Germany’s growing tide of Islamophobia

November 5, 2010

Racism against immigrants--particularly Muslims--is on the rise in Europe, thanks not only to far-right politicians but also to mainstream, establishment figures. In Germany, Thilo Sarrazin, an official of Germany's central bank, was forced to resign when he published a book claiming that Muslims were incapable of assimilating in German society.

Marwa Al-Radwany, a supporter of the network Marx21 in German's Die Linke (Left Party), initiated the Network Against Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Racism that played a substantial role in the successful protest campaign to exclude Sarrazin from the International Literature Festival. She spoke to Jeff Bale about anti-immigrant politics in Germany and across Europe.

IN THE last few weeks, U.S. news media have reported on right-wing political developments in the Netherlands, Sweden and, in part, in Britain. The focus has been on the electoral successes of far-right parties in the first two countries, as well far-right and fascist groups like the English Defense League. Can you describe the political landscape in Germany in comparison with these developments elsewhere in Europe?

RIGHT-WING and anti-Islam voices have also been getting louder and more numerous in Germany, but there is still no relevant party to the right of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU, the main conservative party). Extreme right-wing or neo-Nazi-parties have no real influence on a federal level.

However, so-called "citizens' movements," based entirely on anti-Islamic hate campaigns, have been appearing at the regional level. One such example is the "Pro-Deutschland" (Germany) movement which has been setting up regional and local "Pro" organizations across Germany, and spouting anti-Islam propaganda under the guise of defending human rights: Pro-North Rhine Westphalia, Pro-Cologne, Pro-Munich, etc.

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel

The Pro movement is now trying to establish itself as national political party. Fortunately, they haven't been very successful thus far. This has been partly due to several very successful antiracist actions against them. In 2008, thousands of demonstrators shut down what was meant to be a large-scale "anti-Islamization" conference in Cologne. Likewise, in the last few months, several neo-Nazi marches have been shut down by well-organized, peaceful, mass blockades in Leipzig, Dresden and several small towns near Berlin.

At the same time, the existence of the Left Party as a mass radical left party has meant that protest votes have tended to go to the left rather than the right. Of course, protest votes don't go to the left in general--they could even go toward a neo-Nazi-party. But obviously the existence of a mass radical left party absorbed a huge part of the protest votes. That is not to say that these people are all left wing.

Until now, the Pro movement hasn't managed to gain a foothold in the German party system, and we don't face the same conditions as in the Netherlands or Sweden. That is not to say that these new right-wing movements are insignificant or harmless. Their anti-Muslim propaganda is similar to those of the neo-Nazis, but somewhat hidden behind a respectable veneer.

IN THE middle of all this, Thilo Sarrazin's book, Germany Does Away With Itself: How We Are Putting Our Nation at Risk, was published. Can you talk about the content and impact of this book? If I understand right, it's sold like wildfire across the country. What does the discussion of this book look like, and to what extent has it impacted political debates about immigrants' rights in Germany?

THE BOOK has gained prominence through a well-orchestrated media campaign. Weeks before the publication, a few passages were printed and discussed at first by Der Spiegel magazine and then the daily Bild newspaper--the leading conservative newspapers and the mouthpieces of the ruling class here. By the way, only these two newspapers had exclusive publishing rights. All other journalists were prohibited from quoting from the book before the official publication date. They were thus able to evoke and keep up an ongoing debate about integration and Muslims for several weeks.

This was met with a huge response from media pundits and politicians. Every newspaper reviewed Sarrazin's book and discussed his "thesis," and he appeared on numerous talk shows. The book is now on the top of the bestseller list (which is not really surprising considering the fact that the bestseller list was set up and is directed by Der Spiegel). More than 750,000 copies have been sold so far.

Sarrazin brews a dangerous mix of cultural racism, a social-Darwinian perception of the usability of human capital and pseudo-scientific biological determinism, especially eugenics. His ideas are inspired by Edward O. Wilson's On Human Nature.

According to Sarrazin--who is the former Social Democratic Party Finance Senator of Berlin--Germany and Europe are endangered by the increase in the number of elderly people, domination by foreign influences and decreasing productivity. The social fabric is in danger of losing its balance owing to an asymmetric demographic development: while the uneducated lower classes continue to reproduce themselves, the intelligent and productive elite will not keep up, and will thus decrease in size and influence.

The "new" and sensational aspect of Sarrazin's thesis, one that he often emphasizes, is the biological component of intelligence. According to Sarrazin, who was also a member of the board of the Federal Bank of Germany, intelligence is hereditary. Muslim immigrants belong mainly to the uneducated lower classes. Their birth rate levels are higher than the German population in general and academically educated German women in particular. The consequence is that Muslims endanger the preservation of the core values of German culture.

Sarrazin wonders aloud whether hereditary factors can explain the fact that the children of Turkish immigrants get, on average, worse results at school. He subdivides immigrants into good and bad--economically useful and useless immigrants. He praises the diligent Vietnamese and conformist Indian immigrants, and talks about "the higher intelligence of Jews," but complains about Turkish, Arab and Pakistani immigrants, who refuse to integrate, to accept German culture and to carry out productive work for Germany. The responsibility, he claims, lies with the "culture of Islam."

He calls for further strict sanctions against foreigners, and for immigration controls stopping all further immigration with the exception of the highly qualified. He also calls for high financial incentives for German women to have children, especially highly educated women.

Although Sarrazin's thesis lacks any empirical proof--and he was attacked by several scientists for using figures and statistics in an untrustworthy way--Germany Does Away With Itself has gotten a huge hearing.

Some are saying, "At last there is someone who is fearlessly speaking out about what everyone has already known or suspected." Debate around the book runs along the lines of: "Perhaps his words were a bit crude and direct, but he has correctly identified the central problem." Such opinions have been expressed over many weeks in the editorials and feature pages in German newspapers.

Sarrazin, as a high-ranking person and a Social Democrat, has helped to make racism socially acceptable, fuelling an already existing atmosphere of subliminal xenophobia. The latest opinion polls reflect the rise of xenophobic sentiments: nearly 60 percent of Germans are in favor of restricting the freedom of Muslims to exercise their religion, and 18 percent of Germans could imagine voting for a new party led by Thilo Sarrazin.

The frightening thing is that some opinion polls show that 29 percent among the advocates of such a new Sarrazin Party are supporters of the German Left Party!

THE NEXT question, unfortunately, is almost the same as the last one--on October 17, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the ideal of multiculturalism in Germany to be an "absolute failure." Can you describe the reactions to her statement in the days since?

I DON'T think you can consider Merkel's statement as separate from the speech given two weeks earlier by the president of the Federal Republic, Christian Wulff, on the anniversary of unification of Germany.

Wulff is also a member of Merkel's party, the CDU. Referring to the recent bitter altercations about Muslims and about integration, Wulff stressed that "Islam belongs to Germany." For this statement, he was immediately fiercely attacked by the right wing of the CDU. At the same time, the more liberal wing of the party demanded recognition that Germany is a country of immigrants, noting the lack of qualified employees in the country. Social liberals within the CDU called for a more regulated approach to immigration, according to a points system.

Merkel, who had until then reacted rather negatively to Sarrazin's statements, is currently subject to powerful political pressure from the conservatives, because the CDU is losing huge amounts of support in what has been its political strongholds. The right wing of the CDU has complained for a while now that Merkel is too liberal. They are afraid of losing votes to their right, and note with interest the electoral success of right-wing populist parties in other countries like the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland. The CDU are very afraid of the emergence of a new party to their right.

At the same time, this debate is also convenient for the CDU. It distracts from their own failures--that is, from the poor results of the government, which is partially responsible for the financial crisis. At the same time, they hesitate to go hard to the right. Merkel is therefore torn between the two tendencies.

WHAT'S THE picture look like for our side? What are the key debates in immigrant rights groups? For example, debates about banning the hiqab or other types of religious dress have proven to be the Achilles' heel of the left elsewhere in Europe, especially in France. Are there similar debates in the groups and at the events where you've been organizing?

UNFORTUNATELY, THE German left wing is also divided concerning Islam. This inconsistency has two elements: women's rights and religion.

Many German Marxists consider religion and religious people to be intrinsically anti-emancipatory and counter-revolutionary. They just do not understand why they should defend a religion or even work together with religious people.

Here, they miss two important things. Firstly, why some people are attracted to religion. This particularly applies to those who are discriminated against and excluded from society, who have few prospects, and who find explanations or consolation from a religious community. Excluding such people from a united struggle on the grounds of the religious ideas in their heads will never create a mass movement, and it lacks global perspective.

A second important issue is the headscarf and the issue of women's rights. The headscarf is like a red rag to a bull for many supposedly emancipatory left-wingers and feminists. For many of them, the headscarf is a symbol of patriarchy and has to be combated--without asking the opinion of the woman behind the headscarves.

For example, some members of the Left Party assumed that I advocate forcing women to wear the burqa simply because I opposed a ban on public-sector workers wearing the headscarf. On another occasion, there was a meeting of the executive of the immigrant rights working group of the Berlin Left Party. Several executive members abstained from supporting a motion opposing anti-Muslim racism because they felt that to do so would be to make concessions to religion.

This hesitancy and political lack of clarity does not just affect the Left Party, but also the wider movement. After the first statements from Thilo Sarrazin, the extreme left formed a new coalition against racism. They were doing a really good job until they were approached by a member of the Turkish religious organization Mili Görus. The anti-racist group refused to work with them, saying that they wanted nothing to do with "backward" fundamentalists.

This ignores the fact that Mili Görus is one of the largest Muslim groups in Germany, with many different tendencies. Unfortunately, many Marxists with a Turkish background fail to differentiate between Muslims from the Turkish ruling class and those who are a part of a religious minority within an imperialist state.

All this means that the anti-racist movement needs to discuss and debate more, and that socialists need to be clear about the issues.

WHAT ARE the next steps for our side? Which political questions need to be addressed?

THE KEY lies in connecting and uniting the issue of racism with the social question. Right now, the economic crisis has led the ruling class to search for scapegoats. As Marxists, we have to be clear that the ultimate solution also requires social answers--that is the ending of exploitation and the fight for a dignified life for all.

We have to be clear that racism is a tool of the ruling class used to distract and divide, and that people who fall for racist ideas are less able to gain improvements or progress for themselves. We should patiently explain that working-class people won't win anything by attacking the people below them, rather than focusing upwards to the real cause of the crisis--that is, the government and the international ruling class.

As a concrete example, a strike and united fight for a guaranteed minimum wage would unite [ethnic] Germans with people from immigrant backgrounds around common aims. To help this happening, we could and should involve more immigrants--and especially Muslims--in our political organizations.

For example, the Left Party is overwhelmingly white and says too little about the issues of migration and racism. There is still a lot to do, such as making real efforts to specifically win Muslim and immigrant members to our organization. This means visiting mosques and talking to people there, and inviting them to work together and collaborate with immigrants' own organizations. In short, we must support them in an unconditional but critical manner. Only in this way can prejudices within our own ranks decrease.

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