Austrian elections pave way for populist government, making Muslims apprehensive

The elections to the National Council, the lower house of the Austrian Parliament on October 15, have marked a firm shift to the right in Austrian politics, particularly on matters of immigration, integration, and Islam.

Sebastian Kurz headed for an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition

After an electoral campaign dominated by at times vicious diatribes against Muslims and foreigners, the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) with 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz at the helm managed to secure 31.5 per cent of the popular vote, making it the largest group in parliament.

The Social Democrats (SPÖ), who had previously led a ‘grand coalition’ with the ÖVP as junior partner, took second place, with 26.9 per cent. They are followed closely by the third-largest political force, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which gained 26 per cent of the ballots cast. Liberals and an offshoot of the Green Party obtained 5.3 and 4.4 per cent of the vote, respectively.

With no party gaining an absolute majority, the most likely option for putting together a government appears a right-wing coalition between ÖVP and FPÖ. This would bring the Austrian populists into the government afte all, less then a year after they narrowly failed to clinch the country’s Presidency.

A campaign focused on immigration, integration, Islam

An ÖVP-FPÖ government is all the more likely since the obvious alternative – another grand coalition between Conservatives and Social Democrats – is despised by the electorate and viewed with weariness by party bosses. Against this backdrop of dissatisfaction with the status quo, the youthful Sebastian Kurz has not only stylised himself as a figure of radical political renewal since taking control of his ÖVP party; he has also steered a course of rapprochement with the FPÖ.

Throughout the electoral campaign, Kurz presented himself as the guarantor of a restrictive immigration policy – he claimed that it had been his initiative that had secured the closure of the refugee route across the Western Balkans in 2015.

Kurz also pushed the topic of “Islam” into the limelight of the campaign. Among other things, he called for a hijab ban in schools (while demanding that the Christian cross continue to be displayed prominently in every classroom).(( http://www.fr.de/politik/wahlkampf-in-oesterreich-sebastian-kurz-entdeckt-das-thema-islam-a-1337052 ))

Study on ‘extremist’ Islamic nursery schools falsified

Similarly, the ÖVP politician insisted on the need to close nursery schools run by Islamic organisations, claiming that they were hotbeds of Salafist radicalism.(( https://kurier.at/politik/inland/sebastian-kurz-im-kurier-gespraech-islamische-kindergaerten-abschaffen/271.008.503 )) Confessional educational institutions are widespread in Austria, with the Catholic Church running the vast majority of them.

Kurz justified his stance by pointing to a study on Islamic kindergartens that he had commissioned while serving as Austria’s foreign minister. Subsequently it emerged, however, that the Foreign Ministry had tampered with the study’s results in order to make them more amenable to Kurz’s ‘hard-line’ position.

Where the study’s author had observed that Muslim parents who sent their kids to nursery schools run by Islamic associations were looking for an education based on values of “self-reliance, respect, and love”, a foreign Ministry employee replaced this with the assertion that Muslim parents were seeking to “protect their children from the moral influence of majority society”.

In another passage, the study originally asserted that parents were interested in “respect, serenity, the child’s individuality, hygiene, the child’s happiness, punctuality, love, warmth and caring, self-reliance, as well as transparency of rules”. The Foreign Ministry altered this to claim that “parents place particular emphasis on the imparting of Islamic values”.(( https://cms.falter.at/falter/2017/07/04/frisiersalon-kurz/ ))

Difficult times ahead for Austrian Muslims

Against this backdrop, many Austrian Muslims unsurprisingly see an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition under the leadership of Sebastian Kurz as a threat. Austrian blogger and activist Dudu Küçükgöl observed that “when it comes to efforts at integration, Austria will be thrown back by 20 years.” She expects a rise in racism and anti-immigrantism, particularly directed against the country’s Muslim population.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/16/oesterreich-erlebt-einen-starken-rechtsruck/ ))

Austria’s recently passed “Islam Act” might turn out to be particularly important in this respect. Enacted two years ago at the instigation of Kurz, Muslim activists have criticised the law for eroding Muslims’ civil rights.

