German Muslims’ react to election results, rise of far-right AfD party

Germany has gone to the polls – and the results have thoroughly shaken the country’s political scene. The impression, prevailing at times in sections of the liberal international media, of Germany as a beacon of stability in a Western world marred by the rise of populism had for a long time been a faulty one. The election results of September 24th should finally dispel this myth.

A diminished Chancellor

To be sure, Mrs. Merkel will most likely remain Chancellor for a fourth term. Yet after her CDU/CSU party obtained only 32.9 per cent of the popular vote – its worst score since 1949 – many are expecting her to step down and make way for a successor before the next scheduled elections in 2021.((http://www.stuttgarter-zeitung.de/inhalt.kanzlerdaemmerung-in-berlin-wie-lange-bleibt-merkel-noch-kanzlerin.a322c77d-9fc8-4cff-9792-3569fd3cff5a.html ))

Not only the CDU/CSU took a drubbing, however – the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel’s junior partner in the outgoing coalition government, also suffered heavy losses. In what amounted to the SPD’s fourth electoral defeat since its ousting from the chancellery in 2005, the party only took 20.5 per cent of the vote – the worst results of the post-war era.

‘Jamaica’ coalition at odds on immigration, Islam

With the SPD immediately declaring that it would not join another Merkel-led coalition government, the Chancellor is now faced with the unenviable task of having to piece together a new government made up of her CDU/CSU party, the Greens, and the Free Democrats (FDP).

Whilst this coalition is gaily referred to as the “Jamaica” option because of the black, green, and yellow colours of its composite parties, reaching an agreement between conservatives, liberals, and ecologists will be anything but easy.

Not least with respect to questions of immigration, integration, identity, and Islam the three parties espoused strongly diverging positions throughout the electoral campaign. These differences are likely to harden now: the conservative wing of the CDU/CSU is attributing the severe losses of the election night to an insufficiently conservative profile. Long-standing critics of Merkel’s centrist course announced immediately after the publication of the first exit polls that they would seek to “close the party’s right flank”.((http://www.fr.de/politik/bundestagswahl/nach-der-wahl-seehofer-will-die-rechte-flanke-schliessen-a-1357158 ))

Ending Germany’s anti-populist ‘exceptionalism’

This ‘right flank’ had fallen prey to the large-scale electoral gains of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The AfD had started as an anti-Euro movement; it centred on dissatisfaction with what it perceived as an overly concessionary stance on Mrs. Merkel’s part towards Greece and other southern European countries during the Eurozone crisis.

Yet the group quickly took on an anti-immigration line, particularly since the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees in 2015. Ever since, it has developed a staunchly Islamophobic profile and relied upon the calculated breaking of taboos in order to gain attention. Leading party functionaries have strong ties to the Pegida movement, as well as to the neo-Nazi scene.((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/neue-abgeordnete-das-sind-die-radikalen-in-der-afd-fraktion/20361302.html ))

After scoring 12.6 per cent of the popular vote on September 24th, leading AfD politician Alexander Gauland announced to overjoyed supporters that this was the first step to “taking back our country and our people”. This statement built not only on the widespread populist slogan of ‘taking back control’, so widespread for instance in Brexit Britain. It also retained the völkisch-nationalistic tone of the AfD’s election campaign.((http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/bundestagswahl-gauland-afd-wird-die-bundesregierung-jagen.1939.de.html?drn:news_id=795978  ))

“What is wrong with this country?”

The AfD thus emerged as the biggest winner of the election night by far: in 2013, the party had failed to take the five-percent-threshold below which parties do not obtain any parliamentary seats. Whilst it had been expected that the AfD would make it into the Bundestag – and thus constitute the first far-right party to enter the national parliament since 1961 – the populists’ strong showing was nevertheless met with shock by German Muslims.

Many took to Twitter to express their incredulity: lawyer Serkan Kirli asked “What is wrong with this country?”(( https://twitter.com/RA_SerkanKirli/status/912216210045128704 )) And renowned journalist Hakan Tanrıverdi‏ felt like he “had been made a foreigner” by the millions who voted AfD.(( https://twitter.com/hatr/status/912026940986535936 ))

Religious leaders’ reactions

Religious leaders from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups have expressed their concerns over the AfD’s entrance to parliament. Many Christian leaders stressed that the party’s positions were irreconcilably opposed to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. (( https://www.domradio.de/themen/kirche-und-politik/2017-09-25/religionsvertreter-zu-den-ergebnissen-der-bundestagswahl ))

Among the initial Muslim voices, the most widespread fear has been that the established parties might adopt the AfD’s far-right positions in an attempt to regain the trust of the populists’ electorate. Burhan Kesici, leader of the Islamic Council of Germany (IRD), voiced the expectation that “not a single Islamophobic or xenophobic statement be tolerated in the Bundestag”(( http://islamrat.de/kesici-zum-wahlausgang-wir-alle-tragen-eine-historische-verantwortung/ ))

Muslim representatives demand AfD’s ostracism

The Islamic Community Milli Görüş (IGMG) stated that “we expect a clear demarcation against the AfD’s positions”(( http://islamrat.de/kesici-zum-wahlausgang-wir-alle-tragen-eine-historische-verantwortung/ )); a sentiment echoed by Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD). For even if the other parties should make the AfD’s suggestions their own, “in the end”, Mazyek asserted, “voters will not vote for the copy but the original”.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/gastkommentar-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-was-wir-im-umgang-mit-der-afd-falsch-gemacht-haben/20370900.html ))

Non-denominational organisations, such as those representing ethnic Turks in society and in politics, have taken a similar stance. For the Turkish Union in Berlin and Brandenburg (TBB), “the democratic parties are now called upon not to seek any cooperation with the AfD and to refrain from making any AfD positions their own.”(( http://tbb-berlin.de/?id_presse=634 ))

Approach towards AfD and its voter base unclear

What continues to be unclear from the formal statements of German Muslim figures, as well as from the post-election utterances of the mainstream parties, however, is how democratic forces should actually engage with the AfD and its sympathisers.

To many observers – Muslim or other – the desired ‘clear demarcation’ against the AfD amounts to de facto ignoring the populists. Yet it is not only that the AfD managed to gain millions of votes: judging from the party’s behaviour so far, its spite and disregard for democratic rules will simply be difficult to ignore in the Bundestag.

In a post-election opinion piece for the Tagesspiegel newspaper, Aiman Mazyek consequently noted that merely ‘ignoring’ the party would not do: “We should precisely not ignore [the AfD] but rather take on the controversial debate and lead it in the light of the defence of freedom and human rights”. What this might mean in practice remains of course to be seen.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/gastkommentar-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-was-wir-im-umgang-mit-der-afd-falsch-gemacht-haben/20370900.html ))

Explaining the AfD’s rise

In any case, the night of the election was less dominated by a discussion of how to deal with the AfD in the future Bundestag than by the attempt to make sense of its electoral success. Scrutinising the role of the media, ZMD chairman Mazyek highlighted the ways in which populists had managed to set the political agenda through their dominance of airtime.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/gastkommentar-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-was-wir-im-umgang-mit-der-afd-falsch-gemacht-haben/20370900.html ))

In particular, he criticised the TV duel, which had focused overwhelmingly on issues of migration, integration and Islam, and in which suggestions that migrants were dangerous scum wishing to drain the German welfare state and upend the country’s social order went unchallenged.

A deeper process

Yet whilst the media circus obviously boosted the AfD’s taboo-breaking messages by giving them a disproportionate share of the broadcasting time, the roots of right-wing populism in Germany are much deeper than suggested by a  mere focus on skewed pre-election media reporting.

The arrival of the AfD in the federal parliament only renders visible what had previously remained hidden under the surface (or, perhaps more accurately, been swept under the rug). On September 24th, mainstream observers and politicians alike were finally made to take note of the fact that a non-negligible part of the country no longer shares the very basics of the political consensus.

“Why did you vote AfD?”

In a sign of its befuddlement, the socially liberal Die Zeit newspaper asked “Why did you vote AfD?” and asked readers to describe their electoral motives in the comment section. The paper received hundreds of answers. These are of course not statistically representative; they are nevertheless illustrative of the parallel universe of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and paranoia many AfD voters live in.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-09/wahlentscheidung-warum-afd-gewaehlt ))

Responding to the Zeit’s question, one women commented that “I have voted for the AfD because I have thoroughly studied the Qur’an and the hadiths; terms such as ‘abrogation’ or ‘taquiyya’ [misspelling of the Arabic term original] are more than familiar to me.”

