At the University of Frankfurt, a fierce debate has broken out over a proposed conference on the Islamic headscarf, signalling growing contestation over questions of identity and discrimination.

Entitled “The Islamic headscarf – Symbol of dignity or of oppression?”, the conference is scheduled for May 8, 2019. Its principal organiser is Susanne Schröter, an anthropologist specialising in the study of Islam in contemporary Europe and beyond.

An academic’s increasingly shrill punditry

In recent years, Schröter has emerged a vocal critic of the real or supposed ‘political correctness’ she sees as preventing an accurate appraisal of the societal threats brought to Germany by Islamic conservatism. After publishing popular scientific contributions on the matter1)https://www.campus.de/buecher-campus-verlag/wirtschaft-gesellschaft/politik/gott_naeher_als_der_eigenen_halsschlagader-10264.html , Schröter has since increasingly veered into political commentary.

The opening salvo in her new role was an op-ed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, in which she claimed that a leftist, post-colonial discourse had attained dominance in German public debates and was preventing an honest discussion of Islamic misogyny. Muslim immigration is, according to Schröter, to be held responsible for importing unheard-of levels of violence against women to Germany. (The article had to be amended by the newspaper for falsely claiming that a mob of 30 Muslims had hunted down women in the streets of the Northern German town of Kiel.)2) https://www.faz.net/aktuell/rhein-main/susanne-schroeter-zum-fall-rainer-wendt-15267189.html

Subsequently, Schröter joined the Initiative Secular Muslims. The group brings together a range of public and political figures some of which are widely known for anti-Muslim punditry and racist pamphleteering. In the wake of her interventions, criticism of Schröter has been mounting, particularly from within the scientific community.3) https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/islamwissenschaftlerin-kraemer-zur-debatte-nach-dem.1013.de.html?dram:article_id=420246

A questionable guest list

The proposed conference at Frankfurt will mostly feature guests with political positionings similar to Schröter’s own – such as feminist public intellectual Alice Schwarzer and sociologist Necla Kelek. Scientifically, these figures’ crude theorising has been discredited; and their inclusion in an ostentatiously academic conference does raise genuine questions whether the event will be able to satisfy minimum requirements of scientific rigour. The answer to the question whether the hijab is a symbol of dignity or of oppression seems to some extent predetermined in favour of the latter option.

However, by including Khola Maryam Hübsch of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat as well as Sunni Muslim theologian Dina Omari, the conference does offer a platform to two dissenting voices. Numerically inferior, they will probably struggle to make an impact against the main thrust of the discussion; yet to the organiser’s credit, the event will not remain completely one-dimensional.4) https://www.normativeorders.net/en/events/allevents/69-veranstaltungen/7087-das-islamische-kopftuch-symbol-der-wuerde-oder-unterdrueckung

‘No place for anti-Muslim racism’

In spite of this, student resistance against the conference has formed, with a student collective calling upon the University of Frankfurt to cancel the event and to relieve Susanne Schröter of her post at the university.

The collective, acting through its Instagram account @schroeter_raus (‘Schröter out’), posted a brief manifesto under the tagline “no place for anti-Muslim racism”. Its authors assert that “right-wing populists” responsible for racist violence towards minorities in Germany “receive support from people such as Professor Susanne Schröter and her invitees. […] Professor Susanne Schröter herself is notorious for her polarising and populist statements and events, leading us to wonder how it can be that such a person is still the director of the Frankfurt research centre on global Islam”.

A copy of the now-deleted student manifesto calling for Schröter’s dismissal.

A history of questionable events

It is not the first time that one of Schröter’s events has been targeted by public pressure. In 2017, she was forced to cancel a discussion with Rainer Wendt, a high-ranking functionary from the German police union (Polizeigewerkschaft). Wendt is perhaps the country’s most controversial union official. Free-market Wirtschaftswoche noted that “no other union leader has positioned himself so far to the right as CDU-member Wendt”.5)https://www.wiwo.de/politik/deutschland/polizist-rainer-wendt-deutschlands-schillerndster-gewerkschaftschef/11650060-all.html A regular contributor to far-right publications, Wendt has been a trailblazer in popularising anti-immigrant resentment.

Schröter claimed that she was forced to annul Wendt’s appearance for security reasons, fearing violence from leftwing activists.6) https://www.faz.net/aktuell/rhein-main/susanne-schroeter-zum-fall-rainer-wendt-15267189.html However, she also faced fierce opposition from scientists and researchers from Frankfurt and beyond: in an open letter, 60 academics called for cancelling the event. They asserted that Wendt had consistently “positioned himself far removed from enlightened discourse”. His defence of “racist patterns of thought” meant that he would not be able to “furnish any input to scientific discussion”, or so his detractors argued.7) https://www.fr.de/frankfurt/vortrag-polizei-gewerkschaftsboss-abgesagt-10998241.html

Backing of the university

In contrast to the Wendt affair, Schröter has received the explicit backing of the university administration with respect to her planned conference on the hijab. This perhaps contributed to the fizzling out of the student initiative: the Instagram account @schroeter_raus was deleted a few days after its inception.

Speaking to conservative daily Die Welt, Schröter claimed that the renewed initiative against her work was driven by Muslim students wishing to stamp out any critical discussion of Islam. She asserted that Salafists had participated in spreading the manifesto text calling for her resignation; and she indicated that she would seek police involvement in the affair to track down the manifesto’s originators.8) https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article192434681/Susanne-Schroeter-Frankfurter-Goethe-Universitaet-verteidigt-Islamforscherin-vor-Rassismus-Kritik.html

Understanding students’ frustration

Others were more willing to cut the students some slack. Khola Maryam Hübsch, one of the invitees to the conference, agreed that the calls for Schröter’s removal from her post went too far. Yet she expressed understanding for students’ anger: Hübsch noted that the majority of invitees advocated “extreme positions” and supported forms of anti-Muslim discrimination that were “partly unconstitutional”. She had agreed to participate, Hübsch claimed, in order to challenge these positions.9) https://www.fr.de/frankfurt/kopftuch-konferenz-frankfurt-rassismusvorwurf-trifft-islamexpertin-12222829.html

Yet others – such as Eren Güvercin of the Islamically-oriented Alhambra Society – expressed similarly mixed feelings. While accepting students’ frustrations with the pseudo-scientific punditry of Schröter and the bulk of her guests, he called upon the students “not to adopt these players’ discursive forms” and to sink to these actors’ level.10) http://www.taz.de/Kopftuchkonferenz-an-Uni-Frankfurt/!5590822/?fbclid=IwAR2Zm3N29oaNX0DHTDDRdJx04VCc291oJb9sDWSTyKIYRCrJlxEKRseDGJI

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