Partner von
Partner von

All together now!

Globalisation and migration are bringing people closer. But how much diversity can a society take? And how can strangers learn to live together? A tentative approach


After Germany took in more than 1.5 million migrants in 2015 and 2016, a fierce debate began in the country about how to deal with immigration. The German Cultural Council came up with 15 guidelines for social cohesion in early 2017 in an attempt to describe the values that connect people in Germany.

All sorts of groups took part: churches and other religious communities, the federal government, regional states, municipalities, the media, employers’ organisations and trade unions. But Germany’s former minister of the interior, Thomas de Maizière, thought the text needed clarification. When the results began to emerge, he quickly compiled his own list of 10 points that he thought best described what was called Germany’s Leitkultur, or “guiding culture”, and these were published in the mass circulation newspaper Bild am Sonntag – pre-empting the cultural council’s publication by about two weeks.

The spirit and tone of the two papers are wide apart. The council’s 15 guidelines praised diversity in Germany, emphasised the role of the country’s “basic law”, or constitution, as the foundation of living together, and stressed that good manners and cultural customs were not rigid but subject to change, and that religion was also part of the public sphere.

De Maizière, by contrast, wanted a narrower definition of what is German. Focusing on the full Islamic veil as one such indicator, the first of his 10 points concludes: “We show our faces. We are not burka.” His statements about German culture were sometimes plainly political (“Nato protects our freedom”) and sometimes unintentionally funny (“We shake hands when we meet”). It becomes very clear that it is impossible to reduce a pluralistic society to a single common denominator. One is tempted to ask if he meant that all non-burka wearers are part of Germany but those who greet each other with a kiss rather than shaking hands are not.

All the same, De Maizière’s views on what is or is not German express a need for orientation and harmony amid the toxic debates provoked by immigration, including the one about the wearing of headscarves or hijabs. Uniform traditions and social customs make it easier to rub along together: people understand one another and feel safe. Diversity makes life more strenuous. Immigrants change a country, however well integrated they are. A section of the long-established population fears losing their familiar homeland, rejects immigration and votes for the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). Is that – along with the calls for a German “guiding culture” – a sign that too much diversity places too much of a strain on society?


The German sociologist and political scientist Aladin El-Mafaalani, who researches migration, believes it does quite the opposite. The fact that there is a fierce debate is a good sign that society is coalescing, he argues. “We are moving closer together and that is precisely why there is a conflict.” He recently published a book on the subject, The Integration Paradox: Why Successful Integration Leads to More Conflicts. El-Mafaalani, 40, is a professor of politics and since April has headed a department in North Rhine-Westphalia’s integration ministry. He grew up in the Ruhr region after his parents came to Germany from Syria in the 1970s and he vividly remembers what it was like being the child of immigrants in Germany in the 1980s. “Discrimination was part of everyday life,” he says. “Things were much tougher for migrants then than today.”

Meanwhile, educational research shows, it is becoming more and more common for the children of those migrants to go to selective schools and on to university. Better education means improved chances in the labour market, higher salaries – and greater claims to belonging. “Many people with a migrant background are wondering what more they have to do to be recognised and accepted as fully belonging: their language, citizenship, feelings and home are all German, and yet something is still lacking,” says El-Mafaalani. On the other hand, many long-established residents feel they are losing their country and their identity. Somehow both sides are right. “That is the process of growing together. It takes a long time and it’s painful.”

He sees the hotly disputed question about whether Islam belongs in Germany as both an expression of this conflict and a sign of progress. “In the 90s the question would have been a poor joke or would not even have been understood, because the answer would have been an unequivocal ‘no’. Most Muslims would also have voted ‘no’. In contrast, today there would not be a uniform response; it would be more 50-50.”

It seems a contradiction to suggest integration might increase conflict rather than harmony in society. However, integration does not mean no more differences, merely that more people are taking part and so there is more competition. Minorities are no longer sitting tucked away in the corner but are taking their places at the main table and wanting a bigger slice of the cake.

When El-Mafaalani was at school in the 80s, he often saw women in hijabs coming into the building after the last lesson. They were cleaners, barely spoke any German and worked hard to make ends meet for their families. “Back then nobody was bothered by the headscarf,” he says. “It was only cleaning women who wore it.” It only became an issue when it was worn by women who had gone to university and then became schoolteachers. 

Parallel societies

The conflict is not just social, according to El-Mafaalani. It is not only about a share of the cake but also about identity. That is what makes the situation so complex and what allows the AfD to gain voters from very different backgrounds. It is not a conflict between cultures but about culture. What constitutes a good life? This question is fought over by the supporters and opponents of an open society.

He agrees with Andreas Reckwitz, a sociologist who describes a new society with an old and a new middle class at risk of existing side by side in parallel worlds that never touch each other. People in the old middle class have probably not been to university, tend to live in small towns, are materially quite well off and still live in a world in which everyone else leads a similar life. They feel they can no longer keep up with those in the new middle class who seem to be pushing for a change in values, away from familiar norms and towards greater self-development, cosmopolitanism and diversity.

