Muslim Political Integration & Mobilization

May 3, 2010

On May 3, 2010, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the American-German Institute (AGI) 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 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 DC 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.

The first panelist 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 the speaker, only about 20 percent of German Muslims belong to such officially recognized Muslim organizations. In addition to an inability to reach the desired population, the speaker 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.

Reducing the level of analysis to individual German Muslims, the panel 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, the speaker 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 espouses any level of criticism of the German political establishment. The policies that have led to this securitization are myopic and 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. The next panelist noted that American Muslim organizations have ranged broadly over the past decades and have included strictly religious organizations, cause-based groups, and lobbying firms. Specifically, the mosques have played an important role in the U.S. with regard to preserving the religious identity of a comparatively small religious minority. Such identity preservation is particularly integral because over half of the American Muslim community is foreign-born. Perhaps most importantly, U.S. mosques are “not the hotbeds of political engagement they are often made out to be.” Turning to Muslim organizations themselves, the speaker noted that such political organizations cannot be successfully promoted in the U.S. today without a stronger media presence.

Many Muslim political organizations attempt to increase such media representation. 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 a solid level of political mobilization among local Muslim organizations in areas such as Southern California and Michigan. However, many of the same barriers to mobilization 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, must create more full-time professional political organizations, and must improve their representation within the Democratic and Republican political parties.

Panel 2: Muslims in Electoral Politics
Philippa Strum, Senior Scholar at the Wilson Center, moderated the second panel. Speakers on this panel included: Jen’nan Read, Duke University; Abdulkader H. Sinno, Indiana University; Andreas Wüst, Universität Mannheim; and Susana Dos Santos Herrmann, SPD Köln.

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

The panel next answered why Muslims are underrepresented in the U.S. political system and what can be done to improve such representation. The speaker began by discrediting many of the traditional explanations for Muslim underrepresentation. 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. After debunking several other potential reasons for a lack of Muslim political representation, the panelist provided several contributing factors including: the Single Member District electoral system in the U.S. Congress, the geographic diffusion of the American Muslim community, and the “complex web of hostility” against Muslim candidates within the broader electorate that handicaps the efforts of Muslims who seek election.

To provide a comparative example from Germany, the next speaker presented data on Muslim voter participation in Germany collected over the past decade. Until the end of the 1990s, Muslim immigrants in Germany were primarily policy subjects and were rarely studied as political actors. From the original data, he was able to gain significant insight into the participation rates and preferences of Muslim immigrants. For example, available data show that Turkish-born immigrants vote significantly more than naturalized German citizens from other sending countries. Meanwhile, surveys show a marked split between ethnic German and Russian immigrants’ support for the CDU and Turkish and Muslim immigrants’ support for the SPD. Based on the data, the speaker concluded, “The country of background has been used more effectively as a political predictor than religious background.”

To conclude the second panel, the final speaker presented several preconditions for the growth of Muslim political integration within the German electoral system. According to the speaker, the absence of substantial voter participation among the Muslim community 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 scared by extreme right-wing parties. Meanwhile, German political parties remain substantially “unprepared” for integrating Muslims into their ranks and that the parties only put forward a few Muslim candidates to appear concerned about immigrant rights issues. Since these few Muslim candidates rarely win, German political parties “use immigrant candidates to catch votes, but not seats.” Finally, Germany must stop forcing immigrants to choose their citizenship as young adults because, “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 Muslims 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.