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.

Arrests of German citizens prompt downgrading of German-Turkish relations

At least since the July 2016 coup attempt, German-Turkish relations have taken a severe hit.

Recurring bones of contention have included the German army’s NATO presence at the Turkish Incirlik air base. German troops, who are part of the anti-IS coalition, are now being transferred to Jordan after a series of diplomatic rows over visits of German parliamentarians to the base.

Conversely, the visits of Turkish politicians – particularly in the run-up to the country’s controversial constitutional referendum in April 2016 – have unsettled the German political elite.

Arrests of German citizens in Turkey

Yet the perhaps most divisive issue has been the arrests of German citizens in Turkey, caught up in the post-coup repression. As of May 31, 2017, 44 Germans were held in Turkish detention. Many of them were dual citizens of Germany and Turkey, meaning that they had no legal claim to be supported by the German Embassy.(( https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/deutsche-in-tuerkei-inhaftiert-101.html ))

In 2017, there have been a number of high profile arrests that have made particular headlines: Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, correspondent of the Die Welt newspaper, was arrested in February; German journalist and translator Meşale Tolu, in April. And on July 5, human rights activist Peter Steudtner was arrested in Istanbul.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/tuerkei-deutscher-menschenrechtler-peter-steudtner-muss-in-haft-a-1158364.html ))

Swift changes to the German-Turkish relationship

The case of Steudtner has led to a major shift in German-Turkish relations. After having merely expressed ‘deep concern’ at developments in Turkey before, this time Berlin was surprisingly swift to react.

The German Foreign Office tightened its travel alerts for visitors to Turkey; a move that could potentially harm Turkey’s tourism-dependent economy. Further measures include the potential freezing of trade credit insurance offered to German companies exporting to Turkey. What is more, all German arms exports to Turkey – on paper an important NATO ally – are also halted.(( https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/tuerkei-deutschland-121.html ))

Domestic ramifications

In the case of Germany, troubles in external relations with Turkey of course risk causing major domestic repercussions, thanks to Germany’s roughly three million inhabitants of Turkish descent. In the past months, the political loyalty of Germans with a Turkish background has come repeatedly into focus, particularly in the context of the Turkish constitutional referendum.

German Turks have reacted with dismay to the renewed bout of antagonism. They perceive themselves to be the first victims of the diplomatic tensions. Many also asserted that they did not feel represented by any German political party or force in this context.(( http://dtj-online.de/deutsch-tuerken-die-leidtragenden-der-deutsch-tuerkischen-konflikte-86452 ))

Letter to German Turks

Against this backdrop, the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel addressed German Turks in a letter published in the country’s leading tabloid, Bild. Gabriel stressed that the German government “has always worked for good relations with Turkey, because we know that a good relationship between Germany and Turkey is important to you.”

Recent arrests were forcing the government to act in order to protect its citizens, Gabriel asserted. Yet he stressed that this should not be seen as an assault on German Turks:

“Nothing of this is directed against the people living in Turkey and our fellow citizens with Turkish roots in Germany. For no matter how difficult political relations between Germany and Turkey are – this much remains obvious to us: you […] belong to us – whether with or without a German passport.”(( http://www.bild.de/politik/inland/sigmar-gabriel/liebe-tuerkische-mitbuerger-52625202.bild.html ))

An attempt at inclusivity

Gabriel’s statement was striking in the clarity of its commitment to inclusiveness. For months, media discourses had been strongly marked by an implicit perception that German Turks were quintessentially ‘other’, and that ‘they’ did precisely not belong to ‘us’.

Overall, the Foreign Minister’s intervention was well-received among the general public.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-07/deutsch-tuerkei-gabriel-erdogan-deutschtuerken-beziehungen )) Some pointed out, however, that it was left to the Foreign Minister to write this letter – a fact that seemed to point to the ways in which men and women of Turkish descent are still considered ‘foreign’ in Germany today.(( http://www.taz.de/!5428909/ ))

