Forever in transit: New report highlights plight of Syrian refugees

For his reportage “Stranded. Refugees Between Syria and Europe” the writer Tayfun Guttstadt travelled to the cities of Turkey and along the Turkish-Syrian border. In conversation with Sonja Galler, he talks about the precarious situation faced by Syrian refugees, their legal status and Turkey′s lack of any kind of integration concept

Turkey is one of the most important transit nations for refugee flows en route to Europe. At the same time, Turkey has itself become a migration country in recent years: at around three million, the nation hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees worldwide. NGOs estimate the actual number of Syrians in Turkey is closer to 3.5 million, as not all refugees have been registered yet.

For the EU and the Turkish government, the six-figure number may first and foremost serve as an argument in a domestic and foreign policy game that both areplaying to serve their own political ends. But how are the refugees themselves faring? Those that are “stranded” in Turkey and decided to remain there for a wide variety of reasons.

The Hamburg writer Tayfun Guttstadt, who reported on the Gezi protests in his first book “Capulcu“, has resumed his travels and spent time talking to (among others) Syrian refugees between Istanbul, Hatay, Gaziantep and Diyarbakir about their lives, political views, hopes and disappointments.

Strong desire to return home

The resulting work is a densely narrated reportage, abundant with conversations with friends, casual acquaintances and people from all walks of life, sprinkled with observations and background information. It provides a manifold insight into the precarious social and legal situation of Syrians and other refugees in the country, people who fluctuate between staying and travelling on.

“Most refugees live in hope of being able to return soon. Others feel at home in Turkey, because for example the culture is quite similar, or they’ve found a job, or made friends. Others stay because they don’t know what else to do. Other reasons to stay are the fear of continuing illegally to Europe or doubts over whether things would be better there,” says Guttstadt.

Only a small percentage of the refugees are living in one of the camps set up by the Turkish government close to the Syrian border and from which only a few more than airbrushed images reach the public domain. Just as it is to other journalists, access is also denied to Guttstadt on his travels.

Poverty risk in the metropolis

The overwhelming majority muddle through in one of the country’s cities. There may be more opportunities here, but the risk of falling into poverty is also high: refugees often live in over-priced, cramped accommodation working without permits “for a pittance in industry or on a building site, fielding accusations that they’re taking work away from Turks and Kurds,” says Guttstadt.

Without a work permit – something that few employers go to the trouble of obtaining for their employees – access to welfare is barely possible. Child labour, in the textile industry for example, is also an issue. However, the authorities frequently turn a blind eye to illegal work or new businesses that haven’t been correctly registered.

But Guttstadt does include more positive biographies in his book and reports on wealthy individuals who have rented or even bought apartments and houses and who have relocated their businesses to Turkey. Artists, intellectuals and musicians gather in Istanbul, which has developed into one of the exile centres of Syrian intellectuals alongside Gaziantep and Berlin.

A peculiarity of the Turkish asylum system means, however, that in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention, the refugee status does not apply to Syrians for whom a special status was created in Turkey, which officially allows them to use the public health system and now the education system too. But there is often a lack of appropriate capacity to guarantee these promised rights.

In this context, the reportage also shines a light on civil society efforts: the local initiatives and aid organisations that offer support to the refugees, sometimes under makeshift conditions, trying to offer language courses and provide psychosocial support. Guttstadt also visits the controversial aid organisation IHH, predominantly active in the Sunni milieu – the offshoot of which was banned in Germany.

No integration concept

But we also hear the views of people on the street, taxi drivers and their highly subjective comments, which range from racist resentment through to understanding and expressions of empathy, show that in Turkey too, the issue is emotionally charged.

“First and foremost among nationalist AKP opponents, there is a commonly-held view that the Syrians are living the high life at the expense of the country’s citizens. The most vociferous supporters on the other hand are full of religious pathos, in which the needs and interests of the refugees barely play a role. Very few actors in Turkey recognise that the refugees deserve the same rights as any other person,” says Guttstadt.

