German Muslims’ struggle for participation in local politics

In many ways, German politics is notable for its lack of diversity. For instance, no minister in the current government is non-white; none of them possess what in Germany is referred to as a ‘migration background’ – a slippery term that in politico-administrative parlance refers to everyone with at least one parent born outside of Germany; but that in public discourse is generally used to connote non-white ethnicity and/or Muslim faith.

By contrast, in the current British cabinet some of the most prestigious positions are occupied by people of colour – including Priti Patel as Home Secretary or Rishi Sunak as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Even in Austria, governed by a conservative-green coalition that has adopted the far-right’s positions on immigration, integration, and Islam, Bosnian-born Alma Zadić has entered the government as Minister of Justice.

Limited number of non-white, non-Christian national politicians

Beyond the ranks of the government, a similar picture emerges. In the current Bundestag with its 709 members, 58 parliamentarians (8 per cent) have a ‘migration background’ – compared to 22.5 per cent among the general population.1 Similarly, in the last Bundestag only 3 parliamentarians self-identified as Muslim – compared to a much larger share in the broader population.2

Visibly non-white politicians are also privileged targets of far-right attacks. In January 2020, for instance, shots were fired at the local constituency office of Karamba Diaby: the SPD politician from the East German city of Halle had become one of two Afro-German parliamentarians who entered the Bundestag for the first time in 2013.3

A long list of racist, far-right attacks and assassination attempts

The attack on Diaby’s office is just one entry in a long list of assaults on politicians in recent months and years. Persistent death threats, arson attacks, and other forms of harassment have led many local politicians – who often hold office in volunteer capacity only – to resign.4 Left-wing strongholds – such as Berlin’s Neukölln district – have been particularly targeted by neo-Nazi and far-right violence against policymakers.5

Some officials have been victims of assassination attempts, such as Cologne’s mayor Henriette Reker, as well as Altena mayor Andreas Hollstein. In June 2019, Walter Lübcke – a local CDU politician in Kassel – was shot and killed; an assassination that rocked the German political landscape.6

Virtually all of these attacks have come from the far right; and most of them are associated with office-holder’s stance on issues of immigration in the aftermath of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015. And while most of its victims have been from the left, the Lübcke assassination shows that the centre-right is far from immune.

CDU resistance to Muslim candidates for office

Yet it is not just that local politicians who have a ‘migration background’ may be particularly visible, and that policy-makers seen as representing a lenient line vis-à-vis immigration may be violently attacked. What renders the participation of ethnic and religious minorities in local and national politics difficult is also the fact that German political parties often do not seem ready to accept members – let alone office-holders – that are not white and Christian.

In this vein, some members of Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU party have openly called for a ban on Muslims joining. They argue that their faith puts them inherently at odds with the party’s values and policies; and that Muslims’ loyalty to Germany is doubtful at best.7

While the CDU leadership has sought to present the party as welcoming to everyone regardless of their faith or looks, it is far from certain that this official commitment filters down to the local level. Cihan Sügür, who joined the local CDU to shape politics in his hometown, recently recounted widespread suspicions, aggressions, and humiliations he faced in the local CDU chapter on account of his Turkish origins and Muslim religion – causing him to leave the party.

CSU vacillates on Muslim mayoral candidates

The CSU, Bavarian sister party to the CDU, recently made headlines when the local party base objected to a Muslim candidate for the mayoral position: while the local CSU leadership had selected Şener Şahin to run for the job at the Bavarian local elections in March, party members refused to endorse Şahin – who was born in the neighbouring town, is a successful local businessman, and married to a Protestant wife – due to his Muslim faith. Şahin subsequently withdrew his candidacy.8

The CSU chapter in Neufahrn near Munich subsequently stuck with an Alevi candidate: Ozan Iyibas, a 37-year-old consultant, became the CSU’s first-ever Muslim candidate for office.9 While it may thus not be impossible to participate in Bavarian local politics – still dominated by the CSU – as a Muslim candidate, the odds remain stacked very much against it.

The Green party’s signals of openness…

Other parties, particularly more left-leaning ones, are to some extent more open to non-white, non-Christian participation. In November 2019, Belit Onay became the first mayor of a major German city with a so-called ‘migration background’: the 38-year-old son of Turkish parents ran on the Green Party ticket to break decades of Social Democratic dominance of the Hanover mayorship.