Nevertheless, the letter appeared to spark a kind of bandwagoning effect, as other politicians also called for a measured approach towards Turkey and Turkish citizens. Leading confidant of Angela Merkel and Head of the Chancellery Peter Altmaier (CDU) stressed that Turkey remained “one of the most democratic countries” in the Middle East. “And by that”, he added, “I don’t mean Mr. Erdogan but rather the country and Turkish society as a whole.”(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/konflikt-berlin-ankara-peter-altmaier-warnt-vor-pauschalen-verurteilungen-der-tuerkei/20095232.html ))

Increased polarisation

The impact of Gabriel’s statement remains to be seen. By now, German Turks are exposed to fundamentally opposing narratives of the events of the recent months and years. While the overwhelming majority of German and European news outlets continue to focus on Turkey’s descent into repression, the Turkish viewpoint is still dominated by a sense of persecution and a martyrology called forth by last year’s coup attempt.

Against the backdrop of these competing narratives and visions, the decision where to ‘belong’ is becoming a more and more categorical question facing many German Turks, pitting a group of ‘us’ (however defined) against an inimical ‘them’.

Terror attacks receive five times more media coverage if perpetrator is Muslim, study finds

Terror attacks carried out by Muslims receive more than five times as much media coverage as those carried out by non-Muslims in the United States, according to an academic study.

Analysis of coverage of all terrorist attacks in the US between 2011 and 2015 found there was a 449 per cent increase in media attention when the perpetrator was Muslim.

Muslims committed just 12.4 per cent of attacks during the period studied but received 41.4 per cent of news coverage, the survey found.

The study, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2928138, was conducted by researchers at Georgia State University.

London hate crime raises questions about media coverage

Guardian correspondent, Masuma Rahim, writes that the limited media coverage of acid attacks against South Asians is a symptom of larger media biases and the absence of minority representation in the news industry.

Rahim is, in particular, responding to a hate crime by a white man, John Tomlin, against two South Asian, Muslim relatives. Resham Kahn, who was celebrating her 21st birthday, was sitting in traffic with her cousin, Jameel Mukhtar, when Tomlin attacked. Both cousins have survived but suffered severe, life-changing injuries and disfigurement.

Mukhtar expressed frustration at low media and investigative police response. He claims these institutions would have labelled this attack as a terrorist attack if the religion/ethnicity of the victims and attacker were reversed.

Rahim writes that this attack and other similar ones should be taken more seriously as an issue that affects the whole of society and not just a minority.

The chimaera of a ‘liberal’ Islam: the fate of the new mosque in Berlin

The opening of a self-styled ‘liberal’ mosque in Berlin – marked by the mixing of genders, the absence of headscarves, and the openness to pluralistic understandings of Islam – by lawyer and activist Seyran Ateş has sparked a media frenzy both in Germany and abroad.

Liberal and conservative media outlets have celebrated the mosque. Liberals see it as much-needed proof that Islam is capable of ‘reform’ and that Islamophobic discourse is not only morally objectionable but also factually mistaken. Conservatives welcome the establishment of the mosque as heralding an Islamicality that is thoroughly ‘integrated’ and ‘assimilated’ to the German context.

Muted reaction at home

The reaction of Islamic institutions from abroad – most notably from Turkey and Egypt – has been similarly loud, although fiercely critical: religious authorities in Ankara and Cairo have castigated the new mosque as a doctrinal abomination.

Yet while many media outlets were quick to pick up on the pugnacious hostility coming from state-controlled Muslim institutions in the Middle East, the arguably more important aspect of the Muslim response to the mosque went almost completely unscrutinised: hardly anyone bothered to take into account the perspective of German Muslims themselves. And in contrast to journalists across the world and state clerics in the Middle East, German Muslims have so far been comparatively unfazed by the mosque.

Isolated high-level endorsements

To be sure, a number of Muslim public figures have given their largely favourable opinions. Sawsan Chebli, high-ranking Social Democratic member of the government of the state of Berlin, took to Twitter to greet the mosque’s establishment. (She was then heckled by both an Islamophobe on the one hand and an infamous former journalist-turned-Salafi-activist deeming the mosque to be a desecration of Islam on the other hand).(( https://twitter.com/SawsanChebli/status/878268593359642625 ))

Beyond these isolated exchanges, however, responses of high-level Muslim actors have been scarce. Most notably, the ‘conservative’ Islamic foundations – i.e. the main targets of the mosque – have kept an icy silence.