Guttstadt also has unequivocal words of criticism for the Turkish government: “There is no discernible integration concept, the situation is characterised by emergency solutions. Always under the assumption that a few ‘guests’ have to be looked after just for a short while, because Assad will in any case be toppled tomorrow or the day after. None of the parties giving serious attention to the rights of refugees. The AKP uses a romanticised rhetoric, which barely conceals its political exploitation of the situation, above all in domestic and EU policy,” says Guttstadt.

The discussion concerning the naturalisation of Syrian refugees is also to be viewed in this context: It is “controversial because the AKP is doing all it can to fit the majority Sunni refugees – non-Sunnis only come to Turkey unwillingly – into its social model.”

Sonja Galler

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Outspoken defender of women’s rights founds a gender-equal mosque in Berlin

 

The – patchy and insufficient – provision of religious spaces and services for Germany’s growing Muslim population has become a fiercely political issue. This is not only linked to a general and widespread sense of hostility towards Islam and its spatial visibility in the form of mosques, minarets, and headscarves. Rather, it is also due to the fact that much attention is now focused on the real and supposed political influence mosques and Islamic associations wield over Muslims.

The country’s largest Islamic associations have been a particular object of criticism in this regard: politicians from across the ideological spectrum have lambasted these organisations as too conservative or even reactionary and as too beholden to foreign interests. Whilst they continue to figure in government-sponsored forums of dialogue – such as the national-level German Islam Conference – as well as more local initiatives, they are increasingly viewed as unfit to be considered legitimate Muslim representatives.

A ‘liberal’ mosque

To these critics, the foundation of a self-consciously ‘liberal’ mosque community in Berlin must be a welcome sign of change: a well-known activist of Turkish-Kurdish heritage, Seyran Ateş, announced the opening of the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe mosque, marked by its gender equality and its openness towards all Islamic currents.(( https://international.la-croix.com/news/women-imams-to-help-lead-prayers-at-new-mosque-in-berlin/5201 ))

The mosque, which is an explicit counter-project to the established Islamic associations, will hold its first Friday prayers on June 16. Every Friday, a man and a woman will both function as Imams and jointly lead the service. Ateş herself is seeking to become an Imam. What is more, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, an openly gay prayer leader from Marseille, France, will also participate in the Friday session of June 16.(( https://international.la-croix.com/news/women-imams-to-help-lead-prayers-at-new-mosque-in-berlin/5201 ))

Defence of women’s rights

The project – notably with its feminist reading of Islamic religiosity, expressed by its insistence on gender-mixed prayers and on the prominent role given to female Imams – inscribes itself into Ateş’ long-standing fight against patriarchal structures of oppression.

A lawyer by training, Ateş has spent the bulk of her career defending the rights of Muslim women against abusive family relations, forced marriages, and so-called ‘honour killings’. During a consultation with a client in 1984, the client’s enraged husband made his way to Ateş’ office and shot both his wife and Ateş. While the wife died, Ateş spent several years recovering from her life-threatening injuries.

Following the 2009 publication of her book Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution (Der Islam braucht eine sexuelle Revolution), Ateş received a number of death threats that caused her to reduce her public appearances. She also closed down her lawyer’s practice temporarily, before reopening it in 2012.

Muslims ‘need to enlighten Islam’

Ateş laid out her vision for the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe mosque in an impassioned and highly personal op-ed for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. She recounts how her late father no longer felt at home in Berlin’s mosques due to their conservatism, and how at his burial the male Muslim clergy made her feel like a second-class believer. “Nowhere do I feel as discriminated against as in mosques”, she asserts – and goes on to ask: “Is my religion the business of men only?”(( http://www.zeit.de/2016/22/islam-reform-liberale-moscheen-berlin/komplettansicht ))

Against these entrenched tendencies, Ateş sees her new mosque as making a contribution to the “reform of our religion” and as helping to address the “modernisation problem in Islam”. For Ateş, Muslims “finally need to enlighten” their religion: “Not every tradition is worthy of being kept. Not every pious resistance to what is novel is truly pious.”((http://www.zeit.de/2016/22/islam-reform-liberale-moscheen-berlin/komplettansicht ))

A political minefield

At the same time, Ateş is aware that by opening a mosque, she is entering a political minefield where she faces opposition not only from the side of Muslim traditionalists but also from the political right. In her opinion piece she recounts how her past activism against the oppression of mainly Turkish Muslim women has – albeit unintentionally – made her a respected persona at the Islamophobic end of the spectrum.

