New initiatives challenge anti-Muslim biases in German media landscape

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08.05.2019, Berlin: .Talk: Fairness and Competitiveness in a Digitised World.Speaker: Margrethe Vestager, Alexander Fanta.Die re:publica ist eine der weltweit wichtigsten Konferenzen zu den Themen der digitalen Gesellschaft. Sie findet in diesem Jahr vom 06. bis 08. Mai in der STATION-Berlin statt. Foto: Stefanie Loos/re:publica

Biased representations of Islam and Muslims abound across Europe, in journalism as well as in research. The situation is no different in Germany, as a recent book edited by Berlin-based academic Schirin-Amir Moazami shows: contributors to the volume Der Inspizierte Muslim (German for The Inspected Muslim) analyse the myriad ways in which research and public debates about Muslims – in spite of the exponential growth of public interest, available funds, and published studies – still ends up reproducing the same misguided questions and exclusionary narratives.1)https://www.transcript-verlag.de/978-3-8376-3675-8/der-inspizierte-muslim/

Emergence of new media outlets

Grass-roots activists have for a while sought to contest this reductionist focus on an unchanging set of ‘problems’ – such as the recurring debates on the compatibility of ‘Islam’ with ‘democracy’, on the meaning of the ‘headscarf’ as a symbol of oppression or liberation, or on the success or failure of ‘integration’.

In recent months, a number of new German media outlets have emerged. which explicitly seek to provide platforms where Muslims – or, perhaps more accurately, all those stylised and ‘read’ as Muslim by a German public – can set their own agenda, beyond tired and formulaic discussions of the same old issues.

Bliq Journal: a critical perspective

A first example is furnished by the Bliq Journal, an online magazine that aims to “bring together the expertise of researchers, journalists, and publicists in order to monitor critically the German debate on Islam.” Notably, the Journal’s editors bemoan the overwhelmingly negative coverage of all things Muslim in the German media, the absence of Muslims from the editorial boards of the country’s leading media outlets, and more generally the inadequate representation of the diverse realities of Muslim life.2) http://www.bliq-journal.de/team/about-us.html

Founded by CLAIM – a new, government-funded organisation designed to raise awareness about the prevalence of anti-Muslim racismBliq runs interviews with Muslim figures and activists, provides critical commentary on recurrent societal debates (such as halal slaughtering practices, the call for a ‘secularisation’ of Islam, or proposed bans of the hijab). It also runs article series on specific topics (such as sexuality and gender).

Maschallah!: a podcast for and about ‘Muslim life worlds’

Recently, Bliq interviewed young journalist Merve Kayikci, mastermind of another new initiative – the Maschallah! podcast. The 24-year-old’s idea of developing a forum that does not offer journalistic reporting on Islam but rather – in Kayikci’s words – “showcases the views and life worlds of Muslims”3) http://www.bliq-journal.de/interview/wir-wollen-ein-ein-realistisches-bild-von-muslimen-zeigen.html emerged victorious from a podcast competition at re:publica, a public mega-conference centred on questions of digitalisation and progressive social entrepreneurship.

Since early November, the first four episodes have been made available, each of them roughly 40 to 45 minutes in length.4) https://www.deezer.com/de/show/636712 Every installment is devoted to one Muslim guest, whose work or activism revolves around Islam, or is in one way or another influenced by their faith. This has included academic Ali Ghandour, whose research focuses on sexualities in the Quran and the various exegetical traditions. Nariman Hammouti-Reinke, a Muslim officer serving in the German army, and Serayi Sezgin, a committed vegan fighting factory farming of livestock, have also appeared as guests.

In the first episode, Kayikci spoke to Cihan Sügür – now a manager at Porsche’s IT division, but whose past activities include a foray into politics: Sügür joined the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and in 2016 founded an inner-party platform designed to enhance Muslims’ involvement in the CDU and to make the party more attractive to Muslim voters.

Cihan Sügür and the frustrations of party politics

Kayikci probably expresses the feeling of many Germans of Muslim faith or of Turkish origin when she – somewhat reticently – avows that she had felt “shocked” when hearing of Sügür’s decision to join the CDU: in spite of growing disaffection, the Social Democrats (SPD) have traditionally been clearly favoured by working-class and racialised voters.

Born to a working-class family of miners and steel workers in the industrial town of Castrop-Rauxel, Sügür’s own upbringing places him squarely within the SPD’s traditional milieu. Yet according to him, joining the Social Democrats was not an option, as the party had repeatedly made big pre-election promises towards voters marginalised on the basis of race and class – only to disappoint consistently in the elections’ aftermath.

