Muslim students face Islamophobia after meeting CDU deputy
Nada Knani and her fellow scholarship holders had prepared well for their February 7 digital meeting with Norbert Rottgen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU). The university students had worked on various topics in small groups: environmental policy, the CDU after the Merkel era and managing the coronavirus pandemic. They had a lot of questions ready.
But these beneficiaries of the Avicenna Studienwerk, a German scholarship organisation for Muslim students and researchers, were not at all prepared for the torrent of online hostility, hate and provocation that they would face after the discussion. Rottgen had posted a picture of the digital meeting on social media platforms, showing 25 young people, some wearing headscarves.
"Once it had started, we knew it was not going to stop," said Nada Knani, a 22-year-old organiser of the meeting. "More and more comments came, many of them full of hate," she continued. "Things like that are shared in far-right groups; they organise concerted action there. It was an inferno."
Knani and her fellow students asked Rottgen to obscure the names of the participants. He then deleted any posts that allowed the students to be identified. "It is unbelievable what hate is directed at young people because of their beliefs," he wrote. "I found our discussion very fruitful and recommend such exchanges to everyone."
Real-life violence has followed online racism in the past. On 19 February 2020, a man killed nine people in shootings at two hookah bars in the central German town of Hanau after publishing a racist manifesto on the Internet.
"We have to combat this form of Islamophobia much more strongly so that people don't let themselves be intimidated when living out their faith," Widmann-Mauz said. She said she hoped that more concrete proposals would be put forward next year by an Islamophobia working group set up by the government.
El-Menouar is one of the members of this group. She said her research had found that non-Muslims have fewer prejudices when they have more personal contact with Muslims. "We have to make encounters possible and address these issues early on, even at school," she said. "And that is still happening too little."
Knani, who studies international relations and development policy in Duisburg, said it was the first time that she had faced such vicious hostility. She, a believing Muslim, does not wear a headscarf and grew up in regions where lots of people had a history of migration. But many of her fellow scholarship holders have had negative experiences already.
The managing director of the Avicenna Studienwerk, Hakan Tosuner, also took part in the digital meeting with Rottgen and saw first-hand the anti-Muslim backlash that followed. "We had never experienced it to this extent before," admitted Tosuner. "But it was only a question of time before we were also hit by Islamophobia in this way."
"We were all shocked and frustrated," Tosuner said. "We were actually doing something very normal, something that young people in Germany should do: exchange views with politicians and decision-makers and enter into a constructive, critical dialogue with them. That is why it is simply very sad that something like [the talk with Rottgen] on social media had such consequences."
"We can demand acceptance"
Knani said she had learned from the ordeal. "It is obvious that you shouldn't hide yourself," she said. "But, on the other hand, there are these hate-filled people in front of their screens. That makes things hard. But we have to learn to deal with it with self-assurance. We shouldn't beg for tolerance from a position of fear. Acceptance is not a matter of charity: we can demand it."
Tosuner has now made it a priority to shield scholarship holders from hostility. But, he said, discussion is now going on at the Avicenna Studienwerk on to how to combat Islamophobia more strongly. "You can also learn from such crisis situations, from these bad experiences, and try to steer them in a positive direction, by exchanging ideas and taking joint action against hate," he said.
But, Tosuner said, it is important that Germany not only pay attention to young and talented Muslims when issues of Islam and hate speech come into play. He noted that Avicenna's scholarship holders also have plenty to say about genetic technology, educational justice and the coronavirus pandemic.
© Deutsche Welle 2021