"German Muslims Laud US Diplomat's Style," by Ranty Islam - the Christian Science Monitor, 3 November 2006
BERLIN – The last time high schoolers in Berlin's Neukölln district made headlines was this spring, when teachers wrote an official letter to politicians essentially declaring a state of emergency over a violent student body - 80 percent of whom come from immigrant backgrounds.
But Jazan, a 16-year-old student at Neukölln's Ernst-Abbe high school, got his moment in the media limelight this week for an entirely different reason: Along with nine other students, he'd just returned from a 10-day trip to America sponsored by the US Embassy.
What most impressed him?
"People in the US can start driving at the age of 16 - why do we have to wait till 18 in Germany?" he says, laughing. But then, more serious, he adds, "Arabs, Jews, and Muslims [in the US] walk on the street next to each other and nobody tells them how to dress or what to do."
Such a change in perspective is exactly what US Ambassador William R. Timken Jr. is looking to accomplish with the embassy's "Windows on America" program.
Funded by corporate donors, the project aims to gives students from migrant backgrounds a clearer picture of the US, the ambassador says. While some see Windows on America as a thinly veiled PR campaign, Muslim leaders have lauded Mr. Timken's pragmatic approach to engaging Muslims as a useful model for their own politicians.
In September, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Timken broke the fast with Muslims at a mosque near the western city of Düsseldorf, as well as with a number of Muslim representatives invited to the Frankfurt residence of US Consul General Jo Ellen Powell.
Previously Ms. Powell, together with the ambassador's wife, Sue Timken, had organized a round-table discussion with Muslim women leaders working with immigrants.
The embassy also hosted a symposium with roughly 100 students from schools in Berlin's minority districts to discuss political, cultural, and educational issues of concern to them.
"The ambassador's efforts are warmly welcome," says Aiman Mazyek, secretary-general of Germany's Central Council of Muslims, one of the largest Muslim organizations in the country. "We'd like to see more of those [efforts] from German politicians. But, sadly, a visit by the German president to join Muslims breaking their fast is probably a long way off," he adds.
A sign of change came at an unprecedented government-organized conference of German Islamic organizations and leaders last month. At the meeting, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble called Muslims an essential part of Germany who "belong to us."
But not all Germans see it that way. According to a poll earlier this year by the German news magazine Stern, 55 percent of Germans consider Islam a valuable part of society - but also a threat.
German Muslims are not insensitive to such sentiments; a more recent Stern poll revealed that almost half of all Muslims in Germany believe that relations with other parts of society have deteriorated over the past few years.
Whether Timken's approach will make a difference to the integration debate in Germany is uncertain, says Torsten Jäger, managing director of Germany's Intercultural Council. Given its limited scope and funding, "the embassy's program seems to be primarily a PR effort."
Is Timken's dialogue a neat PR-campaign to polish America's image or a meaningful effort to get engaged on integration issues in Germany?
A bit of both, says Timken. "We don't tell Germans how to run their country," he declares."My job is to get people to understand the US better."...
For an earlier report on US efforts to reach out to Muslims in Europe, see Amb. Korologos Describes US Outreach to Muslims in Europe.
The comparisons that the German students portrayed in the CSM article draw between their experiences with Americans and with Germans illustrate an inherent problem with public diplomacy that targets 'sub-' communities of the host country.
There's some term drawing on the idea of a triangle that psychologists use to describe what happens when two people who don't get along draw a third person into the relationship to stabilize it. Two roommates who are having problems might turn to a third roommate as a go-between and a peacemaker; couples who fight a lot might lean on children or friends to defuse their conflicts.
Something similar can happen when a government reaches out to a group that is in some kind of conflict with host country leaders. Whatever the intent of the program is, its greatest impact might be to deepen divisions between the host country government and the aggrieved community, and/or to make the bilateral relationship more difficult.
There are a couple of simple ways to work around this problem. One is to conduct your public diplomacy initiative through unofficial, third-party groups. Private sector exchanges can pursue the same goals that official exchanges do without the political baggage.
Another solution is to broaden your program to include host country officials. That approach is the one that makes more sense if the goal of the public diplomacy program involves trying to change both public and private attitudes. If the US concern here were to encourage Europeans to better integrate immigrant communities, it would make sense to have an exchange program that involves other people whose attitudes and actions play a role in that issue. Sometimes the biggest contribution a foreign government can make to resolving a conflict is to act as a moderator for this kind of meeting.
For more on the "Windows on America" program, see:
"Ambassador Timken Launches 'Windows on America' Initiative in Dusseldorf" - press relese, Consulate General of the United States, Dusseldorf, Germany, 26 June 2006
"Immigration in the 21st Century" - text of the W.E.B. DuBois Lecture delivered by US Ambassador William R. Timken, Jr., at Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany, on 21st July 2006.
It is an honor to participate in the W. E. B. DuBois lecture series. Like many of America’s civil rights heroes, DuBois forced America to confront some of the injustices in our society. His determination and eloquence spearheaded a grassroots movement to fight racial discrimination and prejudice in America. As one of his biographers said, DuBois was always one step ahead of himself -- troubled by America’s failings, but still committed to the idea of an American democracy true to itself. He never stopped asking difficult questions....
The challenge of assimilation is a thread that runs through the fabric of American history. America has welcomed more immigrants than any other country in the world. The common culture of the United States has been shaped, reshaped, and often heavily debated by waves of newcomers of different origins....
In America’s early days, Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s first statesmen, complained that Germans arriving in Philadelphia would, and I quote: “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them… They will never adopt our Language or Customs.” Unquote. He was wrong. The Germans did not “Germanize” anybody and were not “Anglified.” Immigrant integration means that both newcomers and established residents change. British immigrants became Americans; just as German immigrants also became Americans. Today, in fact, more Americans claim German ancestry – including myself – than any other group....
That is why one of my priorities as Ambassador is to expand the opportunities for dialogue about some of these American models.
We are working with teachers, librarians and social workers to discuss best practices in creating opportunities for assimilation.
We are also working with German schools. For example one project is a high school business plan competition run by Berlin’s American-German Business Club. We want to involve schools that might also be good partners for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a U.S.-based organization which helps low income youth build entrepreneurial skills.
As we speak, our Consul General in Duesseldorf, George Knowles, is hosting a barbecue for a group of 10 minority students from a Duesseldorf Hauptschule that has just returned from a two week visit to the United States. This is a new program called “Windows on America.” It is a public-private initiative -- meaning that the Embassy arranges the program and corporate and private donations pay the expenses. We had a great response to Windows on America, and more groups of kids will be going.
Last week we had a reverse visit. Some American Muslims came to speak with Berlin high schoolers, again mostly from minority backgrounds. The kids were very articulate about their “twoness” – to quote W.E.B. DuBois. They brought up, for example, the World Cup matches and how soccer gave them a way to feel German....