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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 March 2007, 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK
Can Germany learn to live with Islam?
By Roger Hardy
BBC Islamic affairs analyst

Turkish Muslim men read the Koran at a Berlin mosque
Most Muslims in Germany are of Turkish origin
Lale is 32 and wears a bright pink headscarf.

She studied law, but has had to take a job in a call-centre - where a woman with a headscarf can be heard but not seen.

She would like a better job, she says, but many employers just don't want to know.

"It's very difficult," she told me. "You never really feel part of society. You feel alienated."

Lale is one of Germany's 3.3 million Muslims - about 4% of the population.

Most are, like her, of Turkish descent.

Look at the German media, and the issues which come up in relation to Muslims are no different to those elsewhere in Europe.

Headscarves. "Honour" killings. Education. Unemployment. Security fears.

German-ness

Yet Germany has its own characteristics which set it apart from its neighbours.

Muslim women in Berlin
Germany has had high-profile disputes about headscarves
One is a conception of "German-ness" based on blood and ethnicity.

This has meant that, for most of the last 40 years, immigrants from Turkey have found it hard to gain German citizenship.

Another is the Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution).

This is the rough equivalent of Britain's MI5 and the American FBI.

It monitors extremists, including Islamist groups.

Claudia Schmid, who runs the organisation's Berlin branch, told me why even non-violent Islamists are deemed to be a threat.

"Our task is to inform the public and the state institutions about groups which are trying to change the fundamental values of our constitution.

"These groups can function and promote their ideas. But they can't expect to get money from the state if they want to destroy essential, fundamental elements of our constitution."

The Verfassungsschutz - part of the interior ministry - keeps a close eye on Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish counterpart, Milli Gorus.

To belong to these groups, or even associate with them, is to risk being denied German citizenship or access to government funding - as Lale discovered to her cost.

When she is not at the call-centre, Lale works as a volunteer with a Muslim youth group.

Because it worked with Arab and Turkish Islamist groups, its state funding was cut off.

It needs a new generation to change things - maybe you need twenty years
Lale, German Muslim

"We are doing a good job," says Lale. "The problem is that there is always suspicion from the politicians. They say, 'We like your projects - but can we really trust you?'"

The 'Muslim Test'

Trust, or lack of it, lies at the heart of the problem.

Take, for example, the way some of Germany's provincial states set tests for citizenship.

A test introduced in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg is popularly known as the "Muslim test".

One sensitive question - says journalist Erkan Arikan, himself a second-generation German of Turkish descent - is about gay rights.

"You've found your son is homosexual and he comes to you and says, 'Dad, I want to marry a German homosexual guy'. So how do you react?

"Do they expect that I will beat up my son, or do a kind of 'honour' killing? This is really ridiculous."

Dialogue

Change is in the air, and not soon enough for young German Muslims like Erkan or Lale.

In September last year, the government organised the German Conference on Islam.

This high-profile event in Berlin was hosted by Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and brought together state officials and representatives of the main Muslim organisations.

Riem Spielhaus, a young German Muslim academic - daughter of an Egyptian father and a German mother - is a member of one of the working groups which the conference set up.

"I think the conference is very important for Germany and for Germany accepting Muslims as part of the citizens of Germany.

"The interior minister started the conference by proclaiming that Muslims are part of Germany - and I think that was a very, very important signal that we hadn't had for forty years."

The conference set in train a process of dialogue.

It also served to put pressure on Muslim groups to sink their differences.

Four Muslim organisations - including two Turkish groups which for decades have been bitter rivals - are creating a new umbrella body.

Lale wants to believe all this is a step in the right direction. But she is not expecting quick results.

"It needs a new generation to change things. Maybe you need twenty years."


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