Onay self-describes as a ‘liberal Muslim’ and attributes his politicisation to the 1993 Solingen attack, when he was 12 years old: Solingen was one of a number of high-profile racist attacks in the first half of the 1990s, in which far-right perpetrators killed five people of Turkish descent by torching their house. Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor at the time, refused to attend the memorial service – and Onay recounts that “this was when I realised for the first time that it matters in Germany where people are from, what they are called, or what the colour of their skin is.”10

… and of closure

Yet the Green Party has not been immune to a more vicious local politics that is hostile to minority participation. It is not only that the party is also the home of politicians such as Boris Palmer, mayor of Tübingen known for his anti-immigrant politics.

In one Hamburg constituency, for instance, the Green party chapter collapsed amidst infighting over two Muslim city councillors: the local party leadership publicly accused its councillors Shafi Sediqi and Fatih Can Karışmaz of ‘Islamist’ leanings – accusations which subsequently turned out to be unsubstantiated. Subsequently, Sediqi and Karışmaz, as well as many of their (non-Muslim) supporters left the Green Party, accusing it of racism, and joined the local Social Democrats.11

(In)visibility of candidates’ Muslim faith

Finally, the liberal-conservative Free Democratic Party (FDP) has its own challenges involving Muslim participation. As a party that formerly stood for the defence of civil rights – a position that has, however, increasingly fallen to the Greens in recent years – the party leadership defended one of its candidates in the Northern state of Schleswig-Holstein: when running for local office, Aygül Kilic became the target of virulent hatred because of her hijab.12

Kilic’s run for office is also noteworthy for the visibility of Muslim religious affiliation implied by her headscarf: usually, Muslim candidates downplay their Islamic religiosity; or it is not important to them. Instead, they present themselves as ‘liberal’ Muslims, such as the Green Party’s Belit Onay; or as ‘a German Social Democrat who happens to be an immigrant’, such as Berlin’s SPD hopeful Raed Saleh. For others – notably the comparatively large group of Turkish- and Kurdish-origin parliamentarians from the left-wing Die Linke party, a-religious or anti-religious commitments may play more of a role in their political activism.

Local coalitions with the far-right and their unlikely victims

It was the FDP that in February 2020 defied a gentleman’s agreement among Germany’s established political class not to cooperate with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD): in the Eastern state of Thuringia, the FDP had one of its politicians elected Minister President with the support of the AfD. Thuringia’s AfD is reputed for its tight linkages into the neo-Nazi milieu. (This governing arrangement collapsed within a day.)

The FDP’s behaviour sparked widespread condemnation and comparisons to conservative ‘treason of democracy’ at the end of the Weimar Republic. It has thrown the party into an existential crisis; yet this is a crisis has also produced odd victims: in Hamburg, Hadi Al-Wehaily – an 18-year-old FDP candidate for the upcoming local elections – had his posters vandalised by glaring red graffiti spelling out ‘FCK NZS’ – or ‘fuck Nazis’.

As the son of an Iraqi father and a Ukrainian mother, and as the bearer of a name and a phenotype that many if not most Germans would categorise as ‘un-German’, Al-Wehaily is an unlikely torchbearer for ‘Nazism’, however.

The ‘double whammy’: Muslim candidates excluded by parties’ rightward shift – yet penalised for it.

Thus, racial and religious minorities in German politics appear exposed to a kind of ‘double whammy’. On the one hand, they are side-lined by party elites and a recalcitrant local base who see non-white, non-Christian candidates as overdetermined by their ‘immigrant-ness’: during his time at in the CDU, Cihan Sügür was publicly slapped down by local party leaders, who claimed to want to attract the “bürgerliche Milieu” – i.e. the white middle class. Sügür’s visible alleged ‘Turkishness’ was seen as jeopardising this electoral strategy.

On the other hand, as Al-Wehaily’s example demonstrates, racial and religious minority candidates will still draw the ire of those who are critical of their parties’ dalliances with a racist, anti-immigrant Right. In other words, minority candidates are not only disadvantaged by their racial and religious otherness which prevents them from ascending party hierarchies; they are also penalised by progressive voters for their parties’ rightward shift. For them, the old saying truly holds: in for a penny, in for a pound!

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