Internship Narrative

You can find the pdf version of my narrative here.

I was born and spent most of my life in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia – Germany’s most populated state where Germans and immigrants have been living together for decades. Since the 1950s and 60s, when the first Gastarbeiter came to work in the state’s many steel factories and coal mines, North Rhine-Westphalia has become a home to many immigrant families from many different countries like Italy, Greece, Morocco, Turkey and former Yugoslavia (OECD, 2013). In 2013 almost one fourth of the people living in North Rhine-Westphalia had a migration background, the majority coming from former Yugoslavia and Turkey (Ministerium für Arbeit, Integration und Soziales NRW, 2016).

In order to fulfill all requirements for my master’s degree in Intercultural Communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, I needed to complete an internship of a least 166 hours. During the summer of 2016 I decided to go back home to North Rhine-Westphalia where I conducted my internship at the Ministry for Employment, Integration, and Social Affairs North Rhine-Westphalia[1] in Dusseldorf. Within the ministry I worked for the department “Dialogue with Islam”[2] which is subordinate to the division of integration. I stayed at the ministry for five weeks from May until June 2016

I started this internship from my own, unique point of view which reflected both my personal and professional background. First, I looked at it from a personal perspective as someone who grew up in North Rhine-Westphalia. My mother who works in the social sector, often with immigrant populations, gave me at least some insights into what everyday life between migrants and non-migrants looks like. My second perspective is my professional point of view as a graduate student in intercultural communication and education at the University of Pennsylvania. Until the start of my internship I had completed one year of course work, focusing mostly on topics related to sociolinguistics in education. I had studied diverse theories in intercultural communication, linguistics and education that helped me to prepare for my internship and to structure my thought process during the weeks at the ministry.

My expectations for the internship were mixed. On the one hand, I knew many stories from my mother and others working directly with immigrant populations complaining about administrative processes and the disconnect between the ministry’s work and real life issues experienced by individuals every day. On the other hand, I knew that many of the people working at the ministry were highly qualified and I felt excited to experience how they would use their expertise in order to create new policies.

In this internship narrative I would like to focus on two main points that became increasingly apparent during my time at the ministry in Dusseldorf. First, I would like to describe some aspects of the dynamics between the ministry as a complex administrative system, politics, and non-government organizations. Second, I would like to go into a closer analysis about how Islam is viewed and represented within the ministry.

Complex systems and policy in practice

The ministry is a complex system. Hundreds of people from diverse professional backgrounds work together in order to create new policies and provide the minister with the necessary resources to represent these policies in parliament and outside the ministry. While efficient communication between individuals and departments is a key element to these processes, the ministry has a strict hierarchical structure that individuals working within the institution need to pay attention to. Just a quick look at the ministry’s organizational diagram helps to understand the structures that lie behind such an institution which in my perspective is by the public often perceived as a single entity, speaking with only a single voice.

As an intern I entered the ministry without any previous knowledge of the structures that lie behind such an institution. The only previous knowledge I had were impressions as a German citizen, following political news and developments in my home state. My impression of the ministry was that of an outsider who had never seen the inside of such an institution, but only those aspects that were communicated to the general public. Working with such a high number of different people does naturally lead to diverse perspectives, opinions, and approaches. Some excerpts from my fieldnotes taken during the first days of my internship give a good impression of how I perceived the organizational structures within the ministry.

“The ministry’s organizational system seems to be rather an obstacle, […] no one can understand the system in its complexity. There are experts for every detail […] [and] it seems that working together means a lot of waiting for others and trusting that [they] will deliver. It sometimes seems to be hard to get all the information needed from all organizations and people included in a project. […] Work [processes] at the ministry give the impression of group work with hundreds of people. Communication with the public [thereby] often falls short.”

This excerpt from my first fieldnotes clearly emphasizes how the organizational system within the ministry is not just complicated, but how such a complexity of structures can lead to the hindrance of effective work and, eventually, effective policies. In my fieldnotes I compare work processes at the ministry with the process of group work for university classes, where people often spend most of their time trying to find consensus about how to approach an assignment or what to focus on most. I remember many instances during my time at the ministry where I felt frustrated about the fact that policies or ideas were not realized simply because it was not possible to find agreement between such high numbers of people.

