Muslim Melting Pot


Goethe-Institut Ponders German Identity in 21st Century

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Muslim Melting Pot

Goethe-Institut Ponders German Identity in 21st Century

by Gary Tischler

As worried Western eyes—especially American eyes—think about Islam, more often than not they’re thinking about the war on terror, about the Taliban, al-Qaeda, riots in Pakistan, and all the nightmares that have come unbidden since 9/11 and the continuing war in Iraq.

Thus, Americans rarely think of Europe and the Muslims living there except perhaps in the context of terrorism—as the source of plots or future attacks. Yet, not exactly hidden from the casual eye, Muslim communities within almost every country in Europe have sprung up, large and small, changing the human landscape and concerns of the countries in which they now live.

It’s not a subject often tackled by the American media, but large Muslim communities have become a part of the societal fabric in “European” places such as the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, France, Spain, Italy, England—and especially Germany.

Turks first immigrated to Germany decades ago as temporary workers, many of whom remained there, and later the country attracted Muslims from all over the world—immigrants who have since put roots down all across Germany, notably in major cities such as Berlin.

Through its exhibits, films and lectures, the Goethe-Institut in Washington reveals how Germany has changed in the decades since World War II, tackling the question of what it means to be German in the 21st century. The answers have turned out to be surprising and complicated, especially for those whom other Germans might not consider traditionally “German.”

The photography exhibition “Muslim Women in Germany” continues that search for German identity, as four photographers concentrate their lenses on particular groups of Muslims leading their daily lives, mostly in Berlin.

Time and exposure are clearly at work here—exposure to a different culture, tinged with remembrances of an old culture. The images taken by four members of the Berlin-based photography agency Ostkreuz don’t exactly depict a clash of cultures, but rather the effect of one culture on another.

In some ways, Anne Schönharting, Maurice Weiss, Jordis Antonia Schlösser and Nicole Angstenberger aren’t focusing on Muslim women per se, but on Muslim life in a modern, European country. The one thread that all of them touch on at one point is the issue of clothing, specifically the wearing of the traditional headscarf by Muslim women—a look that immediately sets them apart from the rest of German society and declares them to be different.

In translation, however, the headscarves have somehow become German in an odd, stilted sort of way. They’re called “kopftücher,” a very German-sounding name, and they’re found for sale in specialty stores across Berlin, where the photographers portray a variety of women shopping—a universal gene apparently.

Sure, there are shots of Muslim women and girls in Western dress, ponytails, jeans and the like, contrasting with other women wearing traditional garb. And although the women are sometimes seen in their homes and settings clearly meant to preserve their Muslim connection, more often than not, they’re doing what everyone else in Europe does. Which is to say, they shop, sit in parks, hold hands, play, eat at family gatherings and celebrations—photographed against the backdrops of cityscapes and street scenes.

It’s interesting that this search for identity, of strangers becoming part of a greater whole, is so persistently and often explored on an artistic level in Germany—a country whose history is clouded with an obsession of the “outsider,” with its pursuit of racial and ethnic authenticity that produced such tragedy.

These photographs attest to the evolving nature of a country that’s evolved with the times—a display of hope, curiosity in action and the ongoing examination of identity, whether it’s European, Muslim, German or all three.

Muslim Women in Germany: Photos from Ostkreuz Photo Agency through Feb. 29 Goethe-Institut 812 7th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 289-1200or visit

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.