CDU “not ready” for Muslim members and voters

Beyond that, Sügür attributes his decision to join the CDU in part to Peter Tauber: cultivating a younger, more energetic, and socially liberal image, Tauber became the CDU’s Secretary General in 2013. In many ways a paradigmatic representative of Angela Merkel’s centrist brand of conservatism, Tauber’s star has since sunk as a combination of health issues, accusations of sexual harassment, and a rightward shift in the party at the dusk of the Merkel era have relegated him to the second rank. (He has since been replaced as Secretary General by staunchly right-wing Paul Ziemiak.)

In a rather playful and frank conversation, Sügür retrospectively also detects a degree of “masochism” in his decision to join the CDU. He describes his gradual disenchantment following on from the realisation that the party was “not ready” for Muslim members: Routinely made to feel unwelcome and awkward at local party meetings, Sügür was given to understand that the party had no interested in accepting “a career-hungry professional migrant” in its ranks.

Nor was the party concerned with attracting Muslim voters: in a conversation with Annette Littmann, at the time the CDU’s mayoral candidate in the multi-ethnic city of Dortmund, Sügür was publicly slapped down: the party, she asserted, was interested in attracting the “bürgerliche Milieu”, i.e. bourgeois middle-class voters – rather than Muslims. Via a combination of racism and classism, the legitimacy of Sügür’s vision and his own place within the party were thus publicly denied.

“All you get is a thrashing”

Sügür’s frustration is still palpable, years after the events: by joining politics and seeking to have a positive impact, “I’m basically also making good on a demand”, he points out – namely the injunction that “Muslims get involved, participate. And then you do precisely that – and all you get is a thrashing.”

Proving the obsession with reductionist questions and moral panics about Islam and Muslims diagnosed by Amir-Moazami and her collaborators, Sügür recalls being confronted with the same probing questions and suspicions time and again. Notably, his political and national loyalties were frequently doubted by his fellow party members, and he was constantly asked to state his views on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Sügür, by contrast, recalls being interested not in Turkish politics but rather in shaping issues of infrastructure, education, and inequality at the local level in Dortmund.

Fruition of networking and professionalisation among young Muslims

After several years, Sügür thus decided to end his “social experiment” within the CDU, deciding to save time and face. He has since joined the IT management of German carmaker Porsche. Kayikci, several years Sügür’s junior, recounts how important it was for her to follow Sügür’s career trajectory – and to see that even as a non-white person it was possible to have a successful career in the private sector.

Sügür’s and Kayikci’s paths also demonstrate the gradual fruition of years of painstaking networking among Germany’s Muslim minority: both are alumni of the Zahnräder association – an organisation created in 2010 with the aim of providing a platform for young Muslims interested in building publicly visible careers, in working for the public good, and in bringing about change towards greater diversity in the German public and private sectors.

Dauernörgler podcast: Debating the future of Muslim organisation

Podcasts have become an increasingly popular vehicle for the discussion of social and political developments, especially among a younger audience. Hence, Merve Kayikci’s Maschallah! is not the only new offering in this field: the initiators of the Alhambra Society, a new organisation seeking to “enable Muslims to develop their own thoughts and positions without compulsively having to assume the roles either of the ‘Islamic apologist’ or the ‘reformer who is critical of Islam’”5) https://alhambra-gesellschaft.de/wer-wir-sind/ have also begun producing a new podcast on German-Muslim affairs.

The first instalment of their Dauernörgler (‘incessant complainer’) programme sees Eren Güvercin, Engin Karahan, and Murat Kayman debate the fate of Islamic associations in Germany – a favourite topic of theirs, given their Alhambra Society’s attempt to break the deadlock on the country’s Islamic organisational scene. The second episode – titled “We are suffocating from identities” – revolves around identity politics and cultures of memory.6) https://dauernoergler.org/

Setting the agenda

The impact and endurance of these novel initiatives remain to be seen. However, they are reflective of increased politicisation and of a willingness to ‘go public’ among younger German-Muslim activists.

In doing so, Bliq, Maschallah!, and Dauernörgler are driven by the desire to be able to set one’s own agenda rather than being reduced to a ‘Muslim sound bite’ in public and journalistic fora stacked against meaningful discussions of the place of Islam in German society. Instead, creators and contributors involved in these new outlets aim to expand the space for a debate that is taking place on terms these Muslim activists consider meaningful.

For at least some of them, this might also be a replacement of a kind of political activism that remains beyond their reach. For as Cihan Sügür puts it, summing up his experience in politics: “At this point, success in politics rules out having a visible Muslim identity.”

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