Even the chairman of the ZMD association, Aiman Mazyek, the most vocal representative of the established foundations, contented himself with asserting that those who seek to distinguish a ‘liberal’ from a ‘conservative’ Islam unduly politicise the religion. When asked how he felt about Ateş’ mosque, he refused to comment, simply stating: “she should do whatever she wants”.(( http://vorab.bams.de/der-vorsitzende-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-aiman-mazyek-lehnt-eine-unterteilung-des-islam-in-liberal-oder-konservativ-ab/ ))

Lack of popular engagement

Yet the true disappointment for Ateş must be the extremely limited response of ordinary Muslim believers to her mosque. At the first Friday prayers, the congregation was far outnumbered by journalists; and one week later barely any faithful bothered to show up.

According to Ateş herself, this lack of attendees is due to the fact that liberal Muslims must be afraid of recriminations if they display their progressive ideas about religion openly.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article165832629/Die-meisten-liberalen-Muslime-haben-Angst.html )) Of course this possibility cannot be discounted and might very well be true in some cases.

Yet the much larger problem that appears to beset the new mosque is its lack of religious credibility. Most notably, Ateş herself has given very little indication in the past of any will to thoughtfully engage with Islam. Instead, she has chosen the populist route, with for instance her past polemics against headscarf and religious conservatism antagonising virtually all active Muslim politicians from among Greens, Social Democrats, and Christian Democrats.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/reaktion-auf-kommentar-gruene-muslime-greifen-islamkritikerin-seyran-ates-an/1603712.html ))

What is more, although Ateş has stated that she wishes to become an Imam, so far she does not hold any formal qualification to lead prayer. The fact that she also decided to publish a self-referential book on the day of the mosque’s opening – the work is titled Selam Mrs. Imam: How I Founded a Liberal Mosque in Berlin – adds to the perception that the project is too much about her rather than about a genuine attempt at religious reflection.

“Liberal Islam is a chimaera”

In a piece for Qantara.de, journalist Loay Modhoon takes up many of these issues, arguing that “liberal Islam is a chimaera”.(( https://en.qantara.de/content/berlins-new-mosque-liberal-islam-is-a-chimaera )) According to Modhoon, “fervent enthusiasm in the media and political realm cannot […] gloss over two fundamental problems”:

Firstly: so-called “liberal Islam” consists of individuals, public personalities; it has no structure to speak of. In Germany there are now a number of civil society initiatives by liberal Muslims, but their level of organisation is still low, as is their ability to connect with the conservative Muslim mainstream.

Secondly: so far, those who represent liberal Islam are still very vague as far as content is concerned. They usually define themselves by their rejection of conservative Islam. And that’s just too little substance to have a big impact.

Not the first mosque of its kind

Modhoon goes on to note that the Berlin mosque is not the first of its kind, and criticises the vacuity of the supposedly ‘liberal’ Islamic project:

No question about it: the opening of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque is a courageous and remarkable step. But outside Germany liberal mosques like these are not a new phenomenon. Similar mosque projects have already existed for a long time in Britain and the United States.

In addition, the heterogeneous supporters of liberal Islam should have explained – well before the mosque opened – on what Islamic principles their liberal understanding of the religion is based. They should, for example, have held a pertinent debate on the role of Sharia in a secular constitutional state. This would certainly have been helpful in terms of drawing a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable aspects of Sharia.

In other words, just as Turkey’s state authority for religious affairs, Diyanet, cites the “tenets of the Islamic faith” as its reference point, the liberal Muslims should also have justified their efforts with reference to genuine Islamic sources.

State-enforced ‘liberalism’ lacks credibility

In some sense, then, Ateş’ mosque suffers from a set of fairly predictable problems. At the same time, the political environment in which a liberal Islam is being articulated is particularly challenging:

Neither the meagre response to the Muslim peace and anti-terrorism demonstration in Cologne nor the hostile reactions to the opening of the mosque in Berlin can be taken as evidence that Islam is incapable of reform. We are, after all, seeing efforts by Muslim activists all around the world who are striving for reform. The battle over who has the prerogative of interpreting and defining “Islam” is being fought almost everywhere, with a vengeance.

