Germany has a notorious reputation for its racist and discriminatory attitude toward minorities. It has refused to accommodate a large minority community that has lived in Germany for generations. Since the 1960s, successive governments have insisted on considering minorities merely as “guest workers” who would one day (preferably soon) return to their country of origin. Thus they have made little attempt to integrate minority communities, which have been left to face a myriad of social and economic problems, and suffer increasing alienation from the wider society.
One of the largest Muslim minorities in Europe exists in Germany. According to figures released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in June 2009, about 4.3 million Muslims live in Germany, which is about 5% of the general population. Some 70% of the Muslim population are of Turkish origin, followed by Pakistanis, Arabs, former Yugoslavs, Iranians and German converts. The Muslim community has particularly suffered from the intolerance and racism prevalent in Germany. Racial issues aside, they have also carried the additional stigma of their so-called affiliation with “terrorism” and “radicalism”.
Germany’s Muslim community was put in the spotlight immediately after the 9/11 attacks; the infamous “Ham-burg Cell” that allegedly played a central role in the attacks consisted of Muslim students from Germany. This left the entire German Muslim community under a suspicion. The result was immediate: surveys after 9/11 show an alarming rise in Islamophobia in German society. A survey of public perceptions of the Muslim community in December 2003 revealed that 65% of Germans felt that Islamic values were not compatible with the West. The overwhelming majority of the participants expressed their opposition to any new immigration and held that they would feel uncomfortable living in the same area with Muslims (Schmitt, Khaled, “Islamophobia on Rise in Germany”, in Islam Online, 12-26-2003).
Three years later, in 2006, the Allensbach study found that 98% of Germans associated Islam with violence and terrorism, only 6% express sympathy with Islam and 83% of Germans consider Muslims to be religious fanatics (Norbert F. PÃ¶tzl, “Life in a Parallel Society” in Der Spigel, 3-16-2008).
The Islamophobic atmosphere has been normalized by draconian anti-terrorism laws. Like other European countries, Germany has introduced harsh anti-terrorism laws that predominantly target the Muslim community. The first anti-terrorism law was enacted immediately after 9/11, in Nov. 2001, and the second package of laws enacted in 2002 to close “loopholes” that terrorists could supposedly exploit. By these laws, the intelligence agencies and police were granted substantial powers which have often been used to intimidate and persecute the Muslim community.
These laws have made bank accounts, electronic and postal communications, and most forms of transportation records available to the police and secret services. The security services have been allowed to spy on German citizens and residents without a court warrant. The spying operations can vary from bugging buildings to wiretapping cellular phones. Additionally, military intelligence has also been given significant domestic powers and easy access to data of other security services.
Further, the police were allowed to use a notorious profiling method called the “grid-search”. In this method the police compiles records from various sources, to statistically profile possible terrorist suspects. The government believes this is a way of uncovering possible Muslim terrorists similar to those who were involved in 9/11.
In April 2002, Germany’s federal states’ criminal investigation department announced they had collected around six million personal records, and that 20,000 of them were considered potential suspects. The German security services guideline revealed that their method of profiling was based on the Islamic religious affiliation of people aged between 18 and 24 who have been subjected to no previous criminal investigations.
One striking example, illustrating the scale to which racism and Islamophobia are embedded in the German government and community, is that of Marwa El-Sherbini, a 31-year-old mother of a three-year-old son and pregnant with her second child, who was killed by a German-Russian man on 7-6-2009. The entire tragedy began with a small request made by Marwa El-Sherbini to Axel W. to allow her son to sit on a swing in a playground. Axel W. retorted by insulting her as a “terrorist” and an “Islamist whore” because of her headscarf. Mrs. Sherbini sued Axel W. and a court awarded her a 750 euro settlement.
Axel W. appealed the verdict. The court heard the appeal on 1 July 2009. The entire El-Sherbini family was present at the court during the hearing when Axel W. attacked Marwa El-Sherbini in the courtroom. Axel W. pulled out a knife and stabbed Mrs. Sherbini 18 times. Her husband’s attempt to save her was interrupted as a court policeman who claimed to have mistaken him for the attacker shot and critically wounded the husband.
The killing of Marwa El-Sherbani and the shooting of her husband may not have been directly influenced by a truculent speech denouncing the burka and demonizing Muslims given by Nicolas Sarkozy a few days earlier, but both represent part of a broader trend of European bigotry and hostility against Islam and Muslims.
The coverage subsequently received by the case should not disguise the fact that the killing attracted little attention from the Western media. The same media that makes great dramas out of every so-called wrongdoing committed by Muslims completely turned a blind eye to this murder. It was only after the issue had been given heavy coverage in some Egyptian blogs and other Muslim media that the western world even noticed it.
Even then, however, the German media did not regard the racial or religious elements of the attack as significant, mainly focusing on the petty aspect of lack of security in courts and how the killer took a knife to the courtroom. The fact that the murder was clearly a hate crime, linked to the rapidly growing racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic trends in Germany, was of little interest to them. The government too seemed to have little interest in countering the “terrorist” or at best “alien” image of Muslims fixed in the minds of the public. The official line was that there was not enough evidence to consider the incident as a racial attack.
This is not surprising considering that the Islamophobic mindset is a clear result of policies followed by the government since 9/11, which have been intended to crack down against the Muslim community. The German authorities have taken strenuous measures to subjugate the “extremist” young Muslim and “intractable” Muslim organizations. One of the primary targets of the government is the Islamic Community Milli Gorus (IGMG) which has close affiliation to former Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan. This is one of the biggest Muslim organizations in Europe, representing a significant proportion of the Turkish community not only in Germany but also in many other European countries. Since 2008 the IGMG has been put under great scrutiny and undergone systematic harassment by various state agencies. The organization has been critical about the state security agencies’ crackdown against the Muslim minority and refused to yield to government intimidations.
As a result, senior IGMG members have repeatedly been cautioned by German officials to submit to the government agenda and create a more “state friendly” version of Islam that complies with the demands of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the domestic intelligence agency of Germany. The BfV has been assigned to spy on the Muslim community and keep a tight grip on their activities since 9/11. In order to increase the pressure on the IGMG, in December 2009 the Office of Public Prosecutor in Munich accused Oguz Ucuncu, General Secretary of the IGMG, of being a member of a crime network, and involvement in fraud, tax evasion and money laundering. But the public prosecutor has failed to provide any evidence apart from tampered and vague allegations against IGMG’s religious views, thus no further action has been taken by the court.
However, the failed attempt did not deter the government. The German government, a strong ally of Israel, found another target. The government announced on July 12, 2010 that they shut down the Turkish Muslim charity Internationale Humanitaere Hilfsor-ganisation (IHH), an aid agency that supports poor people all over the world, and especially in Palestine. Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere stated that IHH Germany was a “fundraiser for Hamas” and stressed that Germany would not tolerate any organization that does not recognize Israel. Germany has become extremely hostile toward anti-Zionists thanks to the power of the Zionist lobby in Germany, which many attribute to German guilt over anti-semitism during the Nazi period.
The result is that any anti-Israeli activity is liable to attract the wrath of the media in particular. Sebahattin Turkyil-maz is among those who have experienced this. In February 2010, Turkyilmaz, a Turkish Imam of the Hazrat Fatima Zehra Mosque in Frank-furt, came under a major media attack after giving a sermon about al-Quds Day. In the sermon he discussed the significance of al-Quds Day with reference to the suffering of Palestinians and the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, quoting Imam Khomeini’s call to rise against oppression.
Considering the scale of Israeli atrocities, his remarks were a very mild criticism of Israel. However they sparked a Zionist-orchestrated lynch campaign against him. In particular, he was attacked for taking part in the al-Quds Day march held in Berlin last year. Turkyilmaz defended himself vigorously, saying that taking part in such marches was his constitutional right. He also protested that the lynch campaign was “…aimed at promoting the bogey man image of Islam and Muslims in Germany and the rest of Europe.”
Unfortunately the Muslim community was too weak to handle the well-orchestrated attack. After the media frenzy that depicted Imam Turkyilmaz a “notorious” anti-Semite, the local authorities put pressure on the mosque administration to sack him. In order to save the mosque from further attacks, Turkyilmaz stepped down from his post.
Such incidents highlight the difficult situation faced by Muslims in Germany. They are widely viewed as potential “terrorists” or “fundamentalists”, and have been hammered by discriminatory government policies. Since there is not much hope for the government to improve the situation, Muslims themselves need to find the strength to oppose the anti-Islamic trend in Germany which is causing increasing problems for the Muslim community. German Muslims need to understand that being docile in the face of the amounting oppression will not change their situation. Change can only be achieved through unity and systematic efforts to tackle the problems, which may vary from simply being courageous enough to express one’s discontent, to more organized forms of civil disobedience.