Press coverage of the Cologne sexual assaults and their aftermath has focused above all on the perceptions and fears of the ethnically German majority population. The past weeks have been marked by a frantic discussion about tightening asylum legislation as well as the laws governing sexual offences, by growing alarmism about the continuing arrival of refugees, and by an increase incidence of refoulement of migrants on the Bavarian border. In this climate of fear and suspicion, the sales of self-defence weaponry – such as pepper spray, CS gas, and alarm guns – has soared. Sales of regular arms were also up, especially in Saxony. Interviewed by the magazine Der Spiegel’s TV affiliate, a weapons dealer described how a large number of his customers visited his shop as a response to a refugee shelter being set up in their neighbourhood. Another weapon’s seller described the current “hype” as “scary” and “not normal”. He also observed that this new wave of customers consists not just of ethnic Germans but also of Germans with a ‘migration background’, fearful of far-right violence: as the salesman observed, “we have people from all camps standing here, at times next to each other, and they report on their fears while they buy their defensive equipment. If these camps would communicate some more with each other, then I think everybody would be better off. Because the fears are the same among all of them.”
This highlights the increased fearfulness of Muslims in Germany, as well as of immigrant communities more broadly, in the wake of the Cologne attacks. This fear was captured by Michel Abdollahi, a German-Iranian journalist and performance artist, in a string of interviews he conducted in the streets of Hamburg. A man of Turkish origins expressed opinions held by a large number of interviewees when he asserted: “I was born and raised here, and I feel like a German, but it’s simply the case that one is afraid of the German people itself, afraid that the situation will escalate and that I will be drawn into this.” His ethnically German wife observed that she was treated less kindly on the phone when introducing herself ever since she took on her husband’s Turkish name. In a similar vein, a woman wearing a hijab observed that she felt that judged because of her attire. She was distraught at the fact that too many people did not seem to accept her German-ness and perceived her Muslim faith as an attribute that rendered her inexorably different. For her, the wave of suspicion against Islam in the aftermath of the events in Cologne thus came as an additional burden, for even without this renewed scepticism, she asserted, wearing the hijab prevented her from obtaining employment: “already now it is difficult for me to find a job. I’m an office clerk – but I stand no chance. Maybe I’ll get a cleaning job again if I’m lucky.”
Yet the interviewees’ fears were not only linked to the potential worsening of racist prejudice against Muslims and immigrants but also to the arrival of refugees. A number of respondents expressed the view that these refugees behave in ways “inappropriate for our [i.e. the German] cultural milieu”, an assertion that many linked not to ‘Islam’ but to the endurance of ‘traditional’ individual and societal values. Two women also expressed fears of sexual assault, one of them saying that she was ultimately more afraid of male refugees than of ethnically German right-wing agitation. According to her view, many male refugees “don’t accept the ways in which rules and laws work here”; German society and its value system are “something completely new to them, and they exploit the freedom women have here”. These statements illustrate the unique and difficult position existing Muslim communities face in the current situation, as they try to navigate a complex set of issues and loyalties in the context of a toxic political climate.
Spiegel Online’s interviews with weapons salesmen: http://www.spiegel.de/video/koeln-waffenverkaeufe-steigen-nach-uebergriffen-an-silvester-video-1641456.html (video, in German)
Michel Abdollahi’s (NDR) interviews in the streets of Hamburg: https://www.ndr.de/kultur/Michel-Abdollahi-Deutsche-Migranten-Ressentiments-Vorurteile-Fluechtlinge,abdollahi202.html (video, in German)