In any case, politicians would be well advised not to privilege particular versions of Islam – neither liberal nor conservative. An Islam protected or even controlled by the state would have no credibility and would be unworthy of a pluralist democracy.

For the ongoing development of Islam in Germany it would therefore be better, in the spirit of our liberal-democratic constitution, to respect the real-life plurality of Muslims and their different understandings of what Islam is – and continue to promote its institutional naturalisation.

French authorities accused of covering up Jew’s slaying by Muslim neighbor

A European Parliament member and prominent French intellectuals protested the omission of anti-Semitism from a draft indictment of a Muslim for the murder of his Jewish neighbor.

Frédérique Ries, a lawmaker from Belgium, on Thursday criticized French authorities’ handling of the investigation into the April 4 incident, in which Sarah Halimi was tortured and thrown out of her third-story apartment to her death, allegedly by Kobili Traore, who lived in her building.

“French authorities have treated her murder with icy silence,” Ries, who is Jewish, said in reference to the fact that Traore, who had no history of mental illness, was placed at a psychiatric institution and has not been charged with a hate crime despite evidence suggesting he killed Halimi because she was Jewish.

In a voice recording of the incident, Traore is heard shouting “Allahu akbar,” calling Sarah “Satan” and calmly praying after her killing, according to reports.

17 French intellectuals published a scathing criticism of the handling of the incident by authorities and the media.

“Everything about this crime suggests there is an ongoing denial of reality” by authorities, the intellectuals wrote, citing also testimonies of neighbors who said Traore had called Halimi a “dirty Jew” to her face and called her relatives “dirty Jews” as well in the past.

Many French Jews believe authorities covered up Halimi’s alleged murder to prevent it from becoming fodder for the divisive presidential campaign.

 

Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF) changes its name

The UOIF, which is frequently portrayed negatively in the media, has changed its name. During a general assembly held in late February, the organization voted to replace the name it has had since 1983 to “Muslims of France”.

The name won out over others such as “Union of French Muslims” and “National Union of French Muslims”.

Blogger Mehdi Meklat caught posting anti-Semitic tweets

Mehdi Meklat, a 24-year-old writer/blogger has come under fire after revelations that he has for years been posting anti-Semitic, mysogynistic, homophobic and pro-jihadi tweets.

Meklat, along with writing partner Badrouine Said Abdallah, shot to fame through the Bondy Blog, a site created for and by sub-Saharan and North African second-generation immigrants seeking to celebrate “ethnic diversity” and insert “the stories from the ‘hood into the larger national debates.”

Meklat tweeted more than 50,000 offensive tweets from 2012 to 2014. Before the Césars he tweeted: “Bring on Hitler to kill the Jews.” Just before the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, he tweeted about the magazine’s editor Stephane Charbonnier “Charb, what I’d really like to do is shove some Laguiole knives up his …” He praised Mohammad Merah, who murdered Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse: “I find the phrase, ‘I love death the way you love life,’ of Mohammed Merah troubling in its beauty.” In blatant homophobia: “Long live the fags, long live AIDS under President Francois Hollande.”

Of far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, he wrote that he would “slit her throat the Muslim way.”

In a lengthy note on Facebook Meklat apologized for the posts while attempting to absolve himself of culpability, claiming to be victim of a time when Twitter was “a digital Wild West. A new object, almost confidential, where no rule was enacted, no moderation exercised.” 

He had tweeted under the name Marcelin Deschamps, inspired by French Dada artist Marcel Duchamp. The stunt, he said, was a commentary on the racism of France’s Old Guard, but “quickly became an evil villain … who couldn’t be stopped” in his attempts to “provoke.” The social media alter-ego had “nothing to do with me… It is now dead and should have never existed,” Meklat wrote.

“You have life on your side, you have your experiences, your wanderings, your loves, your past that sticks to your present, anchored in you. But it does not matter until you have no money. You are therefore a slave,” wrote Meklat with his writing partner Badrouine Said Abdallah in their recent novel Minute. As Meklat gained accolades for his creative projects, the media discovered his second Twitter account, but barely responded. That was until a French tweeter, identified by Le Monde as a teacher, expressed outrage at one of Meklat’s television appearances. The teacher pleaded, successfully, for the country to demand the author answer for Meklat’s obscene and offensive tweets.

