Webcast Recap

Co-sponsored with the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Nahed Samour, Humboldt Universität/IMPRS for Comparative Legal History; Corey Sailor, Council on American-Islam Relations; Juliane Hammer, George Mason University; Jen'nan Read, Duke University; Abdulkader H. Sinno, Indiana University; Andreas Wüst, Universität Mannheim; Susana Dos Santos Herrmann, SPD Köln; Samuel J. Rascoff, New York University School of Law; Sabine Riedel, SWP; James Zogby, Arab American Institute

On May 3, 2010, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) hosted a conference on the myriad challenges facing Muslims attempting to integrate into the political systems of the United States and Germany. These challenges were covered in three panels addressing specific components of political integration. In order to provide both a comprehensive and comparative perspective within each component, the panels included German academics and policymakers and American academics and policymakers.

Panel 1: Sites of Muslim Political Organization
This first panel was moderated by Tara Bahrampour, an award-winning Washington Post journalist whose recent articles have covered the complex evolution of Muslim groups throughout the D.C. metropolitan area. Speakers included: Cemile Giousouf, State Ministry for Intergenerational Affairs, Family, Women, and Integration – North Rhine-Westphalia; Nahed Samour, Humboldt Universität/IMPRS for Comparative Legal History; Corey Saylor, Council on American-Islam Relations; and Juliane Hammer, George Mason University.

Cemile Giousouf began by detailing many of the bureaucratic barriers that have prevented Muslim organizations from fully developing within German civil society. All Muslim organizations—from mosques to political groups—require official recognition by the German state due to the stringent separation of church and state within the country. As a result of such political processes and fears of government surveillance, many Muslim organizations remain underground. According to Giousouf, only about 20 percent of German Muslims belong to such officially recognized Muslim organizations. In addition to an inability to reach the desired population, she also pointed out several problems with the current relationship between Muslims and the German state, including the imposition of top-down initiatives and the general exclusion of non-Turkish Muslims from the policymaking process.

Shifting the level of analysis to individual German Muslims, Nahed Samour turned to the findings of a recent sociological case study in Berlin. This study sought to examine the individual experiences of Muslims within the political establishment of Germany. Echoing the aforementioned lack of trust between Muslims and the German state, Samour focused on the growing "securitization" of Islam within Germany. Under this paradigm of Muslim-German relations, an increasingly large majority of German Muslims feel afraid or reluctant to discuss politics in Germany. This fear stems from perceptions that the German state is intent on monitoring and prosecuting any Muslim who expresses criticism of the German political establishment. According to Samour, the policies that have led to securitization are myopic. Moreover, he asserted, German integration policy should be constructed at the ethnicity level because, "more often than not it is the ethnic identity, rather than the religious identity, that triggers political involvement."

A more comprehensive approach to integrating Muslim communities is also needed in the United States, according to Julianne Hammer. American Muslim organizations have ranged broadly over the past decades from strictly religious organizations to cause-based groups to lobbying firms. The mosques have played an important role in the U.S. with regard to preserving the religious identity of a comparatively small religious minority, over half of which is foreign-born. Saylor emphasized that U.S. mosques are "not the hotbeds of political engagement they are often made out to be." He also noted that Muslim political organizations cannot be successfully promoted in the U.S. today without a stronger media presence.

One Muslim political organization attempting to increase such media representation is the Council on American-Islam Relations, represented by Corey Saylor. He and other members of the panel analyzed the political contributions of a wide array of Muslim organizations and laid out a framework for improved political integration for the American Muslim community. There is strong political mobilization exists local Muslim organizations in areas such as Southern California and Michigan, but they encounter many of the same barriers that exist as in Germany, including the effects of securitization and a clear break between Muslims and American politicians who are hesitant to appear "weak on security." In the future, American Muslim organizations must collaborate to produce a national unified agenda for the Islamic community in America, create more full-time professional political organizations, and improve their representation within the Democratic and Republican parties.

Panel 2: Muslims in Electoral Politics
Philippa Strum, Senior Scholar at the Wilson Center, moderated the second panel, which included: Jen'nan Read, Duke University; Abdulkader H. Sinno, Indiana University; Andreas Wüst, Universität Mannheim; and Susana Dos Santos Herrmann, a member of the Social Democratic Party in Cologne.

The panel commenced by focusing on the importance of the September 11 attacks in the role of Muslims in American electoral politics. According to Jen'nan Read, "Muslims needed something to catalyze them." September 11 provided such a catalyst and created a Muslim-American identity, thrusting it to the forefront of American political debate. Interestingly, this identity is not, as one might expect, focused solely on religious dialogue or terrorism policy. Rather, domestic issues—from healthcare to taxes—dominate Muslim-American politics. Nevertheless, Muslim-American political organizers must face several daunting challenges the coming years, including the lack of a cohesive set of issues around which their community can rally, in-fighting among ethnic groups, and tension among immigrant Muslims between their home countries and U.S. domestic issues.

