New Citizens for Old: How Islamophobia makes Contemporary Germany

As narratives of belonging get narrower and narrower, Arzu Merali argues that Germany provides both worrying precedents as well as ways to move beyond the arguments that to be a citizen in the current age means to be and believe only one thing.

If this were a story or a play, there would need to be a prologue of some sort.  Setting the scene for the story to unfold would be the introduction of citizenship tests in the 2000s.  It demands respondents check the right boxes on issues such as homosexuality, ‘allowing’ girls to wear what they want, date who they want and so on. 

Shift scene. A doctor politely declines to shake the hand of the woman passing him his certificate of naturalisation.  The presentation was simply a formality – a celebration of this particular batch of ‘new citizens’.  It is 2015.  The doctor has scored the highest in his citizenship test – presumably the same or similar to those above.  The Baden-Württemberg courts would later agree that he had an ‘impeccable record of integration’ after arriving in Germany as a medical student in 2002.  In 2020, those courts found that the decision to strip him of his citizenship, based on that one act, was sound.  Why? The judgment, made in the middle of a pandemic that forbids the shaking of hands, or even standing within two metres of each other, was done so on the basis that the doctor had seen the bureaucrat’s hand as “posing the threat of sexual seduction.”  He explained that his refusal was based on a promise he made to his wife when they married and swore never to shake anyone’s hand ever again, whether male or female, to please the court, but it mattered not a jot.

Shift scene again.  Hundreds perhaps a few thousand protestors turn out annually in Berlin for the Quds Day march and rally.  Alongside the usual suspects – Zionists, Iranian monarchists and (some) communists – stand, adorned by or adorning Rainbow flags.  The politics of Germany demand that to be gay is to be anti-Palestine, because Palestine = Muslim = homophobia.  This is, it seems, constitutional.   But only with regard to Muslims. Whether or not shaking hands, or protesting Israeli human rights violations, Muslims it seems, cannot escape being defined by sex and sexuality using the most basic of racist tropes.  Incredibly this sexualisation of (the idea of) ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’, not only reproduces racist tropes about millions of German ‘new’ and ‘aspiring’ citizens and denizens, it creates a sexualised idea of Germanness, which, without doubt is equally absurd and in many ways just as dangerous – albeit in different ways – as the tropes that deny Muslims acceptance into the fabric of German political and national space.

(Lack of) integration, ontological difference and sexual deviance are three key tropes identified as being the most powerful in the narratives of Islamophobia in Germany.  In that, they are perhaps not so different to other European countries.  Those looking in from the outside, however, can find salutary lessons, particularly when it comes to the idea of citizenship, whereby indeed other Western(ised) governments are following Germany’s lead, and not necessarily in the way of best practice.

Blood or soil?  Old and new ways of being German

Why is any of this a surprise? Germany was until 2000, a country that defined citizenship on the basis of blood (jus sanguinis) long after this concept was, at least formally, rejected by most Western European powers.  A country with a devastating recent history of racism enacted at genocidal levels, might perhaps not be the most obvious candidate for promoting equality amongst its racialised communities, despite its very public repentance.  Except that there have been many moments in the recent history of Germany that gave hope to those watching externally and those living new Germanness internally:  the changing of laws of Citizenship, to the basis of birth (jus soli) as opposed to ethnicity; the ensuing social discourse and what seemed to be acceptance of the idea of multikulti (multiculturalism); as well as the acceptance of over one million mainly Muslim migrants during the crisis of 2015. These were events that bucked the European trend (not least when compared to the United Kingdom) in the same period, when other countries were moving away from multiculturalism (insofar as any had ever embraced it) as a form of social organisation.  Even the UK – the doyenne of the concept – had long moved towards strict immigration limits, a deportation regime named ‘the hostile environment’, the demonising and curtailing of asylum applications and rules and the hardening of ideas of what it means to be a citizen, particularly with regards to Muslim subjects.