The “Meklat affair” has also given fuel to France’s rising far-right, including Marine Le Pen’s niece Marion Le Pen, who placed the blame with France’s left-wing media.

 

Sexual violence, criminality, and immigration: Germany discusses how to report on immigrants’ criminal offences

With the Berlin Christmas market attack, security questions have become dominant on the German political scene. Especially the domain of immigration law is becoming more securitised by the day as politicians propose more restrictive immigration policies, as well as greater scope for surveillance operations on the part of intelligence agencies.

Beyond the Berlin attack, however, a range of other incidents and developments continue to feed into this securitisation dynamic. Among them are not just the large-scale sexual assaults that occurred in Cologne and other German cities on New Year’s Eve 2015/2016, but also an increasingly agitated discussion on crime and criminality among refugees and asylum-seekers in general.

Sexual assaults

A milestone in this regard has been the highly mediatised case of the rape and murder of a 19-year old student by a 17-year old Afghan refugee in the city of Freiburg. To many, this case – especially as it came after a series of other rapes and acts of violence in the Freiburg region – demonstrated the direct linkage between increased immigration and a worsening security situation.(( http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/justiz/mord-an-studentin-in-freiburg-risse-im-idyll-a-1124344.html ))

The case gained added salience due to the fact that, like the 17-year-old Afghan who had attacked the passengers of a regional train near Würzburg in July, the perpetrator of Freiburg was living in a local host family. He thus appeared to have all the possibilities to integrate and build a successful life in Germany.

Since then, two other high-profile cases of assault against women have come to light: in Bochum, a 31-year-old Iraqi asylum-seeker apparently raped and grievously injured two students of the local university.(( http://www1.wdr.de/nachrichten/ruhrgebiet/neue-details-nach-sexuellen-uebergriffen-in-bochum-100.html )) And in Hameln, a Kurdish man tied his wife to the back of his car by a rope around her neck and drove off, dragging her through the town’s streets.(( http://www.huffingtonpost.de/2016/11/21/hamel-bluttat-auto-schlei_n_13122450.html ))

Difficult reporting decisions

The media have been placed under close scrutiny with respect to their reporting strategies in the aftermath of these events. In a controversial move, Germany’s most-watched nightly TV news magazine, the Tagesschau running at 8 pm on the ARD public broadcaster, initially chose not to mention the arrest of the 17-year-old Afghan charged with raping and killing the Freiburg student.

The network subsequently justified this decision by arguing that the Tagesschau “only very rarely reports on individual criminal cases” because as a national-level news magazine, it is focused on “societally, nationally, and internationally relevant events. A murder case does not number among such events.”(( http://blog.tagesschau.de/2016/12/04/der-mordfall-von-freiburg/ ))

The news magazine’s head editor, Kai Gniffke, asserted that his programme “cannot and does not want to report on every single one of the around 300 murder cases per year (although it is interesting to note that this number has dramatically decreased over the course of the last 15 years).”(( http://blog.tagesschau.de/2016/12/04/der-mordfall-von-freiburg/ ))

Harsh criticism of editorial choices

The criticism directed at the Tagesschau’s editorial desk for its decision not to discuss the case was, nevertheless, fierce. It came not only from the right-wing fringe but also from outlets such as the mainstream conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

In a vitriolic commentary on the matter, the paper asserted that the Tagesschau’s unwillingness to report on the case justified labelling the ARD public broadcaster “Lückenpresse”—‘lacunae press’, or ‘press with gaps’. This constitutes an unabashed reference to the slogan “Lügenpresse” (‘liar’s press’), a term of disparagement of the ‘mainstream media’ with a strong National Socialist legacy that today is widespread among partisans of the new populist right.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/medien/tagesschau-berichtet-nicht-ueber-ermordete-studentin-in-freiburg-14560129-p2.html ))

The fact that one of the country’s major respectable newspapers should so openly accuse another standard media outlet of being complicit in a pro-immigrant cover-up mandated by political elites demonstrates the extent to which populist language and demands have seeped into public debates.