According to Ateş, when she posted good wishes for a Muslim religious festival on facebook, some of her friends and followers were outraged – even though they very much appreciated Ateş’ acknowledgement of Christian and Jewish religious celebrations.(( http://www.zeit.de/2016/22/islam-reform-liberale-moscheen-berlin/komplettansicht ))

Undoubtedly for this reason, Ateş also refuses the label of ‘critic of Islam’ (Islamkritikerin), with which she is often connected in the German media: “I am not an ‘Islamkritikerin’”, Ateş asserted in a recent interview. “If anything, then I’m a critically-minded person overall. That I make critical statements on certain matters of religion, including of Islam, does not mean that I am not devout.”(( http://www.taz.de/!5395895/ ))

‘Liberal’ or ‘Islamophobic’?

These issues highlight the political difficulties the mosque project will encounter, squeezed between the Scylla of religious conservatism and the Charybdis of being co-opted by the far-right as a fig-leaf for an Islamophobic agenda. As to whether Ateş’ mosque in particular and her project of Islamic renewal in general will be able to withstand this test remains to be seen. Some doubts nevertheless appear apposite in this regard.

Notably, a number of the supporters of the ‘Freiburg Declaration of secular Muslims’ are to assume – as of yet unspecified – roles in the mosque and its community. These figures include Abdel-Hakim Ourghi, initiator of the Declaration, and Saida Keller-Messahli, chairwoman of the Swiss ‘Forum for a Progressive Islam’.(( http://www.taz.de/!5395895/ ))

The Declaration – whose language of religious reform and enlightened secularism Ateş echoes in her op-ed for the Zeithad divided Germany’s liberal Muslims. The Liberal-Islamic Union swiftly condemned its initiators of “having become the accomplice of racist and Islamophobic discourses”, adding that “[a] ‘liberal’ Islam stops being liberal where it unreflectingly falls into line with marginalising discourses of mainstream society.”

Traditionalism, Islamism, jihadism

Ateş otherwise moving defence of her mosque project in her op-ed is not free from some regrettable tendencies in this regard. At times, the piece appears to veer uncomfortably close to amalgamating Islamic traditionalism, Islamist activism, and jihadist violence.

To be sure, each of these forces are formidable; and they may – all in their own way – undermine a genuinely inclusive, progressive, and vibrant Islamic religiosity. Yet this does not make them one and the same: Islamic traditionalism, infused with local norms going back to the modus vivendi of ancestral generations in rural Anatolia, does indeed hold back many Muslim women living in Germany.

Nevertheless, the Islamist challenge is structurally and ideologically different, particularly insofar as Islamism seeks to break with many of these traditional fora and modes of authority. Jihadist violence is again different in both means and ends, and in its perspective on women. One is left to wonder as to whether it is either theologically accurate or politically far-sighted to castigate mainstream conservatism by ranging it with the most barbaric jihadist killings and doctrinal innovations.

Need for enhanced public clout and credibility

Against this backdrop, Seyran Ateş’ very public persona may very well turn out to be both a blessing and a curse for her new mosque project. On the one hand, her long and courageous struggle for women’s rights may enable her to make herself heard to all those who would otherwise regard the foundation of a mosque with suspicion.

Ateş might, in other words, be able to galvanise more political support among decision-makers in Berlin. This is an all-important asset: in the past, the foundation of strong, visible ‘liberal’ mosques that could function beyond the purview of the conservative associations has often failed due to a lack of political clout.

