As immigration has taken centre stage in political debates across Europe in recent years, stories of brave deeds and outstanding achievements by immigrants have become a staple of reporting. Defenders of migrants’ rights in particular have crafted and amplified narratives of ‘exceptional’ individuals in order to combat rising anti-immigrant sentiment.

Brave men, superheroes, and honorary citizens

As the number of migrants struggling to reach European shores in the Eastern and Central Mediterranean rose in early 2015, Malian-born Lassana Bathily became an early exemplar of such a ‘good immigrant’: he was dubbed “the Paris kosher supermarket hero”, after he helped Jewish customers escape from the Hyper Cacher store when it was under attack by gunmen.1) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/10/paris-supermarket-kosher-hero-attack

Bathily promptly received French citizenship, as a reward for his bravery – as did Mamadou Gassama, another Malian-born immigrant to France: Gassama was dubbed ‘Spiderman’ and became a global online sensation after a video vent viral showing him climb up the outside of a building in Paris to save the life of a toddler dangling over the abyss.2) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46538253

Similar stories abound in other European countries: in the UK, for instance, the “Muslim heroes of Manchester” who rushed to help the victims of a terrorist attack in the city were elevated to immigrant stardom.3) https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/the-muslim-heroes-of-manchester-who-rushed-to-help-in-the-wake-of-the-citys-terror-attack-a3549596.html  And when three Syrians, whose demands for asylum were pending in Germany, caught and tied up a suspected jihadist attacker in the city of Leipzig, politicians called for immediately awarding them refugee status, as well as the Federal Cross of Merit, the country’s highest civilian honour.4) https://rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/dschaber-al-bakr-bundesverdienstkreuz-fuer-drei-syrer-gefordert_aid-18325907

Tales of exception

In fact, the celebration of individual achievement has become a consensus shared by those favouring restrictive migration regimes and the defenders of migrants alike. While the former advocate an approach that aims to admit only ‘the best and the brightest’, the latter seek to highlight that immigrants are extraordinary individuals making meaningful contributions to society.

Writing for online magazine Qantara, Syrian author and academic Housamedden Darwish takes a swipe at the narrativisation of the ‘exceptional migrant’. Darwish broadly focuses on what he sees as two insidious consequences of this approach to talking about immigration.5) https://en.qantara.de/content/the-integration-litmus-test-success-for-some-means-failure-for-others?nopaging=1

First, according to Darwish, the uncritical celebration of extraordinary individual actions and achievements frequently strengthens the misguided assumption that successful ‘integration’ is merely a consequence of individual talent and hard work. The structural factors that disadvantage many immigrants – such as insecure legal status, lack of access to housing and education, delayed family reunification – are completely side-lined.

Shaming the regulars

Secondly, through their focus on an individualised ethic of integration, these stories place the burden for success or failure purely on immigrants. This means that the highly idealised figure of a ‘model immigrant’ is frequently held out to their fellow countrymen, who are seen as lazy and unwilling to step up to the task of integration. The tales of exception become a trap for the many men and women who are ‘ordinary’; they function as a yardstick impossible to do justice by.

What is more, the exceptional few have every incentive to reinforce this valorisation to their own advantage. Yet in doing so, they also throw ‘normal’ immigrants under the bus, humiliating them as deficient and inactive individuals incapable of seizing the opportunities life has to offer.

Darwish is not the first one to have pointed out this dynamic: writing in the Guardian, journalist Nesrine Malik summarises the problematic aspects of immigrant exceptionalisation: “success or good behaviour as redemptive justification [for having been admitted to the country] is a burden and a bar that only a handful will ever meet.”6) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/22/celebrate-migrants-not-exceptional-few-britain

Success as a source of tension – rather than its remedy

Nor will highlighting exceptional stories of individual attainment necessarily benefit high-achieving migrants themselves in the longer run: ultimately, Darwish argues, they are equally targeted by practices of racialised exclusion – irrespective of whether their personal achievements.

In fact, many commentators in Germany have pointed out that it is immigrants’ arrival in more elevated social positions that arouses particular hostility: for instance, as long as women only worked as cleaning ladies while wearing a Muslim headscarf, they faced considerable discrimination; yet their presence was not perceived as a societal problem as such. Only when educated Muslim women began to demand entry to prestigious professions – including teaching or the judiciary – did their headscarf became a hotly contested issue.

German sociologist Aladin El-Mafaalani recently sought to analyse this state of affairs as the ‘paradox of integration’: the higher immigrants’ achievements, he argues, the more their presence challenges the established social pecking order, sparking battles over redistribution.

The Abschiebechallenge

A particularly nasty iteration of this dynamic is currently sweeping through German social networks: under the hashtag #Abschiebechallenge (Deportation challenge), social media users are posting the names or pictures of high-achieving individuals they wish to see expelled from Germany.

The main targets are Muslim figures, many of whom hold a German passport and have been born in Germany. Ostentatiously modelled on progressive or philantrhopic online activism – such as the ‘Ice bucket challenge’ – the Abschiebechallenge heaps particular scorn on highly visible Muslim individuals, such as politicians and journalists.

CDU politician Serap Güler shares her disbelief at the Abschiebechallenge
on Twitter.

Beyond exceptionalisation

The pitfalls of amplifying exceptional immigrant ‘success stories’ are thus many. Against this backdrop, it is perhaps a blessing that then-President Joachim Gauck refused to grant the Federal Cross of Merit to the three Syrian refugees who had caught the Leipzig terrorist suspect and handed him over to the police.

The Presidential Office justified its stance by asserting that the Cross of Merit could only be awarded to individuals who had served their communities in a voluntary capacity regularly, over the span of long years. The Office went on to state that “[a]s much as the granting of the Order of Merit […] might seem appropriate given this particular case and given the emotional sway of the moment, experience shows the creation of such new precedents to be inexpedient.”7)https://www.bild.de/politik/inland/joachim-gauck/verleiht-kein-bundesverdienstkreuz-an-die-held-syrer-49243054.bild.html

To be sure, it is worth appreciating people’s contribution to society. But sometimes the greatest service to be done to immigrants (or those mistakenly assumed to be one) might be not to exceptionalise their behaviour but to treat them like everyone else.

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