Nearly a quarter of a million people protest against racism in Berlin – yet Muslim participants remain under suspicion

Under the tagline #Unteilbar – which translates as #Indivisible – close to 250,000 men and women took to the streets on a warm and sunny October day in Berlin. Long expected as “the climax of a summer of protests”1, the demonstration sought to address a number of progressive social causes; yet it was race and racism that were #Unteilbar’s central issues.

After months of high-profile incidents – ranging from the by now constant heckling emanating from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, to Mesut Özil’s resignation from Germany’s national football team, to racist mobs beating up ‘foreign-looking’ people in the street – the demonstrations’ organisers sought to send a message of anti-racist unity and solidarity.

Weakened Islamic associations

In the spirit of this message of diversity, organisers attracted a broad spectrum of speakers and artists to appear on #Unteilbar’s stage. This included many Muslim figures, some of whom spoke at least in part as members of their faith, while others were present for purely secular motivations.

Early in the afternoon, Aiman Mazyek took to the stage, speaking about his disillusionment at the repetition of racist cycles of violence – but also calling for a united front against social exclusion.2 Mazyek is the Chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD). Although its name might suggest otherwise, his organisation is only one of several umbrella associations claiming to represent German Muslims.

However, not only is Mazyek the most (or perhaps the only) media savvy leadership figure on the Islamic associational scene. Two years of chaos in German-Turkish political relations have also wrought deep havoc in the other, Turkish-dominated associations. By now, none of their functionaries would have the standing to appear at a public event such as #Unteilbar.

Diverse Muslim participants

Many unaffiliated Muslim figures also spoke to the crowd. Activist and blogger Kübra Gümüsay as well as Der Spiegel journalist Ferda Ataman were part of a discussion panel debating the relationship between race and class. Independent – and self-consciously Muslim – talk show host Esra Karakaya hosted the programme on stage, guiding the audience through the evening.

Getting a diverse set of contributors to be invested and visible appeared to be one of #Unteilbar’s genuine accomplishments: In Germany, large-scale progressive gatherings and demonstrations are often rather white, middle-class, and monocultural affairs.

The crowd of 242,000 – according to the last estimate of the organisers, published midway through the afternoon – was perhaps slightly less reflective of the actual diversity of Germany’s population. Yet here, too, Muslim participants took a stand, demonstrating and holding up placards with messages such as “I’m Muslim, Don’t Panic”.

“A signal of hope”

Reactions to the demonstration were mostly positive. The organisers, who had expected roughly 40,000 people to join their event, were surprised and overwhelmed by the numbers attending. “We’re sending a clear signal of hope! This day gives all of us courage. It is the beginning of a solidary society”, they asserted.3

Islamic associations’ leaders were – aside from Mazyek – barely audible in #Unteibar’s aftermath. However, many prominent Muslim figures expressed their support and also their relief that so many demonstrators had gathered. Journalist and news anchor Dunja Hayali tweeted: “proud and happy that there are many of us. racism is just not an alternative. not an attitude. not an opinion!

The political backdrop: Bavarian elections

The demonstration took place on the eve of crucial Bavarian state elections. Bavaria has been governed for decades by the Christian Social Union (CSU), the more conservative sister party to Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). #Unteilbar also presented itself as a rallying cry to Bavarian voters to punish the CSU.

The CSU’s self-stated maxim has always been that no democratically viable German party must exist to its right. Staying true to this motto, the party has shifted sharply to the right since the rise of the AfD, taking up not only the far-right’s themes – mainly on migration and Islam – but also its often racist rhetoric.

CSU party leader Horst Seehofer, who simultaneously serves as Germany’s Interior Minister, has not only taken every opportunity since taking office in March to pick on the country’s Muslim population. He has also repeatedly brought Chancellor Merkel’s tenuous governing coalition to the brink of collapse by pushing the AfD’s agenda from inside the government. Meanwhile, his Bavarian colleagues have sought to sharpen the CSU’s image on identity politics by ordering that Christian crosses be displayed in every public building in the state.