More generally, it is surely an important development to see someone like Ateş, who has for a long time fought the gender violence commonly associated with Islam in Western public perceptions and who thus cannot be seen as being ‘too soft’ on uncomfortable issues besetting the faith, should openly vindicate her right to be a practicing Muslim herself.

A difficult trajectory ahead

On the other hand, critical questions might be asked as to who or what legitimises Ateş, who has not shown a marked interest in Islamic religiosity in the past, to open a mosque. One might also wonder whether it is helpful for her to publish another book on the day of the mosque opening, titled Selam, Mrs. Imamin: How I Founded a Liberal Mosque in Berlin. There appears to be a real risk that the new mosque becomes Mrs Ateş’ vanity project rather than a way of supporting a process of reflection on the part of Muslim communities.

For now, although Ateş’ books are already in print, the mosque’s work remains unaccomplished as the first Friday prayers are yet to be held. The mosque also does not have its own buildings so far: initially, services will take place on the premises of the Church of Saint-John (Sankt-Johannis) in the Moabit district of Berlin.

Ateş hopes that she will be able to witness the construction of a true mosque building at a later stage. In this respect, it remains to be seen whether her project will come to be a powerful manifestation of a liberal Islam, or whether it will be derailed by political vicissitudes in the meantime.

Islamic group drops cemetery plan in Massachusetts town

WORCESTER, Mass. — An Islamic group no longer plans to build a Muslim cemetery in a small Massachusetts town following a contentious fight for approval.

The Islamic Society of Greater Worcester announced Thursday it’s dropping its plan for a cemetery in the town of Dudley. The group says it wants to build in Worcester instead.

On Wednesday, federal officials announced they had closed an investigation into whether Dudley violated the civil rights of the group when the town rejected the cemetery proposal. The town later agreed to allow the group to build a cemetery.

Black Muslims aim for unity in challenging time for Islam

Many Muslims are reeling from a U.S. presidential administration that’s cracked down on immigrants, including through the introduction of a travel ban that suspends new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and is now tied up in court. But black American-born Muslims say they have been pushed to the edges of the conversations — even by those who share the same religion.

They say they often feel discrimination on multiple fronts: for being black, for being Muslim and for being black and Muslim among a population of immigrant Muslims.

Central to the issue, experts say, is that Islam is largely portrayed as something foreign. That’s a misconception University of San Francisco professor Aysha Hidayatullah encounters when teaching an “Islam in America” class where she looks at Islam’s presence in America from the slave trade to civil rights — something that is a surprise to many of her students.

“It’s a class that is focused mainly on recovering the black memory of Islam in this country,” she said. “That’s the element that’s forgotten.”

 

Democratic Union for French Muslims receives only three sponsorships

Kamel Messaoudi, candidate for the Democratic Union for French Muslims in the upcoming presidential elections, received three elected sponsorships according to the latest official figures. The number falls far below the 500 sponsorships necessary to validate his candidacy, he thus officially fails to take part in the elections.

“In a time of the ‘battle against the burkini’, amidst proposals of banning the veil in universities or public places, our social rights are being sacrificed,” he stated. “While political actors have worked to create categories of citizens, we campaign to strengthen our country by enhancing its richness, which is based in all of its citizens, without distinguishing among them.”

 

 

The ECJ’s ruling on the hijab in the workplace: Implications for Germany

On March 14, the European Court of Justice issued a widely expected and potentially consequential ruling on the right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf in their workplace. In its decision, the Luxembourg Court appeared to grant a surprisingly wide leeway to private sector employers to restrict their workers’ right of religious freedom.

The cases under scrutiny

The cases had been brought by two Muslim women from Belgium and France, respectively, who had been fired for wearing a hijab. In the case of the French plaintiff, the Court argued that her dismissal had been illegal insofar as it had seemingly been based on the complaint of a single customer who disliked the fact that she wore the Muslim head covering.

