Is Islam hindering the integration of Muslim refugees in Western societies?

Once settled in their new country, some refugees not only refrain from fulfilling their duties but also try to impose their own culture on the Western community.

18 October 2018

Cartoon entitled "Lego" by the Bahraini artist, Sara Qaed, published in the 27th edition of the newspaper Abwab on March 17, 2018. Published under fair use policy.
Ahmed Khalil

Ahmed Khalil is a Syrian writer based in Germany. He was born in 1966, and graduated from the Faculty of Law in Damascus University. He has published three books: Haunted with Her Loss (collection of poems); Death Square (short stories); and Theater Defeats the War (a series of articles about Syrian theater during the war). He is a regular contributor to many Arabic newspapers and magazines.

Translated by: Pascale Menassa

Shortly after my arrival in Germany, I took part in all the meetings held by one of the volunteers trying to help refugees in the village of Haidmühle in Bavaria, near the Czech borders.

During one gathering that brought together a group of Syrian refugees with another of Germans, Franz Kiez, the organizer, distributed to the participants a paper listing a series of concepts and values. He asked us to arrange them according to their importance in our life. These concepts included honor, justice, education, helping others, compliance with the law, religion and ethics, among others.

The German group gave varied answers and arranged the set of values ​​in different orders, each according to their personal convictions and culture. For their part, most Syrians — we were a group of 12 Syrians out of 30 participants of various ages — placed religion at the top of their list, giving it the highest priority in their lives. 

As the meeting continued, Kiez asked one of the Syrian female participants, “How would you react if your daughter decides to wear a skirt when she grows up?”

“I would try to convince her not to,” she replied. “Our religion does not allow it.” 

When Kiez asked her again, “What if she is not convinced?”, the Syrian woman asserted that she would try to stop her by all means.

Interestingly, this woman had been married under a customary urfi marriage [not registered with state authorities] by a cleric in Munich to a man who has three other wives. Her first husband had died in the  Syrian civil war. 

In another meeting, a Syrian refugee from Deir ez-Zor tried to explain why refugees hate pets, especially dogs. He cited the following Hadith by Prophet Mohammed, “He who keeps a dog other than one for guarding the fields or herds or hunting, will lose two Qirat every day out of his rewards.”

On social media, heated debates flare up daily on issues of integration in German and Western society, especially on pages dedicated to refugee issues, such as the Facebook page called Syrian Home Berlin. Discussions and comments on posts mostly focus on the aspects of Islamic religion and identity.

Once settled in their new country, some refugees not only refrain from fulfilling their duties but also try to impose their own culture on the Western community. 

Mahmut Alp Osman, a refugee, wrote the following post on the Syrian Home Berlin, “Praise be to Allah by Whose grace good deeds are completed! I have been married for three years to an Austrian girl who is eight years younger. She was an atheist. Thanks to God’s blessings she converted to Islam, wore the Hijab and fulfilled her Islamic duty. I still remember our wedding day, when the Sheikh asked her to write down the amount she wants to get as a forepart of the mahr[mandatory wedding gift]. She only asked me to teach her Surat al-Fatiha. The Sheikh refused and insisted on a specific amount of money. She took the pen from his hand and wrote ‘One Euro’ as a forepart and the same amount as mu’akhar [the delayed part of the mahr]. She never asked for clothing, gold, silver, or any other material gift. Throughout our three years of marriage, she never complained or said no to me. She has always been what my heart desires. Oh God, I ask You to witness for me in front of Your servants that I am well-pleased with her. I ask God to bestow his favors and blessings upon us. May God reward well those seeking a halal marriage.”

Is the priority for some refugees to preserve religion? 

Social media debates are often heated and tense. Posts often include accusations of betrayal and atonement, threats and insults. They mirror the complicated and complex conflict in Syria.

When reaching safety in Europe, some refugees — who struggled to get there and faced death several times during their excruciating journey — become more rigorously observant of their religious rituals in a bid to preserve their religious identity. They would even force their children (of only three or four years of age) to wear the veil and fast in extremely difficult circumstances even for adults, sometimes with 17 hours of sunlight in Germany [Muslims fast until the sun sets].

Meanwhile, many refugees refrain from taking language courses. They claim the [German] language is too difficult for them to learn. Some just want to avoid being forced to work once they complete the language courses, while others, who never went to school back in Syria, are unable to learn a new language.

Once settled in their new country, some refugees not only refrain from fulfilling their duties but also try to impose their own culture on the Western community. “Why doesn’t the German government prevent hugs and kisses in stations or in the streets?”, my Afghan colleague in the language course asked. He believes such acts are “religiously forbidden and mere debauchery.”

