Sitting at the Big Table

by Daniel Bax

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

Germany has only been coming to terms with its status as a land of immigrants for a short time, even though more than 20 percent of the population has a so-called “immigration background”. This means that either they, or their parents, came to Germany from another country.

In Schools every third child has a familial history of immigration. In some inner-city classrooms these children, who are hardly a homogenous group, make up the majority. Despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, a lot of Germans find it hard to accept this reality. These attitudes are sparking debates about integration, racism and the position Islam has in Germany.

But sociologist Aladin El-Mafaalani cautions against too much negativity. His theory is that integration in Germany is actually going a lot better than commonly accepted. In fact, he is even more positive than that. Integration “today is so good, better than at any other stage in German history,” he writes in his book, Das Integrations Paradox (The Integration Paradox).

El-Mafaalani writes about his own personal experiences. He is the son of a Syrian immigrant and was born and raised in Germany’s industrial Ruhr valley. He was a professor at a technical college in Münster until, in 2018, he became a department head at North-Rhine Westphalia's Ministry for Intergenerational Affairs, Family, Women and Integration in Dusseldorf.

And El-Mafaalani is no spin doctor. He doesn’t want to minimise the problems but he does want to strike the proper balance. And his central theory is that actually, these conflicts are a sign of an integration process that is working well. The more our communities grow together, the more debate there will be.

The fact that integration is often seen as problematic in Germany, or even as “a failure” is due to misconceptions and mistaken expectations, he says. While some Germans want communal harmony and expect immigrants to slot into their culture, the well-integrated immigrants themselves want social recognition of their linguistic and religious differences. 

This leads to conflict, and the conflict increases, the more well-integrated immigrants there are. To illustrate this, El-Mafaalani likes to use a metaphor involving the different communities and a communal dining table. The first generation of newly arrived immigrants sat at a side table and were not particularly bold. This was particularly true for the country’s “guest workers”, many of whom came from Turkey and who dreamed of returning home. While they did so, the indigenous Germans had the big table to themselves.

However the children of those immigrants, the second generation, demanded a place at the big table, as well as a piece of the cake. The third generation want even more: to make decisions about what kind of cake is being served and what rules will be followed during dinner. And therein lies the potential for conflict.

These problems don’t exist detached from societal perceptions. They result from the imbalance between misplaced expectations on one side, and the aspirations of the other side.

This means that anyone with a migrant background becomes more sensitive to, and aware of, discrimination. The first generation of immigrants might have accepted slurs and blatant marginalization with hardly a complaint because, firstly, they were not expecting much else and, secondly, they were not in the position to defend themselves. But their children and grandchildren react differently to things like subtle discrimination; they feel themselves equal. 

Expectations and aspirations both grow with integration. However the racism practised by the majority won’t disappear just because integration is going well. It’s actually the opposite: It can increase in the face of that unwanted opposition, the kind of opposition now looking you directly in the eye, from across the table.

El-Mafaalani demonstrates this with a conversation about the head scarf that many Muslim women wear to cover their hair. If it’s only the cleaning ladies in the schools wearing it, then nobody has a problem with it. But when the teachers come in wearing a head scarf, then there is resistance.

El-Mafaalani suggests that a culture of well-managed debate could be the answer for Germany. One should not be afraid of conflict. It moves societies forward, it leads to innovations. But one needs to fight for progress. It won’t just fall into our laps, he argues.

When we are looking at integration, we should be looking at our whole society, El-Mafaalani explains. When we live in an open society, we are often challenged – and this goes both for the indigenous Germans and for the newcomers. Economic globalisation, world-spanning communication, tourism and migration all raise stress levels. As a result, immigrants will often lean on their own cultures, to the extent of becoming more conservative, and some will even withdraw to their religious beliefs. But the same goes for the indigenous Germans who feel overwhelmed: They flee back to nationalism. This explains the rise of right-wing populism in Germany.

Germany did have some luck here, El-Mafaalani jokes. The country’s populists can’t quite decide which days are the good old days that they want to return to. Was it the West Germany of the 1950s? East Germany under the Soviets? Or the time before that? 

El-Mafaalani doesn’t think any of those are the correct answer. Germany is currently living through the best of times and has become one of the most popular destinations in the world for immigrants. A strong economy, a dynamic labour market, a stable government and a multi-cultural society: It’s a positive image with worldwide impact that means Germany will continue to be a magnet for migrants. The changes they bring will also continue to shape all of the country’s positives. El-Mafaalani’s book helps explain how this works. 

The Integration paradox: Why successful integration leads to more conflict. By Aladin El-Mafaalani. kiepenheuer & witsch, Cologne, 2018.

similar articles

Poorest nation, richest nation (Topic: Inequality)

Sports and politics

by Liudmila Kotlyarova

The next World Cup kicks off in Qatar in 2022 and the small nation is betting on the highly-anticipated sporting event to boost its international standing.


Poorest nation, richest nation (Tomorrow's world)

Employing the disabled

Short news from Senegal


Above (In theory)

Pure and Local

by Nikolina Skenderija-Bohnet

There are only few things that impact our understanding of identity and belonging as much as food. But what do the dishes we choose, and the dishes we refuse, say about us? 


Poorest nation, richest nation (Topic: Inequality)

Closed society

by Khalid Albaih

Qatar’s capital Doha is home to people from across the world – but they live completely separate lives. 


Guilt (Tomorrow's world)

Muslims unwanted

Short news from India.


Tabu (Books)

Making other experiences count

By Insa Wilke

How do you tell life stories that have been shaped by immigration? In their debut novels, Ronya Othmann and Deniz Ohde do exactly that.