Muslim Germans feel censored and alienated as the country continues to ignore its Islamophobia problem

By Abby Amoakuh

Published Jan 14, 2024 at 11:00 AM

Reading time: 6 minutes

On 1 November 2023, Germany’s Vice Chancellor and Minister of Economic Affairs Robert Habeck posted a ten-minute long speech to his X (formerly Twitter) account. In it, the politician stated: “It was the generation of my grandparents that wanted to exterminate Jewish life in Germany and Europe. After the Holocaust, the founding of Israel was the promise of protection to the Jews—and Germany is compelled to help ensure that this promise can be fulfilled. This is a historical underpinning of our republic.”

Habeck’s address to the nation was deemed “historic” and reverberated through multiple parts of the German political and cultural sphere. Yet, it also drew a fair amount of criticism due to allegations of Islamophobia.

Habeck’s speech came as a response to a sharp rise in antisemitism and served as a reminder to the German public that antisemitic acts are constitutional crimes that can incur severe penalties.

“Anyone who is German will have to answer for this in court,” Habeck stated. “Anyone who isn’t German also risks losing their residence status. Anyone who doesn’t yet have a residence permit is giving grounds for deportation,” the Vice Chancellor warned.

The Green Party politician also took it upon himself to address the German Muslim community and condemned them for failing to speak out against the October 2023 Hamas-led attack on Israel. Habeck remarked that not all of them have made an effort to clearly distance themselves from antisemitism and Hamas’ violence.

The speech, while applauded by many, was reviewed with more scrutiny by other parts of German society. German antisemitism: Robert Habeck jabs Muslim groups, threatens deportations, a headline in POLITICO read. Germany Should Stop Outsourcing Its Shame Over Historic Antisemitism to Migrants, another headline in Jacobin stated. The actual article highlighted that German far-right groups such as Alternative for Germany (AfD) have a longer and more severe history of antisemitic hate crimes than any minority group.

Moreover, the speech also failed to mention the notable rise in Islamophobia that has been documented in Germany, next to the increase in antisemitic incidents. The Claim Allianz, a German organisation that fights against Islamophobia, for example, documented 187 cases of violent anti-Muslim attacks in the period between 9 October and 19 November.

There are roughly 5.5 million people of Muslim faith living in Germany, the majority of whom are German nationals. Yet, in June 2023, a damning 400-page report by the country’s Ministry of the Interior also revealed that roughly one-third of Muslims in Germany have experienced hostility because of their religion, with the group still frequently being othered and subjected to harmful enemy tropes.

Many Muslim Germans are currently reporting that they feel alienated and estranged, due to the heightened scrutiny they are under, lack of attention to their plight by political leaders, and the dangerous myth that Muslims have imported antisemitism into Germany.

“I no longer feel at home here,” Nazan, a nurse born in Germany to Turkish parents told The Guardian. Likewise, Palestinian-German Lobna Shammout told the publication: “It hurts both sides of me, the Palestinian and the German side.”

To better understand the debate around Islamophobia against the backdrop of Germany’s complicated past, SCREENSHOT spoke with Professor Dr Kai Hafez from the University of Erfurt and Senior Associate Fellow at St Anthony’s College, Oxford. Dr Hafez is also the author of Islam and the West in the Mass Media and Media, Politics and Society in the Middle East.

“It’s hard to measure instantaneously, but Germany’s mainstream media have shown a clear tendency over the past months to portray demonstrating migrant youth, many of them of Arab descent, as sympathising with Hamas and thereby at least indirectly as antisemitic,” Dr Hafez responded when asked how exactly Muslim communities are being alienated during the Israel-Hamas war.

“Even though anti-Jewish sentiments might be higher among the Arab-Muslim population than in the rest of the German population, that image was and is certainly blown out of proportion. It also hinders a meaningful and complex analysis of Israeli-Palestinian violence as part of a long-term asymmetrical struggle over territory for which Israel is co-responsible,” the expert noted.

When I asked Dr Hafez whether Islamophobia was ostracised in Germany, with reference to Habeck’s speech, he replied: “Larger parts of the German political elite have developed more sensitivity for the problems of Islamophobia, but there is still grave inequality when compared to the consciousness they show for antisemitism. Among human rights issues, Islamophobia is considered a second-class problem, although Muslims are the largest and most vulnerable minority in Germany.”

Islamophobia in itself is not as much a specific German problem as it is a broader European one. Emmanuel Macron, President of France, a nation that hosts the largest Jewish minority in Europe, for instance, promised that the country would be “ruthless” in its fight against antisemitism and show “no mercy” to those inciting hatred. Such strong words have yet to be uttered about Islamophobia.