This frustration was not just something I felt personally, it was also observable during a session of the integration commission at the parliament which I was able to observe during my internship. While during this session the main focus lied on elected representatives discussing current topics of integration policy, members from the ministry joined them to report about their current work progress and to answer any questions that would occur. The atmosphere between politicians and ministry members was clearly tense. I describe it in my fieldnotes as follows:

“During the second half of the session, politicians discuss the topic of ‘migrant self-organizations’ (Migrantenselbstorganisationen) and how these can be supported by the state government. Many politicians have the impression that the documents that need to be filled out in order to apply for government grands are too complicated for applicants who have no background in administrative work. A representative from the ministry assures that the ministry works on simplifying these documents. […] Many politicians communicate nonverbally through facial expressions and the rolling of eyes how they are not satisfied with this answer. It seems that the ministry is regarded as the ‘black sheep’ by politicians, hindering them in satisfying their constituents’ needs efficiently. […]”

The politicians in this example apparently assumed that the ministry did not work fast enough and that administrative tasks hinder their ideas becoming policy in a fast and efficient way. The work that is expected from the ministry, however, takes time and the cooperation of administrators and experts from diverse backgrounds. This might also be the reason why in the above example the ministry members do not make any promises to the politicians, but only assures them that the ministry is wor
king on improvement. Judging from my own experiences at the ministry, the people working there are very much aware of the fact how ineffective the ministry system can be.

This awareness also became very much apparent during the one day conference “Living together in NRW” for practitioners in the integration sector I attended with some of my colleagues from the ministry. For this conference mostly social workers, who directly work with immigrant populations came together to discuss experiences, search for problem solutions and ask questions to representatives from politics and migrant organizations. Compared to the meeting of the integration commission, the atmosphere was much friendlier and less tense, even though individuals were not shy with criticism. People were very open to critical discussions, trying to find meaningful solutions to existing problems. I would like to point out two instances in my field notes where the ministry’s work was directly or indirectly criticized and how my colleagues reacted to that criticism.

Both instances took place right at the beginning of the conference when speakers from different organizations and representatives from politics addressed the whole group of participants. The first speaker, director of the non-profit that organized the conference, emphasized how “we all need to integrate into a new society.”[3] He furthermore criticized the ministry very directly using the phrase “It simply can’t be tolerated that […]”[4] several times. In this situation where I and my colleagues as representatives of the ministry were pretty much singled out in front of the whole group, my colleagues made a friendly appearance, took notes, and smiled. One of them, however, turned towards me and whispered: “Not true!”[5] This describes a situation where my colleagues did not agree with the very direct criticism that they got from the people that put their policies into practice and regarded them as simply false. The second speaker of the day, a representative of the Green Party, tried to provide the perspective of policy makers and also attempted to reply to the criticism formulated during the previous speech. While doing so, she criticized the administrative processes. I would like to share some of the things she said:

“This is not about integration, it is about an inclusive society.”[6]

“We all need to describe ourselves as learning systems.”[7]

“I do not speak of a refugee crisis, I speak of an administration crisis.”[8]

While the first two quotes agree with the criticism formulated during the first speech and describe what future policies should work towards, the third quote criticized in a very strong way the administrative work processes by stating that the real crisis in 2015 is not a crisis of refugees coming to Germany but a crisis of how the administration in Germany deals with that situation. Sitting right next to my colleagues from the ministry, I was able to observe that by nodding their heads and whispering words like “yes” and “correct” they very much agreed with that last statement.

The above examples describe how the very complex organizational system of the ministry often does not support the effective transformation from policy into practice. While such a high number of experts working together on one topic is often necessary in order to create policies that are well developed and profound, it often slows down processes that would better serve the purpose of integration if they could go through much faster. It seems that this issue got even more concerning after 2015, when more than one million refugees came to Germany, applied for refugee status and thereby became part of the country’s administrative system (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, 2017).

Does Islam belong to Germany?

