What is the work of... Wechselwirkungen?

June 2023


Film "Project Wechselwirkungen" | Duration 1"56' | Production Ute Seitz // Philipp Offermann // Sophie Senf | PRIF 2023


How do social discourses on Islamism affect Muslim communities? What consequences do anti-radicalisation measures have for them? The project "Wechselwirkungen" (Interactions) explores this question from a variety of perspectives. In this interview, principal investigator Dr. Jörn Thielmann highlights the importance of representing views from Muslim communities. He also talks about collaboration in an interdisciplinary research consortium and shares some first insights from the project.


What is your project about?

Jörn Thielmann: The project "Wechselwirkungen“ (Interactions) is not so much concerned with radicalisation processes. Rather, we look at how the talk about radicalisation and measures against it can impact affected groups - in our case, Muslims.

What are the interactions you are researching, specifically?

Jörn Thielmann: In our research consortium, we assume that politics, Muslim communities, and other social groups interact with and influence each other. All of this happens within a context that is framed by discourses and state measures against the so-called radical Islam. By using the term "interactions", we not only wanted to examine "causes and effects of radical Islam", but also focus on antagonistic forces. We want to approach the field from a Muslim perspective and look at how Muslim communities or affected groups deal with being addressed in a certain way. Do prevention and deradicalisation programmes make German society safer? Or do they perhaps foster radicalisation processes, in the sense that individuals face discrimination and stigmatisation as a result of these measures and social or political discourses? In this regard, we also want to examine the resistance of Muslim communities.

Can you give us an example?

Jörn Thielmann: One area in which this becomes very evident is the school environment: We are investigating, for example, how Islamic religious education is organised and accepted in different German states. The state of Hesse is a particularly good illustration: Hesse was the first federal state where a Muslim association - Ditib Hessen - was able to provide such religious education. Two or three years ago, however, the state of Hesse discontinued this arrangement and set up its own religious education programme under state responsibility. The teachers, however, remained largely the same. My colleague Fatma Aydinli discovered that this state intervention did not cause many parents to withdraw their children from the classes - even though Muslim associations had called on them to do so. This intervention, justifiably criticised in the broader discourse because it violates the principle of neutrality, did by no means leave those parents who were interviewed indifferent. With regard to their children's education, however, the crucial factor was trust in the particular teacher, their expertise and educational skills, and their authenticity as Muslims.

Your project not only deals with the German context, but also has an international perspective. Where does this perspective come into play in your research?

Jörn Thielmann: The transnational dimension appears in the field itself. A number of associations are integrated into transnational structures. Millî Görüş, for example, is based in Cologne, but operates halfway around the world from there. This is very relevant for our project. In our study of Islamic sermons, for example, we include the impact of events outside Germany or Europe on sermonising. For associations of Turkish origin, for example, the 2016 military coup in Turkey was a spectacular event that had a very lasting impact. This was something we were able to measure clearly, because after that, both the length of sermons and the issues addressed in them changed. Subjects like loyalty to the state or allegiance to tradition suddenly became much more prevalent in the sermons. This shows that Muslims in Germany are not isolated, but that Islam is a global religion. The discourses about it are also global. They cross national borders - and some of the actors and associations are also transnational. This must be taken into account, because it reflects the reality of the lives of people who are actively engaged in the mosques in Germany as part of such an association.

From your point of view, what is special about your research project?

Jörn Thielmann: Our research tries to give a voice to people who are affected by very diverse political measures and social discourses. These are people who, despite being in Germany for 70 or 80 years, are still not a self-evident part of society. Within the "Interactions" project, we have a specific, shared perspective: we look at the impact of discourses about radicalisation and anti-radicalisation measures. But we approach this across a variety of fields and disciplinary perspectives, and we use a whole range of methods to do so. If I may give a few examples: We analyse counter-extremism and counter-terrorism legislation from a comparative perspective, also looking at the impact on uninvolved third parties. Other parts of our research use qualitative social science methods to examine social media networks or Islamic sermons, for example. We also conduct experiments or use a very wide range of quantitative social research methods to find out how discrimination impacts those affected and what effects it has.

I think that usually, legal scholars do not necessarily collaborate with Islamic theologians. But we benefit from our different competencies.

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