Religion’s role in the Identity-shaping of Second Generation Migrants from Turkey in Germany

By | January 3, 2013 at 9:39 am | No comments | Featured, Kurds, Minorities | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In the context of a globalizing world, the question of identity becomes subject to change and challenge. This is especially relevant for migrant communities, and more so, as I argue, for the second-generation of a migrant group. Unlike the first, the second generation finds itself in an incoherent place to assert its identity. In the following, I want to assess religion’s role concerning concepts of identity for the second generation Turkish/Kurdish migrants in Germany and analyze their situation in the light of globalization. While their parents grew up in adequate cultural contexts and went to Germany as “guest-workers” mostly, the younger generation is born into a foreign culture and does not have much exposal to its original culture. Religion may provide a special frame of reference to the individuals that otherwise face inadequate conceptions of themselves.

First, I will give general evidence on the situation of the individuals whose situation I want to examine, then provide a theoretical discussion to relate the topic to larger debates on globalization in a religious context, specifically integration. I will draw on theoretical understandings of religion’s interplay with globalization and introduce my own empirical evidence. I do not imply a homogeneity between Kurds and Turks, but for practical purposes of this paper, I shall refer to both as migrants from Turkey, as they are monolithically referred to in the migration discourse anyways.
Drawing boundaries
One can detect a sense of blame in the discourse over the integration of migrants in Germany, coming from both, the migrant community, as well as the German society. Many opinion-makers use simplified images of “the clash of cultures”, and migrants –especially the young- perceive a discrimination that further reinforces their own pursuit of redrawing boundaries between themselves and the other.
The self-understanding of the young migrants is affected by the boundary drawn by terminological reference to people that have a Migrant background as “Ausländer”(foreigners) (Østergaard-Nielsen ,2005, p.1017). Germans do not consider German citizens of Turkish descent to be Germans, and Turks do not call themselves Germans either. The identification with German social structures is connected with ethnicity and suggests a regressive standpoint of Germany’s integration policies, compared to other Western nations like the United Kingdom or the USA (Horrocks&Kolinsky, 1996, p.xx).
Castells discusses this boundary-drawing in his “resistance identity” theory. What he calls “the exclusion of the excluder by the excluded” seems relevant for migrants from Turkey: “That is, the building of defensive identity in the terms of dominant institutions/ideologies, reversing the value judgment while reinforcing the boundary” (Castells, 1997, p.9). Feeling a sense of exclusion enforced by prejudice and stereotyping, they react by re-drawing boundaries, thus distancing themselves from the German society. Migrants assert their identity in more conservative ways than they would in their homeland, because of a fear of losing their culture. In a “global-versus-local“ fashion, the second generation is drawn to its culture locally through its environment and develops a parallel identity, and shapes new concepts of itself, attaining strong transnational ties to its original culture (Ehrkamp, 2007, p.12), but also adopting new Western concepts.
Conceptually, binary notions of West and non-West in sociological discussions become very illustrative in the situation of Turkish migrants in Germany. Compared to European migrants, migrants from Turkey, especially if concerned with a politicization of Islam, are seen as a threat to the Western character of Germany and Europe. The increase of adolescent crime, the ghettoisation of certain living areas, such as the infamous Marxloh, and a stereotypical profile of these young migrants are hybrid examples of a failed policy of integration (Østergaard-Nielsen, 2005, p.1017).
Alternative concepts of identity are created among the young: the German Hip-Hop scene is dominated by young men with a Turkish/Kurdish background (“I grew up in an apartment block, where people slaughtered lambs on the balcony” (Haftbefehl)). There is a strange preoccupation with Latin-American gangster culture, enforcing an image of the criminalized, but charismatic, social outcast. These alternate forms of identity provide a sense of belonging, embracing global elements of culture. Unsurprisingly, there are comparisons between Mexican youth in the US and Turkish/Kurdish youth in Germany. (Faist, 2000, p.429).
The recent discovery of a Neo-Nazi terror organization that was responsible for the murdering of at least 10 individuals with migrant backgrounds, insensitively called “Kebab-murders”, revived the debate about cultural cross-communications in Germany and shifted the discourse from blaming to recognizing a lack of sensitivity on both sides(Kahane, 2011).
Religion and identity
The Kemalistic tradition of “laiklik”, a Turkish version of the French Laicité, one of the Turkish Republic’s founding principles, was an attempt to “modernize” the theocratic structures of the Ottoman Empire into a European-model nation state. Recently, there has been a shift in people’s relation to this secular ideal, enforced by the Islamist AK Party in its third administrative term and has impacted the diaspora as well, suggesting a transnational trend that impacts the local migrants (Tibi, 2009).
