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Ratna Omidvar
Ratna Omidvar
Faust-Gespräch mit Ratna Omidvar

Incendiary debate

Ratna Omidvar, you received the „Alfred-Grosser-Gastprofessur für Bürgergesellschaftsforschung“ (Alfred-Grosser guest lecture on research of civic social engagement) . You came from Toronto to Frankfurt in order to talk about your experiences concerning migration and integration. You know the German society very well; forty years ago you studied literature in Munich. In the meantime you lived in Iran; from there you had to flee to Canada, where you experienced personally, what it is like to be an immigrant. Now you come to Germany as a political advisor and well-respected expert on migration politics. Which attitude towards migration have you observed within the German society?

German politics and foundations all talk about Germany being an immigrant country. I don´t believe that the people in Germany actually accept this. I think there is a dissonance between the intellectual and the public discourse on the need for immigrants, how Germany should arrange itself to be an immigrant country. I believe that this debate and discussion has not been fully had and I don´t know how possible it is to have it, because it is an incendiary debate. Germans are very much attached to their notion of who is a German and what is German identity and it is very difficult for them to conceive of an identity that is malleable and that is open to influences of the outside so I think the hearts and minds of the Germans are not on the same page.

How do Canadians describe their own identity?

You see, this is it; we have a hard time describing our own identity. Other than a few commonalities that we can make about ourselves, that we are a liberal, democratic country, that we value the equality of human beings, especially men and women, that we love hockey, that we like multiculturalism, we don´t have a fixed idea about who we are as a people and that is in direct comparison to our neighbors to the south. The Americans have a pretty fixed identity of what it means to be an American. It is a fixed notion they have in their mind, an American is patriotic, an American is loyal, an American is adventurous, he is entrepreneurial, looks for new opportunities, each one to themselves. There is a famous line in the American constitution, and there is an equally famous line in the Canadian constitution that describes the difference between our two national personalities. In their constitution they say, that Americans are about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Canadians say, we are about peace, order and good governance. So you see, we are two entirely different countries. We are rules bound, we believe in the role of government, we have a notion of ourselves above all as a peaceful society, that is dedicated to good process and good governance and good government, whereas the Americans are about individuals and individual capacity and individual freedom. It is not an accident that they send people to the moon and we have health care, these are expressions of our collective identities.
I have gone back and forth on our personality, but one of the defining features of Canadian personality is a very strong understanding that we are for the great part a nation of immigrants.

You come from India. When you look at your own way to see yourself, what makes you Canadian, what makes you different from other Canadians who come may be from Haiti…

I think, we are all similar and we are all different, human beings are like that. The fact that I am Indian, what makes me different, is my strong sense of responsibility towards my parents, I live that every day. Six years ago my parents came to Canada, I looked after them, my mother still lives with me. She has raised my children, she is now 86 years old, I look after her and there is absolutely no way, I will consider putting her in a place, where I cannot personally look after her unless it´s a medical emergency. So, I believe, this notion of family responsibility, this notion that family is the most important, is really important to me as an Indian, but as a Canadian I am the first to criticize my own culture for its lack of liberal values, for its treatment of women and girls, for some of the rituals that my mother wants to promote at home, and I don´t want to have, because they are in my view, they put down women. So, this makes me very Canadian, and when I go back to India – I love going back to India – I open the doors of the plane and the sight and the smell of this country, which assaults me, leaves me weak in the knees. I am weak in the knees, when I hear the sights and sound and get the smell of India and after two weeks I cannot wait to go away, because of the noise, not just the physical noise, but what I see in India, which is the treatment of people of a different class. I cannot bear it, when people are spoken to and treated in an unequal way.
There are different classes everywhere but one other thing I have learned from Canada, you respect people, you talk to them like human beings, you don´t tell them to go away, this is part of the Indian narrative you do that all the time, because that´s all you can do, but I begin to feel incredibly uncomfortable after some time and I want to come home.

So, being Candian means, you believe in certain basic values and this consent unifies the Canadian society? In Europe we also agreed on a common constitution, but the discussions about „Leitkultur“ or Thilo Sarrazin´s fear for „Überfremdung“ show, that there are further aspects that define the idea of a „collective identity“. In everyday life people interact often impatient and with a lack of understanding for a behavior that appears to be different.

