those two years Jacob was a part of a youth Fussball (soccer) team that was a kind of miniature United Nations. The seven-to-eight-year-olds who comprised the team were all "Germans," yet more than half of them came from families whose ethnic backgrounds were non-German (e.g., Iran, Iraq, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.). Our son was the lone American. They liked him because he became pretty good at being goalie. It also helped that on the Fussball field the focus was on the game and its rules rather than rules of language and religion. His best friends were from familes that had emigrated from Iraq (Kurdistan) and Iran more than twenty years ago. Other friends came from families that had originated in Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey.

Although these boys were at least second-generation "Germans," they were considered "Auslaenders" ("foreigners") by most other Germans. Part of the reason for this labeling was the fact that all of the families sought ways of fostering their family's historic, traditional culture (religion, language, food, values) while trying still to integrate within the larger German society. The other side of this labeling was a strong impulse within German culture: "If you don't speak our language or respect our values, or if you fail to blend in (and only draw attention to your differences from us), we will continue to speak of you as a foreigner." We often saw frowns and dirty looks from elderly folks on the local buses whenever a group of "Auslaender" children got on the bus and immediately began talking loudly in their familial language. (Germans don't like anyone talking loudly on buses, but it is particularly so with Auslaenders...)

While Jacob's friends spoke German in school, they spoke their native languages at home, as did Jacob (although we tried our best to speak German as much as we could). While they learned ethical and religious (Christian) teaching in the local public elementary school, they practiced their family's religion at home and at the mosque. Although the children attended the public schools, the Auslaender families tended to congregate together apart from the "native" Germans.

Sadly, we noticed how at least some "Auslaender" students could be treated as second-class individuals as a result of these issues. For example, the sister of one of Jacob's friends served as his German tutor several times a week. Her German and English were excellent, and she was a life-saver for our son and his academic work. We got to know her and her family well. Unfortunately, despite her obvious intellectual gifts (as a fourteen-year-old she is tri-lingual, excellent in math and science, and clearly shows an aptitude for teaching and public speaking), she will not likely be able to attend university, since she is in the Realschule track, that is, the educational track that would not normally lead a person to the university. When we asked her parents why she isn't in the track that leads to the university, they told us, "She is an Auslaender and it is very difficult for such students to be put into the top tier. She doesn't receive the same marks for her school work than if she were a 'native' German." (Although she was in fact born in Germany, she is not considered a "native.")

Given how Muslims and other "immigrants" are often attacked carte blanche in many western countries, including here in the U.S., I can only hope that people here could somehow make a more intentional effort to get to know "the Auslaenders" in our country better. While I had studied Islam in graduate school, and learned much, I learned most from talking with my son's friends, from interacting with  (and eating with!) their families, and from discovering common experiences with them in a land where we, too, were Auslaenders. In our case, we learned a great deal about "moderate Islam" and about how that is so different from "the terrorists' misshapen effigy of that religion" (to quote from a well-written, recent New Yorker editorial by Lawrence Wright). I am also grateful whenever I have Muslims as students in my university-level theology courses. I, for one, would rather observe Christians and Muslims (and other-religious and non-religious) engaging each other in dialogue, seeking common understanding, listening to each other, learning from each other, respecting their differences and each other, rather than witnessing the lobbing of incendiary remarks. When was the last time you shared a meal with a Muslim?

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