Migration, Youth Violence and Islam:  Interview with Werner Schiffauer

Migration, Youth Violence and Islam:  A Culture of Looking Carefully


Is the high level of violence among first, second and third-generation migrants in Germany really due to Islam? Absolutely not, argues the cultural anthropologist Werner Schiffauer in an interview with Claudia Mende

Werner Schiffauer, is the state turning a blind eye to the tough reality of immigration problems?

Werner Schiffauer: At the moment, every phenomenon is being brought down to migration and integration. There is a problem with violence among young immigrants, and the criminologists say that although the number of juvenile offences is falling, the number of difficult multiple offenders is remaining constant or even rising. All immigration societies have to deal with this problem.

So why is the percentage of violent criminals among Muslim youths so high?

Schiffauer: According to the criminologist Christian Pfeiffer, the rate of criminality among ethnic German emigrants from Eastern Europe, migrants from Yugoslavia and young people from Turkey is particularly high in Germany. But I find it difficult when people refer to Muslim youths, because that Islamicises the problem. What was once traced back to integration and social problems is now linked with Islam. In my opinion, that’s a catastrophic development.

What exactly do you object to?

Schiffauer: If you take a closer look, you can see that the situation is far more complicated than that. Take for example the discussion on violence at the Rütli School in Berlin. Islam was blamed for that problem as well. But as it turns out, part of the problem was young Palestinian refugees with traumatic experiences and an extremely uncertain residential status in Germany, with all the well-known social consequences such as depression, unease over masculine roles, and domestic violence at home. These young people have no prospect of getting vocational training because of their residential status, and no future.

If you “Islamicise” a social problem like this, you are distorting reality. You have to look very carefully at who the offenders are. What we urgently need is detailed qualitative studies that give us an impression of the problem situations in migrant families.

Violence on the streets is one thing, but other young men are drifting into Islamist terrorism. What do you see as the causes for this phenomenon?

Schiffauer: We have to draw a strict line between political violence and street violence. Young men who get involved in violent crime on the street often have little interest in Islam. Terrorists, on the other hand, carry out crimes in the name of their religion. And their biographies are also very diverse. The two Lebanese “suitcase bombers” had only been in Germany for a year, tried to settle at university and then turned to terrorism. The Hamburg cell from which Mohammed Atta came was well integrated and then became mobilised for the terrorist cause.

Some of the young people who planned an attack in the Sauerland region were middle-class ethnic Germans who had converted to Islam. If there’s one thing the converts and the foreign-born radicals have in common, it’s the fact that 80 percent of all terrorists have a university education. That’s no coincidence; young students tend to be open to radical positions.

Should Germany’s internal security service be monitoring Muslim communities to pick up on these tendencies at an early stage?

Schiffauer: It’s not the mosques that breed cells like that. They’re more likely to meet in university canteens, they get their information from the internet and form their ideologies in discussion circles. The religious communities organised in the various Muslim umbrella organisations are trying to develop a counter-programme to radical Islamism. From the point of view of revolutionary Muslims, these communities are made up of lukewarm compromisers.

What happens when “hate preachers” stir up the communities?

Schiffauer: There are a handful of “hate preachers”, for example in Ulm, but it’s very important to the Muslim communities themselves that they control and isolate them. There is a strong group of Muslims in the communities who want to be integrated into German society. It’s an absolute exception when populist preachers make radical speeches and are supported by the community. The large Milli Görüs community has sidelined about five of these radical preachers in the past few years. There are disputes going on in many communities over political orientation; but at the moment, the groups that favour integration are strong.

But the state can’t just stand by and watch whether the communities distance themselves from radical preachers or not, can it?

Schiffauer: Germany has laws against incitement to hatred. But what I am concerned about is when aliens law is used as a weapon against radical preachers. People are quick to suspect imams of being “hate preachers”. Sometimes it’s enough to say a prayer for the victims of the Iraq war in the mosque – I know that from my own reports for the courts. Unlike criminal law, aliens law hardly allows people any chance to defend themselves. And it’s often used to pull out the weapon of deportation. It even works when suspects are unlikely to be found guilty in a criminal court.

What can be done to calm the situation down?

Schiffauer: I’m in favour of a culture of looking carefully. Criminal law can be an effective weapon. If someone is inciting religious hatred, that has to be sanctioned. But I’m against a dual criminal law system, one for Germans and one for migrants. Treating people differently plays into the hands of precisely the people who argue that foreigners have no rights in Germany. A society that treats everybody on the same level has a far greater potential for integration.

Interview: Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2008

Werner Schiffauer is a lecturer in cultural anthropology at the Viadrina University in Frankfurt/Oder. His ethnological case studies such as Die Gottesmänner – türkische Islamisten in Deutschland (Suhrkamp 2000) provide an insight into the lives of Turkish migrants. Schiffauer is a member of the German academic council on migration (Rat für Migration) and co-editor of Migrationsreport.

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire


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