Scrutinising empirical data

As a result, there is now an expectation that any serious crime committed by a refugee or asylum-seeker must be reported on immediately. Crimes perpetrated by immigrants are thus deemed more newsworthy and more dangerous than crimes committed by ethnic Germans.

At the same time, empirical data on the actual number of offences committed by asylum-seekers or refugees has scarcely figured in these debates. According to numbers released by the Federal Criminal Police Office, 5.7 per cent of all suspects involved in criminal cases in 2015 were asylum-seekers or other individuals without residence status.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/zuwanderer-und-kriminalitaet-mord-in-freiburg-ein-absoluter-ausnahmefall-1.3291719.

In Germany, these other persons without official residence status include not just ‘illegal’ immigrants. They also include more than 150,000 individuals under the peculiar legal regime of ‘Duldung’ (literally ‘toleration’ in English). Duldung merely connotes the temporary suspension of deportation; consequently, ‘geduldete’ individuals do not have access to most of the state’s social and financial services, no right to work, and no right to participate in integration courses. Their freedom of movement is restricted to their locality.))

The most common offence with which these individuals have been charged is theft, amounting to a quarter of all criminal cases, followed by fare evasion on public transport (17 per cent). Another quarter of cases concern bodily harm, aggravated theft, or coercion. Sexual offences amount to 1.3 per cent of all cases.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/fluechtlinge-bka-bericht-fluechtlinge-begehen-weniger-straftaten-1.3315641 ))

Make-up of perpetrators and victims

94 per cent of the interpersonal violence is directed at other immigrants.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/fluechtlinge-bka-bericht-fluechtlinge-begehen-weniger-straftaten-1.3315641 )) Especially Germany’s overcrowded refugee shelters have often been identified as conducive to outbreaks of violence.

Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans – collectively making up two thirds of immigrants – are responsible for only 33 per cent of criminal offences perpetrated. Conversely, immigrants from the Balkans and from the Maghreb countries are over-represented among criminal suspects.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/fluechtlinge-bka-bericht-fluechtlinge-begehen-weniger-straftaten-1.3315641 ))

Overall, in the first three quarters of 2016, immigrants were involved in 214,600 criminal offences. Over the course of these three quarters of the year, the number of crimes recorded dropped by 23 per cent, potentially reflecting a growing degree of settledness of the newly arrived migrants. Over the same time period, 67,300 anti-immigrant crimes were recorded.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/fluechtlinge-bka-bericht-fluechtlinge-begehen-weniger-straftaten-1.3315641 ))

Making sense of the numbers

Experts have remained cautious as to which conclusions to draw from these shifting and volatile numbers. Importantly, criminologists point to the need to tackle widespread impoverishment, especially with respect to the Balkans and North Africa: migrants from these regions are drawn into the powerful crime and mafia networks headquartered in their home countries; and participation in these networks is one of the few reliable sources of a stable income.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/zuwanderer-und-kriminalitaet-mord-in-freiburg-ein-absoluter-ausnahmefall-1.3291719-2 ))

Against this backdrop, recent cutbacks to social and financial support given to immigrants are seen in a sceptical light: whilst these restrictions are ostentatiously aimed at curbing the influx of migrants by disincentivising the perilous and expensive journey to Germany, they might jeopardise the ability of already arrived refugees to build a stable life in the country and thus to do without the networks of organised crime.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/zuwanderer-und-kriminalitaet-mord-in-freiburg-ein-absoluter-ausnahmefall-1.3291719-2 ))

Speaking on the Muslim debating programme Forum am Freitag, sociologist Ahmet Toprak highlighted that the perpetrators of violent crimes, particularly sex offences, generally share a set of characteristics—across all ethnic or religious divides. Aside from psychopathological diseases these characteristics include social isolation, lack of education, a history of violence running in the family, as well as intense experiences of violence during childhood and adolescence.(( https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-16-dezember-2016-fluechtlinge-und-gewalt-100.html ))

Putting crime into perspective

Empirical figures as well as sociological and criminological studies thus put into perspective the alarmist language on crime and criminality supposedly emanating from refugees and immigrants. Yet they also highlight particular problem areas.

