Old and new forms of racism in Germany: Ethnic hatred and Islamophobia revisited

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Are the rising levels of Islamophobic hate crimes in Germany indicative of a new form of racism? Yes, says Yasemin Shooman, researcher at the Technical University of Berlin and director of the Jewish-Islamic Forum at Berlin’s renowned Jewish Museum.

‘Immigrant’ = ‘Muslim’

The backdrop to Shooman’s argument is the de facto Islamisation of immigration debates. While in the past populations of Turkish or Arab descent used to be primarily identified (and discriminated against) as ‘foreigners’ due to their ethnic background, they are now overwhelmingly cast in the role of ‘Muslim’.

In fact, the arrival of large numbers of refugees in Europe in general and in Germany in particular has overwhelmingly been represented as a ‘wave of Muslim migration’. Yet a Pew survey has tentatively calculated that “nearly half of all recent migrants to Europe (47%) were not Muslim”.1) http://www.euro-islam.info/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/pew-full-report-muslims-in-europe.pdf

In spite of this, the linkage between Islam and immigration has come to stick. Thus, all challenges that come with migratory dynamics become challenges that are seen as due to Islam. When Germany’s incoming Interior Minister boldly announced in March that Islam was did not belong to the country, he did so in the context of an interview where he promised a security-first approach to immigration.

The rise of culturalistic forms of racism

According to Shooman, these trends are indicative of a modernised form of racism. Previous racist agitation often revolved around a depiction of the racial target group as set apart by biological or genetic factors. Overt biologism has, however, been difficult to pull off in the aftermath of National Socialism, Shooman argues.

Hence, “for more than two decades there has been an observable shift from biologistic forms of racist arguments towards a racism justified in terms of culture. Anti-Muslim racism is one of its forms. It is based on the imagination of Muslims as a homogeneous group to whom (mostly negative) collective traits are assigned; a group which is seen as not belonging [to European societies].”2) http://www.feinschwarz.net/islamfeindlichkeit-rassismus-unter-dem-deckmantel-der-religionskritik/

‘Cultural rights’ of autochthon populations

This shift towards a primary focus on identity and culture has indeed been observable across Europe. It has also been much commented upon in scholarship. Academics Hans-Georg Betz and Susi Meret describe, for instance, how far-right movements have framed their nativist agendas by coopting the concept of ‘cultural pluralism’: According to this paradigm, different cultures are “of equal value but essentially incompatible with each other”.3)Betz, Hans-Georg; Meret, Susi (2009). “Revisiting Lepanto: The political mobilization against Islam in contemporary Western Europe. Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 43(3-4), p. 315.

This has allowed the far-right to claim a ‘right to difference’ and a ‘right to culture’ as rhetorical ammunition for their own political project. (Ironically, this kind of rights talk only became recognised at the international level because of the fight against colonial conquest and cultural domination that was led by people of colour.)

Their argument has thus taken on an almost progressive edge: Ethnic Europeans are depicted as claiming their cultural rights, in the face of a dynamic of Muslim immigration and subsequent Islamisation that is described as threatening the very survival of European identity and civilisation.

Defence of ‘cultural rights’

Shooman herself has explored this culturalistic paradigm in her 2014 doctoral dissertation ‘… because their culture is like that’: Narratives of anti-Muslim racism. Discourses on the supposed incompatibility between Islam and democracy or between Muslim faith and German identity lie at the heart of this culture-centred racialisation of Muslims.

Shooman draws particular attention to the fact that it is not just the defence of a ‘right to culture’ that is increasingly weaponised for an anti-Muslim agenda. In fact, it is also the rights of women and of sexual minorities – as well as the defence of pluralism and of liberalism more broadly – that are being positioned against Islam.

The German context is ripe with political entrepreneurs who fit this mould. The conservative rising star of Angela Merkel’s CDU party, Jens Spahn, has never shied away from utilising his homosexuality and his open stance on gay rights to engage in diatribes against the country’s Muslims. And Germany’s most well-known feminist figure, Alice Schwarzer, has engaged in at times vitriolic attacks on Islam.