She went on to name the most trusted sources for her supposedly authoritative understanding of Islam. Pride of place was accorded to the right-wing blogs of ‘intellectuals’ such as Henryk M. Broder and Roland Tichy, both of which regularly pedal in conspiracy theories and anti-Muslim hatred.

‘Critics of Islam’

She also mentioned a barrage of books on the ‘Islamic danger’ that have often dominated Germany’s best-seller lists over the last few years. Authors include Hamed Abdel-Samad, Abdel Hakim Ourghi, Bassam Tibi, Zana Ramadani, or internationally-known Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Authors and activists such as Seyran Ateş and Ahmad Mansour also had the dubious honour of being included on her list. This shows the unfortunate development in which politically conservative voices get co-opted into the worldview of the radical right – even if they seek to avoid it and even if they might offer an understanding of issues such as jihadism that is at least in parts more nuanced.

A parallel discursive universe

All of these seemingly legitimate voices have created a far-right universe of immense depth. AfD sympathisers can move within this segregated sphere of ‘alternative facts’ without ever being confronted with diverging statements – or with a Muslim, for that matter: once more, support for the AfD was strongest in areas with the lowest number of immigrants.(( https://twitter.com/georgrestle/status/912271976185651200 ))

Consequently, the AfD’s stronghold continues to be the territories of the former GDR, where it obtained 21.5 per cent of the popular vote. In the state of Saxony, home of the Pegida movement and the site of some of the most vitriolic anti-Muslim and anti-establishment hatred, the AfD emerged as the largest party, outdoing even the CDU in its former heartland.

In a somewhat ironical take on the election results, Green Party politician Belit Onay noted that it was therefore not Muslim immigrants who had created ‘parallel societies’ in Germany – a supposed development often presented as proof of insufficient integration. Instead, he argued, the true ‘parallel society’ existed in the AfD milieus of the East. ((https://twitter.com/BelitOnay/status/912010309031915521 ))

“Anxious citizens” and their fear of Islam

Many Muslims have also taken offence at mainstream politicians’ insistence – both before and after the election – that they would ‘take seriously’ the fears and worries of the AfD electorate. In a euphemistic turn of phrase, Pegida marchers and populist supporters have become known in Germany as ‘anxious citizens’ (besorgte Bürger).

This term connotes a predominantly but not uniquely Eastern swathe of the electorate that is in part hard-pressed by socio-economic conditions, yet whose overall fearfulness is squarely directed at cultural change associated with immigration.

According to statistics published by the ARD public broadcaster, 95 per cent of AfD voters feared “the loss of German culture and language”, and 92 per cent were afraid of “the influence of Islam in Germany”.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/afd-im-bundestag-hier-spricht-eine-besorgte-buergerin-kommentar-a-1169716.html )) This resonates with previous studies, in which 40 per cent of German respondents believed that the country was being ‘infiltrated’ by Islam.

Minorities not present during the campaign

In a piece titled “Here is an anxious citizen speaking”, journalist and activist Ferda Ataman castigated the fact that all parties rushed to embrace and legitimise the fears of the AfD electorate. Conversely, she observed, “no one spoke of the anxieties of Muslim, Jewish, or homosexual voters” in the face of the AfD’s rise.

In fact, she asserted, the voice of these minorities had been almost completely absent during the campaign, ensuring that everybody talked about them but that they were never at the table. In this way, racist, xenophobic, and sexist claims were never effectively contested in public.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/afd-im-bundestag-hier-spricht-eine-besorgte-buergerin-kommentar-a-1169716.html ))

Pushing back against populism

Some hope that such contestation will take place now, and that the arrival of the AfD in the Bundestag will reinvigorate civil society activism – especially among those groups most targeted by the AfD’s programme. Christian religious leaders have already urged their community members to step up against nationalism, xenophobia, and racism, and to become politically active.(( https://www.domradio.de/themen/kirche-und-politik/2017-09-25/religionsvertreter-zu-den-ergebnissen-der-bundestagswahl ))

The Liberal Islamic Union (LIB), a small group of self-definedly ‘progressive’ Muslims, wrote in a Facebook post that the LIB was now “confronted with an important task: to continue to work together for an open and tolerant society, in which everybody has his or her space.”(( https://www.facebook.com/liberalislamischerbund/posts/1487350311300459 ))

Many existing Muslim civil society initiatives will also take the election result as a call to action: Ozan Keskinkılıç, one of the co-founders of the Berlin-based “Salaam-Shalom” initiative for Jewish-Muslim dialogue, emphasised his willingness to take up the fight with the surging forces of populism: when asked whether he was contemplating emigration from Germany, he vowed “I stay and thereby I resist”. ((https://twitter.com/ozankeskinkilic/status/912012221026271232 ))

Limited organisational footprint

It would surely be a most welcome development if the AfD’s success at the ballot box should lead to increased Muslim engagement in society and in politics. At the same time, financial and organisational resources of many Muslim initiatives continue to be exceedingly limited, and the political climate is likely to worsen in the coming years.

Against this backdrop, some think that the best hope for Germany’s Muslim community is the potential breakup of the AfD amidst infighting between its national-conservative and quasi-fascist factions. Indeed, the party’s short history has been thoroughly marked by infighting. Although these disputes have shifted the party to the right countinously, some observers expect the party to lose popular appeal as it becomes ever more radical.((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/demoskop-richard-hilmer-zu-afd-das-geht-bis-tief-in-die-mittelschicht-hinein/13318392.html ))

Waiting for the AfD’s break-up?

Indeed, on the morning after the vote, AfD leader Frauke Petry (who had just been elected to the Bundestag) announced that she would not join her party’s parliamentary group. For months, Petry had wished to take her party on a firmly ethnonationalist yet parliamentary course, with the ultimate aim of forming a coalition with the CDU/CSU.

Her party base thoroughly rejected her ‘moderate’ stance, however, opting instead for an opening to the neo-Nazi flank and a more rabble-rousing style. Following Petry’s departure from the parliamentary group, leading counter-terrorism expert Peter Neumann commented sardonically: “The AfD is radicalising itself through successive schisms. Social scientists know such processes from terrorist organisations as well.”(( https://twitter.com/PeterRNeumann/status/912270720440373249 ))

Waiting for the AfD’s self-destruction nevertheless seems a risky gamble. Not only is the implosion of the populists not a foregone conclusion; even if it did happen, they might still manage to do severe harm to German democracy in the process.

Who would refugees vote for? Recent immigrants to Germany observe the election

As Germany prepares to go to the polls, there are many inside the country who will not be able to cast a ballot on September 24th: roughly 10 million of Germany’s 82 million inhabitants do not hold German citizenship. Of these, 5.7 million residents have a non-EU nationality. (( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2017-06/auslaenderzentralregister-deutschland-auslaender-zuwanderung-gestiegen ))

No vote at the end of an immigration-centred campaign

Roughly 1.3 million men and women from outside the EU have arrived since 2014 – most of them refugees from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. Whilst they will not be able to vote themselves, they have nevertheless figured prominently in political debates running up to the election, which displayed an ample (if often ill-informed) focus on immigration, crime and terrorism, as well as Islam.

In spite of their outsized presence in the electoral campaign, refugees’ own political leanings have remained by and large unexplored. In the last days prior to the vote, some of their voices are, however, being heard.

Disillusionment with a lack of opportunities

Two years after Chancellor Merkel’s momentous decision in early September 2015 to open Germany’s borders to refugees stuck on the Western Balkans route, the initial beneficiaries of this policy are by no means uniform in their view of the election.

For some, the journey through Germany’s immigration system and bureaucracy has been a thoroughly disillusioning experience. Speaking to the Tagesspiegel newspaper, Iraqi artist Akil expressed this dissatisfaction: “We are stuck in Germany”, he said. Whilst Merkel had opened the door to people fleeing war and misery, Germany’s rigid legal framework continued to prevent him gaining a foothold and starting a new life.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/bundestagswahl-2017-wenn-fluechtlinge-waehlen-wuerden/20359154.html ))

Continued support for Chancellor Merkel …

Disenchantment might also lead refugees to remain aloof from politics altogether, since different parties are perceived to be mirror images of each other. For some, politics is also a bête noire for other reasons: having lost friends and family to the ongoing conflict in his home country, Syrian Mohammed al-Naid asserted that “politics only brings trouble”.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/bundestagswahl-2017-wenn-fluechtlinge-waehlen-wuerden/20359154.html ))

Yet for a large number of those who have come to Germany in recent years, Angela Merkel continues to be a much-respected and even revered persona. They stress the Chancellor’s willingness to take them in at a time when neighbouring states and Muslim-majority countries refused to step up in solidarity((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/bundestagswahl-2017-wenn-fluechtlinge-waehlen-wuerden/20359154.html )) – a sentiment shared among many in the Arab world.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2017-09/bundeskanzlerin-angela-merkel-araber-fluechtlingsdebatte-wahl ))

… but an uneasy relationship with the CDU

Whether this could eventually translate into a higher level of support for the CDU among Germany’s Muslims remains to be seen. Not only will it take a long time for the recently immigrated refugees to acquire German citizenship (provided that they choose to do so); refugees’ loyalty is also oriented more towards Mrs. Merkel than her party.

Over her twelve years in office as Chancellor (and 17 years as chairwoman of the CDU), Mrs. Merkel has steered her party sharply to the political centre on a number of social issues, including immigration. Whilst she is expected to win a fourth term at the Chancellery this Sunday, her tenure will not last forever, raising the spectre of a return to a more conservative profile under a potential successor.

Particularly since Mrs. Merkel’s decision to allow the arrival several hundred thousand refugees, she has faced pressures from the party base. At the CDU’s last party congress at which Mrs. Merkel announced her intention to run for another term as Chancellor, the party forced her against her will to shift to the right on immigration, burqa ban, and dual citizenship.

German Muslims’ stance on immigration

Socially conservative Muslim immigrants and their offspring have long been touted as a potential electoral reservoir for the CDU. Yet at the ballot box many German Muslims may continue to feel that the Christian Democrats (and CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, even more so), do not govern in their interests.

This does not mean, however, that German Muslims are automatically supportive of a permissive immigration policy. Among the country’s Muslim population, fears about immigration seem almost as widespread as among members of mainstream society.

To be sure, German Muslims have been active volunteers in charitable efforts to help refugees. Yet many established Muslim voters also view new immigrants as potential rivals on already tight labour and housing markets. Others fear that immigrants from war-torn Middle Eastern countries might bring social unrest or even jihadist violence to Germany.((For such opinions, see http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/umfrage-stimmen-zur-deutsch-tuerkischen-beziehung-a-1137631.html or http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2016-01/michel-abdollahi-angst-migranten-koeln ))

Stability and change in Muslims’ voting behaviour

In sum, even without the votes of refugees who could express their gratitude to Mrs. Merkel, electoral analysts expect a slight uptick of the Muslim vote benefiting the Chancellor’s Christian Democrats. A recent poll suggested that 12 per cent of German Turks now support the CDU, compared to 9 per cent in 2013.(( http://taz.de/Wahlverhalten-der-Deutschtuerken/!5449200/ ))

This comes against the backdrop of a dynamic in which the traditional bond of Germany’s Turkish Muslims with the Social Democrats appears to be weakening. The scale of Germany’s Turkish, immigrant, and Muslim communities distancing from the SPD remains to be seen, however.

Recently, a rapper, enormously popular also among young refugees for his rags-to-riches story – his family had come to Germany in the 1990s as asylum-seekers from Iraqi Kurdistan – posted a photograph of his ballot paper on a social networking site. He had ticked the SPD’s boxes.(( http://hiphop.de/node/307308#.WcUBh7JJbBU ))

Report on racism in the British criminal justice system finds surge in Muslim prison population

Labour MP David Lammy authored a report which found a surge in the Muslim prison population and found lack of data on why this population has surged. The report was commissioned by David Cameron in 2016. There has been a 50% rise in the share of prisoners who are Muslim in only ten years. Muslims are only 5% of the overall British population but 15% of the prison population.

Lammy notes that the trend is difficult to trace back to its origins because data is not collected on the religious identities of defendants while still in trial. So, it is unclear if the disparity arises in arrests or in sentencing.

Equality and Human Rights Commission chairman David Isaac stressed that the lack of explanation should signal that “we need more transparent data published.”

Dr Zubaida Haque, a researcher for the think tank The Runnymede Trust, said terror convictions cannot account for the size of the rise. Dr Haque also raised concern about Islamophobia within the prison system and in the criminal justice system more broadly.

British leaders are concerned about anti-Muslim sentiment following the Parsons Green Attack

Some British leaders and public figures have responded to the recent terrorist attack in the London Underground in relation to British Muslim communities.

The former head of the UK’s domestic security service, Eliza Manningham, criticized the Islamophobic related to the recent attack on the London Underground at Parsons Green.

Manningham said that Donald Trump had used the incident to promote the Muslim ban, which has negative consequences for security. Trump linked the two concepts in a tweet. Manningham said, “If you ban that particular ethnicity and religion wholesale — which he hasn’t quite done, but he’s more or less done — why would you as an American Muslim, or a Muslim somewhere else in the world, offer to an American government with that [President] at the head, intelligence that might be life-saving?”

She brought attention to the (paraphrased) 2011 words of a Muslim security agent who said that he was inspired to work for MI5 because he could save lives, counteracting the wickedness sometimes done in the name of Allah.

Sean O’Grady, the managing editor of the British newspaper the Independent, writes that blaming refugees for terrorism is counter-productive, leading to further radicalisation. He notes that many newspapers focused on the foster-care status of the attackers, which reinforces the idea that “terrorists are in the midst of these refugees.”

Terrorists are linked in this discourse to Islam. While there is some connection to Islam, O’Grady says that Islam is generally peaceful and the focus on a single violent action is unreasonable. He points out that terrorism occurs through many means and is not dependent on the presence of refugees.

The Muslim Council of Britain’s Secretary General, Harun Khan, condemned the attack and asked for anyone with information to assist the police. Khan also alluded to the dangers of Islamophobia following the attack, saying, “We do not yet know the identity or motivation of the attackers, but whatever it is, we must not allow them to achieve their ultimate aim – to drive a wedge between fellow citizens in our society.”

German Islamic organisations publish an “electoral compass” for Muslim voters

In preparation for the upcoming federal elections on September 24th, three German Muslim institutions have joined hands in order to provide an electoral guidance on topics of particularly high relevance to the country’s Muslim population.

The Islamische Zeitung newspaper (IZ), the German Muslim League (DML), and the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) have published the “German-Muslim Electoral Compass”. The Compass is based on a questionnaire sent to Germany’s major parties. All of them – bar the openly Islamophobic AfD – replied, allowing a broad comparison of different parties’ approaches.

An alliance bypassing the Turkish associations

IZ, DML, and ZMD had already published the Electoral Compass ahead of the last two federal elections. Yet the fact that these particular three players have joined hands again reflects not only their established patterns of cooperation. It is also indicative of ongoing schisms within Germany’s Muslim community.

In fact, both the IZ and the DML have their roots among German converts to Islam. Traditionally, they are politically and ideologically sceptical of the large traditionalist Turkish-dominated Islamic umbrella organisations (such as DİTİB, VIKZ, and IRD/IGMG).((For an academic study of the difficult relationship between ethnically German converts to Islam and the majority of Germany’s ethnically Turkish and Kurdish Muslims, see Esra Özyürek (2015), Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion and Conversion in the New Europe, Princeton: Princeton University Press. ))

Vying for political influence

This makes IZ and DML excellent allies of the ZMD, a predominantly non-Turkish Islamic association whose ambitious chairman Aiman Mazyek has striven for a long time to dethrone the Turkish organisations as the leading representatives of Islam in Germany.

With President Erdoğan having called upon German Turks to boycott the established parties,((https://dtj-online.de/erdogan-zu-deutsch-tuerken-waehlt-nicht-die-tuerkeifeindliche-cdu-spd-oder-die-gruenen-872222 )) Islamic associations with strong ties to the Turkish state are in no position to engage in a political dialogue ahead of the election. The ZMD with Aiman Mazyek has gladly used the opportunity and mounted a flashy advert campaign calling upon Muslims to vote on September 24th.(( http://islam.de/29128 ))

Broad-ranging questionnaire

Topics covered in the “Electoral Compass” include general questions on Islam and religious freedom, racism and Islamophobia, hijab bans, dual citizenship, as well as foreign policy issues (notably arms exports, relations with Turkey, and the German army’s deployment in Afghanistan).(( The questionnaire and parties’ responses are available at http://deutsch-muslimischer-wahlkompass.de/. ))

Overall, the differences between the parties’ responses are gradual yet noteworthy, if not too surprising in their content. Commenting on the results of the “Compass”, Stefan Sulaiman Wilms, editor in chief of the IZ, noted that parties had shown different positions on Islam and Muslim life, ranging from “liberal” to “conservative”.

Yet Wilms was contented to observe that no party had “shown a fundamental resentment against our way of living” and that all had declared their wish to “protect and respect our civic rights.”(( https://www.islamische-zeitung.de/irgendwo-zwischen-konkretem-und-allgemeinem/ ))

Does Islam belong to Germany?

Particularly striking about Chancellor Merkel’s CDU/CSU was its continuous stress on the need for an Islamic practice in line with “our fundamental liberal-democratic order”. The CDU/CSU also implicitly refused to endorse the statement that ‘Islam belongs to Germany’, although Muslims do.

This touches upon a long-standing debate, in which Conservatives have regularly emphasised the notion that while Muslims may belong to German society, ‘Islam’ cannot be part of a country that is exclusively defined by its ‘Judeo-Christian’ traditions.

State “neutrality” and the headscarf

Other potential conflicts revolve around the notion of ‘state neutrality’ emphasised by the economically liberal FDP: ‘neutrality’ clauses have often been interpreted as necessitating a ban on hijabs in public functions or at the workplace.

The CDU/CSU, as well as the Greens stressed their commitment to anti-discrimination but also greeted the ECHR’s recent ruling that allows employers to prohibit employees from wearing hijabs at work. By contrast, The Left – perhaps surprisingly for a staunchly socialist and hence atheist party – was most clear-cut in its rejection of hijab bans.

Disagreements on dual citizenship

Another dividing line opened up on the issue of dual citizenship. The Social Democrats renewed their commitment to the status quo of the nationality law enacted under the red-green coalition in 2000. This reform had eased the acquisition of German citizenship and had also created some possibilities to hold two passports.

In the “Electoral Compass”, the Greens and The Left advocated a more far-reaching liberalisation of citizenship provisions, further facilitating the acquisition of a second nationality. By contrast, CDU/CSU and FDP restated their willingness to introduce a “generational cut” – i.e. provisions that would force children to choose one passport over the other after the second generation (in the case of the CDU/CSU proposals) or the fourth generation (in the case of the plan put forward by the FDP).

Lack of questions on jihadism, counter-terrorism

A noteworthy omission from the survey were any questions dealing with the phenomenon of jihadism. Perhaps IZ, DML, and ZMD did not want to entrench the linkage between ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism’ by touching upon the subject; perhaps they were of the opinion that the issue is already overrepresented in the media or that the current jihadist violence is inherently ‘un-Islamic’.

Yet it is surely a question of great interest to Muslim voters how different parties think about this issues. It might allow an interested electorate to gauge the stance different parties might take in the face of future attacks – for instance with respect to potentially discriminatory anti-terrorism legislation.

Equally, it would have been welcome to see the parties forced to take a clear-cut position on their willingness to enhance inter-religious dialogue and to foster existing de-radicalisation strategies. These are, after all, initiatives that would also benefit Muslims and their position in society.

No Muslim “pressure group”

On a critical note, the IZ’s chief editor Stefan Sulaiman Wilms noted that especially CDU/CSU, SPD, and Greens had remained relatively general in their answers to the “Compass”. Only The Left, he observed, had given more concrete indications on how it wished to support German Muslims in practical, everyday matters ranging from anti-discrimination to halal slaughtering.

For Wilms, the vagueness of parties’ responses is also due to a failure of German Muslims to organise and to constitute themselves as an effective lobbying group. He asserted that

“for some years, the activist discourse of some Muslims has focused a lot on empowerment. Yet so far this does not amount to anything more than the financing or funding of isolated projects. Unfortunately, we are not perceived by politicians as noteworthy addressees whose concerns could be electorally relevant.”(( https://www.islamische-zeitung.de/irgendwo-zwischen-konkretem-und-allgemeinem/ ))

Call for more civil society activism

Wilms thus called upon his brothers and sisters in faith to step up their civic and societal engagement. German Muslims could only make themselves an incontrovertible political player by become organised and more socially involved. Their disproportionately strong charitable activism in the domain of refugee and asylum aid showed German Muslims’ potential, or so Wilms argued.(( https://www.islamische-zeitung.de/irgendwo-zwischen-konkretem-und-allgemeinem/ ))

Indeed, German Muslims’ socio-political activism as well as their religious organisations are in urgent need of professionalisation. Both social involvement and the provision of religious goods are still overwhelmingly done on a voluntary basis. With central organisational capacities underfunded and understaffed, Muslims’ public voice and political impact continue to be limited.

Need for political engagement

Against the backdrop of these limitations, Cemile Giousouf argues that German Muslims should not devote all their energies to civil society activism only. In an interview with the JUMA network – with JUMA standing for Young, Muslim, Active – Giousouf urged Muslims to help influence the political process by joining political parties.

Giousouf, who is the CDU/CSU’s first Muslim member of the Bundestag, asserted that Muslims would have to engage more directly with the intricacies of policymaking in order to effectuate more durable change: “It is decisive that your [i.e. young Muslims’] concerns become part of everyday political work and are not only formulated in Muslim civil society initiatives”, Giousouf observed. (( http://www.juma-ev.de/2017/09/ich-finde-es-schade-wenn-religion-als-uncool-bewertet-wird-cemile-giousouf-integrationsbeauftragte-der-cducsu/ ))

As of now, roughly 1,000 Muslims have become members of the CDU/CSU.((https://www.islamische-zeitung.de/muslime-und-die-wahl-es-fehlt-an-daten/ )) It remains to be seen whether Cemile Giousouf’s party as well as other political players will gradually become the home of a more distinctly Muslim voice.

Islam in crisis: Observations by German religious scholar Michael Blume

The assumption that ‘Islam’ – usually conceived as a monolithic force – is on an expansionary path is widely shared. Islamists herald the onset of an age of Islamic renewal and dominance; anxious Westerners take to the streets against the ‘Islamisation’ of the occident; and colourful videos highlighting that Islam is set to overtake Christianity as the world’s largest religious group in the coming decades regularly go viral in social networks.

Declining levels of orthopraxy

It is in order to go against this conventional wisdom that German religious scholar Michael Blume has written his latest book Islam in Crisis: A World Religion between Radicalization and Silent Retreat. Blume asserts that Islam is not about to conquer the world but rather that it is in existential trouble.

Blume paints a picture of a religion that is rapidly losing in relevance in the lives of those who are commonly seen as ‘Muslim’. Focusing particularly on figures taken from his native Germany, Blume shows how Muslim communities are marked by a pronounced decline in orthopraxy: young Muslims in Germany pray less than their ancestors, fewer girls wear headscarves, and fewer boys go to the mosque.(( http://cicero.de/kultur/islam-die-saekularisierung-als-symptom-der-krise ))

Detachment from the religious tradition

Concomitantly, Muslims are increasingly heterodox in their religious outlook: in 2013, 42 per cent of German Muslim respondents asserted that in their spiritual lives they “draw upon the teachings of different religious traditions”.(( http://cicero.de/kultur/islam-die-saekularisierung-als-symptom-der-krise ))

At the same time, Blume sees most Muslims as more and more distant from and disenchanted with the traditions of their own faith. Violent groups such as the ‘Islamic State’ only foment this disenchantment, according to Blume: their despicable acts further alienate many Muslims from the religion of their parents.

In fact, the warriors of the ‘Islamic State’ are engaged in a battle against the progressing secularisation of the Islamic world. In this respect, they are a product of the present age and of the crisis of Islamic thought, rather than an organic outgrowth of the religious tradition.

