“Muslim” men as a challenge? Selective perceptions in the public debate

When "Muslim" boys or young men are spoken of in public, they are often described as "little machos" or "little princes". It is said that they are not only spoiled in the context of the family, but are also raised to be violent criminals and guardians of women. In the search for reasons for this, Islam is often invoked, which religiously legitimizes the oppression of women – according to the attribution by many media and the majority society. This creates an enemy image in which Muslim youths appear as a threat to one’s own culture and the achievements of emancipation. While parts of politics, the media and academia did not dare to articulate criticism of Islam and Muslims in the past because they did not want to be accused of xenophobia, the picture has changed since the late 1990s at the latest. The starting point here was a public discussion about forced marriage, violence and honor killings, which was often initiated by migrants themselves.

Dr. Ahmet Toprak is Professor of Educational Science at the Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts. His main focus is on group pedagogical and therapeutic options for dealing with behavioral disorders.
Source: FH Dortmund

The debate often has a generalizing effect, because it assumes Islam to be the cause of violence and oppression of women or regards it as a backward religion. The concrete conditions of life and socialization are not taken into account, nor are economic, social and educational resources. The public tenor goes in a fatal direction: The label "Islam" leads to stigmatization and segregation, which ultimately makes the supposedly desired participation of "Muslims" more difficult. The boys and young men who do not fit into this pattern are hardly noticed at all. Above all, it is overlooked that the approximately four million strong Muslim population in Germany is anything but homogeneous in itself and its interpretation of Islam is inconsistent.

For an accurate analysis of the living conditions of boys of Arab or Turkish origin as well as for the actual relevance of religious influences on them, the monocausal grid of the "Muslim youth" must be put aside. Religion is only one aspect in the ensemble of influences these young people are under. However, the extent of re-Islamization, especially among the third generation of people of Turkish and Arab origin, when their social and economic participation in the local society is unsuccessful, should not be downplayed.

Family versus school

Children and young people essentially have four points of reference in life: Family, school, peer group and media. These four life worlds present young people of Turkish and Arab origin with particularly contradictory expectations. The descendants of migrant workers are demonstrably disadvantaged in the German school system. This is not only due to the selective school structure and teaching methods that are not very conducive to learning, but also to the fact that values such as independence, self-discipline and self-reflection (rightly) play a special role in school, but (and here is the problem) are often taken for granted. But many of these young people, against the background of their often rural and lower-class origins, grow up in authoritarian family structures in which obedience, subordination and not infrequently violence dominate everyday life. Therefore, they bring a much lower affinity to independence.

The contradictions in the relationship between school and family are exacerbated by the fact that parents expect both loyalty to traditional values and success in school and work. For young people in particular, this results in conflicts between their school and family lives. They feel neither as "Germans" nor as "Turks" or "Arabs". They look for points of orientation that offer security and create identity. Exactly this effect is created by the collective of the Peers with a similar history enables. The emergence of the Hauptschule as a "rest school" has led to a concentration there of young men with an immigrant background, for whom recognition can hardly be realized without the use of violence. They find a kind of surrogate family with some friends who will do almost anything for each other. Their "own" forms of recognition are created, deriving both from traditional thought patterns and from private television shows and Internet sites that reach these young people.

If their socialization conditions are unfavorable, many young people no longer identify themselves through successful schooling and vocational training, but instead attach importance, for example, to a distinct male image that is enriched with religious ideas. According to the study "Children and Youth in Germany" (Dirk Baier et al.) 59.2 percent of "Muslim" young people rate the importance of religion for their everyday lives as high, which is why the influence of imams as religious role models also remains very important.

Unconditional friendship

Other studies in recent years show that well-educated young men who have a prestigious social status do not, for example, place any particular value on the virginity of their future wives or their own distinct masculinity. In contrast, the flamboyant or violent youths emphasize their masculinity and are eager to marry a woman who has preserved her virginity. Honor and masculinity play an important role for them. These forms of recognition then belong to the complex causes of increased conspicuousness of "Muslim" youths. Particularly in the third and fourth generations of immigrants, a code of values and norms is established by which they define their identity. Thus, delinquent boys often justify their offenses with their concept of honor. This includes an unconditional understanding of friendship. They stand up for the friend without questioning the context. Otherwise, not only friendship, but also honor and masculinity would be at stake. Honor and masculinity are constructs that provide orientation and stabilize self-esteem.

The concept of honor traditionally clarifies the relationship between men and women as well as internal and external boundaries. A man is considered dishonorable if his wife or girlfriend is insulted or harassed and he does not react decisively and sensitively to it. In contrast, men are considered honorable, who show strength and self-confidence and guaranteed the external security of his family. The concept of masculinity is thus derived from the understanding of honor. Traditionally, many Muslim boys are raised to be physically and mentally strong, dominant and self-confident. Boys are encouraged to take up wrestling, boxing and other martial arts as children, while girls are categorically rejected. However, self-confidence is only encouraged within certain limits, because even men of full age are denied the wish to leave the parental home – unless they marry.

Religion as a stumbling block?

What must always be taken into account when looking at this group are the class-specific and cultural "obstacles". In principle, social establishment is more difficult for the socially disadvantaged. Social advancement is usually associated with distancing oneself from the milieu of origin. Young people with a migration background feel this in a special way, as they are not only distancing themselves from the social milieu, but also from the culture of origin. For them, this is an additional difficulty because their concept of masculinity is a risk factor on the one hand, but on the other hand it provides orientation.

The image of "Muslims" in the public remains selective. The behavior of the milieu described above is projected onto all "Muslim" adolescents. The integrated, inconspicuous and successful young men are not noticed. There is a large group of young men who interpret traditional values differently, reject them or adopt patchwork identities. The common view in the German public that Islam is foreign per se ignores this. Violence is therefore less to be explained by Islam than by patriarchal structures that parents have transmitted from rural areas of countries of origin and cannot immediately discard.

Not on an equal footing

In terms of integration policy, too, little is achieved with the bogeyman image of Islam. Rather, the framework conditions for integration must be improved on an equal footing. Migrants are still portrayed as deficient in the public debate. It is at their expense that elections are contested and sentiment is stirred up, as shown by the election campaign of the Hessian CDU against dual citizenship in 1999, the EU’s accession negotiations with Turkey in 2004, the attitude test for Muslims in the naturalization process in Baden-Wurttemberg in 2006, the campaign-like discussion about compulsory German language use in schoolyards or that about so-called Germanophobia in 2010. Furthermore, if the participation of Muslim adolescents in the school and professional system, in the world of work and in society does not take place optimally, the withdrawal into their own community and the turn to extreme world views become likely. Patronizing integration policies, discrimination and blanket judgments interpret Muslim migrants as being unwelcome and perceived as a burden, deficient and regressive – which further promotes the retreat to traditional values and identity concepts.

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