Notably, the legal text provides far-reaching possibilities to dissolve Muslim associations should they fail to display a “positive basic disposition” towards the Austrian state – whatever this requirement might mean in practice.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/17/rechtsruck-unter-dem-deckmantel-der-integration/ ))

Discriminatory agenda

Consequently, many Muslims fear that the future government will use these extremely flexible legal provisions to their detriment. Murat Başer, chairman of the Islamic religious community in the city of Linz, observed:

“A possible FPÖ+ÖVP coalition could mean a broadening of the burqa ban into a general headscarf ban. It could also lead to a more robust and unchecked application of the Islam Act, which would see mosques and Islamic institutions being put under permanent surveillance.”(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/16/oesterreich-erlebt-einen-starken-rechtsruck/ ))

Should Kurz decide to go down this route, he will have the enthusiastic support of the FPÖ: the populists’ campaign called for “redistribution from foreigners to Austrians”, and their electoral placards promised that “we give back to YOU what THEY take from you.” Importantly, ‘they’ not only usurp economic opportunities but also rob Austrians of their cultural identity: “Islamisation must be stopped”, another FPÖ poster read.(( http://diepresse.com/home/innenpolitik/nationalratswahl/5282218/FPOe-plakatiert-Kurz-Kern-und-Gusenbauer ))

International significance of the vote

Political developments in Austria resonate beyond the country’s borders in particular ways. The FPÖ, one of Europe’s most long-standing and most successful far-right parties has been a pioneer of the present-day populist movement. It thus serves as a model for many other comparable parties across the continent.

When it entered the Austrian government for the first time – as a junior partner to the ÖVP – in 2000, the EU and its (at the time) fourteen other Member States reacted with a downgrading of bilateral relations with Austria. Seventeen years later, no such moves will be forthcoming.

German perspectives on the election

German observers tend to pay especially close attention to events in the Alpine Republic across their southern border. Against the backdrop of the strong showing of Germany’s own right-wing populist fringe in last month’s federal elections, commentators are debating the insights and lessons to be drawn from the Austrian case.

Many – including many German Muslims – see Austria as a harbinger of potential things to come: the inexorable growth of a xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic party on the right fringe; a party whose ability to attract ever-growing numbers of voters ultimately paves the way to its inclusion in government.

Austria as a warning…

In this view, events in Austria ought to be a cautionary tale to policy-makers and activists in Germany. Academic Werner Ötsch, whose research focuses on populist movements, asserted that “the Austrian development should really be a warning for Germany. Here [in Austria], no means against the right-wing populists has been found; and the participation in government such as it occurred in 2000 has not debunked the FPÖ but only made the situation worse.”(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/interview-populismusforscher-oesterreich-sollte-eine-warnung-fuer-deutschland-sein-1.3711357 ))

German Muslim voices have often struck a similar note, with for instance the Secretary General of the Islamic Community Millî Görüş (IGMG), Bekir Altaş, echoing the notion that the Austrian election results constitute “a stark warning”.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/16/oesterreich-erlebt-einen-starken-rechtsruck/ ))

… or as a role model

Others, however, interpret the electoral outcome in the opposite light: Edmund Stoiber, former leader of the CSU, Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel’s CDU, asserted that Sebastian Kurz’s campaign had delineated the path to be taken by centre-right parties in order to win elections against far-right populist opponents.(( http://www.focus.de/kultur/kino_tv/focus-fernsehclub/tv-kolumne-hart-aber-fair-bayerns-ex-ministerpraesident-edmund-stoiber-macht-seinem-unmut-in-der-sendung-luft_id_7721375.html ))

Thus, for Stoiber, Austrian developments do not offer a cautionary tale but should instead be emulated. (Stoiber had already supported the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition of the early 2000s. At the time, this sparked enormous anger among his German colleagues from the CDU.((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/empoerung-in-der-cdu-ueber-edmund-stoibers-koalitionsempfehlung-zu-gunsten-der-fpoe/96400.html )) )

In some sense, Kurz’s victory might seem pyrrhic: it was, after all, the FPÖ that set the agenda for the electoral campaign and will most likely define the topics and the tone of Kurz’s policy initiatives in government. Stoiber’s statements nevertheless highlight the ways in which the Austrian election results will further intensify the factional dispute within the German CDU/CSU  over whether to respond to the rise of right-wing populists by emulating them.

Interior Minister ignites debate on Islamic public holiday in Germany

Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, member of Angela Merkel’s CDU party, has sparked controversy by asserting that local authorities might be allowed to introduce a public holiday to commemorate an Islamic religious occasion.

A regional Muslim holiday?

De Maizière did not suggest a day off work at the national level but rather a regional one, limited to areas with a large Muslim population. Such area-specific divergences in matters of religious festivities and the corresponding public holidays are widespread in Germany, due to the country’s historical split between Protestant and Catholic areas.

His declarations, which came at a campaign rally in the Lower Saxon town of Wolfenbüttel, were met with considerable surprise. In the preceding months, de Maizière had often struck a very different tone.