In fact, Islamophobia is something that netizens have frequently criticised France for, especially following the country’s ban on headscarves in schools in 2004, which was followed by the passing of another ban on full-face veils in public in 2010. European governments also have a tendency to link terrorism and extremism with Islam—for instance, when Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán connected increased migration to terrorism.

Thus, there isn’t as much of a connection between Germany’s past and Islamophobia as some current critics of the country would like to argue there is. While hostility towards Muslims can of course be grounded in a pro-Israel stance, it isn’t actually the root of Germany’s Islamophobia issue.

However, like many other European countries, Germany tends to prioritise addressing antisemitism over Islamophobia, contributing to the marginalisation of Muslim communities.

“Reasons for this are manyfold: German political culture and educational institutions are still lacking sufficient sensitivity, mainstream media are biased, and political elites mostly remain passive when it comes to solving problems of institutional racism/Islamophobia. Germany is still a late-comer with respect to multiculturalism,” Dr Hafez mused in reference to this.

It is undeniable that Germany is in a state of heightened tension. Pro-Palestinian protests in many cities are only allowed to go ahead with strict guidelines after there were instances of groups celebrating the Hamas attacks. The federal commissioner for human rights policy, Luise Amtsberg, said: “Terrorism must not be celebrated. We have banned demonstrations when they intend to incite antisemitism and freedom of expression must not be abused to propagate hate.”

As a consequence, the word “censorship” and accusations of suppressing the right to protest or free speech are filling headlines, with German society becoming more polarised about the war and the inner political issues it has unleashed.

“I respect Germany’s history,” Shammout told The Guardian. “I really understand the support for Israel as a state, as a safe place for Jews, and saying ‘never again’ can the Holocaust happen. It’s a part of being German,” she noted. Yet, Shammout said she felt saddened and maddened about the lack of condemnation and distance to the various human rights violations committed by Israel. As a consequence, a contradiction emerged between her identity as a German woman and a Muslima.

This, of course, raises the question of whether the nation’s political stance is excluding certain individuals from a common German identity.

“Again I have no hard data at hand, but I am afraid that Muslims might distance themselves from a common German identity, however hard it is to define anyhow,” Dr Hafez replied when I presented him with it. “Perhaps they miss solidarity not only with Israeli but also with Arab victims in the Gaza war and empathy with their own solidarity with the Palestinians. I personally also hope that Arab-Muslim youth will be able to develop more empathy with the ‘pain of the other’, meaning solidarity also with Jewish-Israeli victims of Hamas.”

All countries focus on what they deem to be the defining lessons of their history and for Germany and large parts of the European continent, that is Jewish vulnerability. Nevertheless, Islamophobia and antisemitism are equal scourges and in light of Europe’s growing population of Muslims, their vulnerability cannot continue to be ignored. Yet, European leaders or more specifically German leaders, still haven’t found adequate ways to address both to the same extent. Instead, it looks like antisemitism and Islamophobia constantly have to compete with each other for public attention, in a way writer Roxanne Gay would have described as “oppression Olympics.” It’s what happens when marginalisations fight with each other about who is worse off, rather than fostering coalitions to improve everyone’s well-being.

If addressing antisemitism means that there’s no space for Islamophobia anymore then it is safe to say that that’s what we’re playing with, oppression Olympics.

Online, pro-Israeli netizens constantly try to undermine Palestinian suffering with false claims around wrong death numbers and staged war scenery. On the other side, pro-Palestinian netizens try to deny the latest atrocities committed by Hamas, including the rape and mutilation of women’s bodies which has led to an investigation by the UN.

However, empathy isn’t a zero-sum game. Extending some for one side doesn’t diminish it in the other. Likewise, acknowledging wrong on one side does not mean exonerating the other one of any wrongdoing. While this feels like a very simplistic logic, it’s one that so frequently is lost in the complexities of global politics. It seems to be this lack of critical balance that is marginalising the needs of Muslim Germans who openly support a free Palestine at present.

When I asked Dr Hafez about recommendations to mitigate the feelings of alienation among Muslim communities and address the invisibilisation of Islamophobia in Germany, he concluded: “A change in media coverage is direly needed, also to go against the growing trend of right-wing populism, which is proliferating enemy images of Islam and Muslims. What we need is a real wake-up call for political, educational and media institutional reforms in the direction of more sensitivity for Islamophobia plus a more cosmopolitan understanding of culture and education as post-Eurocentric, including more deeply rooted knowledge about the Middle East and Islam, and Muslim-Western relations.”

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