Conversely, a workplace ban on the hijab can be compliant with European directives on anti-discrimination, religious freedom, and worker’s rights, according to the Court. Preconditions for the legality of such a ban include (a) the generalised nature of the provision so that not just the hijab but all religious symbols are targeted; and (b) the existence of good reasons for such a ban.((See http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=188853&pageIndex=0&doclang=SV&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=333910 for the decision.))

German reactions to the verdict

Muslim figures and associations in Germany have reacted with dismay to the ruling. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) criticised that the ruling amounted to “a renunciation of guaranteed liberty rights”.

According to the ZMD, the decision risks forcing women to decide between religious convictions and employment, meaning that constitutional guarantees of anti-discrimination and religious freedom “are not worth the paper they are written on.”(( http://zentralrat.de/28546.php )) The sentiment was echoed by the chairman of the German DİTİB branch, Bekir Alboğa.(( http://www.handelsblatt.com/politik/deutschland/kopftuch-verbot-islam-verbaende-kritisieren-eugh-urteil-/19515956.html ))

Green party politician Volker Beck criticised that the verdict was “not a good signal for freedom and pluralism”, while the Commissioner for anti-discrimination of the federal government warned that employers should be careful and sparing in prohibiting the hijab.(( https://de.qantara.de/content/eugh-erlaubt-kopftuch-verbot-im-job-aber-mit-auflagen ))

Legal theory vs. politicised practice

The Court’s verdict does indeed raise numerous questions. The first of them is above all practical and concerns the decision’s real-life implications. To be sure, on paper the Court’s verdict displays a considerable amount of acumen: the judges highlight, for instance, that a workplace rule on religious symbols that is “apparently neutral” on paper but in fact results in discrimination of particular beliefs is illegal.((See http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=188853&pageIndex=0&doclang=SV&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=333910, paragraph 32))

Yet it seems that here the Court simply chose to hide behind what verges on legal sophistry. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper pointed out, in its practical repercussions the verdict will almost exclusively target Muslim women since it is the hijab—rather than any other religious symbol—that has become the object of political debate in recent years.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/karriere/religionsfreiheit-am-arbeitsplatz-der-islam-wird-als-stoerend-betrachtet-1.3419227 )) Legal decisions do not occur in a political void.

Fundamental questions of rights in a capitalist economy

The second issue that the verdict raises is of a more principled nature. It is indeed striking that the ECJ saw no problem with allowing private sector employers to restrict the religious freedom of their workers while only providing the haziest of all guidelines as to when such restrictions are legitimate.

Some commentators have asserted that the verdict constitutes a victory of French-style laïcité over the kind of tolerance other Member States have continued to exhibit vis-à-vis religion in the public sphere.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/karriere/religionsfreiheit-am-arbeitsplatz-der-islam-wird-als-stoerend-betrachtet-1.3419227 )) Yet in contrast to laïcité, which is above all concerned with the public sphere of citizenship, the Court’s decision signals an empowerment of the private sector and a victory of capital over workers’ rights.

The German legal context

Within the particularities of the German context, the precise implications of the verdict are, however, not yet quite clear. Legal contestation over the headscarf in Germany has focused on the public sector. In recent years, Germany’s Constitutional Court has declared blanket bans of the hijab in this area to be unconstitutional.

Yet courts have also dealt with private sector cases. In 2002, the Federal Labour Court decided in favour of a Muslim shop assistant who had been fired because of her headscarf. Conversely, church-related (and hence confessional) private sector employers were given greater leeway to prohibit their staff from wearing headscarves in 2014.(( http://www.zeit.de/news/2017-03/14/eu-kopftuch-verbot-am-arbeitsplatz-diskriminierung-oder-nicht-14075603 ))

Courts of lower instance have subsequently regularly—but not always—struck a comparatively permissive line, allowing the headscarf to be worn; or at least declaring that the particular prohibitions of the hijab that Muslim claimants had challenged were not legally sound.(( http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/07/15/german-hijab-debate-court-vetoes-current-restrictions-hijab-bavarian-justice-system-caveat/, http://www.euro-islam.info/2017/02/10/hijab-german-public-schools-new-court-case-lets-old-questions-resurface/))

Clashing legal doctrines

For now, the ECJ’s ruling raises the spectre of differential standards in public and private sectors, with the former governed by the more liberal German provisions and the latter under the influence of the more restrictive interpretation from Luxemburg.