Islamkritik and ‘courageous Muslim dissenters’

In a setting marked by the Islamisation of immigration debates and by the ‘cultural turn’ of racist discourse, anti-Muslim hatred often hides behind the ‘critique of Islam’. In Germany, Islamkritik is even more a standard term than in French- or English-speaking contexts. Engaging in Islamkritik bestows a veneer of scientific neutrality and political respectability upon what are more often than not racialised stereotypes. (A cursory glance at their publications makes it clear that the self-styled ‘critics of Islam’ hardly ever possess the wherewithal to engage in sustained theological debates.)4) http://www.feinschwarz.net/islamfeindlichkeit-rassismus-unter-dem-deckmantel-der-religionskritik/

Of particular importance are ‘insiders’: supposedly courageous voices from within the Muslim community who corroborate the Islamkritik originally voiced by others. Activists such as Hamed Abdel-Samad or Seyran Ateş have indeed become sought-after ‘experts’ on Islam because of their alleged ability to ‘unmask’ what is truly going on ‘under the veil’ or ‘behind the mosques’ closed doors’. (In her dissertation, Shooman refers to such voices as the ‘chief witnesses of the prosecution’.)

The resilience of biologism

In spite of all this, however, old biological tropes are still very much present, and the boundaries between ‘biologistic’ and ‘culturalistic’ forms of racism are not always clear-cut. Indeed, Shooman herself recognises that “it is not only practicing Muslims who are hit by exclusion but also people who are ‘marked’ as Muslim due to their physical appearance or their name – irrespective of whether they identify as such.” In this context, Shooman speaks of the “ethnicisation of religious categorisations”.5) http://www.feinschwarz.net/islamfeindlichkeit-rassismus-unter-dem-deckmantel-der-religionskritik/

Shooman also notes the prevalence of the allegation that Muslims are conducting a ‘birth jihad’ – i.e. a concerted, planned effort to Islamise Europe through a ‘demographic bomb’. Here, racist tropes still rely on references to the most basic instincts of a biologistic imagination.6) http://en.qantara.de/content/islamophobia-in-germany-we-need-a-new-debate-about-racism

‘Caraway dealers’ and ‘camel herders’

Nor have old racial slurs with their evocation of ethnic difference disappeared. A leading AfD politician recently insulted German Turks as “caraway dealers” and “camel herders”.7) http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/afd-politiker-andre-poggenburg-tuerkische-gemeinde-prueft-anzeige-a-1193594.html

Both of these are long-standing slurs in the German context, popularised with the arrival of Turkish immigrants in the 1960s. They also function relatively independently of the ‘new’ identification of Turks as ‘Muslim’. (Both terms are also erroneous: neither are there many camels in Turkey, nor does Turkish cuisine use caraway.)

In an ironic column for the Spiegel magazine, journalist Ferda Ataman mused about the return of such seemingly antiquated epithets that had not been heard much for the past ten years: “It reminds me of my childhood. Do you remember, back then, Germany in the eighties? The enraged citizens’ parties (Wutbürgerparteien) of the old white men? The Republicans, the German People’s Union [DVU], the nearly forgotten NPD? Those were the days!”8) http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/wie-ich-deutschtuerkin-wurde-kolumne-von-ferda-ataman-a-1201639.html

Wutbürger then and now

Ataman, in other words, highlights the substantial continuity between ‘old’ and ‘new’ racisms: Already in the 1980s, she points out, Germanyhad witnessed the cropping up of a host of far-right parties – such as the Republicans, the DVU, and the NPD – which for a time had managed to secure substantial successes in local and regional elections.

And already back then had there been a substantial clientele of ‘enraged citizens’ willing to vote for these parties. ‘Enraged citizen’ – Wutbürger in German – is a somewhat derogatory term for often elderly Germans who take to the streets and are “driven by naked rage” as they scream slogans and spew vicious hatred.9) http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-74184564.html

Originally anchored on the democratic right of the political spectrum and frequently organised in the CDU, they have since become disillusioned with the political process and express disgust at ‘establishment’ politicians. “The Wutbürger is fighting against change, he doesn’t want to be a citizen of the world (Weltbürger)”. Immigration – Muslim or otherwise – has been a prime example of the change the Wutbürger wants to resist.10) http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-74184564.html

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