The Netherlands will not shelter more than 500 refugees

30 March 2016

The Netherlands refuses to shelter more than five hundred recognized refugees through the United Nations, despite the urgent request of the UN-refugee organization UNHCR to increase the amounts.

The Dutch Foundation for Refugees (VluchtelingenWerk Nederland) thinks it is “scandalous” that the Netherlands will not increase the amounts, especially in the context of the refugee crisis and the call of the UNHCR. According to the UNHCR 480.000 refugees need to be relocated.

“Especially while the Netherlands is now chairman of the EU, the Netherlands is acting shamefully by retaining this stance,” Jasper Kuipers of the Dutch Foundation for Refugees said.

The relocation is an issue that is separate from the European deal to spread 160.000 Syrian refugees throughout the EU. This issue relates to people who were stranded in Greece and Italy. The Netherlands has pledged to take in several thousands of this group. At the moment approximately a hundred people stay in the Netherlands out of this group.

Dutch minister declines extra security after attacks on mosques

1 March 2016

Ard van der Steur, the Dutch Minister of Security and Justice, is not planning to take extra security measures after a sequence of severe threats and attacks on mosques. “If measures should be taken this is the responsibility of municipalities”, he said during a debate in the Dutch parliament on the matter.

Ahmed Marcouch, a parliamentary member of the Dutch Labour Party, observes that the amount of violent incidents against mosques and visitors of mosques is increasing. “In the past five years there have been two hundred incidents: raining from heads of pigs to fire bombs and molotov cocktails. […] These incidents can no longer be called occasional.”

He is furthermore concerned about the organizational character of the “resistance” against Muslims and mosques, exemplified by a pamphlet with Nazi-symbols and discriminatory language that was send to various mosques recently.

Ministers Lodewijk Asscher (integration) and Van der Steur will soon get in touch with representatives of the Dutch Muslim community to convey to them the position of the Dutch government.

Selçuk Öztürk, parliamentary member of the new Muslim political movement called DENK, reacted by saying that the Muslim community is not waiting for talking sessions. “Synagogues are rightly being provided with extra security. The cabinet has reserved extra finances for this. Why does this not happen for mosques?”, he demanded. He believes the Dutch government is using double standards and fears that there should first be casualties before the minister takes action.

Dutch anti-Islam politician Wilders does not rule out legal ban of Islam in the future

29 March 2016

Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch anti-Islam party PVV (Party for Freedom), has not ruled out a possible future legal ban on Islam. “It might get that far at some point”, he said during a recent parliamentary debate on the Brussel Attacks.

According to Wilders the time has begun to become intolerant to the intolerant. As far as he is concerned this means that the borders in the Netherlands close and an effort must be put into the de-Islamization of the Netherlands in order to protect the Dutch culture.

Halbe Zijlstra, party chairman of the Dutch Liberal Party (VVD), reacted resentfully to Wilders’ proposal: “Everyone in the Netherlands enjoys the same freedoms, be they Muslim, Jew, or atheist.” According to Zijlstra Wilders cannot defend the Dutch cultural values and freedoms of equal rights as long as he differentiates on the basis of religion.

Tunahan Kuzu, parliamentary member for the new Muslim political movement called DENK, pointed out to Wilders that a ban on religion and “intolerance against the intolerant” was also at play in Nazi-Germany, right before the Second World War. “This is ver sad indeed”, he said.

Opening doors: launch of the first Arab-speaking newspaper catering to refugees in Germany

22 March 2016

How to give recently arrived Syrians an insight into the workings of German society and the issues animating contemporary German politics? Ramy al-Asheq, himself a Syrian of Palestinian origin living in Germany since 2014 has set out to facilitate this process by founding the country’s first free-of-charge Arabic newspaper catering to the needs and questions of refugees. Titled Abwab (literally ‘doors’), the paper seeks to provide guidance to newcomers on matters as diverse as the machinations of the German bureaucracy, the differences between German and Syrian legal systems, as well as covering current developments in the German and international political scene and providing information about cultural events and the arts

Abwab conceives of itself as filling an important lacuna, due to the dearth of Arabic-language orientation materials and news resources available in the country. At the same time, the paper’s editors seek to meet the criticism that an Arabic newspaper could obviate the need to learn German and to engage with German-language news outlets: Abwab should be understood as a free newspaper catering to the immediate needs of recent arrivals who are not yet fluent in German, or so one of the main editors, Necati Dutar, asserts. Abwab in fact encourages its readers to learn the language and aims to offer some practical advice in this regard – e.g. by recommending to chat to retirees relaxing in local parks.