In 2010, one short statement by Germany’s president – “Islam belongs to Germany”[9] – caused a lot of media attention. To such an extent even, that Christian Wulff himself believed that the statement played a crucial role in the fact that he had to resign from his position as President in 2012 (Hildebrandt, 2015). Years later, after the terrorist attacks in Paris 2015, the German chancellor Angela Merkel used the same phrase again in order to support Muslim communities in Germany (Zeit Online, 2015). She stated: “Islam belongs to Germany – that’s how it is and that is also my personal opinion. […] [There is a] necessity to strengthen the dialogue between religions. There is much ignorance [in our society]” (as cited in Zeit Online, 2015).[10]

But to what extent does Islam belong to Germany? I conducted my internship at a department of the ministry which main task is to some extent what the chancellor asked for in the fall of 2015 – “Dialogue with Islam.” This department not only cooperates with the largest Muslim organizations in North Rhine-Westphalia, it also works with NGOs that work towards interreligious dialogue and it takes on the responsibility to organize different political and social events.

For this second part of my narrative I would like to focus on the question of how the role of Islam in Germany is perceived by the ministry, what assumptions are made with regard to Islam in Germany, and whether Islam is seen as an equal part of German society, as Christian Wulff and Angela Merkel have stated. Even before I started my internship at the ministry, I was wondering about the departments name “Dialogue with Islam.” What were the assumptions behind giving the department this name? First of all, in order to start a dialogue two parties are needed. The first one, Islam, is named, but the second remains to one’s imagination. Who are the people that are supposed to have a dialogue with Muslims living in North Rhine-Westphalia? Is it every individual who is not Muslim, members of the government, or Christians in general? Only by looking at the name of the department this question is impossible to answer and for me it also communicates a very clear message. The name “Dialogue with Islam” singles out Islam with respect to the rest of society – a contradiction towards the notion that “Islam belongs to Germany.” Referring to Islam in general, the department’s name furthermore fails to acknowledge the cultural diversity of Muslims living in North Rhine-Westphalia. Jamal Malik supports my personal impression of the issue in his work “Integration of Muslim Migrants and the Politics of Dialogue: The Case of Modern Germany” from 2013. He writes:

“The urgent desire to carry out a dialogue with Islam thus assumes that there is one specific and distinctive Islam, with which one could engage in dialogue. […] The expression ‘Dialogue with Islam’ already indicates that the state ‘creates’ its discussion partners in search for a single representative organ, which can speak for every Muslim. This is based on the implicit assumption that there is a problem, an incompatibility that can threaten the desired and intended peaceful interaction between the dialogue partners, if it is not resolved. […] This is opportune and reduces complexity. Religion mutates into a cultural remedy for political rationality and interfaith dialogue becomes an essential instrument of integration efforts” (p. 500).

In his work Malik very precisely summarizes the thoughts I elaborated above with regard to the department’s name “Dialogue with Islam.” First, he emphasizes that using this kind of phrasing generalizes Islam into a single entity which does not reflect reality. He furthermore mentions the implicit assumption that the existence of Islam within Germany creates problems that need to be solved. I would argue that both notions are counterproductive when it comes to creating an equal and inclusive society. Malik furthermore emphasizes that Muslims in Germany would become “aware that their religiosity is a key reason for discrimination […] notwithstanding their ethnic and national origins” (p. 500).

While one could describe this situation as far from ideal, it seems that the government has to at least some extent realized the discrepancies between the ideals of an inclusive society and the situation within its own administration. The campaign “Diversity Unites – More Migrants in the Public Sector”, for instance, seeks to attract more immigrants to careers in administrative and public service positions. Through a diverse number of brochures, the ministry furthermore tries to educate the public about the diversity of Muslim organizations and communities in North Rhine-Westphalia (Ministerium für Arbeit, Integration und Soziales NRW, 2015), the fact that Salafism does not necessarily coincide with religious extremism and how extremist Salafism can be identified as part of popular youth culture (Ministerium für Inneres und Kommunales NRW, 2015). While these approaches are steps in the right direction, they do not solve the implicit assumptions I described above.

During the time of my internship, my impression was that the main focus for the department was the coordination with important representatives from Muslim organizations in North Rhine-Westphalia. Often the department organizes events for the minister to visit Muslim communities, other times it writes reports about organization that serve as best practice examples for integration and dialogue. Probably the most important event that took place during my time at the ministry was an iftar at the state parliament in Dusseldorf. Most of my internship coincided with the fasting month Ramadan and the state government had invited important representatives from Muslim communities to the parliament. The aud
ience for this event were not just representatives of the main Muslim organizations in North Rhine-Westphalia, but also, for instance, members of Muslim women groups and members of the Genç family who were the victims of one of the worst xenophobic attacks against migrants in recent German history (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, 2013). I would like to use an excerpt from my fieldnotes to describe how I perceived that evening.