The gulf is illustrated in the Neukölln district of Berlin, says El-Mafaalani. For some people this culturally diverse neighbourhood is highly desirable, and the high rents charged for apartments reflect this. “For others, who seek their home in a sameness that has grown slowly and promises security, the district is horrifying.”

There is practically no chance of achieving agreement on a “guiding culture”. And the closer we get to the open society, the stronger the resistance will become, he predicts. The core of his message is that conflict is inevitable and people should take a more positive view of it. “In an open society, a culture of constructive debate is the best guiding culture.” 


A recent study by the Centre for Turkish Studies and Integration Research in Essen found that many descendants of Turkish migrants now feel less connected with Germany than they did before 2010 – when controversy erupted over Thilo Sarrazin’s anti-immigrant book Germany Abolishes Itself, the neo-Nazi terror group National Socialist Underground claimed 10 murders and two bomb attacks, there were anti-Islam demonstrations by the far-right movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (Pegida) and the AfD made its political breakthrough. Many Turkish-Germans felt alienated, particularly those who speak German fluently and are in well-paid jobs. But for El-Mafaalani these are just temporary setbacks in the slow process of growing together.

So how can progress be made? Bernd Simon, a social psychologist and director of the new tolerance research project at Kiel University in northern Germany, sees the obligation as resting on the majority, in other words the long-established Germans. But it is no use trying to force people to appreciate the lifestyles of relative newcomers. “Demanding tolerance is more realistic,” says Simon. “In fact, tolerance practically presupposes rejection.” But it requires rejection to be curbed.

In his studies, which look at lesbians and gays as the opposite end of a cultural spectrum from Muslims, Simon identifies respect as the decisive factor that can subdue mutual rejection and thus provide stability within a society. He also sees remarkable parallels: both groups feel respected when they are accepted as equals, despite their “otherness”. He found lesbians and gays had a more positive attitude towards Muslims they more they felt respected by Muslims and the more they felt accepted as equals by society as a whole. That means that those who experience respect reciprocate with respect for other groups.

Minorities have an identity that is different but equal, and the social majority should not spurn this gesture, says Simon. As a result of Sarrazin, the NSU, Pegida and AfD, many Germans of Turkish origin feel their acceptance is being questioned. It is therefore crucial for political parties and governments to stress that these groups belong too.

Translate, negotiate, wrestle

How do you convince those who lament the “loss” of their homeland that they must respect migrants and their descendants? Tilmann Heil, an ethnologist, recommends pragmatism. Rather than discussing the conceptual superstructure of society, it is much more instructive to look at what actually happens when people from different parts of the globe live together. He spent time in northern Spain observing encounters between Senegalese immigrants and the local Catalan population. He noticed it was not a problem that the Africans did not have a good command of the local language. “A smattering of Catalan was enough to create understanding and acceptance.” However, great importance was attached to greeting people properly. In Catalonia a simple “hello” or a mere nod of the head is seen as disrespectful. Heil observed that the Senegalese quickly developed a feeling for the customary greetings there, and by adopting a respectful manner they won respect from others.

To him, even conflicts over how loud a group should be in public are positive because they are a productive wrestling in the process of living together. “It is fascinating to see how situations can turn out to the satisfaction of all concerned,” Heil says, “even though at first the groups have nothing in common.”

Culture shock

Imme Gerke, a behavioural biologist who runs courses on how to interact with foreigners, says there is such a thing as culture shock. “The active shaping of such situations demands certain skills,” she says.

She has travelled the world, living for a long time in Madagascar and west Africa.  In the 1990s, after a Canadian UN peacekeeping contingent brutally tortured and murdered a man in Somalia, Gerke accused the Canadian government of not properly preparing the soldiers for their mission abroad. She was promptly hired as an adviser, and she and her husband devised a course for the Canadian army on dealing creatively with culture shock. She now offers a trimmed-down version of the programme in Bremen that anyone can attend. After all, globalisation is unstoppable, she says. Many people are unsure how to respond when they encounter a foreign culture, because they do not know what may happen. “We have an inborn need for predictability and security.”

The main part of the course consists of looking at encounters she has experienced, such as the consternation of villagers in Madagascar shown a photo Gerke had taken of them. Other situations are more depressing, such as sitting in her car having to watch an angry mob almost beat a man to death. Participants on the course read a report about these incidents that only describes what happened. No explanation is given.

“The participants are meant to experience a culture shock; a situation in which the routines they have learned are of no use,” says Gerke. Their uncertainty is practically tangible: “Many participants go very quiet or leave the room for a while.” Discussions in small groups and role play then show them they are not helpless but can change the situation.

Gerke would like Germans to feel encounters with foreign cultures are rewarding – whether you need to take a course or simply want to talk to your Syrian neighbours. Listening to her experiences, you learn at least one thing: to appreciate how people who come to Germany manage to find their way in a culture that is alien to them.