Punishing the CSU?

Farhad Dilmaghani, a former leading SPD politician from Berlin who now heads a civil society initiative fostering diversity in Germany’s public sphere and institutions, alluded to the elections. Tweeting a photo that showed him in the front row of #Unteilbar’s crowd, Dilmaghani prophesised: Tomorrow in Bavaria, there’ll be an #EndToHate.”


#Unteilbar’s call for a shift in Bavarian politics was only partly heeded, however. While voters delivered a blow to the CSU, the party seems poised to continue governing with the help of a conservative and malleable coalition partner amenable to the CSU’s agenda.

Resistance to #Unteilbar’s message

Nor did the demonstrators seem to make much of an impact with other conservative forces. Berlin’s CDU, for instance, somewhat hysterically denounced the demonstration as a forum of left-wing extremists.4 Taking a different point of ideological comparison, the chief editor of Germany’s largest tabloid, Bild, compared #Unteilbar to the Islamophobic Pegida movement.

It was, however, not only the right that found grounds to criticise #Unteilbar. On the left, Sahra Wagenknecht – who seeks to build an extraparliamentary leftist movement loosely modelled on the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn or France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon – criticised the demonstration for (allegedly) calling for an open-door policy to all migrants.5

#Unteilbar’s Muslim allies under scrutiny

Yet the most divisive issue proved to be the participation of some Muslim figures and institutions who were accused of being radicals, Islamists, or anti-Semites.

These allegations were also levelled against Aiman Mazyek’s ZMD: as an umbrella body, the ZMD reunites a diverse set of mosques, associations, and groups; some of whom are described as having “ties” to the Muslim Brotherhood or to hard-line Turkish nationalists.

Accusations of this kind have surrounded Mazyek (as well as almost all other Muslims visible in the German public sphere) for years; yet they are never levelled against him personally but only against various sub-groups within the ZMD. And even in their cases, the ominous “ties” supposedly linking them to “suspicious” organisations have often not been substantiated.

In most cases, these allegations are grounded on statements made by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV). The BfV never provides any justifications why any given Muslim individual or organisation is placed on its watchlists. When it has occasionally been compelled to do so after years of court battles, the ‘suspicion’ often proved to be groundless. Many civil society organisations have castigated the BfV for its structural racism6; an accusation that recently received further nourishment by the proximity of the BfV’s outgoing president to the far-right AfD.

Recrimination among Muslim figures

In spite of these well-known shortcomings, the BfV’s opinions are routinely weaponised to score political points – also between competing Muslim groups. Seyran Ates, controversial founding figure of a self-declared ‘liberal’ mosque in Berlin and darling of the political right, did so in the context of #Unteilbar: She refused to join the march and accused the organisers of political naiveté for their inclusion of a range of Muslim and Turkish groups.7

Further mud-slinging focused on the alleged anti-Semitism of advocates of Palestinian liberation during their 10 minute slot on #Unteilbar’s stage. Certain media outlets asserted that these activists had called for “the annihilation of Israel”.8 Watching the video of their statements proves that they voiced no such claim; the assertion that they did was nevertheless picked up and discussed by politicians such as the Green Party’s Volker Beck, as well as on social media.

The ‘radical’ suspicion

To be sure, the overall message of #Unteilbar was not overshadowed by these accusations. This stands in contrast to the recently organised inter-religious bike ride in Berlin: Although dozens of Muslims and Jews, including many rabbis and imams, had sought to send a signal of unity, the only public reception the initiative obtained was with respect to the recriminations (as always unfounded) levelled against its Muslim participants.

What these dynamics highlight is the difficulty faced by Muslim activists to make any impact on the German political scene. Hence, it is not just that there are no ‘Muslim leaders’ in the country because Islamic associations are far too splintered: It is also that any Muslim with a public profile is under an extra level of scrutiny and suspicion.

Share Button