Recently, Frau Merkel has managed to get noticed beyond Germany’s borders and occupy the internatifonal headlines -- Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a senior director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, even spoke of a “global media tsunami.” In a speech she gave at a meeting of younger members of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Frau Merkel namely said the unthinkable: “At the start of the ‘60s we invited the guest-workers to Germany. We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn’t stay, that one day they’d go home. That isn’t what happened. And, of course, the tendency was to say let’s be ‘multikulti’ and live next to each other and enjoy being together, [but] this concept has failed, failed utterly.”
In spite of the fact that she tried to balance these harsh words with subsequent statements stressing Germany’s openness and its willingness to give people “opportunities,” overnight Frau Merkel’s shrill condemnation of the multicultural experiment became an international sensation. Her words came in the wake of the controversy surrounding former Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin. His book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (“Germany Does Away With Itself”), appearing at the end of August 2010, caused indignation nationally and internationally. At the time, the BBC reported that in his book “Mr Sarrazin has criticised German Muslims, suggested the existence of a Jewish gene, and warned of ethnic Germans being outnumbered by [Muslim] migrants.” These two high-profile outrages indicate that the guest-workers (gastarbeiter) of yesteryear, who used to do all the heavy and unpleasant jobs unfit for locals, have now assumed an altogether different identity. Whereas previously these immigrants were primarily seen as foreign nationals, mostly from Turkey, but also hailing from Morocco and Algeria, they have now become an altogether different group: They are now seen first and foremost as Muslims.
Foreigners in Germany
So, how did these foreigners end up in Germany? Following the end of World War II in Europe (May 8, 1945) and the promulgation of the Marshall Plan (April 3, 1948), West Germany went through a time of bustling economic activity. In the ’50s and ’60s, Germany witnessed the so-called “Wirtschaftswunder” (economic miracle) which transformed the war-ravaged country into an economic powerhouse. In order to dispose of sufficient labor forces, the then-West German government signed a number of bilateral recruitment agreements with countries that could supply some much-needed workers to do the job. In 1955 Germany signed a deal with Italy; in 1960 with Greece; in 1961 with Turkey, and two years later with Morocco. But the reality was such that after 1961, Turkish citizens (largely from rural areas) soon became the largest group of gastarbeiter in West Germany. These Turks had at first arrived on their own, single men willing to work and eager to return home laden with money and luxury goods. But, as indicated by Frau Merkel in her notorious speech, these men were soon joined by their wives, established families and subsequently struck deep roots in German soil. Second and third-generation Turkish immigrants grew up in Germany facing racism and discrimination. These German-born Turks met with prejudice and intolerance, based upon their status as foreigners, foreigners from the backward East, speaking a different language and practicing a different religion. But the locals saw them primarily as “Turks,” as individuals belonging to a different ethnic or national group. Back in those good old days of overt xenophobia, brave investigative journalists like Günter Wallraff were able to report on the racism Turks were bound to encounter in the German workplace. In his 1985 book “Ganz unten” (“Lowest of the Low”) Wallraff describes how Turkish workers were routinely mistreated by employers, landlords and the German government. Back then, the racism encountered by the Turkish gastarbeiter was the plain and simple kind that discriminated against the outsider on account of his or her ethnic or national background.
Nowadays, however, commentators and politicians alike tend to forget national or ethnic identifiers, instead opting for religious markers, and thus speaking about the Muslim other present in Germany (and by extension, Europe), the Muslim other whose presence and actions are incompatible with Western civilization and alien to the Judeo-Christian tradition which provides the framework for much, if not all, of Europe’s culture and identity. The professor of sociology, scholar and expert in Islamic matters, Stefano Allievi rightly remarks that the “immigrant … has progressively become ‘Muslim,’ both in his/her perception by the host societies and in his/her self-perception.” Nowadays, Europeans express their dislike of the “other” in religious and/or cultural terms. This has led to the creation of a new term that is oftentimes not even associated with racist sentiments and/or reflexes: Islamophobia. But we should be clear about this: Islamophobia is nothing but a new name given to the age-old reflex of racism. I can already hear some people objecting and uttering the phrase, “But Islam is not a race.” In fact, some scientists have argued over the past years that the mere concept of race as a distinguishing factor between humans does not really exist. Scientists like C. Loring Brace, Steve Jones, Nina Jablonski and Norman Sauer have made their case on more than one occasion. Rather than claiming racial differences between individual humans, they suggest that the criterion of race is as much a cultural artifact and a social construct as it is reflective of real differences between individuals and/or social groups. In that sense, racism is the term we use to describe the act of discriminating against an individual or a group of people based on certain traits (held in common) that are seen as undesirable, unwelcome and alien. On the BBC World Service, Professor Jones declared that “races are really in the eye of the beholder” and not necessarily a biological reality. As a result, the term Islamophobia suggests that the trait held in common by the people deserving discrimination and exclusion is their religious affiliation rather than their skin color or physiology, and thus we could term Islamophobia a clear form of “cultural racism.”