Intellectual and theological stasis

According to Blume, this civilisational crisis goes back to Sultan Bayezid’s fateful decision to ban the printing press from Ottoman lands after its invention in Europe in the 15th century. This decision, according to Blume, led to societal and intellectual stasis in the Arab heartlands of the Islamic world – a state of affairs that was perpetuated by subsequent authoritarian regimes buttressed by oil rent.(( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCgN5dsls0M ))

Ever since the 15th century, the Islamic religious establishment has been unable to develop answers that could be meaningful to all those Muslims who seek to live in the modern age, or so Blume argues. Yet inevitably Muslims do lead modern lives – a fact that fosters their increasing disconnect from petrified religious traditions.

Looking beyond jihadism

The refreshing element of Blume’s discussion resides in its unflinching focus away from the flashy band of religious radicals who, in spite of being small in number, have managed to capture the world’s attention by their jihadist violence. Instead, Blume seeks to shed light on the religious dynamics among the majority of the world’s Muslim population.

Equally important is the related observation that these ‘Muslims’ are not a homogeneous mass. The implicit assumption in popular discourses as well as in official statistics (for instance from the German government) is the fact that being born to parents from a Muslim-majority region makes one ‘Muslim’ – irrespective of actual levels of belief and observance.

A long-standing argument made anew

At the same time, the observation that the rise of political Islam and of present-day jihadism has gone hand in hand with – in fact proceeded via – a weakening of the authority of the Islamic tradition and its institutions is scarcely new.

There are, after all, entire bookshelves filled with studies demonstrating how local Islamic traditions have been remodeled by the rise of authoritarian nation-states,((For a concise overview of this phenomenon across the Muslim world, see Part I of Jocelyne Cesari’s book The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). A particularly insightful study of a single case is provided by Brinkley Messick in The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).)) how traditional modes of Islamic reasoning have ossified in this process,((For a monumental work in that category, see Wael Hallaq’s Shari’a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).)) and how Islamist laymen have stepped in to fill the void.((An excellent introduction is provided by the essays in the collection edited by Ali Rahnema, Pioneers of Islamic Revival (London: Zed Books, 1994).))

Differences between Islamic heartlands and the immigrant context

Nor have the processes of change undergone by Muslim communities across the world been completely uniform everywhere: Muslims lives in Germany are, surely, necessarily different from Muslim lives in Indonesia. One is left to wonder whether Blume at times underestimates the resulting diversity.

After all, detachment from traditional religion seems easier and more likely in immigrant settings, where religious networks are less deep, religious expertise less profound, and where Muslims are permanently forced to come to terms with a plurality of lifestyles and with an often hostile perception of Islamic religiosity.

Put differently, in a context where there are hardly any mosques and few well-educated Imams; where headscarf-wearing women are often seen with suspicion; and where halal meat is difficult to come by, it is not surprising to observe declining levels of orthopraxy.

Reaffirmations of orthopraxy

Yet even in the European or German context, from whence Blume draws most of his hard figures apparently demonstrating the decline of Islamic orthopraxy, we also observe countervailing dynamics.

Well-educated daughters of secularist Turkish parents are choosing to don a headscarf, in a statement of ostentatious orthopraxy serving to reaffirm their Muslim identity. Salafis carry this identitarian reemphasis of (allegedly) traditional behaviour to its extremes. Yet while Salafis use orthopraxy to withdraw from a mainstream society seen as ‘infidel’, the young woman wearing the hijab may have very different reasons.

A recent study observed that urban, well-educated Muslim women covered up more often in order to reconcile their Muslim faith with the demands of being out of their homes and with employment in gender-mixed environments.(( http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-09-02-veil-worn-muslim-women-may-signal-they-are-integrating-more )) Here, ‘modernisation’ – understood as female participation in the labour market – actually reinforced rather than undermined religious orthopraxy.

Modernisation = secularisation?

One is thus left to wonder whether the “silent retreat” and the “radicalisation” observed by Blume are really a convincing (let alone an exhaustive) portrayal of the possibilities of Islamic religiosity in the modern world. For Blume, these are the twin reactions in the face of the secularisation processes undergone by the Islamic world and by Muslim communities.

Yet at the heart of this argument lies the supposition that ‘modernisation’ always goes hand in hand with ‘secularisation’ – a teleological claim that social science has long abandoned for being overly simplistic.

German Turks gear up for upcoming election

As Germany prepares to go to the polls on September 24th, the public debate has zoned in on questions of immigration, integration, and Islam. Consequently, German Muslims are under particular scrutiny in the run-up to an election that will most definitely hand a good number of parliamentary seats to the openly Islamophobic AfD party.

German Turks: the largest part of the Muslim voter bloc

German Turks continue to be the largest group of predominantly Muslim voters. To be sure, their share in Germany’s overall Muslim population has been falling – not least because of the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees from the war-torn Middle East.

Yet by virtue of having lived in Germany for many decades, Muslims from a Turkish background are much more likely to hold German citizenship and thus to be allowed to vote: of the three million German Turks, 1.3 million will be able to go to the ballot box in nine days’ time.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/doppelte-loyalitaet-die-deutsch-tuerken-und-die.724.de.html?dram:article_id=388019 ))

A ‘Muslim vote’?

Scientists observing electoral behaviour of Muslims in Germany nevertheless warn of a simplistic conceptualisation of a ‘Muslim vote’. Muslims are not only in themselves a heterogeneous group; they also tend to focus on a whole set of diverse issues that other German voters are also concerned about – ranging from education and employment to security, healthcare, or taxation.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/09/05/wahlverhalten-von-muslimen-in-deutschland/ ))

Beyond that, many Muslim voters traditionally voice strong demands when it comes to equality of opportunity and anti-discrimination. This concern does not arise out of their Islamic religiosity per se but rather out of their experiences in the German context: recent studies have highlighted the continued impact of discriminatory practices to the disadvantage of individuals with ‘foreign-sounding’ names on the housing market,(( https://www.hanna-und-ismail.de/ )) in job applications,(( http://www.spiegel.de/lebenundlernen/schule/auslaendische-vornamen-migranten-diskriminierung-durch-firmen-bestaetigt-a-960855.html )) and even when dealing with the state bureaucracy.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/video168461476/Mitarbeiter-von-Jobcentern-neigen-zur-Diskriminierung.html ))

Traditional affiliation with the political left

In the past, these particular concerns meant that German Turks’ political affiliations were clear: at the last elections in 2013, 64 per cent of voters with Turkish roots supported the Social Democrats (SPD). Undoubtedly, an additional factor playing in favour of the SPD was the blue-collar identity of a large share of German Turks – a socioeconomic position that many of the former Gastarbeiter have passed down to their children.

In 2013, another 24 per cent of German Turkish voters chose two other left-wing parties, with 12 percent supporting The Left – a conglomerate of political factions to the left of the SPD – and another 12 per cent coming out in favour of The Greens.(( http://www.migazin.de/2013/10/30/bundestagswahl-2013-so-haben-deutsch-tuerken-gewaehlt/ ))

While the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) obtained 41.5 per cent of the overall vote in 2013, only 7 per cent of German Turks put their trust in Chancellor Merkel’s party. And although Muslims have sought to organise in the CDU, the Conservatives count far fewer men and women of Muslim faith or of immigrant extraction among their representatives than other parties.

Diverging electoral preferences in Germany and in Turkey

By contrast, those members of the German Turkish community who are still eligible to vote in Turkish elections regularly deliver resounding victories to conservative and Islamically-oriented President Erdoğan – rather than to the leftist opposition.

This might be due to the fact that political and ideological preferences diverge fundamentally between those German Turks who still hold Turkish citizenship and those who have acquired a German passport.

Yet it is perhaps more likely that, in the past, German Turks were perfectly capable of balancing an emotionally-driven support for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s agenda in Turkey with a rational cost-benefit analysis of the political game in Germany.(( http://www.bild.de/politik/inland/bundestagswahl2017/tuerken-wollen-nicht-waehlen-52799904.bild.html ))

Ending EU accession talks with Turkey

After years of degrading relations, however, German Turks are finding this balancing act harder to accomplish. More particularly, there are indications that they are feeling less and less represented by the SPD and their traditional, leftist political home in Germany.