Islam has always played a significant role in the discourse over Turkish migration in Germany, because of its otherness. It appeals to universalism and transcendence of other concepts of identity that elsewhere disconnect the young from their context. Mosques and religious schools offer normative discipline and order in people’s lives that they otherwise would not maintain, in addition to providing a sense of connectedness and social community for members. I argue that religion can help the young generation to indicate a sense of who they are, especially if chosen autonomously, but can also lead to reactionary conservatism. The element of choice is crucial to understand developments of rather orthodox evolutions of religion, compared to non-optional features like ethnicity.  For many, the autonomy with which they embrace their religion manifests itself in a critical analysis of their faith with Western education tools acquired in German schools (Schiffauer, 1999, p.13).
Schiffauer gives a qualitative case study analysis of an individual second-generation Turk in Germany, Seyfullah, a representative for his theory about the increasing politicization of religion among second-generation Turks in Germany. His narrative illustrates a common paradox: the encounter with discrimination in German society, despite attempts to fit in with fellow German comrades often leads to an inadequate perception of identity and a resort to religion as a reactionary response (Schiffauer, 1999, p.16). Seyfullah describes his early efforts to reconcile traditional Turkish customs of his family with the German culture that were both prejudiced against each other. The Western education that preaches individualism and equality seemed to fail in practice in his experience. Feelings of rejection and a quest for adequate belonging seemed to evoke his interest for an Islamist sect. Experienced in Western critical thinking, he presents himself in rather arrogant and exclusivist ways, in order to redraw a border that had previously been drawn by a society that failed at accepting him. The young people pride themselves with their critical assessment and intellectual approach towards their religion and develop some sort of arrogance facing others, even their parents. Seyfullah is quoted: “The first generation knows very little about Islam. […]But the second generation is much more prone to Islam and has much greater knowledge” (Schiffauer, 1999, p.12).  Seyfullah is a showcase example for an individual’s adaptation to the globalizing world that alters his perception of identity. He redraws boundaries and reshapes his identity by taking advantage of tools that his situation provides him with. His reactionary response can be placed in one of the uneasy dimensions within the global-versus-local nexus of identity.
The post-9/11 global anxiety of the rise of political Islam has not affected the Muslims from Turkey in Germany as much as other groups, mainly because Turkey is not seen by the West as harboring potentially dangerous Islamists, but there is a prevalent solidarity and common identity-building among young Middle Eastern people in Germany and more orthodox members of religious groups conceive of 9/11 and global trends in peculiar ways (Europe report, 2007, p.2).
In the past couple of weeks there has been a growing attention on the Salafists, an Islamist group with anti-democratic tendencies that perceives the global system as a threat to its orthodox form of fundamental Islam. Taking advantage of globalization’s mass communication, the group recruits young people, among them German converts (Spiegel, 2012). It is striking to observe a radicalization among people that have not been exposed to original manifestations of Islamic culture directly. Second-generation migrants do not know how such a culture physically feels like, but place a strong emphasis on the theoretical implications of their religious doctrine. Kureishi’s “My son the Fanatic” comes to mind. The first generation does not share the radicalism of the young- its religion often happens in the private sphere, whereas the youth feels some sort of entitlement to assert itself. Problems of integration for the first generation are often due to their lack of education or language skills, not so much because of their ideological stands. (Horrocks&Kolinsky,1996, xxv).
Survey Results
For the purposes of this paper, I was not able to make a large quantitative research effort, but in order to gather qualitative data for of my case study, I conducted my own research by surveying young people with a Turkish/Kurdish migrant background in Germany. The nine participants were between 16 and 24-years old and were born in Germany. The questions revolved around their perception of identity, their awareness of globalization, issues of integration and their activity in the integrative process. There has been a great diversity within the participants: not only seemed their perception of religion to differ vastly, they also assessed globalization in a variety of ways.
Some participants believed that their spirituality played a significant role for their identity, because they choosereligion, compared to non-optional elements of identity such as nationality; others explicitly stated that religion plays no role for their self-understanding. No matter how their relationship to religion, the participants made it a central issue in the discourse over integration. Ehrkamp similarly observes: “Transnational ties and connections influence the politics of Islam in Marxloh although many interviewees did not deem these ties important for their local practice of Islam” (Ehrkamp, 2007, p.26).
Many defined themselves in individualistic terms, but recognized religion as a fundamental factor that determines the degree to which integration is possible. Seven participants stated that they prefer to define themselves in terms of their personality, as opposed to preset categories. There is an interesting contrast between their self-understanding and how they are perceived monolithically from outside. One participant said: “Discussions about integration make me feel like integration is just a new word for assimilation. Neither me, nor my cultural community is accepted in the German society. An individual may perhaps handle it. But then they say, ‘Well, you are just not how they say your people are’”.