“Today I was invited to join some of my colleagues for the fast-breaking at the parliament. […] It is impressive how many important people are here, mostly representatives from important Muslim organizations but also the president of parliament and the minister of integration. […] Right before the dinner started, an imam came up to the podium and said the traditional prayer. Behind him one could see the sun setting behind the Rhine river, creating colors from dark red to light pink. The whole picture was almost too perfect, to be true.”

The last sentence from this excerpt gives an idea of how impressed I was by the whole event. I think the point that surprised me the most was that such an event took place in the state parliament in the first place. Having an iftar at the parliament, the political center of North Rhine-Westphalia, is for me a clear symbol of Islam belonging to Germany. This event made it clear to me, that integration in Germany, where Islam is not treated as a foreign entity but an equal member of society, is indeed possible. There is, however, still a lot of work needed to make this development happen in all parts of society and not just during one evening with high ranked representatives from Muslim organizations and politics.

My time as an intern at the Ministry for Employment, Integration, and Social Affairs North Rhine-Westphalia did not only give me valuable insights into how integrations policies in Germany are actually developed and put into practice, it also provided me with information about how the issue of interreligious dialogue is approached in North Rhine-Westphalia. This internship was a great opportunity to bring together the theoretical knowledge about intercultural communication from my studies at the University of Pennsylvania and practical insights about integrations and intercultural dialogue – topics I emphasized throughout my studies in the United States.

References

Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung. (2013, May 28). 20 Jahre Brandanschlag in Solingen. Retrieved March 30, 2017, from http://www.bpb.de/politik/hintergrund-aktuell/161980/brandanschlag-in-solingen-28-05-2013

Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung. (2017, March 14). Zahlen zu Asyl in Deutschland. Retrieved March 27, 2017, from https://www.bpb.de/politik/innenpolitik/flucht/218788/zahlen-zu-asyl-in-deutschland#Registrierungen

Hildebrandt, Tina (2015, March 12). Der Islam gehört zu Deutschland. Die Zeit. Retrieved March 22, 2017 from http://www.zeit.de/2015/09/christian-wullf-angela-merkel-islam-deutschland

Malik, J. (2013). Integration of Muslim Migrants and the Politics of Dialogue: The Case of Modern Germany. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs33(4), 495-506.

Ministerium für Arbeit, Integration und Soziales NRW (2015). Die Vielfalt des organisierten Islam in Nordrhein-Westfalen. Die Verbände des dialog forum islam und weitere islamische Zusammenschlüsse stellen sich vor. MAIS NRW.

Ministerium für Arbeit, Integration und Soziales NRW (2016). Teilhabe- und Integrationsbericht Nordrhein-Westfalen. MAIS NRW.

Ministerium für Inneres und Kommunales NRW (2015). Extremistischer Salafismus als Jugendkultur. Sprache, Symbole und Style. MIK NRW.

OECD (2013), Zuwanderung ausländischer Arbeitskräfte: Deutschland, OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264191747-deg

Zeit Online (2015). Der Islam gehört zu Deutschland. Retrieved March 22, 2017 from http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2015-01/angela-merkel-islam-deutschland-wulff#muslime-in-deutschland-4-tab

 

 

[1] Translated from German (Ministerium für Arbeit, Integration und Soziales NRW).

[2] Translated from German (Dialog mit dem Islam).

[3] Translated from German („Wir müssen uns alle in die neue Gesellschaft integrieren“).

[4] Translated from German („ Das kann nicht sein, dass […]“).

[5] Translated from German („Stimmt nicht“).

[6] Translated from German („Es geht nicht um Integration, es geht um eine inklusive Gesellschaft“).

[7] Translated from German („Wir müssen uns alle als lernende Systeme beschreiben“).

[8] Translated from German („Ich spreche nicht von einer Flüchtlingskrise, ich spreche von einer Verwaltungskrise“).

[9] Translated from German (“Der Islam gehört zu Deutschland”).

[10] Translated from German (“Der Islam gehört zu Deutschland – und das ist so, dieser Meinung bin ich auch.” Es gebe aber sicherlich die “Notwendigkeit, den Dialog zwischen den Religionen noch zu verstärken, es gibt viel Unkenntnis”) (Zeit Online, 2015).