Ja, und ich gebe Ihnen ein Beispiel (I give you an example, says Ratni Omnidvar spontaneously in German): Gestern sind wir mit dem Bus zur Uni gefahren, ich musste zwei Euro in den …, I put the money in the wrong place and because I am different, I don‘ t know, the bus driver got so mad at me. I looked at him and said to him in English: “That’s not the way that you speak with any customer!” I had to say that because that´s what I would have said in Canada you have to be good to your customers. He was really annoyed with me. These are small things, but I noticed it in different way, the German desire to be frank, to be open, is very close sometimes to being… hurtful and dismissive of others. I have noticed this in my conversations with people, whereas our desire to be frank and open – we want to have an open discussion – there is always a grounding of a certain kind of politeness. I spoke about this in my lecture yesterday, Canadians are polite, polite, polite, and I have learned that politeness to someone else is the least you can give to another human, the least, even when you are walking through the street, there are beggars and they ask you for money. All you can do is to say “No, thank you.” Politeness is the least you can reach out and give to someone.

People here have an enormous fear to lose their identity as a German culture; this fear is stronger in regions, where there are hardly any foreigners, rather than in places such as Frankfurt, where a high percentage of migrants live. However, there exists an underlying fear that can be easily provoked. Do you observe a similar fear within the Canadian society?

Difficult question, no easy answers… I think it is easy for a strong historic culture like the German culture to feel threatened. You have a very long history of falling apart, coming together, it was a massive effort to stand up again after the Second World War and rebuild themselves with all that was in the public domain about collective German behavior to get over that and to build the economy – Roland Kaehlbrandt, head of the Stiftung Polytechnische Gesellschaft, introduced me with these words: “Ratna has been named nation builder by the Global Mail, this is not a word, we would use here”. I understood exactly, why Germans reject the word “nation”, it reminds them…, so you have a lot of history, you have a lot of pain, you’ve had a lot of suffering and you have had a lot of success as economic “Wunderkind”.

Concerning migration, you only have images of fear, you don´t have images of success, this is what is different in Canada. Yes, there is fear, a million south Asians, now we are all eating samosas…but the fact is, that out of the many south Asians many are hugely successful and their success makes the success of other Canadians so Canadians have begun to understand that the success of immigrants is their success, so what is good for immigrants is good for Canadians and vice-versa. Intellectually Canadians understand that their well being is bound up with the well being of immigrants. This may cost us a little bit in the beginning, but in the long term we are all going to be better off, this is an abiding value within the majority of Canadians. They may not like immigrants, for example, but they like immigration, they like immigration because it is good for them…they understand that.
I am trying to give you the difference between liking individuals and liking the policy construct. What you have to do in Germany, is to talk about the successes that you have and you do have successes, though you never talk about successes. This is part of the German condition, I think, to be so highly philosophical about everything and to always put out images of fear instead of images of success.
You have to have in Frankfurt your 100 most successful immigrants, why don´t you write about them, how did they become successful, who helped them, who is working for them, who is speaking for them. Instead I find that the German media and the German academics are always talking about the failures. The only success you have talked about, after Thilo Sarrazin´s book “Deutschland schafft sich ab”, was the results of the Sachverständigenrat, which came out with their study to say that most Germans and most immigrants think, integration is going pretty well. This would have been a great opportunity for the media to say here is a scientific study, empirical, let´s go find out the real life stories.

When you use the term “immigration”,” integration”, “multicultural living” – what do these words mean…? Each of us seems to have different definitions, therefore I question, when people say that integration is working fine. What does this mean to them, do they think of criminal rates going down? In the same context I would like to speak about the word “tolerance”. Tolerance is a word for me that says: we are open to receiving immigrants or foreign people. However you had criticized the use of this expression.

