#11 youth
Olga Kisselmann / Ahmad Masour

Escaping the Violence - Young Muslims in Germany

It is estimated that around 4 million Muslims are living in Germany. Their parents or grandparents migrated from Turkey, the Middle East, Iran or the Baikal area. A whole generation of youngsters is growing up caught between two worlds.

Young Muslims in Germany often suffer from the conflict between the liberal values of German society and the more conservative values of their Muslim and ethnic communities. And there is almost no one they can turn to for help in resolving the problems they face. Some resort to violence or the oppression of others.

Ahmad Mansour, a Muslim Arab who was born and grew up in Israel, works as a coach for the non-governmental organization "Heroes" in Berlin. "Heroes" offers trainings for young men from migrant families on topics related to honour and gender. We talked to Ahmad about the specifics of traditional societies, youth problems and his homeland Israel.

Ahmad, why did you move to Germany?

I came to complete my graduate studies in clinical psychology and to experience a new culture – but also to escape the violence. I left Israel at the peak of the violence of the Second Intifada. I wanted to live in a safe place.

You came to Berlin in a quest for security, but you noticed that even in Germany, life was not always peaceful. What has life been like in the Muslim community?

While in Berlin, I was shocked by certain developments in the Islamic communities. I saw religious radicalization, oppression and domestic violence, forced marriages and other abuses of girls. Some young men were gathering in ethnic gangs and gang violence was on the rise. There was a high rate of school dropouts. In some communities, violence was the primary avenue to gaining respect and the only reaction to social marginalization. Again and again I heard talks about honour, as if defending one's honour would justify anything. I was shocked to see that these young Muslims never questioned the traditional concepts of honour and gender roles. But it isn't surprising: they have grown up in traditional patriarchal cultures where critical reflection isn't welcome.

The things that happen around them as part of daily life differ a lot from the concepts they learn at home and in their community. They grow up in Germany, where women are self-determined, go to school and work just as men do. How do they deal with this discrepancy?

This is actually one of the main problems: these young people have no one to turn to when seeking support in dealing with their problems. They frequently experience violence – either violence directed at them, at one of their family members, or pressure to employ violence against others – but there is no psychological or social work directed at Muslim communities in Germany. This is due to misguided cultural sensitivity. Germans don't know how to deal with social problems in Muslim communities. They show a benevolent but ignorant tolerance toward all aspects of Islamic "culture". Even teachers often do not dare discuss these contentious topics in the classroom. The youngsters therefore mistrust non-Muslim society and feel that their specific problems and cultural backgrounds are not being understood.

"Germans don't know how to deal with social problems in Muslim communities."

What difference is "Heroes" making in this context?

We let children and young people ask their own questions and start reflecting. In traditional Muslim families, parents react with aggression and sanctions if children begin asking questions – they fear that they might lose their roots. We try to show youngsters that questioning traditional attitudes that cause violence and injustice doesn't mean they are denying their culture and religion.

What topics do you talk about with the young "heroes" in the workshops?

We talk about the taboo topics of migrant communities: about the dogmatic views on honour, tradition and gender roles, about democracy and human rights. For instance, we ask youngsters why they assume violence towards women is justified. After these trainings, participants receive a "Heroes" certificate and are encouraged to give workshops themselves. The work in the trainings is very intensive. It takes about one year before our "heroes" are sent out to the schools to give their own workshops for boys and young men.

What can Heroes offer that German social work cannot?

The Heroes volunteers all have the same cultural background as the youngsters we are working with. Take me, for instance: I am one of them. I also came from another country not long ago and did not even speak the local language. When they hear me speaking good German now, and when I tell them that I studied at a German university, they are impressed. They take me as a role model because they also want to move forward as I did. It is very important for them to have positive role models among their peers, because most Muslim communities are collectivistic. That means that the social pressure to fulfil certain expectations is high and it's nearly impossible for young people to move away from them.

"We try to show youngsters that questioning traditional attitudes that cause violence and injustice doesn't mean they are denying their culture and religion."

Heroes' activities focus on boys. Is this due to the assumption that in a male-dominated community men have more power to overcome oppressive structures?

To some extent, yes. Another reason is that the boys suffer themselves from the violence and harshness that surrounds them. We teach communication skills, for example. This enables them to express and support their opinions without hurting others. We also enact plays in which they have to adopt uncomfortable roles. This teaches them empathy. Of course we cannot change these young people's attitudes in a workshop just a few hours long, but at least they start reflecting.

You were one of the first persons in Germany to ever design a workshop aimed at tackling anti-Semitism among young Muslims. Why do you think such a project was necessary?

When I began working in violence prevention, I noticed that negative attitudes and open hate towards Jewish people are quite common among young Muslims. Of course we should not generalize here, but this problem has been neglected by society and underestimated by the major Islamic organizations in Germany. There aren't any educational activities to prevent anti-Semitism designed specifically to address Muslim youth. All educational activities target German youths and are dealing with the Nazi past. However, Turkish and Arabic youngsters are often not very interested in the European past, but they are in the Middle Eastern present.

