German writer Feridun Zaimoğlu takes a swipe at identity politics, Islamic associations

In an interview with Qantara magazine, German writer Feridun Zaimoğlu takes stock of the country’s heated, at times hysterical debates on Islam and identity.

He criticises both Interior Minister Seehofer’s identitarian overtures that come at the expense of Muslims living in the country – and the position taken by many Muslims themselves. In particular, he asserts that Islamic religious organisations have failed to come to terms with the fact that their congregations’ lives are (or at least ought to be) centred on Germany. Instead, they “have succumbed to a syndrome of idiocy and with that, I mean the mania of seeing oneself as diaspora.”1

‘A nationwide penchant for immediate escalation’

Seehofer’s statement that ‘Islam’ did not ‘belong’ to Germany and the reactions of condemnation that came in its wake share a common deficiency, according to Zaimoğlu:

“there is, unfortunately, a nationwide penchant for immediate escalation and expression of outrage. Those who behave in this way are not doing themselves any favours. People aren’t actually engaging in a debate, they’re just hysterical individuals claiming this or that.”

Zaimoğlu reserves particular ire for Germany’s Islamic associations. The scene of Muslim religious life in the country is comparatively splintered. The four largest umbrella organisations – DİTİB, VIKZ, IRD, and ZMD – are still strongly marked by affiliations to different countries of origin of Muslim immigrants. (The first three bodies are predominantly Turkish-oriented.) At the same time, given their structure as umbrella organisations, many of these associations are also extremely differentiated internally.

In recent months and years, these organisations have been rocked by the 2016 Turkish coup attempt and its aftermath. This has not only compelled mosques – voluntarily or involuntarily – to take sides in the current conflicts in Turkey; it has also prompted a realignment of the coalitional politics among the umbrella organisations themselves.

Harsh criticism of Islamic associations

It is against this backdrop that Zaimoğlu exclaims scornfully:

“Forget it! There’s nothing to be gained by seriously believing association representatives and religious functionaries will having [sic] anything really scintillating to say on the subject [of Muslim identity and belonging in Germany]. As far as I can see, they’ve organised themselves as groups of people who’ve been driven from their homelands. In my opinion, they contribute absolutely nothing to German life and German Muslims.”

Zaimoğlu goes on to accuse these religious figures of being too sensitive and out of touch with reality:

“[T]hey allow themselves to be swept along on a ritual tide of affront. All I hear is a lot of shouting. They have yet to realise that we are here in Germany […]. But life is very brutal. What’ll happen is – and I’m already seeing the first signs – that these functionaries who are always ready to bleat their indignation, are being overrun by the phenomena themselves. As far as I’m concerned, they’re phantoms. They don’t relate to this country, to our country, they relate to an imagined realm somewhere out there. There are many new Muslims around the country who have no desire to adhere to such illusory thinking.”

Rise of independent Muslim youth organisations

It is indeed true that there are at least some Muslim activists that have come to be frustrated with the status quo prevailing in the established religious associations. Already years ago, academic studies highlighted the rise of Muslim youth organisations and their willingness to break with the old guard clinging to power in existing religious associations.2

These tensions have only been exacerbated by recent events in Turkey – and by the attempt on the part of the Turkish state to tighten its control over Turkish-dominated religious associations in Germany. DİTİB in particular witnessed the coordinated resignation of its entire youth board, with activists complaining of too much political pressure. Many of them now seek to establish an Islamic academy as a forum for debate and engagement that is independent of the existing religious associations.

It is perhaps also the loss of this vocal and vibrant youth activism that has contributed to the picture of the major religious associations as utterly petrified in the face of social change. In any case, over recent months and years – times which have been extremely momentous for German Muslims – the leaders of the country’s major Islamic umbrella bodies have hardly ever managed to make a meaningful contribution to public debates.

‘Immature’ German Muslims?

There are doubtlessly many good reasons to welcome Zaimoğlu’s criticisms of ossified organisational structures and outmoded ways of thinking. His diagnosis that many Muslim associations will render themselves obsolete if they do not manage to offer meaningful answers to the concrete problems Muslims are facing in their lives in Germany might very well turn out to be astute.

Yet Zaimoğlu’s fierce criticism of Germany’s Muslim religious figures and the German Muslim community at large can also appear rather facile at times. According to Zaimoğlu,

“Anyone who ethnicises himself has a problem. Anyone who doesn’t accept responsibility, but says society is at fault, has a problem. This is about maturation. The way immature personalities function is to seek fault in others or put the blame on others. In this context, what applies to the individual also applies to an association of people, regardless of whether they cling to a religious or identity-defining image.”

The role of social structures

Yet it seems hard to deny that the overarching structural position of many Muslims in the German context is such that, in fact, ‘society is at fault’. To give but one example, a host of scientific studies all confirm that the German educational system acts as a mechanism of elite reproduction, shutting out working-class children, as well as the offspring of immigrants. German Muslims more often than not fall under both of these categories.3

What is more, once Muslims have left school, they are faced with a plethora of discriminatory practices. Having an Arabic- or Turkish-sounding name dramatically reduces the likelihood of obtaining a job4 or an apartment5 – even when the Muslim applicant submits the exact same CV as their ethnically German counterparts.

And while Muslim men with their supposed propensities to violence and atavism have become the favoured whipping boy of contemporary debates, it is an open question whether Mr Zaimoğlu’s career as a writer and public intellectual would have taken off had he been a hijab-wearing woman.

Blaming Muslims

Against this backdrop, Zaimoğlu’s claim that Muslims living in Germany are merely “self-ethnicised” and guilty of isolationism seems somewhat simplistic. Processes of self-ethnicisation are also a reflection and a consequence of widespread Islamophobic and xenophobic attitudes.

Zaimoğlu accuses German Muslims of “actually ignoring their own self-made misery”. To be sure, it may very well be true that there is an unwillingness to face up to hard questions or to engage in uncomfortable debates in some quarters of Germany’s Muslim communities. Yet these self-made problems are at best half of the story and they only exist in a larger social context.

Share Button



  2. El-Menouar, Yasemin (2013). “Islam und Sozialkapital: Beispiele muslimischer Gruppierungen in Deutschland”. In Spenlen, Klaus (ed.), Gehört der Islam zu Deutschland? Fakten und Analysen zu einem Meinungsstreit. Düsseldorf: Düsseldorf University Press.