Most notably, he had revived Germany’s long-standing debate about a ‘leading’ or ‘guiding’ culture (Leitkultur) in a populist tabloid article. The notion of a ‘leading culture’ stresses Germany’s supposedly Judeo-Christian essence and thus implicitly defines German identity in opposition to Islam.

Backlash against the proposal

The overall reception of de Maizière’s unexpected suggestion was negative. In a poll, slightly more than 70 per cent of Germans rejected the idea that Islamic occasions could become a public holiday. Only 7,8 per cent of respondents declared themselves in favour of the Interior Minister’s proposal.(( http://www.focus.de/politik/videos/70-prozent-dagegen-nach-de-maiziere-vorstoss-mehrheit-der-deutschen-lehnt-islamische-feiertag-ab_id_7724392.html ))

De Maizière’s fellow Christian Democrats expressed anger and outrage at his statements. Bernd Althusmann, the CDU’s front-runner for the state elections in Lower Saxony (which he has since lost), criticised the timing of de Maizière’s advance during the late stages of the electoral campaign.(( http://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/aussage-zu-muslimischen-feiertagen-thomas-de-maiziere-erntet-heftige-kritik_id_7708486.html ))

Alexander Dobrindt, Minister of Transport and member of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, accused de Maizière of jeopardising Germany’s Christian heritage. “To introduce Islam-holidays in Germany is out of the question for us.” Other CDU figures also stressed the need to protect the “Judeo-Christian” heritage of the country.(( http://www.bild.de/politik/inland/thomas-de-maiziere/brauchen-wir-wirklich-einen-muslimischen-feiertag-53525894.bild.html ))

Discrimination of Christians abroad

In a somewhat incongruous move, many commentators also dismissed the notion that Germany might introduce an Islamic holiday by pointing to the religious discrimination and persecution suffered by Christians in Muslim-majority countries.

The Catholic bishop of Fulda asked: “How would Islamic states react, if Catholic Christians attempted to celebrate for instance the festival of Corpus Christi with a [public] procession?”(( http://www.die-tagespost.de/politik/Islam-Feiertagsdebatte-geht-weiter;art315,182532 )) He was seconded by leading CDU politician Wolfgang Bosbach, who argued that the religious liberty of Christians in Islamic countries ought to be the priority.

The two men did not elucidate, however, how the highly objectionable suppression of the rights of Christians in other parts of the world could legitimise religious discrimination at home.

Catholic laymen more receptive to an Islamic holiday

Other Christian religious figures and institutions were, however, at least initially less hostile to de Maizière’s suggestions. The President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), the largest Catholic laymen’s association, welcomed the debate on the potential introduction of an Islamic public holiday in certain localities.

He asserted that “in a multi-religious society, an Islamic holiday can be added in areas with a large share of pious Muslims – without betraying the Christian tradition of our country. That [the betrayal of Christian roots] happens much rather through the transformation of Saint Nicholas into Santa Claus.” CSU Secretary General Andreas Scheuer has since expressed his “shock” and “bewilderment” atthe ZdK-President’s statements.(( http://www.die-tagespost.de/politik/Islam-Feiertagsdebatte-geht-weiter;art315,182532 ))

Positive reaction of the ZMD

Muslim figures have also taken part in the raging debate. Aiman Mazyek, Chairman of the ZMD – one of Germany’s Islamic umbrella associations – welcomed the statements by Thomas de Maizière.

At the same time, Mazyek – perhaps mindful of the backlash – asserted that he did not demand a public Islamic holiday mandated by law. Instead, Mazyek presented his position as merely wanting to raise awareness of Islamic religious occasions so that they be ‘put on the map’.

On this basis, Muslim employees might be able to reach practicable solutions at their workplace that would allow them to celebrate Islamic holidays. Mazyek gave the example of a Muslim policeman having a day off for Eid while stepping in for his Christian counterpart on Christmas Day.(( http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/politik/inland/muslimischer-feiertag-deutschland-100.html ))

Critical Muslim voices

Other voices were more critical. Ahmad Mansour, a highly vocal counter-radicalisation activist, called de Maizière’s proposition of an Islamic public holiday “a well-meant gesture” but deemed it impractical. Instead, Mansour suggested that all Germans be given two additional days off work, to be used for whichever religious festival people feel attached to.(( https://www.facebook.com/OfficialAhmadMansour/posts/529328327414627 ))

Lamya Kaddor, Islamic scholar and Chairwoman of the Liberal-Islamic Union (LIB) also dismissed calls for an Islamic holiday. For Kaddor, the Muslim community in Germany is too small to warrant a public holiday; like Mansour, she stressed that more practical, hands-on solutions to the needs of Muslim employees could be found at the individual workplace.

