Tolerance towards Muslims – How Can Conflicts in Everyday Life Be Defused?

According to the Mannheim-based social researchers Marc Helbling and Richard Traunmüller, there is more tolerance towards Muslims in our society than we sometimes realize. Helbling and Traunmüller show how this potential can be harnessed in two studies, which they have conducted together with international colleagues.

Quite a few people in Germany have reservations about religious behaviour by Muslims and freedoms for Islamic religious communities. For example, many people feel that refusing to shake hands with people of a different sex due to religious reasons is incompatible with liberal and democratic values. Many people are also critical of including more halal dishes, i.e., food suitable for religious Muslims, into everyday life, or of discussing plans for a public Islamic holiday. However, this does not apply to all circumstances in the same way, as Professor Dr. Marc Helbling and Professor Dr. Richard Traunmüller have found out in a research project at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES): Those who are able to correctly identify the behavior and group rights of religious Muslims are more tolerant.

Shaking hands at a job interview is a given, right?

Shaking hands, for example: In an experimental survey, Helbling and Traunmüller, together with Elisabeth Ivarsflaten from the University of Bergen (Norway) and Paul M. Sniderman from Stanford University (USA), looked at the handshake, a form of greeting, which is customary not only in Germany. Do we expect a handshake in a job interview, for example? Initially, the vast majority of the 2,600 respondents, a representative sample of the population, said that a handshake was mandatory. But how do we assess such a situation when Muslims place their hand on their heart as a respectful gesture to replace the handshake? In this scenario, the results looked very different: “The majority are willing to accept this gesture of respect instead of a handshake. This shows that people insist on respect but not necessarily that respect has to be expressed in a certain way,” Marc Helbling explains. “Many non-Muslims do not automatically think of putting your hand on your heart. But this gesture can help both sides to resolve a situation without conflict and with mutual respect,” Traunmüller adds.

In another study, the team wanted to find out how a wider range of halal dishes is perceived in German cafeterias. “If you emphasize that the Halal dishes do not replace pork products but merely expand the menu, they are met with significantly less rejection,” the researchers say. According to the study, this logic also works in other areas: Perhaps less surprisingly, significantly more people can also imagine a Muslim public holiday if this day did not replace a Christian holiday, but rather complemented the existing holidays.

Tolerance is greater when group interests do not appear to be competing

“Generally, social conflicts can be defused if we make clear that Muslim rights do not have to compete with our own customs,” Traunmüller summarizes. Under these circumstances, the potential for tolerance in the population is considerable, according to the researchers. However, the further to the right the respondents are located on the political spectrum, the smaller it is. In general, however, people are not unconditionally for or against the group rights of Muslims: “It depends on the specific political design,” Helbling says.

At the MZES at the University of Mannheim, Helbling and Traunmüller are leading the project “Immigration, Integration, and Naturalisation: New Immigrants, Policy Decisions, and Citizens’ Responses,” which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Both of the above-mentioned studies were part of the project.

Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, Marc Helbling, Paul Sniderman and Richard Traunmüller: Value Conflicts Revisited: Muslims, Gender Equality and Gestures of Respect. British Journal of Political Science,

Marc Helbling, Elisabeth Ivarsflaten and Richard Traunmüller: Zero-sum thinking and the cultural threat of Muslim religious rights, Working Paper:


Professor Dr. Marc Helbling
Head of department
European societies and their integration Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES)
University of Mannheim
Phone: +49-621-181-3391
marc.helbling [at]

Nikolaus Hollermeier
Public Relations
Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES)
University of Mannheim
Phone: +49-621-181-2839
e-mail: kommunikation [at]

(University of Mannheim, June 4, 2024)