What Berlin Taught Us

The hope Professor Hurley and I had for the Berlin leg of our tour was to set the foundations for our course on Islam in Europe. Some of the dynamics in play in Germany regarding Islam will undoubtedly be replicated in France and England; others, we will likely find, are unique to Germany.

After arriving on Thursday, January 9, exhausted from our travel, we went on a short tour of central Berlin. We saw the famous TV tower, with its stainless steel, sphere-shaped ball high above east Berlin, and proceeded down Berlin’s most famous street “Unter den Linden” all the way to the Brandenburg Gate. The goal was to orient everyone a little, get people using the public transportation system in Berlin (which is exceptional), and to ensure that no one took a nap in the afternoon (which would have set any efforts to adjust to Berlin time back considerably).

On Friday, January 10, we got going on the course – in a big way. Our Friday morning activity was a visit to a recently built mosque on Wienerstrasse, a Arabic/Turkish area of town.  Its architecture blended into its German surroundings to such a degree that from the outside, one had to look closely to discern it was a mosque at all.  We were later to find out that this effort to match the surroundings was a sort of a metaphor for the efforts of the mosque’s members to blend into German culture. They saw no contradiction between Islam and Germanness. The interior had a fabulously beautiful prayer space, rooms for ritual washing prior to prayer, a Halal butcher, a clothing store for traditional Muslim garments, and a bookstore. Our guide explained some key aspects of Islam, while at the same time making clear that Islam was not at odds with life in Germany and that, in fact, they had never had trouble of any kind with their “German” neighbors. It was a good example of Islam finding a happy home in Berlin. 

Friday afternoon we heard the other side of the story. At the Parliament Building of the state of Berlin (Berlin is both the capital of Germany and its own state), we met with members of one of Germany’s newest political parties, the AfD (Alternative for Germany). Described by themselves as a “center right” party (all others we met with in Germany suggested that they were far right), one of the key planks in their platform is that Islam does not belong in Europe. They began their presentation with a series of videos that suggested that demographically speaking, in the coming decades Europe will be “overrun” by Islamic immigrants and their progeny; and that despite the rather moderate way in which most Muslims portrayed themselves, lurking within each one was a latent extremism that would manifest itself when the demographics began to shift in Muslims’ favor. The students had been well prepared for the arguments they encountered, and asked pointed questions for over an hour. Our hosts, who were most gracious with their time and willing to engage our students, answered these questions with great patience and sincerity. We were left attempting to discern and understand the source of their fears, as well as the degree to which they had merit. 

One of the key events that gave rise to such fears in Germany was that country’s acceptance of over 1 million asylum seekers from Syria in 2016, an event that brought together issues of race, immigration, integration, economics, identity and, of course, religion. On Saturday, Jan. 11, we heard a lecture from a German-as-a-second-language teacher who had been contracted by the German government to help teach these asylum seekers German and integrate them into their new surroundings. While making clear that the scope of the refugee crisis was such that some fear of the changes to German society and culture were inevitable and even natural, he talked about the humanity of these asylum seekers and the vulnerability of their situation. Thereafter one of his pupils, a young refugee from Syria named Sandy, told her hair-raising story of travel, danger, and escape in her efforts to leave her war-torn homeland and make it to Germany.  Her own position was one of extreme thankfulness at the generosity of Germany for taking her in and giving her a chance at a future. What is more, she saw religion as a private matter, one that need not come into conflict with the goals and expectations of the state. In sum, she certainly did not come across as a potential extremist, but rather as an immigrant who left her homeland for the reasons immigrants have done so since time in memoriam.

Although Sunday was a free day, in the morning over half of the students made the journey with Professor Hurley and me to the Nazi concentration camp called Sachsenhausen that lies on the outskirts of Berlin. In the afternoon a number of students also went to various sites with us associated with the Berlin Wall. Experiencing the worst of National Socialism and Communism as it developed in East Germany in one day was a deeply unsettling experience, but it reminded us of the potential outcome when groups are understood in monolithic terms, or even more dangerously, dehumanized altogether.

On Monday, January 13, we got back to our course content, meeting with a representative of an NGO that provides an umbrella organization for all kinds of groups lobbying the German government on immigration, religion, gender and sexuality, and other “minority” issues. We learned what the most pressing issues being addressed to the government by these groups were and that the various of these groups were not always in full agreement with one another on the issues. Monday afternoon was spent at the American Embassy talking with state department employees responsible for providing an annual assessment to the US government on the situation of religious and human rights in the country where they are stationed. It was interesting to get a view of the condition of Islam and Muslims in Germany from the perspective of the US government, and to go through the extensive and thorough security measures necessary to even enter the embassy.

In the end, we heard in their own words from Muslims already integrated into German society, German politicians who see Islam as contrary to German culture and ideals, individuals tasked with helping immigrants from Islamic countries integrate into Germany (both on a broad level of lobbyists and on the individual level of language-course instruction), immigrants themselves, and the US government’s take on all of this. From the perspective of Dr. Hurley and me, these experiences have indeed laid a foundation for the course. On to Paris!



Professor Christman
A view from unter den Linden of the cloud-reaching TV Tower looming behind the aged St. Marienkirche church.
The entrance to the American Embassy in Berlin.