German Muslims laud US diplomat's style

The ambassador brings students to the US in a broader push to engage Muslims. Some say it's merely PR.

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.

Burhan Kesici, vice president of Berlin's Islamic Federation, also agrees that German leaders could better emulate Timken's approach. At a joint breaking of the fast last year, hosted by the ambassador in a "private, warm, and welcoming setting," he and the other Muslims "got the impression that we can talk to and respect each other – even if we don't agree with a lot of US politics on the global scale," says Mr. Kesici.

Interactions with German politicians are lacking this warmth, he says, but "with them we can talk to actually get things done and move ahead on the political level, too."

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."

The students at Ernst-Abbe seem interested in getting a better understanding of the US; the ambassador says that many of them expressed a concern in their essays that their image of the US is skewed by German media, as well as the movies and TV shows they watch.

"The negative opinions here about the US are really just about their government," says Sharonda, a 17-year-old at Ernst-Abbe.

The daughter of immigrant parents from Ghana, she was surprised by the attitude of Americans she met on the trip's stops: New York, Washington, and Des Moines, Iowa. "The American people are, well, just so different, very open and welcoming."

So despite his reservations, Mr. Jäger says Germany should still consider Timken's initiative and start advertising in a similar way abroad.

"It is not enough for a country to more easily integrate foreigners and strive to become an open, inclusive place," says Jäger. "An immigration country needs to actively advertise this fact in the right places abroad – to make sure it attracts the best."

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