Immigrants driven from their countries of origin by poverty and lack of economic opportunity with slim chances of obtaining a residence permit in Germany are more likely to become enmeshed in crime. This is particularly true if these criminal organisations already have a strong presence in the home countries (and are perhaps even the ones who can facilitate and finance the travel of migrants to Germany and Europe).

Moreover (and even more difficultly), among the many immigrants fleeing war and persecution, there might very well be a certain number whose own biographies of violence and dislocation make them more prone to the commission of violent acts. This is of course not the same as claiming that, for instance, ‘Afghans as such’ are criminals.

Yet such nuance might be difficult to maintain in a context in which the failure to explicitly ‘name and shame’ a sex offender if he is an immigrant is lambasted as complicity in political correctness.

Germany debates racial profiling after controversial police action targeting North Africans

Mass sexual assaults in Cologne a year ago

During the 2015/2016 New Year’s Eve celebrations, hundreds of women were sexually assaulted and robbed on the plaza outside Cologne’s main railway station opposite the city’s Gothic cathedral. Victims consistently described the perpetrators as men of Arab and/ or North African origin.

One year later, very few of these men have been convicted of any crimes, mainly due to the difficulty of identifying any particular individual and his actions in a teeming crowd caught on grainy CCTV footage. Yet the political ramifications of the mass sexual assaults have been momentous, with the events in Cologne constituting one of the turning points in Germany’s move towards a more restrictive immigration policy over the past year.

Political fallout

The sexual assaults in Cologne were not only followed by a harshened discourse on immigration, however. They also gave rise to renewed discussions about the presumed cultural or civilizational incompatibility of Arab Muslims with European or German values; a debate that was more often than not marked by the recycling of old Orientalist stereotypes.(( http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/01/19/new-year%E2%80%B2s-eve-assaults-on-women-the-cologne-outcry/ ))

The events of Cologne were also grist to the mill of the populist AfD in another sense: since the sexual assaults were not reported in the national media for days, it appeared that the mainstream media and the political establishment were covering up the offences of immigrants out of a misguided impulse of political correctness. This accusation was also directed at Cologne’s police, who were lambasted from the right for failing to immediately and explicitly identify the perpetrators as Arabs and North Africans.

Learning from past mistakes?

This year, the Cologne police department appears to have been eager to prevent any conduct that could lead to renewed accusations of intransparency or political correctness. Ahead of the New Year’s Eve celebrations, police presence was also further augmented against the backdrop of the truck attack against a Berlin Christmas market on December 19.

Subsequently, on New Year’s Eve the police stopped and surrounded up to 1,300 men of North African origin while they were trying to reach the central plaza in front of the Cathedral. Police asserted that the men resembled “last year’s clientele”. They were said to stand out by a heightened “basic aggressiveness”. Police expelled 190 men from the premises, detained 92 and provisionally arrested 27. 10 cases of sexual assault were reported.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/koelner-silvesternacht-polizei-verteidigt-kontrollen-von.1818.de.html?dram:article_id=375275&utm_campaign=buffer&utm_content=buffer2fe62&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com ))

Questionable terminology

These measures have ignited a fierce debate on questions of race and racism. One of the communications made by Cologne’s police department proved particularly controversial: in a since-deleted tweet designed to keep the population up to date, police had announced that “several hundred Nafris are being checked at the central station.”(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-01/koeln-silvesternacht-polizei-nafris-vorwuerfe ))

The term “Nafri”, as police subsequently explained, serves as an abbreviation for ‘North African Intensive Criminal Offender’. The co-chair of the Green Party, Simone Peters, criticised such language as a “degrading group label” that was “completely inacceptable” due to its racist connotations.(( http://www.rp-online.de/politik/koeln-polizei-faengt-in-der-silvesternacht-hunderte-nordafrikaner-ab-aid-1.6497990 ))

While Cologne’s chief of police subsequently apologised for the usage of the term ‘Nafri’, he still defended the overall police operation as legitimate and proportionate. “It is simply the case”, he asserted, “that based on experiences of the last New Year’s Eve, and based on experiences gained through police operations more generally, we got a clear picture of which individuals had to be checked.” And these, he added, “were not grey-haired old men or blonde young women.”(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-01/koeln-silvesternacht-polizei-nafris-vorwuerfe ))

