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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.2/3 (2003) 405-431

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Living Islam in the Diaspora:
Between Turkey and Germany

Katherine Pratt Ewing


Turkish immigrants constitute the largest minority in Germany. Most first came to Germany as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) beginning in the 1960s and have since established large communities in many German cities and towns. The vast majority of these immigrants are Muslim, though many have an ambivalent relationship to Islam. Their ambivalence is largely structured out of the particular (and in some respects peculiar) position of Islam in the discursive construction of Turkey as a secularist, modern nation. However, in the diasporic setting of Germany this ambivalence about Islam also resonates in distinctive, surprising ways with German concerns surrounding the maintenance of a democratic and free society. Public statements by Germans about Turkish Muslim practice tend to be shaped, I argue, not by specific threats to the German social and political order, but rather by fears and polarizations stemming largely from political and social conflicts within Turkey. These fears have been superimposed on phantasmic images of threats to German national identity that pre-date the arrival of Turkish guest workers. The most prominent of [End Page 405] these tensions shaping German discourse from within Turkey are based on images of the threat that Islam poses to Turkey's identity as a Western country, given that the large majority of all Turkish citizens are Muslim, if only by their cultural and family heritage. But these images of Islam, I argue, are taken up in German public culture and transferred onto Germany itself, so that the visible, practicing Muslim is constituted as a threat to the foundations of German democracy and the German constitution. The phantasmic nature of this sense of threat is suggested when we ask what, in practical terms, this threat could be, given that Germany is a historically Christian country that is now a dominant player in the Western world of democracy and freedom. How could a small Muslim minority undermine the foundations of the German state?

The association of Islam with threat is, of course, all too natural at the turn of the twenty-first century. Today much of the Western world, including some of its most influential leaders, recognizes "Islamic civilization" as the only serious challenge to the hegemony of "Western values," a view perhaps most vividly articulated in Samuel Huntington's vision of a "clash of civilizations," which collapses current tensions into an essentialized age-old struggle between Islam and the West. 1 The view of Islam as threat was dramatically reinforced by the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, which demonstrated the power of certain Islamist groups to inflict real damage on the West. Practicing Muslims who live in diaspora communities in Europe and North America thus face an issue that most other minorities do not: the fear that they or some of their Muslim neighbors may be the powerful enemy within, a hidden threat to the basic values of democracy and freedom, and, especially after September 11, an immediate threat to the safety of everyday life. While many scholars have denounced Huntington's polarized view of the world and devote considerable effort to demonstrating not only the complex diversity of those who consider themselves Muslims but also the fact that Muslims are full participants in modern society, this view of Muslims as a dangerous enemy threatening the basic fabric of Western political and social institutions clearly affects not only the everyday treatment of Muslims but also the realm of what is an acceptable exercise of government power to curtail not only the activities of Islamist groups but even the rights of individual Muslims.

This all-too-real global threat has obscured and naturalized the peculiar contours of debate surrounding the integration of Turks into German [End Page 406] society and the place of Islam in this integration process. In this article, I disentangle the multiple discursive strands that shape debates surrounding Muslims and Islam in Germany, foregrounding the specifically Turkish nationalist and German nationalist components and...


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pp. 405-431
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2004
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