The attacks earlier this month in Paris that led to the deaths of 130 people have prompted a range of responses across Europe and the world.
One of the darker reactions, however, has involved targeting the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere who have poured into Europe in recent months, with political leaders increasingly labeling them as “potential terrorists.”
Surely key to ISIS’ defeat, alongside the diplomatic, economic and military measures that can be taken, is how Europe handles this flood of refugees and whether it repeats past mistakes of failed immigrant integration. Calling refugees potential terrorists feeds into ISIS’ narrative that the West is at war with Islam.
It also ensures, I would argue, that ISIS has a steady supply of marginalized Europeans willing to kill and be killed for the cause. It’s no coincidence that those who committed the heinous acts in Paris hailed from long-neglected immigrant neighborhoods.
Germany is on the frontlines of this debate, as the European country that’s been the most welcoming to today’s refugees but also one that still hasn’t made yesterday’s migrants feel like they belonged.
Case study: Germany
The German case illustrates how Europe’s leaders continue to misunderstand the root cause of that sense of alienation that turned Belgium’s Molenbeek and Paris’ Saint-Denis into ISIS recruiting grounds.
Indeed, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in 2010 that attempts at creating a multicultural society have “utterly failed,” she didn’t blame government policy but the immigrants themselves for not doing enough to integrate.
Why do leaders such as Merkel fail to appreciate the important roles society and government play in integrating immigrants, with the result that they have become more susceptible to the likes of ISIS?
To better understand the answer, it’s helpful to turn to the behavioral sciences, my area of research. Many studies have found that being in power increases the psychological distance from others, prompting leaders to favor information that supports their preconceptions and biases while ignoring important facts that go against them.
Max Bazerman, an expert on decision making at Harvard Business School, calls this perceptual distortion “motivated blindness.” In other words, European leaders are so preoccupied with “bigger problems” such as fighting terrorism that they don’t notice the struggles of millions of their citizens to feel at home and how that contributes to these problems in the first place.
It’s time for a shift.
One-fifth of Germany’s population has at least one parent who was not born in Germany, referred to as having a “migrational background.” Among this group, almost nine million were born in Germany, yet remain “hyphenated Germans” who must tick “yes” on job applications and official forms to the question: “Are you a German with a migrational background?”
The consequences of this kind of failure to integrate migrants – even when they’re lured by the government during a labor shortage, such as when Germany opened the door to hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens in the 1960s – were apparent on the streets of Paris.
Most of the attack’s perpetrators, including the ringleader, were second-generation immigrants. Subsequent police raids occurred in neighborhoods with a high proportion of foreigners and little integration. These were homegrown terrorists.
Is having multiple identities at fault?
A 2013 study of Germans of Turkish and Russian origin provides insight. Hyphenated Germans sympathized with radical actions only when individuals felt both identities were incompatible. In contrast, those hyphenated Germans who did not feel incompatibility did not.
In fact, studies have highlighted the numerous positive benefits of having multiple identities, such as higher levels of creativity. Hence, it is not the hyphenation that creates a larger risk of individuals engaging in violent activities. It is a failure of integration of identities that is at the heart of the problem. That’s why an approach to fighting that involves shunning immigration will not work.
Always an ‘other’
I know well what it means to be a hyphenated German. I was born and raised in Germany. I am a German citizen. But because my parents emigrated from Poland in the late 1960s, I will never be just a “German.”
I learned that on my first day of elementary school. My teacher read the names of my peers aloud and, upon being called, my classmates rose from their seats and responded to questions about their favorite ice cream, color and animal. When I responded, my teacher said, “Ach, du sprichst aber gut Deutsch!” (Oh, your German is really good!). I wondered: “Why did she say this to me but not everyone else?”
This wasn’t an isolated incident but part of a larger pattern experience by me as well as others “with a migrational background.” For example, when the German media portrays images of Turkish people, it is either connected to poverty, violence or problems of integration – or as “integration miracles.”
Unfortunately, this struggle to gain equal status has gone virtually unnoticed in the upper echelons of politics because German leaders have failed to notice a shift in German identity.
Four years before she became chancellor, Merkel endorsed a policy paper that refused to identify Germany as a country of immigration. Only recently have some local governments begun to change their portrayal of Germans on promotional materials by showing different faces of Germany – without blond hair and blue eyes.
Often, immigrants don’t feel like they are a part of what it means to be German.
Leaders with blinders
The country’s political leadership has only very little direct experience with what it means to be a hyphenated German.
Solutions to better treat and integrate citizens with migrational backgrounds begin with better recognition – removing the “motivated” blinders. Even those who are pushing to welcome refugees, such as Merkel, remain blind to the historical challenges of integration.
“Perspective-taking” is another behavioral science buzzword that helps us understand why putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a necessary skill to understand the current plight of hyphenated Germans.
In one experiment led by Columbia Business School social psychologist Adam Galinsky, participants were asked to draw the letter “E” on their forehead in such a way that another person could read it. In order to draw the letter correctly, participants would have to engage in perspective-taking and realize they had to draw the letter in a mirrored way.
Intriguingly, participants who were made to feel higher levels of power were more likely to draw an E on their forehead in a self-oriented direction than those participants made to feel lower levels of power.
Individuals who engage in perspective-taking are less likely to engage in stereotyping and thus more willing to engage with negatively stereotyped individuals, such as immigrants and refugees. But because perspective-taking is a cognitively taxing process, individuals must be sufficiently motivated to do so. And this requires a long-term view.
A fresh perspective
The results suggest that even if Germany’s leadership recognized there was a problem, they wouldn’t truly understand what the problem felt like unless they engage in perspective-taking.
Consider that German politicians refer to the recent influx of refugees as a “crisis.”
A crisis typically describes a short period of intense pressure. In contrast, in Canada, a country with a strong immigrant culture, new arrivals are referred to as “citizens-in-waiting,” an acknowledgment that their potential to contribute to the Canadian economy and culture is real. Canada benefits economically by being one of the best countries for immigrant integration.
Unless Germans begin viewing their hyphenated counterparts as viable future citizens, perspective-taking will be aggravated, fueling a vicious cycle of “othering.”
Preventing future terrorist attacks does not just require international action. It also requires a fundamental change in national policies, especially in Germany.
Giving a voice to refugees at home and making them feel like they belong could be the smartest strategy for defeating enemies abroad.