That turn of millennium moment, when Germany legislated to make citizenship available to everyone born within its boundaries regardless of heritage, was a moment of both wonder and hope. The so-called new citizens heralded an age of multikulti in a country that has long ignored its racialised communities. In particular communities of Turkish, Moroccan and other Muslim heritages including from the Balkans had been treated purely as guest workers, with no interest from the authorities in integrating them in any meaningful way. These so-called guest workers who had arrived mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, as documented by John Berger in his seminal book A Seventh Man, came to fulfil the roles in German society that ethnic Germans did not want to take on.  As he recounts, their arrival was meant to be only a temporary moment in the history of those countries with similar arrangements. However, as the years turned into decades and the immigrants became settled, thousands of families were created and generations of German born denizens came into being of these various ethnic cultural and religious heritages.  Already at the turn-of-the-century those communities were thought to number in the millions with an estimate of maybe 3 – 4 million of Turkish heritage denizens only.  The recognition of the children of these communities as being entitled to German citizenship and therefore equality before the law was of course lauded in every circle concerned with basic civil, political and human rights.

Of course, there were denizens of different ethnic heritage including e.g. significantly many Italians and other European heritages, and herein lies the rub.  On the one hand you had a promise of equality, and on the other you already had at the outset a differential way of understanding new citizenship. This happened not least in the actual formal legal sense, whereby those of certain heritages, in particular Turkish heritage, could not upon adoption of German citizenship have a dual nationality. However, those of (EU) European heritage could hold dual nationality. To be a new citizen, did not mean equality from the get go. Ideas of religion and culture had already intermingled into law and policy to create different tiers of what it meant to be German.  Despite changes in the law the issue of dual nationality, with a focus on Muslim citizens, reignites and becomes part of political manifestos.

To add insult to injury, policy-speak developed the term (from circa 2005 according to Luis Hernandez-Aguilar) citizens of ‘immigrant background’.  Largely applied to those new citizens from Muslim backgrounds and in less than flattering contexts, ‘immigrant background’ is another confirmation that Muslims, even with the right paperwork, do not belong and there remains a barrier to their equality that relates to their nature (immigrant) as opposed to the failure of the state to accept that their citizenship means belonging and the right to equality.

The death of Multikulti, and the reprise of Eugenics

According to Marina Wasmer, the term ‘multicultural’ circulated during the late 1970s and the 1980s in church, union, social workers’ and teachers’ circles. The Green Party leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) intellectual Heiner Geißler and groups within the Social Democratic Party (SPD) were early proponents of a multicultural society.  From there Multikulti became a catchy refrain, sounding ‘fresh, modern and easy-going’.  However, much like the critique of multiculturalism in the UK as propounding a ‘saris and samosa’ approach to multicultural reality and problems, the public imagination in Germany appreciated mutlikulti in superficial, often ‘folkloric’ ways, as Wasmer highlights: “equating it with pizza and doner kebabs. Nowadays, multikulti and terms such as ‘dreams/dreamers’, ‘illusion’ or ‘naïve’ are frequently mentioned in the same breath, signifying its bad reputation.”

The death of the term came in tandem with the UK’s own dereliction of an idea that many argued hailed from its shores.  Announced as a failure by erstwhile UK Prime Minister David Cameron in 2011, it was done so at the Munich Security Conference, a year after Angela Merkel made similar comments about the utter failure of ‘multikulti’.  Cameron’s speech then (though arguably in many ways not dissimilar to the New Labour approach) was hailed and condemned as a follow-on from Merkel’s and Germany’s paradigm shift.  The Australian Sydney Morning Herald newspaper described the Cameron and Merkel approach as likely presaging a “chill in the melting pot”.  Identifying this approach’s salient feature as opposite to: ‘Australia’s more relaxed multiculturalism [which] has concentrated more on the positive contributions of other cultures to the mainstream, and has been quite successful as a result,’ it laments a ‘slow hardening of opinion now apparent overseas’ that may in time also become part of Australian discourse.  This all too prescient comment summarises how Islamophobic narratives travel across borders, with Australia now also standing accused under successive administrations of adopting an aggressively anti-multiculturalist policy.

