Muslim soldier’s book sparks debate on diversity in Germany’s armed forces

The reputation of Germany’s armed forces is at a low point. With materiel aging fast, and with procurement chains marred by seemingly endless corruption scandals, the Bundeswehr’s leadership recently painted a dysmal picture: many – in some cases most – of the country’s fighter jets, cargo planes, tanks, u-boats, and helicopters are not operational; and even basic equipment is lacking, notably clothing, armour, and night-vision goggles.1

The Bundeswehr‘s many challenges

What is more, the Bundeswehr is paralysed by severe personnel shortages: since the conscription of young men was phased out in 2011, the armed forces have struggled to attract enough recruits. A career in the military continues to be unpopular among large parts of Germany’s population; and the very institution of the Bundeswehr continues to be viewed with a certain degree of suspicion.

This distrust has been fuelled by recent revelations alleging far-right sympathies in some quarters of the armed forces: after memorabilia from the Wehrmacht and the Third Reich were discovered in army barracks, it emerged that a number of soldiers had sought to carry out attacks on German politicians, civil society activists, as well as Jewish and Muslim figures. Subsequently, journalists uncovered an entire network of soldiers and sympathisers in military intelligence, conspiring to kill political adversaries and take power in Germany on an unspecified ‘Day X’.2

‘I serve Germany’

None of this seems to make the armed forces a welcoming environment – least of all for non-white personnel. It is to combat this perception that Nariman Hammouti-Reinke has now published her book I Serve Germany: The Case for the Bundeswehr – And Why It Needs to Change. The 39-year-old has been with the Bundeswehr for more than 14 years. She has completed two deployments to Afghanistan before taking up her current posting as a naval officer on Germany’s North Sea coast.

Hammouti-Reinke was born to Moroccan parents, and is one of Germany 1,600 Muslim soldiers. (The country’s overall troop strength is 170,000.) As a Muslim woman, Hammouti-Reinke is faced with discrimination based on (interlocking features of) her gender, race, and religion. Speaking to Forum am Freitag, a Muslim-oriented news magazine running on public broadcaster ZDF, she observes that “I am a German citizen through and through – but somehow that’s still not enough”: often, blonde hair and blue eyes continue to be required to be seen as truly German.3

Hammouti-Reinke is careful to stress, however, that she has experienced such discrimination above all outside the military. Thus, the decision to write a book about her time in the armed forces was driven not only by a desire to strengthen Germans’ appreciation for the Bundeswehr as such. Rather, Hammouti-Reinke also wants to offer a corrective to the military’s image as a refuge for hard-line reactionaries and racists: “the Bundeswehr does not consist of boozing, bawling, sex Nazis”, she resolutely asserts. Instead, she praises the armed forces’ ethos of egalitarianism and camaraderie:

“It makes me proud to do something for the common good. It makes me proud to step up for rights and freedoms enjoyed by all in Germany. It makes me proud to be in a group where companionship matters more than origins, sexual orientation, or skin colour.”

Demand for Muslim military chaplains

In line with her commitment to the Bundeswehr and is mission, Hammouti-Reinke chairs the association Deutscher Soldat (‘German Soldier’). It was created after the so-called ‘Sarrazin debates’ – a pivotal and much-referenced moment in German public discourse, when Thilo Sarrazin’s 2010 anti-Muslim pamphlet Germany Abolishes Itself drew praise and condemnation from across the political spectrum.

Against Sarrazin’s crude theses about Muslims’ racial inferiority and genetic inability to ‘integrate’, Deutscher Soldat aims to amplify the voices of German soldiers of colour and to showcase their commitment to the German nation4: “For us, it is the highest form of integration to serve this country and to give our lives for it, if necessary” – or so Hammouti-Reinke herself puts it.

One of Deutscher Soldat‘s lighthouse projects is the battle for Islamic (and Jewish) chaplains in the Bundeswehr. Protestant and Catholic soldiers have pastors and priests at their disposal, to assist them in times of spiritual need. If soldiers are killed in action, chaplains also ensure that their bodies are treated in accordance with religious precepts, and that their families receive pastoral care. In Hammouti-Reinke’s words,

“when you’re afraid, you become the most religious person in the world. Quite frankly, if I lose my life on duty for our constitution and our Federal Republic, then I don’t want a psychologist to bring my parents the news of my death, instead of a man of the clergy.”

Finding oneself in the ‘Muslim corner’

Hammouti-Reinke’s own relationship to her faith is laid-back: while Islam is an important part of her personal and family life, she does not see herself as particularly pious. Since racism and anti-Muslim sentiment do not take such nuances into account however, Hammouti-Reinke observes that she has “become more Muslim in recent years. What that I don’t mean that I am becoming stronger in my faith, but that I am pushed in a certain corner against my will – a corner that I will then also defend.”

Such a moment of defence came after the sexual assaults committed by men of North African origin in Cologne during the city’s 2015-16 New Year’s celebrations: Hammouti-Reinke took to Deutscher Soldat’s Facebook page to criticise the subsequent rush to portray and defame all Moroccan men as potential sex criminals. (Her outspoken stance earned her many negative comments, as well as a barrage of threats and hate mail.)

Despite this, Hammouti-Reinke continues her quest for public and policy impact: she acts as an advisor to the government of the Land Lower Saxony, counselling policy-makers on issues of integration. She has also been a member of the German Federal Assembly, the ceremonial body that elected current German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Continued challenges of structural discrimination

Hammouti-Reinke’s book has had considerable impact in Germany, sparking reviews and discussions in numerous media outlets. Hammouti-Reinke herself has become a sought-after interviewee and commentator.5

The extent to which her intervention will entice German Muslims to join the Bundeswehr remains to be seen. At the very least, Hammouti-Reinke has provided an eloquent and powerful account of her own, quintessentially positive professional journey through the armed forces. At the same time, given widespread experiences of institutional discrimination and structural racism, perceptions of law enforcement and security agencies generally will be slow to change among Germany’s non-white population.

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