The changing face of Germany

THERE are some four million Muslims in Germany. This number represents a significant percentage of people who live in Germany with a "migrant background" - the politically-correct term used to refer to people who are not ethnic Germans. Of these four million Muslims, around 3.5 million are ethnic Turks.

Turkish people came to came to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s as "guest workers" to help build the then Federal Republic of Germany (or West Germany). These Turks were supposed to come to the country to work and after a few years, the idea was that they would leave. But they did not leave, they stayed on and had children and their children had children as well.

After a few decades, there are second-, third- and fourth-generation of Turkish people in Germany. More importantly, these Turkish people are Germans, thus changing the demographic of the country forever. There are also Muslims of South Asian, Middle Eastern and Bosniac ethnicities but nowhere near as many as the Turkish people.

After Christianity, which is separated pronouncedly between Roman Catholics and Protestant denominations, Islam is one of the most public religions in Germany. It is by far the biggest minority religion in the country, so much so that in 2010, Germany's former president (the head of state who do not hold political power) Christian Wulff remarked that "Islam now also belongs in Germany". This was echoed last year by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel who said that "Islam is a part of us".

But this recognition that Islam is now part of the fabric of the Germany is quite recent. It is in response to the growing number of German Muslims. In the future, the number of Muslims in Germany will rise and represent a bigger percentage of the population.

It is important take note that this Germany is not the Germany of our history books. It is very easy for many Malaysians to see Germany from the perspective of the World War II and the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The intolerance, racism and discrimination of the Third Reich are so well documented and so much part of our pop culture consciousness that it is hard to imagine how pluralistic the modern German society is. For example, Germany now has the third largest Jewish population in Europe.

The reality is that extreme right wing elements, so prominent these days in other European countries, only have fringe support in Germany. Neo-nazism exists but nowhere near a problem as in other countries. This does not mean that there is no prejudice or discrimination towards Muslims, but mostly from fear than any feeling of "racial superiority".

Amongst German Muslims themselves, especially the younger ones, they now have to grapple with their so-called dual identities. How to be German and Muslim at the same time? How to comfortably be part of German society but at the same time be reminded always of the connection they have with the home countries of their grandparents? Especially when it comes to Turkey, where the Turkish government still has influence over the Turkish people in Germany. There are integration issues and identity issues, amongst other issues such as education, unemployment and crime, which German Muslims have to grapple with.

It is one thing when one comes to a country with a view of leaving one day, but when one knows of no other home, one start to look at one's rights to live in the country. Issues range from building mosques and looking for sites to bury the deceased to participation in the political process.

There are now 11 members of the Federal Parliament ("Bundestag") with a Turkish background, from just five in the previous Bundestag term. This is apart from German Muslims who are members of the Federal and State executives, and members of the legislative assembly of the different individual states, as like Malaysia, Germany is a federation of States.

German political parties are encouraging more and more German Muslims to join their ranks as a response to this changing German demographic. It is an interesting development for this Western Europe nation. In many ways, Malaysia has far better integrated our own ethnic and religious minorities into society, so much so that these different cultures and religions are already a part of us, celebrated and embraced. This is also true for the political participation of the various races and religious groups. But we have had to live together for much longer and our "power-sharing" concept has either directly or indirectly resulted in a more diverse political landscape when it comes to race and religion.

In fact, the demand now in Malaysia is actually to move away from making race and religion political issues. More and more Malaysians yearn for the day when the race and religion of a person are no longer looked at in politics. Instead, we want to look at integrity, transparency and the ability and willingness to contribute meaningfully to the country.

This is also the long-term aim of German Muslim politicians. Right now, German Muslim politicians are still something of a novelty, not so much whether they are qualified but because German Muslim political participation is still rare. But as German society becomes more and more accustomed to the reality of the changing face of the country, slowly but surely, this will change.

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