Although SPD Foreign Minister Gabriel sought to reassure German Turks of their continued importance to the German government and to his party, the SPD’s relationship to its formerly staunchly loyal clientele is increasingly fraught.

This trend culminated in the TV debate between incumbent chancellor Merkel and her SPD Challenger Martin Schulz on September 3rd: Schulz – somewhat surprisingly and perhaps ill-advisedly – sought to be ‘tough’ on Turkey and announced that, if elected to the Chancellery, he would immediately end EU accession talks with Turkey.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/tv-duell-martin-schulz-ueberrascht-spd-mit-hartem-tuerkei-kurs-15182702.html ))

Detachment from the SPD

Schulz’s statements may resonate with dominant public opinion in Germany, which is increasingly sceptical of Turkey and its authoritarian President. Yet his brash and somewhat populist stance may also turn out to be politically unwise: Chancellor Merkel noted that talks over EU membership could only be ended if there was agreement among the 27 member states to do so, and that they constituted an important political lever to influence developments in Turkey.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/tv-duell-martin-schulz-ueberrascht-spd-mit-hartem-tuerkei-kurs-15182702.html ))

In any case, Schulz’s outburst during the TV debate may have done considerable harm to his party’s standing among German Turks. Interviewed by news magazine Tagesschau, a Cologne resident of Turkish extraction who had previously supported the Social Democrats stated that he would not go to the polls on September 24th. Voicing his disillusionment with the SPD, who had always claimed to be the voice of German Turks, he said:

I prefer to have someone who tells me openly and honestly that he doesn’t like me – instead of someone who pretends to like me and at the end of the day does nothing that is in accordance with my wishes and interests.(( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9prj-3VZ44 ))

Mainstream parties “hostile to Turkey”

In this way, Schulz’s announcement, which was ostentatiously aiming to curtail President Erdoğan’s standing in Europe, may actually end up fostering the loyalty German Turks feel towards ‘their’ President.

Erdoğan himself has already called upon his countrymen in Germany not to cast a ballot in favour of parties who are “hostile to Turkey” – a list which, according to him, includes CDU, SPD, and Greens.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/erdogan-und-die-bundestagswahl-wie-stimmen-die-deutsch-tuerken-ab/20294522.html ))

The Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), an affiliate of the AK Party in Europe, has echoed this statement: in a press release, it condemned (albeit in somewhat broken English) not only the AfD for stoking populist hatred but also The Greens and The Left for supporting “known […] terrorist organizations”. This swipe aims not only at Gülenists but also the PKK, whose secularist struggle for independence is indeed seen in a positive light in some quarters.(( https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DJds1nUWAAImIKd.jpg ))

Pro-Erdoğan splinter parties

The political home of German Turks thus appears to be in considerable flux. As a response, a new Erdoğanist splinter party has been set up in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), home to the largest number of German Turks.

The Alliance of German Democrats (ADD) uses the portrait of President Erdoğan on its election posters calling for solidarity with the friends of Turkey. Yet the party only managed to obtain 0,1 per cent of the vote at recent state elections and thus has no political significance beyond the purely symbolic.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article168473921/Mit-diesem-Erdogan-Plakat-wirbt-eine-Partei-im-Bundestagswahlkampf.html ))

Another pro-Erdoğan faction, the Union for Innovation and Justice (BIG), recently announced its decision to boycott the elections. BIG seeks to unify the German Turkish vote; a quest that has so far remained elusive: in most of its electoral attempts, the party did not manage to attain as much as one per cent of the popular vote – even in constituencies with large numbers of German Turkish voters.(( https://dtj-online.de/big-boykott-bei-den-bundestagswahlen-87268 ))

A more limited influence?

The failure of these attempts to constitute a quasi-AKP as a viable political force in Germany also points to the limitations of President Erdoğan’s appeal. Some of Germany’s largest ethnically Turkish immigrant organisations continue to be opposed to Turkey’s authoritarian turn.

The Turkish Community in Germany (TGD), as well as the Federation of Democratic Workers’ Unions (DIDF), called upon German Turks to vote in the elections and to defy President Erdoğan’s demand to reject the established political system. This statement was echoed by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), a predominantly non-Turkish Islamic umbrella association.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/erdogan-und-die-bundestagswahl-wie-stimmen-die-deutsch-tuerken-ab/20294522.html ))

Ultimately, how German Turks will decide to deal with these competing pressures will only become clear after polls close on the evening of September 24th. One respondent on the street stressed the need to retain a modicum of calm: Mustafa Karadeniz, entrepreneur from Berlin, asserted that

We should do neither Erdoğan nor German politicians the favour that the Turkish President becomes the main topic of the electoral campaign. There are really bigger Problems in Germany: the climate, the automotive industry, the old-age pension system.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundestagswahl-wie-viel-einfluss-hat-recep-tayyip-erdogan-a-1165992.html ))

Charlie Hebdo publishes provocative Islam cartoon

Charlie Hebdo  published a provocative front cover in reaction to the vehicle-ramming attack in Barcelona last Thursday, sarcastically calling Islam a “religion of peace.”

The magazine’s artwork shows a white van in the background with two cross-eyed, bloodied bodies lying motionless on the floor. The words read, “Islam, the religion of eternal peace.” Most of those implicated in the Barcelona vehicle-ramming attack and a second attack in the Catalonian town of Cambrils were Moroccan-born Muslims.

The magazine’s editor, Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, justified the decision in an editorial, saying that the publication was sending a message that the French elite were too scared to communicate.

“The debates and questions about the role of religion, and in particular the role of Islam, in these attacks have completely disappeared,” he wrote.

Critics said the art risked exacerbating Islamophobia, and alienating more moderate Muslims who are not involved in extremist activity. A former Socialist minister, Stéphane Le Foll, said the cover was “extremely dangerous” because of the message it sent to others about all forms of Islam.

“When you’re a journalist you need to exercise restraint because making these associations can be used by other people,” he said in a tweet.

 

An ex-Guantanamo detainee rebuilds his life in France

 

(This article reposted from Al Jazeera) For days, the rain had battered the sides of the prison, pattering incessantly on its sheet metal walls. A hurricane was on its way ­ that much Mourad Benchellali had gathered. But no one had come to get him, and from what he could tell, it seemed unlikely that he or any of his fellow prisoners would be moved.

Staring out from a steel­mesh door, Benchellali struggled to contain his frustration. The number of guards he counted patrolling his cellblock had grown fewer and fewer, and those who remained were wearing survival gear. He remembers hearing rumours that the sea might rise and crash into the prison, as the storm tore closer.

One of the guards left on duty was someone he ordinarily enjoyed talking to: a religious man, well­versed in the Bible. Benchellali himself was the son of an imam, and usually, he appreciated the guard’s gentle presence, his willingness to stop and chat.

But this time, things were different. Benchellali was tense. He didn’t know if the hurricane would strike, or if it would swerve into another part of the Caribbean. Precious little information reached him from the outside world, isolated as he was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“How is it that your lives are important, and ours aren’t?” he remembers calling out to the guard. “Us, we can drown. It’s not a big deal. But you guys? You save your skin.”

The guard, he recalls, replied with his usual fervour: “Don’t worry. God is with you.” The situation, the guard told him, reminded him of Noah, the man chosen by God to survive a world­levelling flood in both Christian and Islamic faiths. “With you, it’s the same. You detainees shouldn’t worry. Even if it rains, even if the water bursts its banks, you will be saved in the end.”

It wasn’t often that Benchellali felt treated like someone worth saving. After all, Guantanamo detainees were supposed to be “the worst of the worst”, a condemnation repeated by several Bush administration officials during the post­9/11 “war on terror”.

Even now, a shadow of suspicion follows Benchellali wherever he goes. Thirteen years have passed since he boarded a plane out of Guantanamo, back to his native France. But the stigma has never faded.

Sitting in a train station cafe on a rainy Saturday in Lyon, 36­ year ­old Benchellali wears the straight face of a man who isn’t prone to outbursts of sentimentality. And yet, looking back, he admits the guard’s words touched him ­ so much so that years later, “Noah” sprang to mind when it came time to name his only child, a son.

“He’s the most beautiful gift that I could ever have gotten,” Benchellali says, staring into his empty cappuccino cup. He credits his son for giving him the motivation to talk about his past, although sometimes, he gets fed up with being prodded about his story after all these years.