The German public was shocked when Rabbi David Alter and his seven-year-old daughter were attacked by Muslim youths in Berlin last year. Discussions erupted as to whether this was just an isolated incident or a serious threat. What could be the reason for negative attitudes of Muslim youngsters towards Jewish people?

The main reason is the Middle East conflict. Many young Muslims see the Palestinians – who stand for all Muslims in their minds – as pure victims and the Israelis – the Jews – as the ultimate aggressors. There is a strong victimization of the self. They don't understand that there is a difference between the Israeli army's actions in the combat zones and the attitude of an average Israeli citizen. They don't even differentiate between Israelis and Jews who live inside or outside of Israel.

"The second and third generations of young Muslims living in Germany tend to watch even more radical Islamist or ultranationalist TV than their parents do."

Where does this perception come from?

The second and third generations of young Muslims living in Germany tend to watch even more radical Islamist or ultranationalist TV and videos on YouTube than their parents do. It makes them feel connected to their roots. But TV stations run by Hamas and Hezbollah, for instance, openly preach hate towards Jews. And even the German media add to the problem: Since the only kinds of stories they broadcast about the Middle East are related to violent conflict, young Muslims assume there is some kind of Western conspiracy. Furthermore, the Middle East conflict is a welcome tool for channelling these youngsters' feelings of marginalization and oppression. When they experience a lot of violence and exclusion, they want to pass it on to a weaker person. It also perpetuates their own victimization. But most Muslims haven't ever met a Jew much less an Israeli.

"In Israel there are strong friendships between Jews and Arabs; they work together in the same companies, in the same shops, in the same hospitals."

But some of them know you, and you are an Israeli. Do the young people you work with know about your background?

In the beginning, I was afraid to tell Muslims in Berlin that I am an Israeli. Now I use it to break down clichés. And yes, I also tell the young people at Heroes that I am an Israeli. When I talk about my home country, about daily life beyond the violence, they get a picture of Israel they have never known before. In Israel there are strong friendships between Jews and Arabs; they work together in the same companies, in the same shops, in the same hospitals. We have common TV shows and go shopping in the same malls. And we all suffer from the violence and the tension. There are Jewish draft resisters and peace organizations, and Jewish lawyers fighting for the rights of Palestinians. Just imagine: half of all the movies that critically examine the Middle East conflict have been directed by Jews!

Are there any Palestinian men who participate in your workshops?

While at Heros we do not particularly work with Palestinian youth I do work with them in some of my other projects. There are about 30,000 Lebanese Palestinians living in Berlin. Most of them only have a limited residence permit and can be sent back to Lebanon at any time. It is very important for us to reach out to them. Many have traumatic, broken life stories and pass their suffering on to their children. We want to help them overcome their trauma. At the same time we try to help them to make a living in Germany.

"The patriarchal family with its oppressive structures is creating weak people, who are unable to withstand any criticism and always blame others for their failure."

Heroes is not your first youth project. In your Israeli home town, you ran Du Kiom, a peace project aimed at fostering dialogue between Muslim and Jewish youth. What are the main differences between these two projects?

The youths I worked with at Du Kiom could meet and talk to each other. Arabs and Jews sat together in the classroom, so it was much easier to convince them that dialogue is necessary. This is much more difficult in Berlin.

We talked about the significance of positive role models before. Who are the role models for Palestinian youths?

In regard to Palestine, there are currently no positive role models at all. There might be some individuals, artists or peace workers, who are trying to change the common mind-set. But in general, peace initiatives are even openly suppressed. There is only victimization. The patriarchal family with its oppressive structures is creating weak people who are unable to withstand any criticism and always blame others for their failure.

Which role could young Palestinians play in promoting peace?

I'm still waiting for a peace movement from the people to emerge instead of a blame movement. So far I'm still waiting in vain. To achieve peace, Palestinians would have to give up the idea of winning at gunpoint. The people in Gaza brought Hamas into power because Hamas was able to exert power through violence and rockets. Even the official PLO-TV has continued with its extinction narratives and broadcasts maps of Palestine that do not include Israel. I would love to see initiatives that critically reflect the role played in the conflict by Palestinians. But this is off-limits in today's Palestine.

"I'm still waiting for a peace movement from the people to emerge instead of a blame movement. So far I'm still waiting in vain."

How is the political situation in Israel today? Which role do Israeli Arabs play?

I am very happy that I experienced the Middle East in the time of Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Accords, a time of openness and cooperation. Today, after the Second Intifada and the wars with Gaza, most Israelis have lost their trust in the peace process. The political right has grown strong. And I know that we, the Arab Israelis, have contributed to this situation. We do not participate in any political process. We have brought the right-wing politicians to power by not voting against them or supporting Arab parties. Over 1 million Arabs are Israeli citizens. With our votes we could influence 22 mandates. If we supported Jewish leftist parties, the political right would never have had a chance to reign in Israel. But we chose to stay away and continue the blame game.

What is your hope for Muslim communities around the world?

I wish there were more people who were not afraid to question their opinions; teachers and social workers who encouraged critical thinking and empathy instead of self-victimization and violence. As long as we refuse to start thinking critically and continue to adopt our parents' opinions without question, there's no hope for Muslim communities – neither in Germany nor in Palestine.

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