Merkel and Cameron’s comments, coincide with Germany’s contemporaneous ‘debates’ provoked by the publication of Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab, (Germany Abolishes Itself) in 2010.  Sarrazin’s book conspicuously related statistics to eugenics and became Germany’s best-selling book in 2011. Sarrazin argued in his book that Germany was becoming dumber on account of the “growing” Muslim population while also writing about the “‘average higher intelligence of the Jews’ passed through a Jewish gene”.

This philosemitism (itself a form of antisemitism) informed Islamophobic narrative in subsequent years, has impacted on Muslim civil society organisation and political freedoms in ways that have eventually impacted wider society.  Perhaps as acutely concerning, is the unabashed return of eugenicist discourse.  A crude conversation about genetic inferiority and superiority of ‘races’ was at that time taboo across Europe, let alone in Germany, a country that prided itself on coming to terms with its racist and genocidal past.  Instead of seeing the clear associations and repetitions of tropes and racisms, Sarrazin’s book (though condemned in many intellectual circles) found warm reception in wider society including middle class and political circles.  According to Marina Wasmer this was, in part also due to the book’s proximity to arguments regarding Leitkultur (leading culture) feeding into controversy surrounding the concept .

Aristotle Kallis sounds a further alarm:

“the most eloquent measure of the book’s capacity for penetrating mainstream society lies elsewhere: it has sold more than 1.5 million copies, becoming an instant bestseller and going through numerous editions. Opinion polls conducted in late 2010 and 2011 revealed that about half of the population broadly agreed with Sarrazin’s line of argument, and a fifth of those polled would vote for a party that he would lead…”

Sarrazin’s focus on Muslims, their number but specifically their role as part of the nation (in this case negatively impacting the nation), again ‘distinguishes’ Muslims as errant or deviant citizens, who although integrated enough to lower the standard of the nation, must by this account not be allowed to do so.  The lens through which Muslims are then ‘distinguished’ whether by counting their numbers, identifying them as Muslim or creating policy to deal with their deficiency/ies, take on a meaning beyond simple bureaucratic or administrative concerns.  Germany has a very recent history of counting its citizens / denizens, racializing their characteristics and enacting laws to counter their ‘malign’ influence. 

Becoming what it is not, or erasing what it has been – Old/ New stories of Germany

There are, it seems two Germanys always, when discussing this issue.  A violent, chauvinistic entity self-defining around race – even co-opting the Christian faith into its narratives of nation.  And one that has resisted: from a culture of contrition after the Holocaust and in its West German iteration to a wholescale educational program of de-Nazification.  The former is the Germany that has seen in the post-Sarrazin years the rise of the Alternatif fur Duetschland (AfD) party, from foundation in 2013 to the largest parliamentary opposition party in 2021.  It is the Germany where ministers like Horst Seehofer can state that Islam has no place in Germany, and where a witch-hunt against pro-Palestinian activists and organisations has led to the banning of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions activities.  The latter is the one that saw 1000s of people come out in the streets of Dresden, Cologne and other cities to protest the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, Pegida movement, such protests involving Cathedrals, churches, automobile companies and local authority offices turning their lights off in solidarity against neo-fascism.  It is the Germany where leading members of cultural institutions have taken a public stance against the IHRA definition of anti-semitism being instrumentalised to close down criticism of Israel, and where the courts released the Humbolt Three.

Despite the counter-interventions to the move rightwards listed above, there seems to be no escaping the direction of travel in German society and politics.  It makes little difference if the Chancellor Angela Merkel states that, “Islam has… become part of Germany,” if it is prefaced by the statements that Germany has been historically Christian and Jewish, and are only made because the interior minister Horst Seehofer stated, “Islam does not belong in Germany.”  The narrative of belonging cuts across European(ised) borders.  What should be a right of citizenship – to feel part of the national body- has been subverted – or perhaps is yet to be realised – and it started long before Brexit-type movements took root.  Political culture currently allows or emboldens senior politicians to make statements like Seehofer’s, or parties like AfD can be elected on anti-Muslim and anti-migrant rhetoric.  Unless making such comments becomes taboo, as generally speaking anti-semitic narratives have become in Germany, there can be no transformation of Germany into the country its much proclaimed ‘contrition’ for past racism claimed it had become. 

Put simply, understanding the Holocaust and the events that led to it, is imperative if the current slide into unfettered state and social Islamophobia – and all the hatreds that come with it – is to be reversed.  Islamophobia, as academic and author Arun Kundnani in an interview with this author highlights, is a product of the deeper and wider problems that face society.  Unfettered Islamophobia policy and praxis leads inevitably – as the accelerated and structural demonisation of Jews a century ago has shown – to the targeting of other groups.  Think Jews, communists, Roma, the disabled and homosexuals in the 1930s and 1940s.  Think Muslims, immigrants, refugees now.  As France’s attacks on ‘Islamo-leftism’ or Britain’s putative crusade on the ‘radical’ left show, these processes are well underway.  In Germany, one of its many manifestations has been in the instrumentalisation of the IHRA definition of anti-semitism to attack firstly Muslim and then pro-Palestinian activity in general.

How can this cycle be disrupted?  The key is maybe in Merkel’s statement above.  She speaks of Germany as historically Christian and Jewish.  This is the official dogma of contrition Germany, yet for the longest time and in its Islamophobic resurgence the idea of Germanness as solely Christian is an idea co-opted to exclude the ‘other’, Jewish, Muslim, Marxist etc.  The idea that 100 years ago, a German head of state could say what Merkel has, is unfathomable.  By speaking thus, Merkel was creating a(nother) (new) story of the nation.  It’s part of nation building and, as Miriam François has pointed out on these pages, it can be done for the good and the bad.  Including Jewishness into German identity is essential, but then so too is to incorporate Islam and not simply as a latter force in social history.  The idea of Germany and Germanness as immutable – whether bordered ethnically, religiously or with fences and soldiers – is as fallacious as that of any other ‘nation’.  Just as the nation state is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, Germany itself is but 150 years old.  And in its nascent years, prior to the bloodshed and horror of the Second World War, there were Muslims aplenty in and a part of Germany.  As Luis Hernandez-Aguilar points out, Muslims as part of Germany society included those who met the criteria of ethnic Germanness; Muslims in Germany there to study or take part in cultural exchange; Muslims from the German colonies, including those brought to train to fight ‘jihad’ for the German state.  Their existence and the interactions between them, society and government puts to bed the lie that Islam is either a recent German phenomenon, seen as ‘immigrant’ so many generations down the line.

The wisdom of Nathan: Wasn’t Germany originally plural?

This is not just a German issue, but it pertains here as much as if not more than other European(ised) contexts.    Whilst those of us watching in 2000 from the UK, saw Germany at last slowly – in our naivety – catching up with the lead of British multiculturalism, it is in fact the increasingly constricted and racially bounded idea of citizenship being invoked by powerful political and social movements in Germany that has won the ideological day in the UK.  Hush.  Don’t tell the Brexiteers.

Ironically there is repeated and increasingly recent precedent that invokes the idea of Germany as Christian in favour of religious pluralism and latterly in favour of Islam and Muslims.  As arguments about and bans against the hijab raged (as they sadly still do) in 2004, the late President Johannes Rau invoked the 18th Century play Nathan the Wise – a text seen to be foundational to the German Enlightenment.  The play is set during an armistice in the Third Crusade and through various storylines, and the ‘ring parable’ within the tale, makes a call to religious pluralism and equality between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  Whilst invoked at the time of its creation as a call to equality for Jews and Deists in German (speaking) states, it again highlights that the idea of Islam as part of the cultural fabric of Germanness is hardly alien but indeed key to one of its constituent stories.

Speaking on the 275th anniversary of the playwright Gotthold Lessing’s birthday, Rau stated: ‘The democratic State of law recognizes the right to difference, but there is not a differential application of rights.’  He states further: ‘I do not want this. This is not my conception of a country shaped for many centuries by Christianity.’ And further:’ ‘humans of different faiths – Christians, Jews, Muslims – can live together as equals and this is good for everybody’. 

Frank Peter who discusses the importance of the play and Rau’s invocation of it states:

“His reference to Nathan the Wise serves Rau not only as evidence for the well-established feasibility of religious pluralism and its beneficial effects on society: ‘humans of different faiths – Christians, Jews, Muslims – can live together as equals and this is good for everybody’. Crucially it goes further, for it allows Rau to redefine the relationship between individual belief, legal order and the identity of the German nation. Rau’s reassessment of the power of law to shape German identity is based on the analogy drawn here between today’s multireligious Germany and Palestine at the time of Nathan the Wise.”

How ironic that this story is set in Palestine.

In the destruction of nuance or indeed common sense necessitated by the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-semitism, the fire of German chauvinism is fanned.  To be German is to be pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian, and then without irony invoke equality as a reason to deny Muslims citizenship, because of, well in the above cases, sex. Despite making so many new citizens and indeed new denizens, the conflict between two ideas of Germany has not been able to make those terms meaningful as one of pluralism.  Currently Muslims are held to account for beliefs they may or may not have in ways that ‘accepted’ (read ethnic, read Christian) Germans may or may not also share – as is their right.  Whilst denigrating Muslim views on homosexuality or perceived views on gender and using this as a bar to citizenship or civic participation, there is no equivalent process of denying participation or rights to the ethnic / Christian Germans who do actually hold those views or indeed racist views that deny others their basic humanity.  In official lore, such Germans do not exist.  As the voting patterns for right wing, and far-right parties show, and as the increasingly vitriolic voices of anti-Muslim racism across the political spectrum also show, these Germans exist aplenty.

Many of these would fail the citizenship test on any number of points.  Not least, maybe Chancellor Merkel herself who voted against legalising gay marriage in 2017, and whose party had always staunchly opposed it and favoured views on homosexuality more aligned with those espoused by Muslims based on their religious values.  If these views are deemed natural conservative politics, then for Germany to heal its split nation they must be understood to be the acceptable politics and values of Muslims and other minorities.  Equality and plurality are not easy.  They are often messy.  Their modalities need to be constantly checked and reviewed and there will always be tension between the competing ideas, ideologies, values and norms of everyone sharing the same space. 

Whither Germany? Sharing space or Expulsion?

Poster campaigns for AfD in 2017 and 2018 raised eyebrows momentarily inside and outside the country.  They are forgotten now – normalised.  One demands Islam free (Islamfrei) schools, reminiscent as many noted, of the Nazi era rhetoric demanding Judenfrei i.e. Jewish free areas.  In it, schoolgirls with short shorts and almost non-existent skirts skip along happy in their Islam-free whiteness.  This somewhat alarming, though less remarked, sexualisation of female children came off the heels of the previous year’s posters that included one entitled ‘Burkini? We Prefer Bikinis’.  The slogan was emblazoned across a photo of two women in skimpy bikinis seen from behind.  This co-option of the female body as Hernandez-Aguilar and Sarah Bracke argue, is integral to the idea of ‘authentic’ Germanness. Hardly models of liberation, this idea of German femininity has been invoked in another poster thus: a pregnant woman smiling – her head cut partly out of shot – lies on the ground with the slogan across: ‘New Germans: We will Make them by Ourselves.’

In the furore over the ‘migrant sex attack’ scandal of Cologne in 2015, when gangs of migrants were accused of attacking women during the New Year’s Eve celebrations in the city, there was little remark on Germans’ ‘own’ views on rape.  The attacks were used by political and social commentators as another way of accusing Muslims in particular of misogynistic and violent attitudes towards women – everything the citizenship tests were supposed to keep out.  Crudely there is a line of causality imagined in this type of magical legal thinking: allow Muslim men to not shake hands with women – and this is what happens.  As Korac highlights, whilst there was simply no evidence that the high number of attacks were perpetrated by Muslim (heritage) men – just that x amount of Muslim men were arrested by police that had clearly profiled them – there was little or no reflection on the views of the majority of German society on rape and sexual violence.  According to European Commission survey results published in 2016 not long after the notorious Cologne incident, 27% of Germans believe sex without consent is acceptable in some circumstances, including where the victim is ‘wearing provocative clothing’ and ‘not clearly saying no or fighting back’.  According to a study commissioned by the (German) Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, one in seven women in Germany experiences sexual violence. One in four women—irrespective of education level or socio-economic status—is exposed to domestic violence. The perpetrators are almost always men, among whom there is no significant distinction based on religion, background, educational level or social status. As Korac asks, what makes these attacks on women seem an ‘ordinary event’ as opposed to those in Cologne?  

If Muslims wanted to pervert the narrative we could argue, let a German man shake hands with a woman and this is what happens.  Except Muslims do not have the power or privilege (and maybe the prejudice) to make such assertions.

How to change the narrative?

The latest work of IHRC on the Domination Hate Model of Intercultural Relations (DHMIR) looks at Germany.  It has more detailed recommendations but a few are outlined below.  As with many they cross-cut with other ‘national’ experiences, and the UK, despite everything, has a few that can also inform.

A nuanced and robust citizenship education needs to be designed and provided across schools as a compulsory part of the curriculum in Germany.  This can and must provide contextual understanding of Europe and Germany’s long history of migration and cultural diversity, as well as engaging with the rights and equalities of citizenship that respect difference.

The project Our Migration Story, takes British schoolchildren and indeed anyone willing to learn through two thousand years of successive migrations to the UK highlighting the lack of one ethnos that makes anyone authentically British.  Germany as a nation of immigrants and migrants (before the Second World War, Germans were one of the most widely settled ethnicities across Europe, particularly in its East) can benefit from the long view of its ethnic, religious and national history.  Muslims, as has been briefly argued, have a much longer role in that history than current narratives will allow.  The historical presence of Muslims in Germany, and interactions between German history and culture with Islam and Muslims needs to be taught in history and literature classes in schools.

Re-establishing the idea of Christianness as faith and not nation is a role that both the state and the established churches in Germany must participate in (see the European Court of Justice advice to Germany that churches should not be exempted from anti-discrimination laws).  It should be noted that there are also many examples of good practice by Churches and church leadership on the issue of Islamophobia.

The role of the arts in not only promoting that vision (alongside news media) but also including Muslim voices in that process (as referred to above) in a democratic fashion, is essential.

The state and its institutions, however, need to lead.  A strong and unequivocal commitment to the full citizenship of Muslims and all racialised minorities must be made by the government.  Removing discriminatory citizenship regimes e.g. issues around dual citizenship, and discriminatory policy language like ‘immigrant background’.

As stated before, it is not enough for some ministers, or even the Chancellor to make conciliatory noises about the role of Islam and Muslims or other racialised minorities, when other political figures, groups and parties across the political spectrum can and do demonise with impunity.  There has to be a consistent and non-discriminatory frame of discussing racialised minorities.  There needs to be a normalisation of equalities in political speech, deviance from which is seen, rightly, as deviance from basic norms which result in sanction.  Put simply, disciplinary and even legal procedures as well as cultural disapprobation need to be brought to bear against politicians who seek to demonise Muslims.

It is clear that a deepening and widening understanding of social issues is required across the general polity of Germany, and this can only happen when the political discourse of the state and its political elite promotes nuance rather than demonisation; and a ‘new’ citizenship for all.

Arzu Merali is a writer and researcher based in London, UK.  She is one of the founders of Islamic Human Rights Commission, formerly editor in chief of Palestine Internationalist and currently one of the editors at The Long View.  She has contributed to the upcoming publication Muslim Experiences of Hatred and Discrimination in Germany alongside Saied R. Ameli and Ibraheem Mohseni Ahooei.  She is co-author of Environment of Hate: The New Normal for Muslims in the UK and other books, reports and articles on Islamophobia. Find her on Twitter @arzumerali.