“It tires me out,” Benchellali says in French. He has tried to move on, building a life for himself teaching others how to lay tiles. “I often remind the people I encounter that I’m not just an ex­Guantanamo detainee.”

His dark hair slicked back with gel and his broad shoulders hidden under a brown leather coat, Benchellali looks strikingly unremarkable ­ just another commuter hunkering down in the cafe, waiting for the storm to end.

All the same, he keeps his eyes low. As he prepares to launch into his story once more, his fingers nervously start to rip and twist the empty sugar packets from his coffee into tiny, feathery ropes. Words like “al­Qaeda” and “bin Laden” invariably earn him glances from surrounding tables.

Benchellali didn’t expect to have the life he has now. During the nights he spent in Guantanamo, he says he kept having the same dream: of a little boy, someone he instinctively recognised as the son he’d have one day. But his fellow inmates tried to let him down gently, warning him not to get too attached to the idea. It was just a dream after all. Guantanamo was their reality.

When Benchellali first set foot in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre on January 17, 2002, he didn’t know if he would ever leave again. No one told him how long he would stay, or what he was charged with. He didn’t even know he was in Cuba when he arrived.

From that point on, Benchellali was known by the internment serial number 161, a mark of his status as a resident “enemy combatant” ­ a term used to designate people involved in hostilities against the United States and its allies. Pentagon documents from 2004 identify him as a “member of [al­Qaeda]” with a “commitment to Jihad” and “ties to other global terrorist networks”.

Those are allegations that Benchellali has long denied. He insists he’s not a dangerous man ­ just a young guy whose naivete led him into trouble. “It’s difficult to explain,” he says. “I knew appearances played against me.”

Like many of Guantanamo’s early detainees, Benchellali never had the chance to present his case at trial. He was a “terrorism” suspect with no means of arguing his innocence ­ or admitting to his mistakes.

“I never said I did nothing wrong. I’ve always said, ‘Yes, it wasn’t a good idea to go to Afghanistan. Yes, I found myself in an [al­Qaeda] training camp’. But what I don’t accept is that they called me a terrorist. That’s not true.”

Although Guantanamo’s detainees have been denounced as “battle­hardened terrorists”, few were ever charged, much less convicted. One high­ranking State Department official went so far as to describe many of the detainees as “victims” of incompetent vetting, imprisoned without solid evidence against them.

“There was no meaningful way to determine whether they were terrorists, Taliban or simply innocent civilians picked up on a very confused battlefield,” the official, Lawrence Wilkerson, said in testimony delivered to the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

The 2011 release of confidential Guantanamo documents, orchestrated by the anti­secrecy group WikiLeaks, revealed prisoners from a range of backgrounds. These included an Al Jazeera cameraman, a taxi driver, and even an 89­year­old Afghan man with symptoms of senile dementia, some of whom were explicitly assessed as “not affiliated with [al­Qaeda] nor as being a Taliban leader”.

Benchellali’s file is not so straightforward. It indicates that prisoner 161 had family ties to “terrorism”; that he admitted to being in an al­Qaeda training camp; and that officials considered him a “high risk” to the US and its allies.

By his own account, Benchellali was a small, skinny 19­year­old when he decided to leave for Afghanistan with a friend. He says his older brother Menad encouraged them to go, saying it would be a great opportunity to learn about Islam.

Benchellali knew Afghanistan was a dangerous country, with warring factions and a steady arms trade. That was kind of the point. Back home in Venissieux, Benchellali considered himself a weakling ­ and in his rough­and­ tumble neighbourhood, it was strength that counted. He saw visiting Afghanistan as a chance to prove himself, once and for all.

So when his brother offered to set them up with fake travel documents and arrange their travel, Benchellali says he ignored his misgivings and accepted. He trusted his brother, and he saw the whole process as an adventure.

Benchellali and his friend first stopped in London for the travel documents, then made their way to Afghanistan, where his brother’s friends awaited them. He says he thought he was going to scale mountains and explore the country. Fighting was the last thing on his mind.

“It wasn’t about jihad. When I left for Afghanistan, I wasn’t angry. I didn’t have any hate,” he says.

But one day, after arriving in Afghanistan, Benchellali and his friend fell into a trap. Their hosts, fellow French speakers, offered to take them on a trip to meet other young Muslims. Instead, Benchellali and his friend found themselves being dropped off at an isolated al­Qaeda training camp. There, Benchellali would come face­to­ face with one of the group’s leaders: a tall, bearded man he learned was Osama bin Laden.

Surrounded by desert in an unfamiliar land, Benchellali felt stuck. The camp’s al­Qaeda leaders refused to grant him permission to leave ­ not until he had finished two months’ worth of military training. It was the summer of 2001. By the time he left, the world would be a different place.

The September 11 attacks had triggered a global “war on terror”, and Afghanistan quickly became the subject of a massive bombing campaign. US forces also led a dragnet operation to arrest “terrorism” suspects on the ground ­ a campaign that allegedly offered bounties in exchange for prisoners.

In the tumult, Benchellali joined a group of men fleeing across the Pakistan border. When they stopped to have tea at a mosque, they ended up being locked inside and taken into custody.

A Department of Defense report ­ one of 779 files that WikiLeaks obtained and published ­ offers no specifics as to why Benchellali was transferred from there to Guantanamo, other than that he “possesses intelligence information”.

Ultimately, Benchellali said he wasn’t surprised that US forces detained him in Pakistan. “That they arrested me, I found that normal. I mean, they have the right to ask me about where I went and why I was there. What’s not normal is to send us to Cuba. What’s not normal is to remove all our rights.”

He was 20 years old by the time he arrived in Guantanamo, in January 2002. For the two and a half years, he spent there, Benchellali claims he was subject to insults, isolation and torture, including physical blows, sleep deprivation and sexual violence. All the while, life back home in France moved on without him.

By the time he flew back, the girlfriend he had left behind as a teenager had become someone else’s wife. The family he grew up with would be scattered and broken.

But Benchellali didn’t know all that when he boarded a plane out of Guantanamo in July 2004. He imagined his nightmare was over ­ that he would step onto the tarmac and into his parents’ arms. It was only later that he discovered his family would never be whole again.

His brother Menad ­ the same brother who arranged for him to go to Afghanistan ­ had been arrested for manufacturing deadly toxins in the family apartment, as part of an alleged plot to attack Russian targets in France on behalf of Chechen separatists.

Several relatives had been detained in connection to Menad’s activities, including Benchellali’s mother, a fact that left him devastated: “It was the worst period of my life,” he says.

Not only was his family in turmoil, but his individual ordeal was far from over too. Benchellali still faced “terrorism” charges in France, and he was sent to the same facility that housed his mother, the Fleury­Merogis prison. As his case, and eventual conviction, drew the media’s attention, he started to receive letters of support ­ including one from the woman who’d eventually become the mother of his child.

But some of the letters, however well intentioned, put Benchellali ill at ease. He got the feeling that, even among his supporters, he was perceived as a “jihadist”, he says. That suspicion lingered even after a Paris appeals court overturned his “terrorism” conviction.

Benchellali wrote a book about his experiences and reinvented himself as an “anti­radicalisation” activist, with the aim of educating others about groups like al­Qaeda. He hopes that, by sharing his story, he can prevent others from falling into the same trap he once did. His message is particularly aimed at youth.

“I tell them, ‘Me, I’m going to tell my story. Afterwards, do with it what you like.’ That’s to say, I’m not going to give you lessons, and I’m not there to say what’s good or bad,” Benchellali explains. “But after that, you can’t say you didn’t know.”

Over the years, Benchellali has been invited to tell his story to school groups, community centres and law enforcement officials as far away as Australia.

But every once in a while, even today, an invitation gets revoked. Benchellali suspects fear is the driving factor ­ fear that he might be a recidivist in disguise.

“Maybe he’s pretending. Maybe he’s playing a role ­ I know people think that,” Benchellali says. “I understand that they’re afraid. But I think they’re wrong.”

Political value of recidivism data

Benchellali maintains that he never converted to al­Qaeda’s ideology, nor participated in any violence. But of the 714 detainees transferred out of Guantanamo, 121 have, according to a January report by the US Director of National Intelligence, been confirmed as re­engaging “in terrorist or insurgent activities”. An additional 87 detainees are suspected of re­engaging.

But those numbers are misleading, says lawyer Mark Denbeaux, director of the Seton Hall Law School Center for Policy and Research. He is one of the most vocal critics of the bi­yearly report, which tracks recidivism among former detainees.

Denbeaux points out that no evidence is offered to indicate who is reengaging in “terrorist” activities, and in what way. His research has uncovered inconsistencies in past reports ­ including instances where criticising the US government was counted as a “return to the fight”.

Though Denbeaux dismisses the recidivism reports as fundamentally flawed, he admits the data “has political value in order to try and legitimise torture in Guantanamo”. He sees the reports as an attempt to skew the public’s perception. “Right now, the fight going on is: What should the narrative be for Guantanamo?”

The fight for Guantanamo’s legacy hits close to home for Benchellali. He personally has noticed a shift in how the French public perceives Guantanamo. “Today in France, there are people who call for a French version of Guantanamo,” he says. “That wasn’t the case five, 10 years ago.”

He also worries about US President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to continue using Guantanamo as a prison and “load it up with some bad dudes”.

Trump and Guantanamo’s resurgence in popularity

Currently, Guantanamo’s detainee population has dwindled to 41, but the Trump administration is considering plans to keep Guantanamo open indefinitely. Under one proposal, its cells would be filled with suspects with alleged ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Benchellali fears the move would usher in a renewed era of public acceptance for Guantanamo and its abuses.

“We have rehabituated Americans to the fact that Guantanamo is a good thing,” he says. “The Americans are the biggest power in the world. It’s the model that everyone watches. So if the US tortures, it’s over ­ everyone will torture.”

Laurel Fletcher, the director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that calls to close or reduce the prison population at Guantanamo were strongest in the late 2000s, in a brief period of “hiatus between episodes of active, violent extremism”.

At the time, the Bush administration had started to reduce the detainee population, and future President Barack Obama was campaigning on a promise to close Guantanamo.

But public anxiety has grown since then. Fletcher points to recent attacks, like the one in Barcelona this past August, as contributing to “a backdrop of perceived terrorist threat”.

“When you have those incidents that are regularly cropping up, I think it activates people’s fear,” Fletcher says. She believes it’s a normal “visceral response” to support strong action in the wake of “terrorist attacks” ­ and that’s why Guantanamo may be experiencing a resurgence in popularity, despite evidence that its methods fail to make the public safer, she says.

 

In the classrooms and community centres where he does his outreach work, Benchellali has increasingly heard a startling equivocation from the young people he speaks with. They tell him, more and more, that everyone ­ from the US to ISIL to Bashar al­Assad ­ is guilty of “terrorism”. For them, it is simply a tool.

“It’s a real problem when you explain to young people that violence doesn’t change things, and they say, ‘No, it’s the only thing that can cause change’,” he says. He prefers not argue with them. Instead, his strategy is to stick to telling his story, in the hope that his experience can serve as a warning.

But the increasing polarisation has made his task more difficult. When he visited Molenbeek, a Brussels neighbourhood that Western media sometimes calls the “jihadi capital of Europe,” one young student walked out in the middle of his presentation. His friends later told Benchellali that he was a bin Laden supporter who disapproved of Benchellali’s story.

On other occasions, it’s the teachers he meets who don’t want to listen. Benchellali says some of them are convinced that their students’ embrace of Islam is actually a descent into violence and perceived “extremism”.

It’s a frustrating topic to navigate, and Benchellali says he often considers quitting his outreach efforts altogether. In this age of increased tension, he feels discouraged, not least by the treatment he receives in his own country.

As a former “terrorism” suspect, Benchellali also has to deal with France’s “FIJAIT” system, which requires him to regularly update the government about his whereabouts. Each time his work takes him across an international border ­ to Switzerland or Belgium, for example ­ he has to check in with French authorities 15 days beforehand.

“How can I go see young people to talk to them when my own country considers me a suspect?” Benchellali asks. “The prevention work that I do nowadays, because of this supervision order, is difficult to carry out.”

One speaking trip in 2015 even landed him back in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs ­ a uniform he thought he’d left behind after his Guantanamo days.

Filmmaker Eileen Thalenberg had invited Benchellali to speak with students at several Canadian universities and colleges, as part of her documentary “A Jihadi in the Family”. But when Benchellali was due to meet Thalenberg outside Toronto’s international airport, he never showed up.

Thalenberg says she received a text message from him instead: “They want to ask me a few questions.” Benchellali was stuck at security.

It was around 7pm, and she and Benchellali were scheduled to catch a connecting flight that same day to Montreal. His arrival should have gone smoothly: After all, Thalenberg had checked with Canadian officials to make sure Benchellali would be allowed into the country.

Just to be safe, Thalenberg had taken other precautions too. She had furnished him with invitation letters from the colleges and universities he would visit, and she made sure his flight was routed through Iceland, to avoid passing through US airspace. American law, after all, effectively bars Guantanamo detainees, both past and present, from entering the US.

But her efforts were in vain. At around 1.30am, with their connecting flight long gone, Benchellali texted her to say he’d been arrested. He would later be moved to a maximum security prison, before being placed on a flight back to France.

“I felt so guilty,” Thalenberg said, reflecting on the incident. “I didn’t sleep for three days and three nights.” She remains astonished at how calm Benchellali was throughout the whole process, never getting angry.

“He was concerned about his little boy, how he wanted to be a good role model for his son,” she said. “It’s the right kind of revenge, not to allow yourself to be completely destroyed.”

Back in France, in the hometown where Benchellali himself grew up, his son is on the cusp of adolescence. He’s 10 years old now, with a deep love for video games and sharing videos on YouTube. It’s enough to make any parent nervous, but Benchellali especially.

His son already knows about his past, but Benchellali still worries about what he might find online ­ or that he might one day become the target of harassment. It’s with that in mind that Benchellali says he chooses to speak out and shape his own narrative.

“My prevention work, the youth outreach, all that ­ it’s for him,” he says. “I want to make this Guantanamo experience into something positive, so he won’t be ashamed of it later on.”

A faint smile drifts across his face, as Benchellali toys with the idea that having a son might have been his destiny. Fatherhood not only gave him a way to deal with his past, but also a way to escape it.

With all the anxieties that parenthood has to offer, he allows himself to forget his other worries. In those moments, the weight of his past is lifted. The nightmare is over. And the dream that once seemed so distant has become his reality.

2 men arrested near Paris planned terror attack, wanted to join ISIS

Two men who were arrested following the discovery of explosive materials and components at an apartment in a Paris suburb of Villejuif wanted to make a bomb to commit a terrorist attack, Paris’ prosecutor has said.

 

“They had agreed to commit an attack on the [French] territory to take revenge on the coalition but they had not worked out any specific plan to date,” Francois Mollins said at a news conference Sunday.

The prosecutor added that one of the suspects admitted the two considered attacking soldiers who were deployed to locations deemed vulnerable for the terrorist attacks. The plot was uncovered as part of Operation Sentinel that was launched following the November 2015 Paris attacks and is part of the ongoing state of emergency.

Both suspects admitted that they wanted to join Islamic State (IS, former ISIS/ISIL) and leave for Syria or Iraq as early as in 2015 but they could not because of a “lack contacts and financial means.” The pair added they were planning to carry out an attack in the name of the terrorist group.

One of the suspects identified as Frederique L, 37, was “in direct contact” with Rachid Kassim, a French jihadist, who joined IS and left France to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Kassim, who was killed in a US airstrike in February, is suspected of being the instigator of several terrorist attacks on French soil, including the double murder of police officers in Magnaville in June 2016 and the attack on the Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray church in northern France.

On Wednesday, 105 grams of TATP were accidentally discovered in an apartment located in Villejuif along with a liter of sulfuric acid, a liter of hydrochloric acid as well as 8 liters of acetone and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

Mollins said “the substances discovered at the scene could be used to produce between three and four kilos of TATP.” Investigators also found components needed to make a detonator, including wires, electric batteries, match heads and bulbs from Christmas wreaths.

A USB device containing videos showing a series of explosives tests on the terrace of the Villejuif apartment raided by the police was also found at the scene. Islamic State propaganda videos on a computer belonging to one of the suspects and leaflets with inscriptions in Arabic were also found in the apartment.