Public opinion supportive

Public opinion as well as leading politicians from virtually all parties have been very supportive of this stance taken by the police. Simone Peter was disparaged in Germany’s top-selling daily newspaper, Bild, as “green-fundamentalist intensive windbag out of touch with reality”.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-01/cem-oezdemir-koeln-polizeieinsatz-simone-peter?utm_content=zeitde_redpost_zon_link_sf&utm_campaign=ref&utm_source=facebook_zonaudev_int&utm_term=facebook_zonaudev_int&utm_medium=sm&wt_zmc=sm.int.zonaudev.facebook.ref.zeitde.redpost_zon.link.sf ))

Beyond glib assertions and facile insults, however, the events of New Year’s Eve highlight that the Cologne police was caught in a real bind. The political fallout from a failure to prevent a repetition of mass sexual assaults would have been uncontrollable. Consequently, the police already announced prior to December 31 that it had lowered its “threshold of intervention” in order to guarantee a maximum of security.

And indeed, from a purely operational logic focused on the prevention of crimes, it is difficult to argue with the police’s observation that based on past experience it was not unreasonable to direct special attention to large groups of young men of North African descent. The balance between racism and discrimination on the one hand and security and necessary police work on the other hand appears exceedingly difficult to strike.

Questions of racial profiling

Nevertheless, all of this leaves behind an unsavoury aftertaste of racial profiling. The AfD Hamburg was, in fact, quick to assert that the Cologne police action showcased the need for precisely such profiling: “living in an open society means having to decide between racial profiling and mass assaults”. In a string of tweets, the AfD also gleefully picked up on the term ‘Nafri’, now using it as a racially charged catch-all phrase designating North African men in general.(( https://twitter.com/afd_hamburg?lang=en ))

Amnesty International has criticised the conduct of the police as a form of racial profiling violating human rights and likely to entrench stereotypes and prejudices. The organisation questioned whether the police had possessed enough individualised evidence against the hundreds of young men controlled.(( http://amnesty-polizei.de/massives-racial-profiling-durch-die-koelner-polizei-in-der-silvesternacht-massnahme-muss-kritisch-aufgearbeitet-werden/ ))

Tahir Dellar, chair of the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD) noted that, in contrast to its usual practice of categorically denying any racial profiling, this time the Cologne police openly admitted to stopping individuals purely on the basis of ethnic criteria. Dellar assumed that this unusual openness about discriminatory police action was due to the fact that the police expected majority society to support discriminatory policies, as long as they were directed against North Africans.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/silvesternacht-in-koeln-wie-deutschland-mit-racial-profiling-umgeht-1.3317987 ))

Need for a broader public debate

Germany has witnessed periodic court cases on racial profiling, as well as occasional parliamentary debates on this subject matter.(( http://dip21.bundestag.de/dip21/btd/18/004/1800453.pdf )) However, in contrast to the UK or the US, there is limited public awareness of issues of race and ethnicity in connection with police work.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/silvesternacht-in-koeln-wie-deutschland-mit-racial-profiling-umgeht-1.3317987 ))

German police and security services have struggled to attract immigrants or their children to their forces. A 2011 study highlighted that high-school graduates of Turkish descent were not convinced that they would be welcome in the ranks of the police. The collective failure of police and intelligence services to uncover the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi terrorist group that killed above all immigrants, has further entrenched the perception that the police is unconcerned with racism at best and itself institutionally racist at worst.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2013-03/migranten-polizei-fremdenfeindlichkeit ))

The conduct of police operations in Cologne has prompted some – not just Arab Muslims – to share their stories of what they deem to be unwarranted racial profiling.(( https://correctiv.org/recherchen/flucht/artikel/2017/01/03/racial-profiling-neun-monaten-hat-mich-die-berliner-polizei-23-mal-kontrolliert/?utm_content=buffer7436b&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer )) This is an important development: questions of race and racial profiling need to be openly addressed; and the police itself must become more representative of an increasingly diverse society. Only then can the police claim that its – perhaps well-meaning and necessary – actions on New Year’s Eve were also legitimate.