The teacher was puzzled by his question. She emphasized the sanctity of the individual's freedom protected by the law, provided that no harm is done to others. 

Then, I said, “Is shooting bullets, stabbing others and committing massacres, as it is the case in Syria and Afghanistan, better and more beautiful than hugging and sharing love?”

Other refugees dedicate time and effort to find food items that comply with their deep-rooted cultural traditions where the religious concepts of halal (allowed by Sharia) and haram (forbidden by the same) prevail, despite the many perpetuating contradictions for hundreds of years.

Interestingly enough, the owners of Turkish and Arab shops started labeling their goods with the mention halal. Even the mallow leaves in Turkish shops in the city of Passau were labeled as such!! The goal is to market their products and attract as many customers as possible!

A large segment of the Muslim refugees or expatriates describe society that embraced them as immoral and disintegrated. They use various other adjectives to decry the Western culture, customs and laws. Sometimes it feels as if some expatriates want to turn the Western society into one mirroring theirs. They want the host country to take on the culture of its guests and recognize the supremacy of their values. Their ideology is based on the principle that Muslims are the greatest nation and that their religion is the religion of God. They believe their values and traditions are better than those of others who, therefore, owe them obedience and loyalty! Dogmatic religious authorities and preachers seem to be reinforcing this attitude. They have collectivized religion and abolished its basic pure spiritual aspect as a divine ascension relationship between God and the individual.

Umm Hassan lives in the countryside of the city of Passau. She praises and thanks the Germans on every occasion for their generosity and humanity. But she always says, “If only they were Muslims.”

Among the refugees, a pressing concern seems to recurrently emerge. “What if a law in the host country, for example, contradicts religious convictions based on the [old and recent] fatwas (edicts) of some religious scholars who have produced the intellectual base of extremism deeply entrenched in some states’ school curricula, media and radical organisations? What if the host country laws contradict enforced Sharia-based laws in Arab countries?

For example, a poston a page for refugees in Germany warns again some financial transactions in banks, based on the Islamic principles of haram, halal and riba (usury).

Polygamy is another obstacle hindering Muslim refugees’ integration in Europe. European laws neither recognize nor allow polygamous marriages. Therefore, several marriages remain illegal and are not registered in official departments, resulting in many legal and social problems. To receive child benefits, known as kindergeld in German, many refugees hide their polygamous marriages, contrary to their Islamic faith. They claim that their other spouses are their girlfriends. Some refugees have many children, often from more than one spouse, because the amount of child benefit they are entitled to is substantial.

Avoid marrying Western women

One of the prevailing concepts among most young Muslims in Germany and in Europe in general is abstaining from marrying European Christian women. Their customs and morals are not in line with the Islamic values’ system. Paradoxically, a young Muslim may have a friendship or sexual relationship with a German woman, provided it doesn’t lead to marriage. 

Some refugees choose to marry a German woman in an attempt to obtain citizenship. For instance, one of my acquaintances married a German woman for five years and, after getting the citizenship, divorced her and married one of his relatives from Syria.His German wife wanted to have a child with him, but he refused. He did not want any children from a Christian woman!

We all followed the recent media battle between the head of the German Football Association (DFB) and the world-renowned professional football player Mesut Özil over the latter’s photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Although he was born in Germany, Özil still feels that he belongs to Turkey and not to Germany where he lived and became a star. His religious attachment [to Turkey] supersedes his patriotic and human ties with Germany. Özil even accused the Germans of racism, knowing that Germany is hosting millions of migrants and refugees! This evidently proves how difficult it is for most Muslims to integrate in their new society and to respect its moral construct.

One of the examples of the failure of many Muslim expatriates to be productive members of their new society that many of them avoid working to keep receiving the monthly unemployment benefits paid by the local job centers. These expatriates believe that God allowed them to take money from infidels in Western countries as a reward for being Muslims!

It is worth mentioning here that some Muslims are more attached to their religion rather than to their homeland. This is where Muslim expatriates’ identity problems and contradictions come from. They become torn between abiding by the holy texts and fulfilling their livelihood and daily needs and duties towards their country of residence. 

This somehow explains the difficulty of hundreds of thousands of refugees to integrate into their host communities. A refugee would form a ghetto with his relatives and fellow refugees. This also explains the desire of the majority of refugees to move from the place of residence chosen by the immigration institutions to other places where the majority of residents are Arabs, Syrians or Muslims. Brussels' Molenbeek district and some neighborhoods in Paris, are among these “ghettos” that constituted a breeding ground for terrorist cells, amid the failure of integration policies. Fearing for their identity, the refugees’ seclusion is their means of defense. Muslim refugees would exaggerate in performing their rituals and excessively exhibit their religiosity in such a way that undermines their human spontaneity, conscience and humanitarian values .