Kaddor criticised de Maizière’s statements as a mere exercise in symbolism out of touch with the genuine wishes of Muslim Germans. Kaddor suspected that the Interior Minister’s remarks were merely clumsy advances seeking to attract Muslim voters to the CDU.(( http://www.n-tv.de/politik/Muslimischer-Feiertag-waere-Symbolpolitik-article20083722.html ))

Individualisation of the religious sphere

The underlying question remains, however, how religious minorities can reconcile their faith with a calendar – and hence a working schedule as well as with a societal sense of time – still based on fundamentally Christian notions.

Many who might consider themselves socially liberal ‘progressives’ appear to be drawn to a particular default answer to this question – namely to the flexibilisation of public holidays: they assert that adherents of different religious traditions ought to be able to take leave from work on different days, depending on their individual faith-based commitments.

Unifying potential of a public holiday

Yet the outcome of such flexibility would be the further segregation of religious traditions. Murat Kayman, a former official of the Turkish-dominated DİTİB Islamic association who was chased from his post in the context of personnel purges after Turkey’s 2016 coup attempt, highlighted the potential of a universal and mandatory Islamic public holiday for inter-religious dialogue:

“It would be a nice thought if on this day Ronny from Dresden or Thilo from Berlin could have time for their families, hobbies, and leisure – only because there are Muslims in Germany. By the same token, there should be a nationwide Jewish holiday. So that Jens from Frankfurt and Mehmet from Duisburg realise that they can only spend a pleasurable, work-free day because of their fellow Jewish citizens.”(( http://murat-kayman.de/2017/10/16/deutschland-muss-deutschland-bleiben/ ))

Lamya Kaddor in fact struck a similar note while steering clear of religious connotations:

“It might be nice to introduce a holiday that represents what constitutes and unites our society. Maybe a ‘Day of Immigration’. There is a centuries-old tradition of immigration into this country, from Huguenots to Syrians. This could be a signal to look towards the future for once, instead of back into the past. Christian values would not be infringed upon by this – and neither would Muslim or any other ones.”(( http://www.n-tv.de/politik/Muslimischer-Feiertag-waere-Symbolpolitik-article20083722.html ))

De Maizière “misunderstood”

For now, however, such a communal new holiday seems far off. After the fierce criticism directed at his remarks, Thomas de Maizière backtracked quickly, asserting that he had been misunderstood.

On his website, he stated: “There is no suggestion on my part to introduce a Muslim holiday. I will also not make such a suggestion.”(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/muslimischer-feiertag-de-maiziere-fuehlt-sich-missverstanden-15250862.html ))

 

Aftershocks of Berlin Christmas market attack lead to counter-terrorism debates in Germany

It is now almost a year ago that Anis Amri, a Tunisian man who had arrived in Germany in 2015 and claimed to be a refugee, steered a lorry into a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 and injuring 56.

New report on intelligence failings

Almost immediately after the event, growing evidence pointed to severe failings on the part of the authorities. Not only had they not noticed the danger emanating from Amri; different sections of the justice system had also failed to arrest the young man following any of his multiple brushes with the law.

Amri, whose legal right to remain in the country had expired long ago, had had repeated run-ins with the police not only on the grounds of suspected Islamist radicalism but also for violations of residence requirements and for a range of drug infractions.

Now, a new report, commissioned by the government of Berlin, has attempted to chronicle the events leading up to the December 2016 attack. Its author, former federal prosecutor Bruno Jost, paints a dismal picture of German counter-terrorism efforts.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/fall-anis-amri-sonderermittler-wirft-behoerden-versagen-vor-a-1172571.html ))

Lack of cooperation and of personnel in the counter-terrorism sector

Jost describes how large gaps opened up in Germany’s counter-terrorism architecture that allowed Amri to slip through the cracks for more than a year. The vertical information flow between different levels of the security apparatus remained deficient, so that high-level counter-terrorism bodies – who discussed Amri and his potential plans – never held all the relevant information that had been collected.

Horizontally, cooperation between the different institutions – various police departments, domestic intelligence agencies, and prosecutorial bodies – was equally haphazard. Moreover, security agencies did not share information across Germany’s internal federal boundaries, meaning that the states of Berlin, North-Rhine Westphalia, and Baden-Württemberg left each other in the dark regarding their respective insights into Amri’s persona and intentions.

Finally, Jost highlighted severe staff shortages particularly in Berlin: although the capital’s authorities had for a time designated Amri as the most dangerous individual with jihadist linkages in the city, they were unable to keep track of him. Notably, he could only be monitored on weekdays: on weekends, there was a lack of staff.