In the longer term, the ECJ’s decision highlights the question of a possible clash between German and European law on the matter of the headscarf.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/karriere/religionsfreiheit-am-arbeitsplatz-der-islam-wird-als-stoerend-betrachtet-1.3419227))

Virginia’s Eloquent Lawsuit Brilliantly Connects the Muslim Ban to Segregation

On Friday, a federal judge allowed Virginia to intervene in ongoing litigation over Donald Trump’s Muslim ban in order to protect Virginians who might be detained, deported, or denied re-entry under the executive order.  The state’s complaint eloquently explains why the ban infringes upon immigrants’ due process and equal protection rights while violating The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. However, the most striking section arrives at the end when the state invokes Justice John Marshall Harlan’s famous dissent from the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson:

This is a monumental case involving a monumental abuse of Executive Power. So it is worth remembering another monumental case, Plessy v. Ferguson, that enshrined in American law—for more than a half century—the approval of government-mandated racial segregation. The majority in Plessy reasoned that government-mandated segregation “does not discriminate against either race, but prescribes a rule applicable alike to white and colored citizens.” We admire the first Justice Harlan for putting the lie to that claim: “Every one knows” what was being justified, he said. The same is true here.

Trump Effect: Jewish and Muslim Organizations Form New Alliance

A new Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council will work to protect religious minorities’ rights as well as other ‘issues of common concern.’

Less than a week after an election that left many minority and religious groups in the United States feeling disenfranchised, two important organizations – one Jewish and the other Muslim – announced an unusual alliance on Monday.

The American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America have teamed up to form a new national group of leading Jewish and Muslim Americans: The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council.

In a press release, the AJC said that the new group “brings together recognized business, political and religious leaders in the Jewish and Muslim American communities to jointly advocate on issues of common concern.”

Attacks on Muslim Americans Fuel Increase in Hate Crime, F.B.I. Says

WASHINGTON — The F.B.I. reported Monday that attacks against American Muslims surged last year, driving an overall increase in hate crime against all groups.

The data, which is the most comprehensive look at hate crime nationwide, expanded on previous findings by researchers and outside monitors, who have noted an alarming rise in some types of crimes tied to the vitriol of this year’s presidential campaign and the aftermath of terrorist attacks at home and abroad since 2015.

That trend appears to have spiked in just the last week, with civil rights groups and news organizations reporting dozens of verbal or physical assaults on minorities and others that appear to have been fueled by divisions over the election.

In its report on Monday, the F.B.I. cataloged a total of 5,818 hate crimes in 2015 — a rise of about 6 percent over the previous year — including assaults, bombings, threats, and property destruction against minorities, women, gays and others.

Attacks against Muslim Americans saw the biggest surge. There were 257 reports of assaults, attacks on mosques and other hate crimes against Muslims last year, a jump of about 67 percent over 2014. It was the highest total since 2001, when more than 480 attacks occurred in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Muslim leaders applaud Council of State ruling

Following the Council of State’s suspension of the anti-burkini orders in Villeneuve-Loubet, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) welcomed the ruling, calling it a “sensible decision,” and a “victory of rights, [and] wisdom.”

According to the CFCM’s Secretary General Abdallah Zekri, “This sensible decision will help defuse the situation, which was marked by high tensions among our Muslim compatriots, notably women.” He added that it was “a victory of rights, of wisdom, of promoting our country’s vivre ensemble”

The Grand Mosque of Lyon called on Muslims to be “proud of France.”

“This court decision serves as a symbolic model,” said the mosque’s rector Kamel Kabtane. “To those who argue, not without violence, that Islam has no place in France, in Europe, in the West…The Council of State has opposed them. Islam has its place in the Republic and the legal realm regarding a Muslim’s freedom of conscience, whether it be in the mosque or swimming in the ocean.”