‘Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All’
In 1997, the Runnymede Trust, “the UK’s leading independent race equality think tank,” issued an influential report in this respect: “Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All.” In the report one can read that the term Islamophobia is “the shorthand way of referring to the dread and hatred of Islam -- and, therefore, the fear or dislike of all, or most Muslims.” Additionally, the report claims that this “fear or dislike of all, or most Muslims” first appeared in the mid-’70s. Today, Islamophobia as a social phenomenon is all but commonplace all over Europe: in the UK, the racist British National Party (BNP) is steadily gaining in force and popularity; in the Netherlands, the Islamophobic hate-monger Geert Wilders has booked an expected electoral victory for his Party For Freedom (PVV), or Partij voor de Vrijheid; neighboring Belgium also recently saw a good showing for the separatist and xenophobic Flemish Interest (VB), or Vlaams Belang, while in Sweden, prior to last September’s elections, Björn Söder, a member of the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), or Sverigedemokraterna, claimed that an “Islamic revolution akin to the one that swept through Iran in 1979 could easily take place in Sweden.” Söder’s statement is particularly revealing of the current mood not just in Sweden but in the whole of Europe. Let us put his statement into a bit of context. In 2009, a report on migration in Sweden established that there were about 450,000 to 500,000 Muslims in Sweden, which translates to around 5 percent of the total population. Yet Söder felt completely at ease to warn his fellow Swedes of impending doom and gloom, as these 5 percent of the total population were about to unleash an “Islamic revolution akin to the one that swept through Iran” in Scandinavia. Southern European countries are not immune, either. In Italy, the Northern League (LG), or Lega Nord, is particularly vociferous in its condemnation of Muslim immigrants. And now Germany’s centrist Christian-Democrat Angela Merkel also seems to be pandering to populist Islamophobic sentiment by declaring the death of multiculturalism.
How did this happen?
The continent of Europe had in the post-World War II era decisively moved towards a secular society, a society where one’s religious beliefs and cultural preferences were increasingly confined to one’s private life and where multiculturalism was thus allowed to bloom and prosper. Racism, xenophobia and sheer chauvinism were supposed to be traits of the past in Europe. In reality, however, the population of Europe has never really been able to suppress its covert “racist” instincts and distrust of the “other.” But nowadays these atavistic sentiments receive a religious label, which is no doubt linked with 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror.” In fact, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall religion has been making a comeback in Europe -- at first in the former communist countries and now also in Western Europe. In Europe, more and more people appear to rediscover their Christian roots. The present pope, Benedict XVI, is currently cunningly tapping into that well of resurgent Christianity and has openly declared his hostility towards “aggressive forms of secularism” and “atheist extremism.” These trends feed into the age-old rivalry between Islam and Christianity. On a political level, such a development had been sanctioned as long ago as February 1995. Then, Willy Claes, NATO secretary-general from 1994-95, said, “Islamic militancy has emerged as perhaps the single gravest threat to the NATO alliance and to Western security” in the aftermath of the fall of communism. Claes added that extremist Muslims oppose “the basic principles of civilization that bind North America and Western Europe.” The then-NATO secretary-general was nevertheless diplomatic enough to remark that his declaration should not be seen as a call for “a crusade against Islam.” Nevertheless, Claes had let the genie out of the bottle, and here we are today, in a world where racism in the form of Islamophobia is rampant and on the rise. The situation has become even more volatile and combustible now, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the US-led “war on terror,” which some see as a thinly veiled “war on Islam.” Is it any wonder that Claes’ words have turned out to be prophetic? In view of Europe’s now sizeable Muslim population, it is imperative that the multicultural experiment be continued to achieve a future of peace and prosperity. But the fact that Germany’s chancellor can now recklessly declare the failure of multiculturalism in Germany (and Europe) appears to indicate the absence of the political will to oppose the creeping trend towards open hostility against Islam and Muslims. Instead, politicians increasingly pander to the whims of an electorate that has been manipulated into viewing Islam as a threat and danger to the “basic principles of civilization.” Will the future see a revival of open hostility between Islam and Christianity? Will Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” become a political and possibly even military reality in years to come? Only time will tell…
*Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the wider Middle East. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles.