‘But They Are Just as German’

The Holocaust is inescapable. Berlin, April 2018.

The right would like to confine Jew-hatred to the Muslim ghetto, counting on the self-satisfied post-war view that in German society the problem of anti-Semitism has, with a few extremist remnants here and there, been dealt with.

The performance of ‘historical lessons successfully learned’ this way often helps to re-normalise far-right views through the back door, something which Austria’s far-right FPÖ’s recent opportunistic statements against anti-Semitism demonstrate.

And indeed, the debate about anti-Semitism in the Muslim community takes the form of German society sitting in concerned judgment over a mute and objectified religious minority — a troubling constellation, which leads many to attempt to defensively change the subject back to Islamophobic prejudice. But there is a more optimistic way to understand this constellation: as one more sign that (former) immigrants are losing their minority status and are becoming a ‘normal’ part of society.

Of course, immigrants have been parts of German society for a very long time. But subtle cultural and social segregation, often working in conjunction with a starry-eyed, orientalist multiculturalism, has long allowed the social mainstream to view ‘them’ as mere minorities, which somehow live in this country without truly being a part of it.

What has changed over the past generation, and may well lie at the heart of the current anti-immigrant backlash, is the fact that this is no longer possible — both because second- and third-generation immigrants have become more visible in formerly ‘German’ spaces, and because German society itself has modernised, moving increasingly towards a more post-ethnic conception of citizenship.

The alarmist discourses around ‘Islamisation’, fundamentalism, and cultural difference which we have been fed steadily for two decades now are of course often merely problematic and xenophobic, if not outright racist. But they also point to the fact that for the mainstream of society, increasingly, cultural difference is no longer a strange, distant thing, but something that is encountered ever more immediately in daily life, and therefore needs to be … talked about.

Palestinian and German. Neukölln, April 2018.

The spaces where this encounter occurs are public schools, which are one of the few places — no matter how much we try to segregate them by class — in which citizens of liberal societies are forced to be together. Listened to closely, most debates about Muslim anti-Semitism are actually about education: about how to challenge young people with ignorant, if not hateful beliefs.

Tens, if not hundreds of thousand recent refugee children are now in German schools.  More often than not, in their home countries, they likely went to schools which subjected them to anti-Israeli state propaganda. And millions of German students are from immigrant and/or Muslim families which associate Judaism with the conflict in the Middle East but lack any personal connection to the historical crimes of the Nazis.

In addition, as schools become more diverse, bullying also often takes on an ethnic connotation. Before the now infamous Kippa incident, a spate of cases of anti-Semitic bullying made the news, followed by reports, (based on hearsay, not hard statistics, it should be added), that increasingly Jewish citizens prefer private religious schools to the public system. The (mostly unspoken) implication being: because of Muslims.

As the state struggles to institutionalise a modern form of Muslim religious education, people in the trenches of the education system have long had to find ways to accommodate these changing circumstances. My mother teaches in a Gymnasium in the Ruhrgebiet, a post-industrial region which decades ago attracted many mainly Turkish and Kurdish immigrants.

It is only in recent years, as the sons and daughters of these immigrant industrial workers moved into higher education, that her school also has become multi-ethnic. At the same time, the German education system no longer as reflexively confines children of refugees to the social margins as used to be the case, but aims to integrate them more fairly.

Since then, ‘these’ issues figure more prominently in a teacher’s usual complaints about growing workloads and worsening working conditions, not least because it is a practical challenge to teach recent refugees who speak little or no German. Some of her problems related to immigration are not just practical but ‘cultural’: Teaching sexual education to children from extremely conservative families, for example, which in that part of the country had barely been an issue before. And finally, sometimes my mother simply expresses anti-Islamic attitudes.

She complains about the gender-segregation in a nearby mosque, which she had not noticed previously. She is upset by the apparent lifestyle of some of the Muslim girls in her classes. She is angered by the fact that they always stick to themselves, and seem to do little more in life than stay home and look after their younger siblings. She even complains about the (quote) “ugly fucking grandma-clothes” they tend to wear with their headscarves or hijabs.

It would be easy to view in these statements merely a reluctance to accept difference or take them even as expressions of cultural chauvinism, and obviously, they would be that in certain contexts. Expressed privately, though, they are the frustrations of a progressive educator who refuses to view anyone as exempt from her concern merely because they have a different cultural background.

There is an interesting parallelism between my mother’s life and those daughters of Anatolian immigrants now sitting in her classroom, as she is herself only one generation removed from the rural Catholicism that shaped her own mother — the kind of world which had little else to offer women than becoming housewives and giving birth to up to a dozen children.

In the liberalising 1950s, 1960s, and finally, the feminist 1970s, when social consensus supported the emancipation of women, my mother was able to cut herself off from the religious conservatism of her own social background with relative ease. And yet her personal experience tells her that for daughters to be free, conservative fathers need to suffer, and communities will have to go through the experience of seeing their ‘culture’ under attack. Because often, their culture needs to be attacked.

An acquaintance is a daughter of Ahmadiyya Muslims from Pakistan who fled persecution and pogroms to Germany in the 1970s. It was a traumatic experience that tore her family apart, and landed her, just a few years old, in foster care little later. When her father took her back, she was five years old, and this only added another trauma.

In her family, even a young female child was naturally assigned a subservient role. A life of domestic servitude and forced marriage to another Ahmadiyya awaited her. As she puts it, even at that young age she had realised that she would not be able to live like this, that she would literally die. The five-year-old demanded to return to her German foster family, where she was able to grow up free of her cultural roots.

Of course, this case of “Kill the Ahmadiyya, save the woman” is an extreme example. But we should not underestimate the degree to which German society is for many immigrants an opportunity to emancipate themselves from the oppressive and obscurantist ‘cultural traditions’ they have been born into, something which German society if it is worth anything, has been involved in itself for a long time now.

In contrast to the attempts by populist conservatives to put on a show of Christian heritage as the glue holding society together, this progressive emancipatory tradition is real to millions of people in Europe and the world, and could supply the base of common citizenship beyond ethnic heritage.

The pitfalls of this anti-traditionalist perspective, which is undeniably tainted by colonialism and Western, racist chauvinism, are also most radically demonstrated by the case of the Ahmadiyya’s engagement with mainstream German society. Being themselves the victims of Islamist violence and persecution, they make a great effort to advertise themselves as a peaceful and non-threatening community.

Still, since their political-religious ideology obligates them to build 100 mosques throughout Germany, they are also the victim of endless Islamophobic agitation, often organized by extremist right-wing forces. Ahmadiyya, therefore, need protection, both from Islamists and from German nationalists. But at the same time, no progressive person can accept the way in which, in the closed-off world of their cult, both the subjugation of women and the teaching of rock-hard Islamist dogma take precedence.

This dilemma — protecting a religious minority and granting it the equal status in society, while at the same time taking seriously the harm done by their beliefs, or more correctly: by the institutions forming and influencing their beliefs — is what we are also facing, in a milder form, when confronting the larger parts of Europe’s Muslim population.

As much as xenophobia and racism are dangers to them, these people have other problems than that, and we would betray them by pretending that they don’t. And while talking about the ‘problematic’ nature of immigrant communities is — more often than not — simply grist to the xenophobic mill, it can also mean taking seriously the problems of what are, after all, our fellow citizens.

Ahmad Mansour, an Israeli-Arab who immigrated to Germany, will often be the person who gets the call from journalists who need an expert’s statement on another incident of young Muslim anti-Semitism. His work, like his bestseller Generation Allah, has sometimes been criticised for simplistically blaming social problems rooted in honour culture, but also anti-Semitism, on Islam.

On the other hand, it is one of his most basic arguments that it is not the religion, but the pedagogic traditions — often violent, patriarchal and shame-based — in Middle Eastern Muslim families that are most problematic. Some critics also suggest that Mansour, having himself grown up in an anti-Semitic milieu in Israel, and having been an Islamist in his youth, now displays the typical zeal of the renegade in damning Arab and Muslim culture. But few can deny that his insights into the problematic dimensions of Muslim youth culture are based not only on personal experience but also on his long-running work as a sort of political social worker among mainly immigrant youth in Berlin.

In a TV debate show inspired by yet another return of the eternal German discussion on anti-Semitism, this time inspired by a documentary on European anti-Semitism which controversially mainly focused on Muslims and the Palestinian conflict, he stated that “In some Muslim families, anti-Semitism is part of their education. Over generations, children are being taught that all over the world, Muslims are being oppressed. And it is Jews who are to blame.” He later goes on:

“We have seen how dangerous this can be. In the summer of 2014, synagogues were attacked, and Jews on the street. We have seen how this hatred of Jews can become deadly in Paris, Bruxelles, in Copenhagen. But that isn’t even the normal, everyday problem we are facing, which we can, for example, observe in schools. You will encounter students who, due to their socialisation, view Jews as enemies. This is being fed by parallel cultural worlds, in social media, on the Internet. Students ask sometimes about Freemasons, Illuminati, and online they receive the classical answers: that it is Israel, or the Jews, who control the world, who start wars and are responsible for everything unjust in the world. These are messages being consumed by hundreds of thousands every day, and it is our duty as educators to find practical concepts to reach these people. This (problem) did not just come to Germany in 2015, but it’s about people, for example, Turkish people, who have been living here for generations. And with the next Gaza war, I promise, we will have this same discussion again when they will march again, and move quickly from a critique of the war to “Jew, Jew, you cowardly pig!”, and to a very general agitation against Jews.”

Later Mansour added: “I am talking about specifically Muslim anti-Semitism because its origins are different (than the German version). It is based on religious education, in conspiracy theories …” He also warned against ‘excusing’ anti-Semitism with the brutality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, it is on this very terrain that anti-Semitism needs to be confronted: “A student with Turkish heritage sitting in a school in Berlin has no idea what actually goes on down there, and that’s precisely the problem. He only gets black-and-white images from the conflict, which are very far from reality. We are a pluralistic society, and that is great. But that means that education has to find new forms as well. We have to teach, for example, about the Israeli-Palestine conflict in a complex fashion. That means: opposing conspiracy theories, creating counter-narratives, and teaching young people that these theories (about Israel) merely copy classical anti-Semitism and distort the truth. We need more mutual encounters, and we need many Muslim students to visit Auschwitz, for example, so that they experience what happened there, because they are Germans, too, they are no strangers (non-citizens) they have been born here, and therefore it is part of their identity as well to go there.”

At this point, he was interrupted by the German journalist Gemma Pörzgen, and interestingly it was his suggestion that students visit Auschwitz (something which, counter to the stereotype, is uncommon in German schools) that drove her to argue against him, in turn angering the immigrant Mansour, whose children are part of the group being discussed in the following exchange:

Pörzgen: I agree in parts to what you are saying, but I am for a pluralistic perspective. And I do not agree that always all students need to visit Auschwitz. Because that is, so to say, our, a German way of dealing with this.

Mansour: So they don’t belong (to Germany).

Pörzgen: That’s not what I’m saying.

Mansour: Yes, you are.

Pörzgen: I just think it is dangerous to obligate all people to adopt this narrative, which is, after all, a truly German one.

Mansour: But they are just as German! Even a Hassan who lives here is German!

It’s a sign of progress that we can, in the 21st century, hope to speak about being German as something mundane. It’s not dependent on race, on religion, on political beliefs, and it certainly does not ask of people to assume some metaphysical union with German history, as for example the well-known German-Iranian writer Navid Kermani, suggests in his worst moments. It just means being a member of this society, which, if it is worth anything, should aim to be a society that does not accept minorities being threatened.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.