Solving the staffing problems

As a response to the Amri case, politicians from across the political spectrum have called for greater centralisation of counter-terrorism efforts at the national level. Similarly, there is cross-partisan agreement on the need to replenish Germany’s police, whose forces had been depleted over the course of several years of budget cuts.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/nach-bericht-zu-anis-amri-das-ist-wirklich-eine-bittere.694.de.html?dram:article_id=398118, http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-10/terrorismus-union-forderung-reform-ueberwachung-anis-amri ))

More personnel, however, will most likely not solve all problems but may also generate new issues of its own. In fact, the reliability of German counter-terrorism staff has come repeatedly into question in recent months.

Questions about the reliability of intelligence personnel

First, the country’s domestic intelligence agency – the Verfassungsschutz – was rocked by revelations about an alleged Islamist mole. In this somewhat bizarre case, a former porn actor and bank clerk, who had recently joined the agency, had passed on classified information online to a supposed member of the Salafi scene – who, in fact, turned out to be another member of the Verfassungsschutz working undercover.

While it was initially suspected that the man had acted out of jihadist motivations, he ultimately turned out to be not driven by political or religious terrorism but by “boredom”: in different internet fora, the man had enjoyed playing different ‘roles’, passing himself off in turns as a hard-core militarist, a far-right neo-Nazi, and a fervent jihadist.(( http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/vermischtes/urteil-maulwurf-verfassungsschutz-100.html ))

A state informer as an Islamist agent provocateur

In the case of Anis Amri, intelligence personnel has played an occasionally dubious role, too. Prior to his attack on the Christmas market, Amri moved in the orbit of hard-line preacher ‘Abu Walaa’, arrested in November 2016 for being the central node of ISIS’s network in Germany. Recent investigations have shed light on the potentially pivotal role of an inside man employed by the Verfassungsschutz within these circles.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/anschlag-in-berlin-die-mysterioese-rolle-eines-v-manns-im-fall-amri-1.3689391 ))

The undercover informer, working under the codename “Murat”, had driven Amri to Berlin on at least one occasion in 2016. Moreover, there is evidence that Murat pushed Amri to commit an attack in Germany: a Muslim man who had witnessed interactions between Murat and Amri turned to the police after the Christmas market attack, alleging that Murat had been a crucial influencer inciting Amri to violence against German targets.

Murat had reported to his superiors at the agency that Amri was considered a candidate for travelling to Syria in order to join local jihadist groups – rather than being prepared to mount an operation in Germany. Now the possibility emerges that Murat himself may have overplayed his role as an agent provocateur, thereby helping to pave the way for the Berlin attack.

Blurring lines between state intelligence bodies and terror groups

The case of “Murat” thus highlights the possibility that the inside agents of the Verfassungsschutz – called V-Männer in German intelligence jargon – may become important factors in the terrorist groups they are supposed to observe.

The resulting blurring of the lines between intelligence agency and terror group is not confined to the Islamist spectrum: Investigations into the National Socialist Underground (NSU) cell, who killed 10 (mostly immigrant) victims between 2000 and 2006 and was responsible for two bomb attacks as well as 14 bank robberies, have uncovered systematic linkages between the neo-Nazi terror group and the German intelligence community.(( http://taz.de/Die-NSU-Serie-Teil-2/!5350062/ ))

Shadow of the NSU case

Seven intelligence agencies paid more than 40 men and women inside the NSU’s network. Among them were high-level neo-Nazi functionaries; and many informers had a long criminal history ranging from incitement of racial hatred to attempted murder.

A high-level agent the Verfassungsschutz is suspected of having been at the scene of at least one of the NSU’s murders; and the agency’s informers have been accused of having sheltered NSU members and of having delivered weapons and explosives. After the NSU was discovered, the agency shredded a large number of documents pertaining to the NSU affair, protecting its informers and preventing the full investigation of the group to this day.

The Verfassungsschutz’s heavy reliance on inside men also caused the failure of an attempt to ban the neo-Nazi NPD Party in 2003: the fact that high-level NPD leaders were in fact paid informers of the domestic intelligence agency led the Constitutional Court to decide that the party could not be banned because it was too close to the state and hence not independent in its decisions.(( http://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/v-mann-affaere-fatale-frenz-connection_aid_204938.html ))

Demands for more electronic surveillance

It is perhaps against this backdrop that agencies have recently renewed their demands for enhanced legal and technological tools that can help dispense with reliance on controversial V-Männer. The President of the Verfassungsschutz, Hans-Georg Maaßen, reiterated  his call that his agency be given access to online messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram. He also demanded enhanced competencies for surveillance of internet browsing.(( http://www.handelsblatt.com/politik/deutschland/verfassungsschutzchef-maassen-fordert-mehr-technische-werkzeuge/20416986.html ))

One might be tempted to observe that none of these new tools would have been necessary to apprehend Anis Amri: existing legal possibilities would have been sufficient, had the various players in the police and intelligence communities only managed to work together and use them.

