Integration debate

Dominant Culture? Multi-Culturalism? Inter-Culture!

Coverausschnitt des Buches „Interkultur“; © Suhrkamp VerlagCover of the book “Interkultur”; © Suhrkamp; © Suhrkamp VerlagWhile others mourn the past days of a closed, culturally uniform society and paint the picture of the present in sombre colours and that of the future black, Mark Terkessidis’s book “Interkultur” (i.e., Interculture) supports the optimism for a future that is worth living in an open society beyond the dominant culture / multiculturalism debate of yesterday.

When people in Germany talk, that is to say, dispute, about immigration, they usually fall into the same pattern: Immigrants (or if in the second or third generation, then people with an “immigrant background”) have and cause problems, says the one side, because they will not “integrate” themselves. Immigrants have and cause problems, says the other side, because “we” “exclude” them or give them too few “incentives to integrate”. In spite of all the actually existing problems, or in the hope of overcoming them, the one side sings the praises of “multiculturalism” and the other side demands all the more vehemently the defence of “our” (dominant) culture. They are both equally right. But also both equally wrong.

Even if this debate is not always really conducted at such a low level, in the end the whole discussion is rather shallow. This is also Mark Terkessidis’s view and, instead of pushing either multiculturalism or integration, he makes a plea for something he calls “inter-culture”. “The goal is an evolution of institutions in the light of the new diversity of society”. The diversity itself has long been a reality. But we have so far failed to consider it positively as a resource that could help us find a viable answer to the question of how we want not merely to co-exist in future, but also actually to live together.

“Cultural fallacies”

For Terkessidis, the debates about an immigrant society conducted in Germany are dominated by a mindset that he calls “cultural fallacies”. Politics and media produce such fallacies “in order, for reasons of quite different interests, to make scandals out of certain processes”. For example, in recent years there has been “an hysterical public debate on the subject of ‘parallel societies’. This term refers to spaces in which certain groups – basically Muslims are always meant – isolate themselves from the majority society and live according to their own laws”. In fact, Terkessidis concedes, talk of parallel societies corresponds to a certain reality that has to do with the formation of networks. Foreigners and people with immigrant backgrounds, he observes, are known to be more often unemployed and so relatively poorer.

Inter-cutlure is more than turkish “currywurst”; Foto: Lorenz ViereckeIn Berlin, the rate of unemployment among foreigners has sometimes been nearly 45 per cent. Yet, says Terkessidis, in the most affected neighbourhoods “neither is neglect evident nor is the atmosphere openly aggressive”. And that, he argues, is precisely because of families with an immigrant background. For instance, we can observe “that especially families of Turkish origin are neglectful of neither their living spaces, nourishment nor eating together with the family – by contrast to similar German families”. While it is not be easy to find simple explanations for this, it is still evident, Terkessidis concludes, “that in the case of poverty it is the family which represents the decisive stabilising factor, and that the networks of persons of Turkish origin in Germany are strongly family-centred, intense, small and local”.

These networks, which can serve as supports in certain difficult situations, are hindrances in others: their members simply don’t know enough “gatekeepers” in the right places when it is a matter of finding housing or jobs outside the confines of the networks. Although in this way people remain “among themselves”, the question arises whether the social situation would at all easily permit a less family-centred behaviour. Even if many families in these networks are very traditional, especially with respect to gender relations, it is a “cultural fallacy”, Terkessidis maintains, if we denounce these kind of networks as parallel societies, assert that their members do not want to integrate themselves into the larger society, and that this has to do with their cultural background. On the contrary, he argues, the problems particularly affecting these groups are often class phenomena that pertain to society as a whole.

Accessibility in the parapolis

Foto: Lorenz ViereckeTerkessidis’s concept of “inter-culture” relies on the hope of a comprehensive transformation of our social routines, institutions and political projects, with the goal of attaining the equal social participation of all people living in Germany – regardless of their membership in a certain social class, their ethnic background, their gender, their sexual or religious orientation and the like. This would mean, according to Terkessidis, not simply respecting existing differences, but also “developing new relationships”. The starting point for this reconstruction is the “parapolis” – the city as laboratory of the future.

In the big cities, globalisation and demographic upheavals have already long created a situation that has very little to do with the traditional picture of the city as a “well-defined biotope in which a harmonious relation was developed between a compact centre and loose suburbs, with a social and functional mixture within the individual districts”. Immigration and mobility have fundamentally changed cities and their design. As successful urbane development must take account of reality, so too must society as a whole not only accept the changed reality of their diversity, but also use it actively as a resource in their deliberate planning. To do this, we have to remove structural obstacles. “The technical description of such obstacles is ‘discrimination’. And the technical goal is called ‘accessibility’”.

Terkessidis’s book contains many entertaining passages with illuminating examples. But even if the author also demands some work from the reader, his book is a must for everyone who is worried by the immigration debates in the tabloid press and on talk shows.

Andreas Vierecke
is head of the munich office of the Südpol-Redaktionsbüro Köster & Vierecke and editor-in-chief of the Zeitschrift für Politik.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
January 2011

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