Riem Spielhaus, “The Emergence of a Muslim Community in Germany”

Lecture Report

by Narcisa Popovici

Riem Spielhaus, “The Emergence of a Muslim Community in Germany”
Dr. Riem Spielhaus

On November 4th, 2010, the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies sponsored a lecture by Riem Spielhaus on “The Emergence of a Muslim Community in Germany.” Spielhaus, a Research Fellow at the Centre for European Islamic Thought in Copenhagen, focuses on minority studies, particularly Muslims in Europe and the development of a Muslim consciousness in Germany. She conducts research in identity policies, transnational Muslim networks, and female religious leadership and activism in Germany, and was the recipient of the 2010 Augsburg Science Award for Intercultural Studies.

She began her lecture by framing the discussion in terms of legitimization, namely by posing the question: “Who can speak for Muslims?” Spielhaus argued that while the tragedy of September 11th is often seen as the catalyst for the debate on Muslims in Europe, German discourse on ethnic issues surrounding Muslims in Germany preceded 9/11 and, in particular, focused on the question of citizenship legislation. In this context, she cited several scholars, including Aristotle Zolberg, Tariq Modood, and Stefano Allievi, who have addressed the status of Muslims in Europe, multi-culturalism, and the refashioning of immigrants as Muslims.  Spielhaus explained that previously the German government only surveyed Christians in regard to religious beliefs, while estimating the size of the Muslim population based solely on migration statistics. Consequently, the official estimates of German Muslim populations were a reflection of migration patterns, as opposed to a reflection of religious adherence and self-identification.

Spielhaus described how language used in the contemporary debate often substitutes the category of immigrant or foreigner with that of Muslim. She added that government and media are not alone in this respect; academics also contribute to the construction of “Muslims.” She highlighted an argument set forth by Richard Jenkins, emphasizing the need to differentiate between categorization and self-identification. Spielhaus explained that while the two go hand in hand and inform one another, they are not interchangeable or identical. Immigrants have become Muslims in the terminology of government, media and academia. However, she observed that Muslims have also adopted the terminology of these categories, even in the case of third and fourth-generation Germans. She provided an anecdote of hearing a German Muslim comment, “We need to open dialogue with the Germans.” Spielhaus argued that the present debate is in fact more than a matter of migration, but also a matter of race. She stressed the importance of specifying “what” and “whom” we are referring to in these debates: immigrants or Muslims. 

Spielhaus explained that although the presence of Muslims in Germany has been characterized by diversity, the German tendency nevertheless has been to recognize one imagined community, thereby ignoring the multiplicity of voices. However, semblances of this constructed community have materialized in recent years as Muslims of different ethnic, linguistic and political backgrounds have gathered under a shared Muslim identity. By highlighting rising figures within Germany who have started to speak on behalf of a nascent Muslim community, Spielhaus demonstrates that the question of who can speak for Muslims, and moreover, who will be accepted by government, is integral to the contemporary debate over Muslim and German identity. 

According to Spielhaus, several politicians, intellectuals and public personalities in Germany have emerged to address the question “Who can speak for Muslims?” Among the many figures she mentioned is Cem Özdemir, the first German-born, second-generation immigrant to be elected to the Bundestag. He is among the most notable, outspoken figures criticizing the parallel-society present in Germany. Aygül Özkan is a member of the Christian Democratic Union and Germany’s first Muslim regional government minister. Dr. Lale Akgün, a German politician of Turkish origin who served as an MP in the Bundestag, self-identifies as a cultural, secular Muslim. Fatih Akins, a German-born film director of Turkish ancestry, represents another segment of public personalities that are shedding light on the struggles of Muslims in Europe. Though he does not speak of religion on a personal level, Akins has referred to the faith of his parents and strongly identifies with his Turkish roots. He refused to attend the Swiss premiere of his film “Soul Kitchen” in protest against the referendum that banned the construction of minarets in Switzerland. In an open letter to the press, Akins wrote that such a ban conflicts with the values of ethnic and religious tolerance which he so dearly cherishes. 

Riem Spielhaus’s thought-provoking analysis on the status of Muslims in Germany not only challenges prevalent misconceptions surrounding Islam in Europe, but also encourages students, academics and politicians to reconsider constructed categories. Her research emphasizes the importance of addressing and securing equal rights and representation for minority communities.