When asked about the failure to stop Amri, however, Maaßen continues to reject all responsibility. Instead, he places the blame at the feet of Angela Merkel’s (brief) open-door policy of summer 2015. Maaßen asserts that Amri crossed the border irregularly, that he had no legal claim to asylum, and that he should have been deported back to Italy under the rules of the Dublin system even before his agency should have become involved.(( http://www.fr.de/politik/geheimdienst-verfassungsschutz-fordert-mehr-befugnisse-a-1363344,0#artpager-1363344-0 ))

German Turks ponder “existential” election results, gain 14 MPs

Germany’s federal elections of September 24th have propelled the far-right AfD party into parliament with 13 per cent of the popular vote, making it the third-largest group in the Bundestag.

Given the AfD’s anti-immigrant and anti-Islam platform, German-Turkish political scientist Said Rezek observed that for many German Turks the AfD’s rise poses an “existential” challenge.((http://www.migazin.de/2017/09/25/bundestagswahl2017-eigeninteresse-deutscher-muslim/))

Rise of anti-immigrant ethnonationalism

At heart, the AfD’s message has been an ethnonationalist one. Throughout the electoral campaign, the party plastered Germany’s streets with billboards encouraging the birth of larger numbers of ethnically German children or castigating the spread of Islam.

On election night, AfD leader Alexander Gauland vowed that his party’s entry to the Bundestag was only the first step on the long march to “take back our country and our people” – an allusion that to many appeared to play on the AfD’s fantasy of an ethnically pure Germany.

Public façade

To be sure, when invited to certain public fora, the party leadership often strikes a different tone. In a pre-election debate with German-Tunisian rapper Bushido, founding father of the German gangster rap genre, the leading AfD politician Beatrix von Storch claimed as a matter of course that the AfD considered the rapper and his children – all of whom hold German citizenship – as an integral part of the “German people”.((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3juZ-CwXG8))

This façade of inclusivity is quick to unravel, however. During a post-election TV debate among the major parties’ leading candidates, Alexander Gauland complained that Germany was too ethnically mixed and that true, ethnic Germans were becoming a rarity in the country’s cities. For the AfD, “our” people is thus always pitted against the immigrant “them” living in our midst.((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PrSk4wBArc))

German Turks go public after the elections

Against this backdrop, the voices of the targets of the AfD’s vitriol – who are often somewhat marginalised in German political discourse – have been more prominent than usual after the elections. The most vocal group in this respect have been German Turks. By virtue of their higher social capital compared to recently arrived immigrants they also serve as a proxy voice for the German Muslim community.

Many German Turks have come out with their thoughts on the elections, expressing their fears of increased discrimination, as well as their hopes that German constitutional safeguards might be able to prevent the AfD from doing more damage.((http://www.huffingtonpost.de/2017/09/27/bundestagswahl-afd-migration-migrationshintergrund-deutschland-zukunft-_n_18105126.html))

German Turks’ electoral participation

With respect to German Turks’ political participation at the ballot box on September 24th, no figures have been published yet. Joachim Schulte, analyst at the Data4U analytics company asserted that he had not been commissioned to gather data on German Turks’ voting behaviour.

After the 2013 elections, Data4U had conducted a survey among German Turkish voters at the behest of the UETD, a group with close ties to the AKP. Four years ago, 70 per cent of German Turks holding a German passport had gone to the polls. The Social Democrats had secured 64 per cent of the German Turkish vote, followed by 12 per cent for Greens and 12 per cent for The Left.((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/deutschtuerken-bei-bundestagswahl-erdogans-boykott-aufruf-blieb-unerhoert/20381760.html))

In the run-up to the 2017 elections, the persistence of these tendencies – particularly the stability of German Turks’ affiliation with the political left – had been questioned. SPD leader Martin Schulz had taken a strong stance against the accession of Turkey to the EU. Moreover, President Erdoğan had urged German Turks to boycott CDU/CSU, SPD, and Green parties for being ‘hostile to Turkey’.

