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Why do so many Germans see Islam as a threat?

Around half of the German population has concerns about Islam, according to a new study on democracy and religious tolerance. But what's the reason behind the negative feeling towards Islam felt by many?

Why do so many Germans see Islam as a threat?
Archive photo shows a mosque in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Germans are on the whole tolerant – but not towards Islam. This is shown by a new study published by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s ‘Religion Monitor’. However, the study found that irrespective of faith, there is wide support for democracy in Germany.

According to the research revealed on Thursday, the majority of German citizens – 87 percent  – are open to other world views.

But 52 percent perceives the religion of Islam as a threat. For Germans living in eastern states, the number of people who feel this way – 57 percent – is higher than those in the west of the country where 50 percent view the religion as a threat.

“Obviously many people currently see Islam less as a religion than as a political ideology and therefore exclude it from religious tolerance,” said the foundation's religion expert Yasemin El-Menouar. In her view, social debates and media reports in recent years, which often put Islam in a negative light, have contributed to these attitudes.

El-Menouar said there was cause for concern because these fears over Islam can be exploited by far-right populist groups.

According to the “Weltanschauliche Vielfalt und Demokratie” (World View Diversity and Democracy) study, 30 percent of respondents in the east of Germany do not want Muslims as neighbours, compared to 16 percent in the west.

Nationwide, the number of Muslims is estimated at around five million, with 1.5 million living in North Rhine-Westphalia, the largest number in all of Germany's 16 states.

READ ALSO: Row breaks out near Frankfurt over Islam 'beer mats'

Why do Germans feel this way?

Dresden-based political scientist Werner Patzelt told The Local the reason for the concerns against people who follow Islam can be traced back to Angela Merkel's decision to keep the borders open during the height of the refugee crisis in 2016.

“As a whole, it's because of the immigration politics of Chancellor Merkel back in 2015,” he said. “Germany has had a significant Muslim minority for many years which was a Turkish minority, without significant problems. This was something that passed as normal and nothing to worry about.”

However, Patzelt said when Merkel made the controversial decision to allow refugees and migrants to enter the country, German attitudes changed. 

He said crimes committed by asylum seekers and refugees, such as the cases of sexual assault in Cologne in New Year 2015 “gave reason for widespread worries” which added fuel to the fire.

When it comes to eastern Germany, Patzelt said the region has never experienced significant immigration from Muslim countries before, and many people didn't want it.

Protests, such as the anti-Islam Pegida demonstrations, which started in Dresden in 2014, explicitly called for no Islam immigration into Germany.

A rally organized by Pegida and the AfD held in Chemnitz last year. Photo: DPA

Patzelt said these protests “gave voice to many east Germans who have the same anti-Muslim sentiment”.

However, because politicians dismissed these demonstrations, anger grew, said Patzelt.

This partly explains why parties such as Alternative for Germany (AfD) have grown in support, particularly in eastern German regions.

Along with the anti-Islam sentiment, many people also feel strongly against Angela Merkel and the German political elite, which has resulted in polarization across the country.

Not all Islamophobic

Bertelsmann Stiftung's El-Menouar added that reservations over the religion are not the same as Islamophobia.

“Although our study shows quite widespread scepticism about Islam, this is not necessarily synonymous with Islamophobia,” said El-Menouar. “Many people express reservations about Islam, but do not derive any political demands or anti-democratic views from it.

“Only a minority of the citizens show a clearly Islamophobic view and demand, for example, to stop the immigration of Muslims.”

According to the Religion Monitor, the proportion of people with an Islamophobic attitude has fallen overall in recent years. In 2017 it was 20 percent in Germany, but it has dropped to 13 percent this year.

A 2017 study by the Pew Research Centre found that 29 percent of Germans had a negative view of Muslims in the country – the second lowest after the UK (28 percent) of the 10 European countries where the survey was carried out.

That same survey revealed 69 percent of Italians had an unfavourable view of Muslims in their country. 

The analysis also show that people with clearly Islamophobic positions frequently go against not only Muslims, but also other minorities, and are against diversity in many ways.

Broad support for democracy among all religions

According to the study, democratic values and principles receive broad approval among members of the various religions, whether its Judaism, Christianity, Islam or non-religious people. A large majority – 89 percent of the population – consider democracy in Germany to be a good form of government.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung's 'Religion Monitor' examines the international significance of religion for social cohesion. The study was based on representative population surveys carried out in spring this year and data from the research carried out in 2017.

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Mosques in Cologne to start broadcasting the call to prayer every Friday

The mayor of Cologne has announced a two-year pilot project that will allow mosques to broadcast the call to prayer on the Muslim day of rest each week.

Mosques in Cologne to start broadcasting the call to prayer every Friday
The DITIP mosque in Cologne. Photo: dpa | Henning Kaiser

Mosques in the city of the banks of the Rhine will be allowed to call worshippers to prayer on Fridays for five minutes between midday and 3pm.

“Many residents of Cologne are Muslims. In my view it is a mark of respect to allow the muezzin’s call,” city mayor Henriette Reker wrote on Twitter.

In Muslim-majority countries, a muezzin calls worshippers to prayer five times a day to remind people that one of the daily prayers is about to take place.

Traditionally the muezzins would call out from the minaret of the mosque but these days the call is generally broadcast over loudspeakers.

Cologne’s pilot project would permit such broadcasts to coincide with the main weekly prayer, which takes place on a Friday afternoon.

Reker pointed out that Christian calls to prayer were already a central feature of a city famous for its medieval cathedral.

“Whoever arrives at Cologne central station is welcomed by the cathedral and the sound of its church bells,” she said.

Reker said that the call of a muezzin filling the skies alongside church bells “shows that diversity is both appreciated and enacted in Cologne”.

Mosques that are interested in taking part will have to conform to guidelines on sound volume that are set depending on where the building is situated. Local residents will also be informed beforehand.

The pilot project has come in for criticism from some quarters.

Bild journalist Daniel Kremer said that several of the mosques in Cologne were financed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “a man who opposes the liberal values of our democracy”, he said.

Kremer added that “it’s wrong to equate church bells with the call to prayer. The bells are a signal without words that also helps tell the time. But the muezzin calls out ‘Allah is great!’ and ‘I testify that there is no God but Allah.’ That is a big difference.”

Cologne is not the first city in North Rhine-Westphalia to allow mosques to broadcast the call to prayer.

In a region with a large Turkish immigrant community, mosques in Gelsenkirchen and Düren have been broadcasting the religious call since as long ago as the 1990s.

SEE ALSO: Imams ‘made in Germany’: country’s first Islamic training college opens its doors