Without explicitly utilizing the terminology, the participants unilaterally preferred religion to be in the private sphere, rather than playing a public role. One participant went so far as to say “Germany is a Christian country. Too much multiculturalism hurts the German culture. Everyone can pray at home, privately. We’d be accepted much better. People want mosques here, but when others want to build churches or synagogues in their countries, they are not as tolerant. Tolerance is bilateral. If we don’t like it here, we can leave. But I’m happy. I accept it“
The participants were aware of globalization as a process that enhances communication and technology, and facilitates cross-cultural exchanges. One participant was not exactly my target group, as only his father was Turkish. But his insight was valuable, as he portrayed himself as a product of globalization: “Globalization is a reason for my existence”. Without any input from my side, none of the participants made a connection between religion and globalization. Globalization is not seen as a threat to the individuals’ identity, because it is understood in economic terms. The only connection people seemed to make with religion is a global anxiety about Islam that they were well-aware of, but since they saw themselves as religiously moderate, if religious at all, they did not feel a personal concern. One female participant with a Hijab however, indicated that ever since she started wearing her headscarf, people have been asking her, if she is being oppressed. She was even assaulted at a bus station once. Yet, she did not connect this incidence with a global understanding of Islam explicitly.
Interestingly, Kurdish participants indicated a special concern about their identity and complained about a lack of recognition by society. On top of struggling with problems that other migrants face as well, Kurds also suffer from a second attack on their identity’s integrity because of their stateless status. “Kurdish immigrants feel doubly excluded by Germans and Turks” (Østergaard-Nielsen, 2005, p.1017). Recent political developments in the conflict between Kurds and Turks lead to a politicization of the Kurds and a shift towards a national mobility that demands change, as opposed to religious conservatism. Kurds criticize being classified as Turks and are bothered by the global inattentiveness regarding the Kurdish people’s needs and rights. Participants implied a perception of power relations in the global discourse in which they, as migrants and as Kurds, cannot participate in.
Citizenship does not seem to alter the status of people with migrant backgrounds, as they visibly still remain foreign and most participants were unhappy about the communication between the German society and their own cultural communities, realizing that everyone needs to do their share to achieve a healthily coexisting society. Frankly, older and more educated individuals were rather skeptical of cross-cultural communication. Participants under age 18 seemed more enthusiastic about integration and were more willing to blend in with the German society, by, for instance, “wearing Western clothes”, than the older participants who were eager to maintain their cultural uniqueness.
Active steps taken to enhance the process of integration varied among the participants. Some indicated that their integration was an unconscious process, others actively sought German friends and engaged with German culture. One individual believed in crucial differences between Germans and his community, and said he could coexist with Germans, but was not actually interested in close friendships. Another is actively working for a youth organization as a Street-blogger, interviewing people’s views on integration and discrimination.
The variety of answers is constitutive of the diversity of migrants’ conceptions of themselves and German society, and reflects a social condition that has been simplified too often. Misconceptions of the “other”, as well as bilateral communicative misunderstandings created an unhealthy social dynamic under which many young people suffer psychologically and cannot develop to their fullest. I tried to illuminate the role religion plays within the concept of identity of the second-generation in the light of global trends. The exaggerated rhetoric of irreconcilable cultural differences defeats the opportunity to establish a diverse society that embraces difference positively, which is what a globalizing world needs most. The engagement with Islam as a concept of identity is indicative of global processes that affect communal and individual lives and I believe that contextual analyses of people’s interests and a mutual dialogue can remove obstacles that Germany currently faces.
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About the Author

Dilar Dirik Dilar Dirik

Born in Antioch (Antakya) of Kurdish and Arabic parents, and grew up in Germany Dilar Dirik received a scholarship to study in the United States at Jamestown College in North Dakota, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in History-Political Science, with a minor in Philosophy and French. Recently obtained a Master's degree in International Studies from Durham University in the United Kingdom. She writes for Kurdistan Tribune on a monthly basis. Her areas of interest are the Kurdish movement, feminist issues, multiculturalism, diasporic nations, and anything related to philosophy and art. Follow her @ Twitter: @DilarDirik


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