Abdulkader Sinno addressed the question of why Muslims are underrepresented in the U.S. political system, dismissing many of the usual explanations for explanations for this phenomenon. For example, strong financial support for Congressman Keith Ellison, an African-American Muslim, among South Asian and Arab Muslim donors disproves the notion that internal ethnic and cultural differences deter Muslim political integration. On the other hand, the fact that each Congressional district has only one member mitigates against the election of Muslim candidates, since the American Muslim community is geographically diffuse. In addition, a "complex web of hostility" against Muslim candidates within the broader electorate often bars them from gaining office.

By way of comparison, Andrea Wüst presented data on Muslim voter participation in Germany collected over the past decade. Until the end of the 1990s, Muslim immigrants there were primarily regarded as the subjects of policy and thus rarely studied as political actors. Wüst's original data provided significant insight into the participation rates and preferences of Muslim immigrants. It showed, for example, that Turkish-born immigrants vote significantly more than naturalized German citizens from other sending countries. Surveys also indicated a marked split within the German electorate along ethnic lines: between ethnic German and Russian immigrants supported the Christian Democratic Party, while Turkish and Muslim immigrants supported the Social Democrats. Based on this data, Wüst concluded, "The country of background has been used more effectively as a political predictor than religious background."

Susana Dos Santos Herrmann presented several preconditions for the growth of Muslim political integration within the German electoral system. The absence of substantial voter participation among the Muslim community, she said, directly correlates with the absence of equal voting rights for Muslim immigrants. Muslim voters have become discouraged from voting mainly because they are either "disillusioned by politics" or frightened by extreme right-wing parties. Meanwhile, German political parties remain substantially "unprepared" for integrating Muslims into their ranks, with the result they they put forward only a few Muslim candidates in order to give the appearance of being concerned about immigrant rights. Since Muslim candidates rarely win, German political parties "use immigrant candidates to catch votes, but not seats." Finally, Herrmann argued, Germany must stop forcing immigrants to choose their citizenship as young adults; "Young people don't feel German or Turkish. They feel like both and would like to be both."

Panel 3: Muslim Influence on Foreign Policy?

The final panel was moderated by Sonya Michel, Director of the U.S. Studies Program at the Wilson Center. Speakers included Samuel J. Rascoff, NYU School of Law; Sabine Riedel, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik; and James Zogby, Arab American Institute.

Whereas in the United States many ethnic and religious groups have large lobbying organizations that work to influence the U.S. government on domestic and foreign policy issues, in Germany, lobbying is still in its infancy, although growing. This panel discussed the influence that Muslim groups may have on German and American foreign policy. The panel also tried to answer the questions of what kind of influence Muslim groups have, if they take on a more formal or informal role, and the differences between Germany and the U.S. Panelists also discussed the difference between Arab-American and Muslim influence on foreign policy in the U.S. and between Turkish-German and Muslim influence on foreign policy in Germany.

The final panel began with a discussion of Muslim groups' influence on German foreign policy, stressing the risk of asymmetry and the growing influence of the German Muslim minority (20,000 Muslims), which still differs from the influence Muslims have in the U.S. However, Muslims' influence could increase in Germany due to the work of the four umbrella organizations, which represent Muslims' interests to the German public and government. In Germany, the Turkish community is often used by the Islamic community as a tool in foreign policy. The Muslim groups represent a socioeconomic network that is connected to the Turkish economy and to Turkish Islam, and therefore Muslim groups see lobbying as an important part of their political participation, also in Germany.

The panelists then turned to the American situation. In the U.S., there is a widespread attitude that the influence of Muslim groups is unremarkable and that their role is the same as any other interest group. However, this is not the reality; Muslim groups greatly influence foreign policy. There are three important aspects to the relationship between foreign policy and American Muslims: First, Muslim groups are unique groups regarding their characteristics because they have different heritages (African-American, Arab, etc.). In contrast to most lobbying groups, Muslim groups mostly do not have to compete with other lobbying groups, but the government itself reaches out to Islamic groups to find out their wishes and needs and to get information about Islamic groups in order to integrate Muslim groups and to make sure that there are no Islamic fundamentalist activities planned.

Since President Obama's speech calling for a "new beginning" with the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009, U.S. foreign policy toward Muslim groups has changed. Thus, the second aspect of the relationship between foreign policy and American Muslims is the counter-radicalization agenda, which seeks out Muslim groups that then become an important part of U.S. security policy. Cooperation between the U.S. government and the Muslim groups provides an opportunity for better securitization for both sides and helps prevent Muslim groups from becoming radicalized. Third, Muslim groups are used by the government in order to manage the risk of terrorism: Since there is an institutional commitment between the government and the Muslim group, there is cooperation and an exchange of information. In this way, an "official Islam" is created which influences American policy.

Using religion as a political identity can be problematic. Religious political identities have divided the U.S.; going forward, a new narrative and greater adaptability are needed. In this way, not only will the people change, but America as a whole will change, too. Because the U.S. consists of a variety of complex identities (country of origin, family, religion), it is difficult to speak of an American identity. In many cases, ethnicity is the driver of identity. Accordingly, ethnic organizations have a great impact on foreign policy.