Media critic Kay Sokolowsky warns against the negative consequences of rising Islamophobia for the co-existence of Muslims and non-Muslims and calls for dialogue and education. Interview conducted by Ramon Schack
In your new book Feindbild Moslem (Moslems: The Perceived Enemy), you analyse the growing Islamophobia in our society. Is this phenomenon just common xenophobia dressed up in anti-Muslim clothing or is it really a new xenophobic attitude directed exclusively at Muslims?
Kay Sokolowsky: The xenophobia on show here is nothing new. What is new are the seemingly enlightened reasons with which it adorns itself. This is a perfidious trick that initially makes it look as if the actions of the Muslim-haters have nothing to do with a hatred of foreigners.
Because it is not socially acceptable to stir up hatred against the "cumin Turks", the "camel drivers", or the "garlic eaters", the xenophobes use derogatory words such as "Mohammedan", "Moslem", or "cultural freeloader".
If those who are creating this image of the Muslim as the enemy really only wanted to warn against fanatical Islamists, they would not accuse all those with Turkish or Arab parents of being potential suicide bombers, "honour killers", or "pioneers of the Sharia" in Germany.
For those who are hostile towards Muslims, anyone with a Turkish or Arab surname is a murderous Islamist, regardless of whether he or she believes in Allah, the Easter Bunny or nothing at all. This generalisation is just pure racist ideology. It hasn't got the slightest thing to do with criticism in the actual and the positive sense; it has much more to do with the evil desire to defame, exclude and sow fear and hate.
Where does this image of the Muslim as the enemy come from?
Sokolowsky: The motives are the same as for any other form of racism. A group of bad, inferior people who are "threatening our culture and nation" are conjured up so that the racists can exalt themselves. Without being able to say what makes them morally and intellectually unblemished, without ever thinking about what it is that makes their characters and their manner of living so superior, the racists use all the negative and bad things in the image of their enemies to cast themselves in a positive light.
What is important for xenophobes is that they are not "like that" themselves. Racists never bother trying to find out whether the people they have cast in the role of the enemy really are "like that". They simply assume that they are. Their ideology is hermetical; impenetrable for facts and rational arguments.
Why has the image of the Muslim as the enemy taken off in the way that it has?
Sokolowsky: The image of Muslims as the enemy has taken off because it picks up on the diffuse fears triggered by Islam in the West since 9/11 at the latest. Moreover, four decades after the arrival of the first migrant workers from Turkey, the Germans are finally beginning to realise that the immigrants from the Islamic world want to stay here and will stay here.
This has triggered a knee-jerk reaction not only in those who have always been xenophobes, but also in those who convinced themselves that these immigrants were just "guest" workers, people who would disappear again at some stage. Now that even the CDU admits that Germany is a country of immigration, this long-term ignorance is now being replaced in many minds by animosity.
Their fear of "the other" is also fuelled by the increasing confidence of German Muslims, which finds expression in the German Conference on Islam or the construction of impressive mosques. This is not the fault of the Muslims, who are only asserting their rights. It has, however, a lot to do with the journalists and writers who conjure up images of the decline of the West whenever a mosque is built.
Is the Islamophobia you are describing comparable to the anti-Semitism of the past?
Sokolowsky: Yes. The patterns and the themes of the agitation are the same, right down to the smallest detail. The Muslim-haters accuse their enemy of a global conspiracy, the goal of which is to bring all people under the thumb of Islam. They call the Muslims that live in our society "foreign bodies" and "parasites"; they accuse them of incessant lies and of shamelessly enriching themselves at the expense of the "autochthon" population. They never tire of bleating that the Muslim culture and religion is completely incompatible with "our Western values".
Many of those who are hostile towards Muslims now openly use the term "Blutschande" (blood shame) when talking about sexual relations between "Christians" and "Muslims". Increasingly, animal slaughter methods, which were a central theme in the Nazis' anti-Semitic propaganda, are held up as "evidence" of the apparent cruelty and primitiveness of Muslims.
At the very latest, the structural similarities between the hatred of Muslims and the hatred of Jews becomes clear when one reminds those who are hostile towards Muslims of where the systematic defamation of a minority in Germany once led: their masks slip, they begin to shriek that they are wrongly being branded as Nazis, and then openly deny that the Holocaust ever happened.
But you must admit that there are Islamists and holy warriors that dream of world domination…
Sokolowsky: Yes, there are Muslims who dream of world domination and would like to spread a little joy with their Islamist ideology – by force, if necessary. There has, on the other hand, never been a global Jewish conspiracy.
However, the Muslims who dream of world domination are a minority and their influence stems solely from their uncompromising and extremely brutal fanaticism. Anyone who ignores this, is no different from those who believe that the "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" are authentic.
In your opinion, what is the difference between legitimate criticism of Islam and open hostility to Islam?
Sokolowsky: It is legitimate to contradict those who preach hatred and to insist on the strict separation of religion and state, perhaps the most important achievement of the French Revolution. It is also legitimate to outlaw inhuman practices such as enforced marriages, the oppression of women, or the persecution of people of a different faith, and to dismiss these practices as being pre-enlightenment in character.
But as is the case with all criticism, four rules should be obeyed: avoid generalisations, respect human dignity, respond to fanaticism with reason, and refute speculation with facts. Those who are hostile towards Islam disregard these rules completely. They disguise their racism by wrapping it in a cloak of Islamic criticism.
But you only have to lift a corner just a little to see that the Muslim-haters are not criticising, but discriminating; they don't care one bit about the reality of Islam because they only believe in their nightmarish fantasies; every nasty rumour about Muslims is immediately believed; every good news is either ignored or ridiculed as a "lie spread by bleeding heart liberals".
At what point does the legitimate criticism of Islamist ideology become direct hostility towards Islam? Where should the line be drawn?
Sokolowsky: As soon as the fear of the foreigner, the stranger, begins to colour our attitudes towards others, legitimate criticism of Islamic ideology quickly turns into open animosity. A good, yet particularly distressing illustration of this is the journalist Ralph Giordano. Ever since he discovered the existence of militant Islamists a few years ago, this anti-racist par excellence has become increasingly entangled in racist patterns of thought and speech.
Unfortunately, in his fear of Islam, he does not notice the incredible damage being done by his polemics and that he is accelerating the marginalisation of Muslims in our society faster than all the headscarf-wearers in the country could ever do. After all, the great Giordano, the figurehead, is a gift for those who adhere to the ideology of hating Islam.
What are the social consequences of growing Islamophobia in Germany?
Sokolowsky: I'm afraid that the consequences are already with us. In Lower Saxony, the Ministry of the Interior is monitoring mosque visitors, regardless of whether they are under suspicion or not. Academics of Turkish origin find it so difficult to get jobs on the German labour market that they resign themselves to emigrating to the country of their parents or grandparents.
A woman who wears a headscarf for religious reasons finds it much more difficult to get a job than other women, regardless of her qualifications. A party whose political manifesto has nothing to offer but Islamophobia is now in its fifth year in Cologne's city council.
Anti-Muslim polemics get much more attention from the media than serious migration researchers such as Werner Schiffauer or enlightened Muslims like Navid Kermani. The arguments against Turkey's accession to the EU are mostly cultural in nature; the debate about this matter has long been devoid of all objectivity.
Increasing hostility towards "the Muslims" means that a growing number of Germans with Turkish or Arabic roots are shutting themselves off because they feel that the majority of people in our society despise them. Three-quarters of the German population are afraid of Islam. And in a courtroom in Dresden, a woman was murdered for no other reason than that she was a devout Muslim.
Are you afraid that a decidedly anti-Islamic party like the one in the Netherlands, for example, will be set up in Germany? Would a group like this be successful?
Sokolowsky: Germany already has a decidedly anti-Islamic party in the shape of Pro Köln and offshoots like Pro NRW; naturally their success at the polls has been very modest. The PVV in the Netherlands, on the other hand, does not focus solely on hostility towards Muslims. In Geert Wilders, it has an incredibly charismatic and eloquent leader.
First and foremost, the PVV has positioned itself as a party for high earners who don't like paying taxes and mistrust the state in other ways. Its xenophobic slogans are the icing on the cake. First came the middle-class base, then the anti-Muslim propaganda.
I can well imagine that a well-established party in Germany could attract new voters by playing the anti-Muslim card.
In any case, hostility towards Muslims as the sole defining feature of a party would not be enough to wage a successful electoral campaign in Germany. Unfortunately, however, I can imagine that a decidedly Islamophobic attitude could become a deciding factor in future elections.
Do the media bear a share of the responsibility for the spread of anti-Muslim attitudes?
Sokolowsky: They certainly do. Der Spiegel, in particular, excelled in this regard under the leadership of Stefan Aust. During Stefan Aust's time as editor in chief, covers such as those entitled "Allah's bloody country", "Allah's disenfranchised daughters", "Pope vs. Mohammed" and "Mecca Germany: The Silent Islamicization" were not meant ironically; they were entirely serious. Moreover, the stories that went with them were as tendentious and defamatory as the covers.
The damage this caused in the minds of the readers is almost impossible to gauge. Thankfully, since Aust's dismissal, Der Spiegel has abandoned its fear- and rage-charged fixation on Islam. But the damage has been done. And all journalists that did not criticise Der Spiegel for its xenophobic cover stories contributed to the damage.
What is the best way to work against this image of the Muslim as our enemy?
Sokolowsky: Through dialogue, interaction, and education. The more Germans with German parents get to know fellow Germans with Turkish or Arab parents, the less easy it will be for them to fall for the rabble-rousing of the Muslim-haters. Instead of constantly focussing on how different some Germans are from others, they should all focus on what connects them.
After all, the similarities greatly outweigh the differences. Muslims and Christians alike do not spend all their waking hours thinking about Jesus or Allah; they think about their jobs, the mortgage on their houses, raising their children, fixing their cars, the price of chicken …
It is those who preach hate that want to close our eyes to these everyday similarities; those who preach hate in the backstreet mosques and in the German media.
Interview conducted by Ramon Schack
© Qantara.de 2009
Kay Sokolowsky, Feindbild Moslem (Moslems: The Perceived Enemy), Rotbuch-Verlag, Berlin 2009, 255 pages