In the context of immigration people in Germany don´t think of participation and civic engagement. Concerning tolerance it depends on how you think of the word. Tolerance in my lexicon – many academics would agree with me – is a passive aggressive term, it is not a welcoming term. I will let you be coming by my house and stand by the door, but I won´t say anything. We used the term “tolerance” for many years in Canada, but the language has progressed and we now understand, that tolerance is not the word that we should use. Instead what we should use is “engagement”, “participation”, “inclusion”, “multiculturalism” – in the way we understand multiculturalism. What is its definition? Some people say, the definition of multiculturalism is “diverse demographics”. Well, following this definition, yes, you are a multicultural society. But that´s a very superficial definition of multiculturalism, the real definition of multiculturalism is: it´s an idea about yourself, it´s an ethos, it´s an idea of who you are as a people and the fact that your personality has the capacity to shift and change and morph and absorb at different times, different values, without losing the basic values.
I think those basic values are different in every society. In our society it is a basic value to respect the law – this is not negotiable, also, to treat women and men equally – not negotiable, that’s the law. So multiculturalism does not give license to different religions to oppress their women, no, it does not give license to say that gays are not part of our society. We have laws against that, but what multiculturalism does above everything else: it instills in our Canadian culture expectancy that over time we will sort out these differences. It is a very positive expectancy, which is, why we would much rather say to parents, okay you will only send your girls to school if they wear the scarf, fine, at least we have them in public school and public space, if we say no, we will drive them to religious schools, so let us say “yes”. If the parents say, we will only let our girls swim in segregated swimming pools, we say “yes”, because the public space is, where cultures are negotiated really.

You said one difficulty you see is in religious fields, what did this mean?

We have our constitution and we have our charter of rights, foundational frame work that are legally and constitutionally binding. In the charter of rights we have freedom for religion; we also have equality of all people. Sometimes these two are contradictory, if you give a religion freedom – and I am talking about all religions, about Catholic religion, the Jewish religion, the Muslim religion, the Hindu religion – they have basic values and believes that may run contrary and impose upon the rights of other people. In Canada we have never had this conversation, what is first: the freedom of religion or the equality of people. We have to have this discussion.

In Germany, we have a lot of immigrants, who are Islamic. Therefore the question of immigration is often linked with questions of religious self determination. In addition, there is no strict separation between state and church. Thus, topics that are related to religious matters draw strong attention and evoke intense emotional reactions. Listening to such discussions immigrants who are living in Germany for many years cannot consider themselves to be part of the society.

You can be integrated without being included. I have to come back to the role of the state. Does the state have to generate linkages between human beings? You can´t socially engineer people, you can´t make them love each other, but you can make them share common space, common public space, schools, libraries, parks, swimming pools, colleges. You are a nation of “Verein”, you can do that. So I think, the role of the state in using the levers at its fingertips is really important. Where Canada has been more successful is when it has used those levers of state and crafting multiculturalism policies, employment equity policies, citizenship policies, but it has failed where it has left integration up to the private sector or to the individual himself, that is our failure and you should learn from that. We kind of expected if you bring in a skilled immigrant they will find work on their own, because after all they are teacher or professor or lawyer, and we said: leave it up to them, to their own social capital, but this did not work, so now we are looking what can the state do in this field.

One of your big impacts on Canadian society was that you helped migrants to find work within their education. You received the highest recognition of the state of Ontario and were named “nation builder” by the Canadian newspaper “Global Mail”. Why didn´t it work to leave integration to private initiative. Had there been state-caused regulations that made it difficult for immigrants to get access to the working market?

There are a couple of issues: if you are in a licensed profession such as a physician, it is extremely difficult, because the license of regulated occupation is not in the hand of the state, it is in the hands of the “Verein”, and who are these “Vereine” made up of? Members of the occupation, so it’s a self-regulating club , that´s one problem, the other problem is, that immigrants may have family and may have friends, but what they need is occupational social capital, they need to know someone in their profession, who can show them the way. We kind of left it up to the individual and we are still suffering from system failures due to that. It´s a very difficult question, it is not a question that we can answer easily. I think, Germany, for instance, has much better conditions to find your own answers to this problem, because you are a country with a culture of collaboration between state, union, workers and employers. We don´t have that culture. So it is much easier for you to say, we are going to take a systematic approach, because you have already got the unions at the table, you have already got the employers, you have already got different levels of government working on all kinds of things, this becomes just another issue to solve. Whereas we have to create the table, so I think, in comparison to Canada Germany has some significant advantages.

In long term multiculturalism says: we will become similar?
We will negotiate our differences, we will not become similar. It doesn´t mean, we will all become the same, but I think, it will mean that we will negotiate our values and our value differences to a common thread.

On the basis of the values that are not negotiable…?
We all have to respect the law, there are ways of changing the law within our society, so the first is, respect the rule of law, and in polls done again and again, the second important thing to respect is equality for men and women.

erstellt am 29.5.2012
aktualisiert am 06.10.2013