The paper also addresses more difficult issues, such as the positioning of the German government vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict. Every issue also contains articles on women’s rights. One of the paper’s 40 volunteer writers, Walaa Kharmanda, a Syrian journalist who has fled the civil war herself, emphasises the need to discuss legal and cultural differences in order to reduce stereotypical perceptions that depict all European women as licentious, as well as those that conceive of all Syrian women as oppressed.

The paper’s current circulation is 45,000; yet due to high demand the editors aim to increase this number by attracting more advertising sponsors. They also plan to launch an online platform through which the magazine’s content can be accessed in Arabic, English, and German. So far, internet users can browse Abwab’s first three issues at https://issuu.com/abwab.de. Al-Asheq and his team conceive of Abwab as a means that allows refugees to access German society: “we should all try to become Germans, and we should try to help each other.” Yet he also notes that “integration is not a one-way street. […] For me, integration is a process in which two sides partake, teaching and learning from each other.”

Online access to the paper’s first issues: https://issuu.com/abwab.de

The lifting of the headscarf ban one year on: German state laws and practices slow to change

22 March 2016

In a landmark ruling on the role of religious symbols in public schools in March 2015, the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) decided that a generalised prohibition of the hijab in schools was unconstitutional, as was any privileging of Christian or Jewish symbols. The Court asserted that neither the rights of third persons nor the religious neutrality of the state would be challenged if a female teacher decided to wear the hijab at her workplace. An infringement of the teachers’ freedom of religious expression by not allowing her to wear the headscarf was only legitimised by the ruling in cases where massive religious rows would undermine the school’s ability to teach.

In the German federal system, educational matters are, by and large, decided at the level of the country’s 16 states. In the mid-2000s, 8 West German states had introduced various forms of a headscarf ban in public schools, sometimes but not always accompanied by a strengthening of Christian symbolism. As the only state to conclusively amend its legal framework following the Court’s verdict, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia has since issued a new law that discontinued the ban on the headscarf and has gone further in defining public schools as spaces of religious freedom and tolerance of different beliefs and expressions thereof.

By contrast, most other states have been reluctant to implement the Court’s decision. Bremen and Lower Saxony merely informed their schools via decrees that it was now permissible to employ teachers wearing the hijab while not moving to create a state law that would explicitly entrench this new policy. In Bavaria, the conservative government has retained its laws imposing the headscarf ban, as well as a privileging of ‘Christian-occidental’ symbols, in contravention of the Constitutional Court. So far, this has not been challenged in court by any teacher wearing (or wishing to wear) the hijab.

The situation is even more complicated in a number of other states. The state of Hesse has implemented an extremely onerous procedure of dubious legality in which each and every teacher wishing to wear the hijab is vetted in order to test whether her religious convictions constitute a danger for the order and the educational mission of the school. This vetting process also applies to teachers wearing the kippah. In Baden-Württemberg, the Green-led government has begun the legislative process of revoking the existing headscarf ban amidst considerable public debate; yet after the recent state elections this law is still in limbo. In the state of Berlin, the SPD-led government has so far not amended its ban of the headscarf and of the kippah in teaching employment and a range of other public-sector jobs, since it conceives of this ban as in tune with state neutrality towards religion because it extends to all religious symbols. In all of these states, hijab legislation will most likely be amended only when female Muslim teachers choose to use juridical means and sue state agencies in order to force them to comply with the Court’s ruling. Aside from the possibility to opt for the long march through the courts, female Muslim teachers desiring to wear the hijab are thus generally at the mercy of their immediate superiors and school principals and their willingness to allow the headscarf at their schools.