But do Western institutions and host governments interfere with the privacy and religion of refugees?

For the European countries’ immigration institutions and governments, integration is limited to three requirements only—learning the host country’s language, getting a job and respecting laws and regulations. This is being reaffirmed daily in dozens of articles, social media discussions, newspapers and integration programs. No one talks about religion and human conscience. Western laws and culture focus on the human dimension regardless of religion, sex and color, which are deemed part of an individual’s personal privacy. No one talks about the dress code or the veil. These matters are protected by law in all secular countries. 

Thousands of Muslims have lived in the West for decades, working and paying taxes, assuming their responsibilities and enjoying their rights just like everyone else, with no discrimination. They abide by the laws and maintain a civilized behavior. Some of them have reached high decision-making positions without abandoning their religion, culture or customs. Western societies enjoy a great diversity of culture and religions within the limits of the concepts of citizenship and human rights. People can choose their convictions and can change them at will. This freedom is protected by law, unless its harms or prejudices the society.

Some European political currents and people discourage integration and foil its policies. Numerous companies do not employ veiled women. Unemployment contributes to the risk of ghettoization and an anti-Western vision in minority Muslim communities. Some European cities witness regular displays of clearly racist attitudes towards refugees in the streets and in public transport, where they are subject to harassment and insults and even physical attack. But, these Muslims also face pressure from their communities to conform to Islamic traditions such as women wearing the veil.

Aggravating matters, the media places  too much emphasis on terrorism when the perpetrator of violence is a Muslim, to the extent that it has created a stereotypical image about Muslims in European society. This focus bred fear among Muslim refugees and did not help them integrate socially or develop their language skills and learn about the Western society’s culture and values. 

Some of the funded entities Islamic councils in Europe and the Muslim Brotherhood whose leaders mostly reside in the German city of Aachen, sometimes seek, explicitly or implicitly, to intentionally confuse religiosity and religion on the one hand with integration requirements on the other hand. Their objective is to keep large groups of migrants or refugees trapped in the ghetto culture. Under the pretext of preventing the loss of identity and protecting religion, they make refugees fear integration into the host society and prevent them from respecting its culture. 

These entities have their own political agendas, seemingly aiming to safeguard religion. But in reality, their agendas comprise political programs seeking to attract people to execute programs leading to extremism and violence. All this happens under false religious slogans that have nothing to do with religion as a special relationship between God and man based on a series of spiritual and moral values ​​governed by human conscience.

But, do religious institutions and religion hamper immigration and integration policies? 

Islamic religious institutions rely on religious texts as ideological reference in their policies and religious and media rhetoric. The texts call for spreading Islam in the whole world. Because this has become more difficult, unlike the early days of Islam, religious organizations capitalize on piety and rely on more pragmatic ways to spread their principles in western societies through charities, building mosques and cementing ties between groups of immigrants and deploying preachers in European areas. 

They often deploy a double-edged rhetoric. On the one hand, they encourage integration, respect for the culture of others and developing host societies that protected Muslims from the oppression of their governments. But, on the other hand, the underlying message is to spread Islam and maintain religious fervor among refugees and migrants, using the stick-and-carrot approach. Islamic groups and organizations have a wide infrastructure and huge funding sources like the MB. Therefore, it is hard for them to integrate. 

The prevalent religious rhetoric calls for holding on to religious identity and not completely melting in Western societies. There are dozens of examples of Muslim cleric warning — in person or through online videos — the members of their community against marrying foreigners and straying from God’s religious rituals. With that, secluded groups emerge far from their social surroundings and play a role opposing the interests of the host country. 

The referendum that was held in Turkey a few months ago to vote for expanding the powers of the president and making them almost absolute proves it. Most Turks in Germany, 60 percent according to official statistics, voted in favor of Erdogan and his constitution. This sparked a debate in Germany about whether these people belong to Turkey or Germany. Although several generations of migrant Turks have lived in Germany, religion still plays a huge role politically and socially. This role is preserved by the religious discourse of religious and political institutions with an Islamic ideology.

Based on the foregoing, it appears that those who have a xenophobic religious ideology based on the protection of a false identity that has no connection with the genuine human identity, will not be able to adapt to their new society while preserving their cultural peculiarities. They will remain fundamentally incompatible with their new society, like a drop of oil floating on the surface of water. 

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad