Denying Islamophobia won’t make it go away: Countering Islamophobia in Germany
Dr Luis Manuel Hernández Aguilar
At the height of the political campaigns leading to the Federal elections of 2017 (May – October), I interviewed a wide range of actors engaged in countering the manifold manifestations of Islamophobia in Germany. During this period, Islamophobia’s force and ubiquitousness became undeniable; for condemning Islam and Muslims prove to be translatable into political capital as exemplified by the electoral success of the anti-Islam, anti-refugee far right party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
However, the continual spread and strengthening of Islamophobia in German political, institutional, social, and cultural life has not deterred organizations and individuals to fight against it. Precisely, during the course of the interviews, I learned about the different counter narratives, actions, programs and interventions actively seeking to challenge the variegated deployments of Islamophobia.
In Germany Islamophobia, along with racism, has been for long time deemed either as inexistent or as minor issue. A significant small step at the institutional level was the inclusion of the category of Islamfeindlichkeit (Hostility against Islam) in the wider category of Hate Criminality in 2017. The first official figures about the issue have been made available in 2018. Recorded statistical evidence indicates that 804 Islamophobic crimes were committed during the course of 2017 (Bundestag 2017a; Bundestag 2017b; Bundestag 2017c; Bundestag 2018).
It is precisely against the background of Islamophobia as a denied reality that one of the most important counter narratives has appeared, namely, the multi-layered task of making Islamophobia visible. Moreover, this counter narrative encompasses academic knowledge understanding the roots and deployments of the phenomenon, the collection of statistics about Muslims’ experiences of discrimination and violence, and the use of social media to make those experiences visible to a wider audience.
On account of the deep psychosocial effects of Islamophobia upon Muslim subjectivities, the creation of safes spaces of empowerment also emerged as another venue to counter this form of racism. Sites of empowerment have had different functions: as spaces to learn how Islamophobia works and moreover that it should not be accepted as a normality; as instruments seeking to heal the psychosocial effects of growing up and living in an Islamophobic society; as channels to disseminate knowledge about rights and thereby legally challenge Islamophobia; and also as sites to foster creative and artistic expressions.
Arts have also been a platform to contest Islamophobia, as one of my interviewees put it, is a form of creative resistance. Many young Muslims have found in artistic expressions—poetry, slam-poetry, comics, photograph—channels not only to cope with an Islamophobic environment but also as a means to offer a different view on Islam and Muslims in Germany by means appropriating, subverting, and playing with Islamophobic stereotypes and in doing so revealing the faults and racial imprints of dominant Islamophobic narratives. Art is one of the most important mediums to challenge Islamophobia for not only tap into and counter two of the functional characters of Islamophobia, namely, its strategic use of emotions—fear, aversion, rage, and hatred, and the dehumanisation of Muslims. The highly creative artistic expressions of some my interviewees precisely made use of emotions to humanise Muslims through their lived experiences.
Some other counter narratives decidedly counter Islamophobic narratives. This is the case of counter narratives engaging in processes of conviviality, where for instance the Islamophobic constructs of “Muslim anti-Semitism”, “Muslim homophobia”, and the “Islamic parallel society” have been challenged by showing the quotidian and even mundane lives and interactions between Jews and Muslims in a district of Berlin. Similarly, the counter narrative of Islamic intersectional feminism engages and subverts the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman, while making a strong stance against the instrumentalisation of feminism to racialise Muslims. Likewise, against the portrayal of Islam as despotic and Muslims as undemocratic, a counter narrative fostering a Muslim political subjectivity has also made impact on the German socio-political landscape.
Empowering Muslims in terms of knowing their rights has set the conditions to challenge Islamophobia through legal channels. This counter narrative is of paramount relevance due to the fact that Islamophobia has influenced or even become imprinted in different legislations, e.g., the “Muslim test” for citizenship, the ban on circumcision, and more importantly the ban on headscarves or in Berlin the Neutrality law barring all religious symbols in public services and which therefore also affects Jewish man wearing the kippah.
In Germany, racism not only affects Muslims but other communities and individuals as well, e.g., racial profiling, discrimination, exclusion, right-wing violence, neutrality law to name just a few. Without exception all of my interviewees voiced this reality and highlighted the need to foster and engage in processes of solidarity and the building of alliances. Currently, different projects and organisations have successfully created channels of communication, understanding and political engagement seeking to defy racial structures and practices.
Two more critical counter narratives to Islamophobia tackle its conceptual architecture. On the one hand, on account of the interlocking of Islamophobia with the discourse of integration positing Muslims as deficient, problematic to, and detached from German society, a counter narrative uses the concept of integration in order to undo some of the myths and phantasies surrounding this concept and empirically demonstrates that—given the conditions established by the discourse on integration—Muslims are well integrated in German society. In other words, the discourse of integration is deconstructed from within. On the other hand, Islamophobia has created a particular way—shared by media outlets and politicians—to approach and understand social reality and conflicts involving Muslims as a decidedly outcome of Islam, thus, everything that Muslims have done, do and will do is explained through a conceptualisation of Islam as violent, unenlightened, gender unequal and atavistic. To this end, religion should not be a decisive explanatory factor in conflicts, for instance, at schools, and moreover is crucial to understand that conflicts are part and parcel of a democratic society, that is to say, there is an urgent need to change the frame of understanding conflicts.
As this brief outline of counter narratives to Islamophobia shows, there is vivid and highly engaged scene comprising a myriad of actors and many tools and channels seeking defying Islamophobic structures and ideas throughout Germany. However, the most urgent task is to translate these efforts into institutional and governmental practices that recognise Islamophobia as a racial societal structures permeating institutions, laws and regulations, and licensing discriminatory and violent practices against Muslims. The German state thus should full comply with the stipulation of the Basic Law’s article 3: “No person shall be favoured or disfavoured because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith, or religious or political opinions” (Bundestag 2012).
Bundestag, D., 2012. Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, Berlin: Deutscher Bundestag.
Bundestag, D., 2017a. Drucksache 18/12535, Berlin: Deutscher Bundestag.
Bundestag, D., 2017b. Drucksache 18/13330, Berlin: Deutscher Bundestag.
Bundestag, D., 2017c. Drucksache 19/148, Berlin: Deutscher Bundestag.
Bundestag, D., 2018. Drucksache 19/987. Berlin: Deutscher Bundestag.