The Court’s original ruling can be found at: http://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Entscheidungen/DE/2015/01/rs20150127_1bvr047110.html

Immigrants feel more German than Germans think: a new survey on the perceptions of immigrants’ lives in Germany

21 March 2016

The newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has published a survey in which both Germans and long-settled immigrants in Germany were asked to assess the situation of immigrants in the country. In this survey, the non-immigrant respondents painted a somewhat sceptical picture of what, according to their perception, being an immigrant in the country would feel like: 52 per cent were convinced that immigrants were faced with growing levels of distrust, and 45 per cent believed that immigrants were seen as foreign strangers by Germans; 35 per cent were of the opinion that immigrants would sometimes feel Germans treated them in a condescending manner. 41 per cent believed that immigrants liked being in Germany, while only 36 per cent thought that people with foreign roots conceived of Germany as their home country. Moreover, only 23 per cent of non-immigrants surmised that immigrants were able to lead ‘a fully normal life’ in Germany in which their life choices were unhampered by their immigrant background.

Interestingly, however, immigrants themselves rated their situation in the country quite differently: only 7 per cent of them asserted that they felt higher levels of distrust, and only 6 per cent had the feeling that Germans saw immigrants as foreign strangers. Only 8 per cent observed that Germans behaved in a condescending manner towards immigrants. Conversely, 69 per cent were of the opinion that immigrants liked being in Germany, and 65 per cent saw immigrants as conceiving of Germany as their home country. 55 per cent asserted that foreign roots did not play a role in their lives.

The same juxtaposition holds with respect to the answers given to the question ‘Do most foreigners who have been living in Germany for a longer time identify as Germans or as foreigners?’: while the non-immigrant German population estimated that 13 per cent of immigrants identified as Germans and 45 per cent of immigrants did not, 58 per cent of immigrants asserted that they conceived of themselves as Germans, and only 24 per cent claimed that they saw themselves as members of their country of origin. In terms of political preferences, the party-political predilections of immigrants closely track those of the non-immigrant population: when asked ‘Which party do you find most likeable?’, hardly any divergences between the two groups could be observed. Similarly, among both immigrant and non-immigrant respondents, 39 per cent were optimistic rather than pessimistic or agnostic about the future.

It must be made clear that a number caveats must be attached to the survey’s findings. The researchers note that the survey’s representativeness might suffer from a certain sampling bias, insofar as responses were voluntary and people self-selected into answering. This might be relevant especially with respect to the immigrant respondents, since good language skills and also a willingness to engage with questions on political life in Germany are a prerequisite that might exclude that some sectors of the immigrant population from the survey. Perhaps more importantly, while the number of Muslim respondents is too small to make solid statistical claims about this group, we do catch a glimpse of potential challenges for the Muslim community from their answers to the survey questions: while Muslims on average share the relatively positive assessment of the situation of immigrants in the country, only two fifths assert that their immigrant origins do not prevent them from leading a normal life (as opposed to 55 per cent among immigrant respondents generally). Similarly, a third of Muslims assert that they have already been insulted because of their roots (as opposed to 9 per cent of immigrants considered as a group); and a third sometimes feel treated condescendingly by Germans (in contrast to only 8 per cent of all immigrants). A fifth of Muslims also report increased levels of distrust directed against them while only 7 per cent of immigrants overall have this feeling.

All things considered, however, the survey offers a very interesting snapshot of immigrant and non-immigrant perceptions of the lives of individuals and communities with a non-German roots. Apparently, immigrants feel considerably more ‘German’ than their compatriots think. This might be reflective of the long-standing inability of mainstream German society to come to terms with the role of their country as an important migration destination. In fact, the article and the survey are telling in this regard: they often display a propensity to label describe immigrants as ‘foreigners’, thereby emphasising their non-German nature.

German state elections: polarised politics of immigration and Islam

21 March 2016

Elections in three of Germany’s 16 federal states on March 13 have given rise to a polarised political scene. In all three electoral campaigns, issues of migration took centre stage, trumping more local and regional themes. The right-wing and anti-Islam Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party made large-scale gains in all states, above all in eastern Saxony-Anhalt, where it achieved 24.2 per cent of the vote and thus emerged as the second-strongest force in the state’s parliament and the future leader of the opposition. Due to the splintering of the popular vote among five or six parties, the formation of coalition governments promises to be challenging.

