Flying all the way in from Germany, Naika Foroutan, a professor of integration and social policy at the Humboldt University of Berlin, visited the University of Wisconsin campus to discuss public perception of immigrants and refugees in Germany, and the bigger picture of Muslim acceptance as a whole.

Held in College Library, scholars and students alike gathered to discuss ideas surrounding the current immigration situation in today’s political climate. As part of her academic visit to Wisconsin, Foroutan spent the first day highlighting the contrast between general public opinion in Germany and empirical facts regarding Muslims.

Foroutan divided the talk into three main sections:

  • Public perception of Muslims
  • The contradiction and ambiguity between how the typical German thinks of Muslims and the reality of Muslims’ actions and political affiliation
  • An exploration of the impact anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments have on modern-day society

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Foroutan kicked off the presentation with the first and most emphasized fact: Less than 5 percent of the European Union are non-EU citizens, yet there is still a wide public perception that the EU is being invaded. The simple reality is the beliefs of European citizens do not align with the concrete data, she said.

This is not to say that the typical German means to carry these bad sentiments, Foroutan said. In the beginning of the crisis, Germany was “very open” and “welcoming” toward refugees.

“Germans were suddenly playing the roles of the ‘good guys’ in the world, and this caused a bit of cognitive dissonance for them,” Foroutan said.

Not all German citizens, however, were open and friendly, Foroutan said. Violence against refugees has become more rampant with the increased rate of immigration.

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Tying it all together, Foroutan explained exactly just why anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments are dangerous. When German citizens were surveyed on what issue Germany should focus on first, the overwhelming majority stated refugees and immigration should be addressed first. The minority group in this survey, on the other hand, thought education and unemployment should be addressed before all else.

In other words, Foroutan said the focus placed on immigration is essentially “dwarfing” issues surrounding the economy and well-being of Germany as a whole. As a result of the increase in focusing on immigration, there has been a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment as well.

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The best way to help the situation is to institute a re-education program, similar to how anti-Semitism in Germany was handled after World War II,  Foroutan said. In her opinion, this is the best viable option in terms of changing public perception without requiring actual exposure to Muslims and refugees, she said. 

Moving forward, Foroutan suggested honesty in the search for a solution is key, and said Germans need to find a new approach in dealing with perceptions of immigration.

“We really all have to come together, put our questions on the table and say, ‘Where did we fail with our theories?’” Foroutan said.