Limited impact of Erdoğan’s call for boycott

Yet the fact that the pro-Erdoğan UETD has not asked Data4U (or another company) to conduct another survey might point to the fact that the Turkish President’s call for boycott went relatively unheeded among German Turkish voters.

Speaking to the Tagesspiegel newspaper, members of Berlin’s Turkish community stressed that they saw the federal elections as unconnected to events in Turkey. As a consequence, they did not feel that President Erdoğan had the authority or the qualification to issue electoral recommendations.

In North-Rhine Westphalia – home to the largest number of German Turks – the openly Erdoğanist Alliance of German Democrats (ADD) party only managed to secure 0.4 per cent of the popular vote. Many saw this as a sign that even those supportive of the Turkish President and his authoritarian turn were unwilling to put ‘Turkish’ concerns first in a German election.((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/deutschtuerken-bei-bundestagswahl-erdogans-boykott-aufruf-blieb-unerhoert/20381760.html))

Fourteen German-Turkish MPs on the left

The election also propelled fourteen German Turks to the Bundestag as parliamentarians – up from eleven after the 2013 poll. Six Social Democratic MPs, five Green party MPs, and three MPs of The Left are of Turkish extraction.

Conversely, the right-of-centre parties – Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU, the free-market Free Democrats, and the far-right AfD – field no parliamentarians of Turkish descent. Cemile Giousouf, the CDU’s first and only Muslim MP failed to gain re-election.((https://dtj-online.de/14-tuerken-ziehen-in-den-bundestag-88537))

A relatively homogeneous Bundestag

Overall, the Bundestag is still far removed from capturing the diversity of the country’s population. Of 709 MPs, only 57 (8 per cent) have a ‘migration background’ – the official bureaucratic term connoting a person with at least one foreign-born parent.

This represents a minor uptick compared to the last Bundestag; yet it is still nowhere close to equalling the 22.5 per cent of Germany’s population that have a ‘migration background’. In terms of female representation, the current Bundestag is a step backwards (mainly because of the entry of the overwhelmingly male AfD party), with only 30.7 per cent of MPs being female – the lowest share in 20 years.((http://www.taz.de/!5448373/))

Cem Özdemir as foreign minister?

Beyond this modest increase in MPs, German Turks might be able to console themselves for the AfD’s rise by pointing to the fact that Cem Özdemir, co-leader of the Green Party, is dubbed to become Foreign Minister. Özdemir and Social Democrat Leyla Onur had been the first German MPs of Turkish heritage upon their entry to parliament in 1994.((http://www.taz.de/!5448373/))

Yet Özdemir’s relationship with the German Turkish community is anything but easy. The 51-year-old has been an extremely vocal critic of the Erdoğan administration; and together with the other German Turkish MPs, he supported the ‘Armenia Resolution’ of the Bundestag in 2016: via this decision, Germany officially designated the killings of Armenians in Turkey during WWI as a genocide.((https://dtj-online.de/14-tuerken-ziehen-in-den-bundestag-88537))

The passage of the Armenia Resolution has occasioned deep rifts between German Turkish politicians and an electorate that is still strongly wedded to the Turkish national account of history. Satisfaction with having a German Turkish voice figure prominently on the German political scene is thus counterbalanced by a fear that this voice might ‘sell out’ and adopt the discourses and positions of the political mainstream.

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 ))

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 ))

German TV debate between Merkel and Schulz focuses on migration and Islam, catering to populists

German voters will choose a new chancellor on September 24 in an electoral contest pitting incumbent Christian Democrat Angela Merkel against Social Democrat Martin Schulz. After a brief surge in the polls earlier this year, Schulz’ SPD now looks set to lose the election to Merkel, trailing her CDU by about 15 percentage points in recent polls.

Four journalists steering the debate

Against this backdrop, the campaign’s only TV debate took place on September 03. Seen as the highlight of a previously rather lukewarm electoral contest, the debate was supposed to discuss four main topics in equal measure: migration, foreign policy, social justice, and internal security. Yet it was the first item on the list that took up nearly 60 of the debate’s 90 minutes.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/medien/tv-duell-die-angst-der-moderatoren-vor-dem-mob-1.3652046 ))

The four TV journalists hosting the programme – and particularly Claus Strunz of the Sat. 1 TV network – honed in on questions of immigration and integration, giving the discussion distinctly populist overtones.

It was above all the hosts who presented refugees and migrants as a threat to internal security and as a drain on Germany’s resources; who insinuated that Islam was inherently irreconcilable with German constitutional principles; and who claimed that Muslims were unwilling and unable to participate in German society – in spite of scientific evidence to the contrary.

