Civil society organisations in Germany mobilise against Islamophobic rightward turn

In recent weeks, Mesut Özil’s resignation from Germany’s national football team and the ensuing debate on racism, spearheaded by the #MeTwo hashtag, have galvanised public attention in Germany.

Mainstreaming of the far-right

This comes as many Muslim and/or anti-racist civil society organisations see themselves at a crossroads. The rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) has transformed the country’s political landscape as the party has entered German politics at all levels and has managed to set the political agenda.

The political mainstream, such as the liberal-conservative Free Democrats (FDP) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), have since cosied up to the AfD’s rhetoric and adopted the far right’s policy proposals.

To be sure, a new cross-party political movement from the left, combatively named #Aufstehen (#StandUp), aims to offer an alternative political vision, mainly to disaffected voters from the poorer sectors of society. Yet many commentators have detected more than a hint of welfare chauvinism in #Aufstehen’s message.

“A pre-fascist phase”?

Hence, amidst a worsening political climate, many activists and engaged intellectuals fear a full-fledged turning of the tide. In an intensely personal and disillusioned interview with the Tagesspiegel newspaper, social scientist Naika Foroutan glumly asserts that “societal developments point in the direction of a pre-fascist phase.”1

Foroutan is one of Germany’s leading progressive voices on migration and diversity. A professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University, Foroutan has emerged as the leading theorist of a ‘post-migrant’ (postmigrantische) German society – a society marked by experiences of migration; yet a society in which ethnicity is no longer to be considered the major dividing line between different groups.

Speaking to the Tagesspiegel, Foroutan takes a critical stance on the assumptions that had implicitly structured her own work, as well as the work of fellow scientists, in the past – notably the taken-for-granted idea that difference would ultimately be accepted simply because of its increasingly widespread nature: by now, already a third of school age children have – in German politico-legal parlance – a ‘migration background’.2

Yet the desired acceptance and normalisation failed to materialise purely on the basis of numbers, Foroutan recognises:

“Instead, the current discourse on migration, together with old racism, even symbolically deprives people of their citizenship whose families have been living here for five generations, black Germans for instance. These people are no migrants. They are just not white.”

CLAIM: Acting against Islamophobia

Foroutan nevertheless ends her thoroughly pessimistic interview with a call to action: “It is our country. Let’s defend it together!” This is an injunction that a number of civil society initiatives have taken to heart. As the far right has become louder, they have sought to reassert the rights of those excluded from resurging ethnonationalist conceptions of citizenship.

On such initiative is CLAIM – an alliance of different organisations that seeks to counter Islamophobia.3 CLAIM emerged as an offshoot of the Young Islam Conference (Junge Islam Konferenz) – an initiative that constituted itself as an independent counterweight to the government-controlled Deutsche Islam Konferenz (DIK), which controversially sought to forge a state-compliant Islam.

CLAIM received (somewhat belated) funding from the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs (BMFSFJ) under its flagship democracy-building programme aimed at encouraging civil society activism. CLAIM now aims to bring together a range of Muslim and non-Muslim projects in order to raise awareness of discrimination and racism.

It officially launched its first activities on July 1, 2018 – the Day of Anti-Muslim Racism, commemorating the racially-motivated killing of Egyptian citizen Marwa el-Sherbini in a Dresden courtroom in 2009. Major landmarks in Germany were lit up with the message: “Islamophobia and racism kills – #NoPlaceForHate.”


DeutschPlus: Empowering diversity

Particularly in Berlin, Germany’s multi-ethnic capital, many activists are not simply discouraged but often energised by the recent rise of the far-right. Many have dug in their heels and intensified their efforts to empower those with an immigrant or Muslim heritage.

One of these initiatives is DeutschPlus, an association propagating the ideal of “a pluralist republic”.4 The association was founded by Farhad Dilmaghani, former State Secretary for Labour in the state of Berlin. Hence it had a more politicised aim from its inception: to influence public discourse on participation and belonging of the ‘new Germans’.

To this end, DeutschPlus serves as a diversity consultant to various organisations and institutions, showing them pathways to employ and include Germans of different backgrounds in their workforce. This mission is sorely needed: Germany’s public administrations and the top levels of its private sector are still solidly mono-ethnic – as is the current cabinet.5

DeutschPlus also offers workshops and summer schools for pupils from Berlin schools from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The aim of this ‘Academy of Rights’ is to empower these youngsters to actively stand up for their position in German society, even in the face of obstacles.

Challenges for civil society initiatives

The list of organisations could be prolonged. However, few of them are as well embedded in the political scene as DeutschPlus, and few are as professional: In most cases, organisations supporting the rights claims of immigrants and their descendants are still based on voluntary commitment only; they thus have limited resources and capacities to mount programmes with a lasting impact.

Funding from the state – most notably the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs – has been the most obvious way for many organisations to address this difficulty. However, not only does the ability to obtain state funding itself necessitate a certain degree of professionalization already achieved. Such funding also comes with its own strings attached.

Thus, the Ministry’s democracy promotion programme is strongly focussed on funding projects that aim to prevent the ‘religious radicalisation’ of Muslim youth. This often tends to eclipse a concern with anti-Muslim racism; and, in practice, the focus on Muslim youth as a problem group at risk of radicalisation may also reinscribe dominant patterns of discriminatio, rather than challenge them.

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  2. A ‘migration background’ refers to the fact of having at least one parent who was not born with German citizenship. See