The international press was quick to describe the elections results as a defeat for Angela Merkel and her ‘open door’ policy of the past six months. The New York Times opined that Germans were wary of migrants and of Muslims, especially after the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. The Times thus viewed the Chancellor as increasingly isolated at home.

The domestic German reaction to the elections results were, however, markedly different. While a number of commentators saw the results as harming Merkel, the more widespread narrative has been that the Chancellor is among the winners of the elections. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) indeed had to concede defeat in Baden-Württemberg – a CDU-stronghold for all of post-WWII history – now governed by a Green prime minister; and in Rhineland-Palatinate the CDU’s rising star, Julia Klöckner, widely dubbed at least prior to the election to be Merkel’s potential successor, suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the ruling Social Democrats.

Yet throughout their election campaigns, Klöckner and the CDU candidate for prime ministership in Baden-Württemberg, Guido Wolf, had sought to distance themselves from Merkel’s immigration policies. Especially Klöckner had more or less openly endorsed some of the positions of Horst Seehofer, Bavarian prime minister and Merkel’s fiercest inner-party critic from the right. In contrast to that, the Social Democratic and Green winners of the elections had been extremely outspoken in her support for Merkel, with the Green candidate Winfried Kretschmann going so far as asserting publicly that he prayed for the Chancellor every day. Against this backdrop, many commentators, such as Jakob Augstein in Der Spiegel have asserted that while the CDU lost, Angela Merkel won the elections because her detractors suffered severe blows. Yet Merkel’s win was seen as coming at the cost of potentially permanently establishing a populist party to the right of the CDU.

Links:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/world/europe/german-state-elections-point-to-vulnerability-for-angela-merkel.html

http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/wahlen-2016-sieg-fuer-angela-merkel-kolumne-a-1082161.html

Gay imam helps young Muslims balance religion, sexuality

March 11, 2016

Growing up in Algeria, Shaira had almost everything a young man could wish for. But he also had a big secret.

In a land where homosexuality is still a crime and a sin, he was forced to live a secret life, hiding that he was gay from everyone — even his closest family.

Shaira, 26, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his safety, hasn’t been back to Algeria since he went to study in France four years ago. His family still has no idea of his sexuality. Sahira has sought help from a gay imam from Algeria who is working with a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) association in Marseille. The Le Refuge group says it has helped 26 gays find shelter and start a new life in the ancient port city in the past year. Some eventually go back to their families.

Homosexuality is a criminal offense in much of the Middle East — punishable by imprisonment or, in countries like Saudi Arabia, by death.

In Algeria, homosexual acts are punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine. Islam considers homosexuality a sin. Men having sex with each other should be punished, the Quran says, but it doesn’t say how — and it adds that they should be left alone if they repent. The death penalty verdict instead comes from the Hadith, or accounts of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The accounts differ on the method of killing, and some accounts give lesser penalties in some circumstances.

The Islamic State group (IS) has taken this to an extreme. Videos the group has released show masked militants dangling allegedly gay men over the sides of buildings by their legs and dropping them head-first or tossing them over the edge. It is believed that at least three dozen men in Syria and Iraq have been killed by IS over accusations of sodomy.

Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed is an Algerian-born imam who now works in Marseille and runs an association of French Muslims and gays. He has known the discrimination faced by the young people who come to Le Refuge for help.

“Personally I have received quite a lot of threats, but I saw more people come to encourage me … saying you are an embodiment of real Islam,” Zahed said.

The local head of Le Refuge in Marseille, Christophe Chausse, says the group tries to counsel young gays about how to cope with the constant conflict between their sexuality and their religion.

“For them, there is a real dilemma between — ‘I am or I feel homosexual’, and ‘I have my religion, my faith which prohibits it, so I cannot live this homosexuality,’” Chausse said. Shaira cries as he talks about this conflict that he battles every day.

“Everybody is telling me — ‘you are gay, you are Muslim and this is not normal,’” Shaira said. “But I feel that I have the same right to have a religion as everybody else. Even if I’m gay.”