Populist demeanour

In order to pressure the two candidates into conceding that politicians were unable to take effective control of migration and to ensure migrants’ integration, the hosts (again with Strunz in the lead) resorted to all available means. Shortly after the onset of the broadcast, Strunz appeared to deliberately falsify a quote by Martin Schulz, in which the SPD politician had stated that refugees were “more valuable than gold” – a fact that Schulz managed to call out.

Other misrepresentations went unquestioned, however – such as the claim that Germany was home to 226,000 people who had no legal right to stay and remained in the country only due to politicians’ failure to expulse them.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/claus-strunz-internetnutzer-empoert-ueber-tv-duell-moderator-a-1165932.html ))

One-sided discussion of migration

Summing up the TV event, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper noted that it was as if the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) had been a prominent guest in the studio. It also castigated the complete failure to discuss the issue of migration from any other but the most myopic of all perspectives.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/medien/tv-duell-die-angst-der-moderatoren-vor-dem-mob-1.3652046 ))

For instance, not one of the hosts’ questions dealt with the deplorable conditions faced by migrants in Libyan camps or with the deaths of thousands of men and women in the Mediterranean. Neither did anyone inquire about the hundreds of attacks on refugee shelters or the resurgence of right-wing terrorism plots in Germany.

Negative Muslim reactions

The reactions of the targeted ‘foreigners’ and ‘Muslims’ were, predictably, negative. Author and activist Imran Ayata summed up their sentiment when he asserted that the “clear winner” of the debate had been the AfD.(( https://twitter.com/ImranAyata/status/904416160086716417 ))

The chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Aiman Mazyek, noted that the hosts had fallen for the own “populist trap”. While moderator Claus Strunz had recently claimed that “populism is the Viagra of a flailing democracy”, Mazyek asserted that “populism is the Viagra of a flailing and ever more shallow media coverage”.(( http://www.huffingtonpost.de/aiman-mazyek/merkel-schulz-muslime-_b_17907854.html ))

Luay Mudhoon, renowned commentator on Islamic affairs, deemed the TV duel a “black day for German TV journalism” and bemoaned the “AfD-leaning leading questions”.(( https://twitter.com/Loay_Mudhoon/status/904426758325366785 )).

“Islam is a part of Germany”

Yet some Muslim observers chose to concentrate on the – rare – positive elements in the debate. The German-Turkish Journal welcomed the fact that both Chancellor Merkel and her challenger Martin Schulz had stressed the positive contributions of many Muslims to German society and that they had agreed to the statement that “Islam is a part of Germany”, albeit in a somewhat roundabout manner.(( https://dtj-online.de/angela-merkel-bekraeftigt-der-islam-gehoert-zu-deutschland-tv-duell-87597 ))

This question – “Is Islam a part of Germany” or “Does Islam belong to Germany” (“Gehört der Islam zu Deutschland?”) – has been a staple of public controversy since a 2010 speech by then-President Christian Wulff. Wulff asserted that Islam was indeed part of Germany’s social fabric.

A question of belonging

Ever since, commentators have argued about whether ‘Islam’ can belong to Germany or whether only ‘Muslims’ can (but not ‘Islam’). The same discussion regularly resurfaces and never yields any conclusion, in part because the question is itself a non-starter and any answer to it always seems to degenerate into nothing more than semantic sophistries.(( An entire academic literature has focused on this debate. For an overview see Spenlen, Klaus (ed.) (2013), Gehört der Islam zu Deutschland? Fakten und Analysen zu einem Meinungsstreit. Düsseldorf: Düsseldorf University Press. ))

Many have nevertheless rejected the notion of allowing either Islam or Muslims any part in German identity, citing the country’s inherent and primordial ‘Judeo-Christian’ make-up. (There is always something slightly odd about this claim, given that not too long ago Germany thoroughly erased Judaism from European lands by killing six million of its adherents.)

The Muslim ‘other’

Responding to these pressures, some Muslim voices seek to highlight that they are ‘more German’ than others, also in order to advance their own agendas. Ercan Karakoyun, leader of the Gülen movement in Germany, tweeted during the debate: “A form of Islam that can be reconciled with the Basic Law? There is one! #Gülen movement.”(( https://twitter.com/ercankarakoyun/status/904417326442962944 ))

Ultimately, however, the enduring lesson of an evening spent in front of the television remains that people of Muslim faith are still seen as ‘other’ in significant parts of German society: ‘they’ really do not belong to ‘us’. The TV debate between Merkel and Schulz did nothing to challenge this perception and almost everything to reinforce it.