Interview with migration researcher Naika Foroutan

"We need a debate about ourselves"

Naika Foroutan is professor of Integration Research and Social Policy at Berlin′s Humboldt University. In interview with Karen Kruger she speaks of prejudice against Muslims and addresses the question of guiding principles for today′s Germany

Ms. Foroutan, you recently gave an interview to "Der Spiegel" magazine. Usually, interviewees are introduced by name, age and occupation. But all that was said of you was: Naika Foroutan, 43, was a refugee. Is refugee a new category of identity that takes precedence over occupation?

Naika Foroutan: Possibly! My sister, who is an actress, has just been awarded the Hesse Film Prize. The basic tenor when she was introduced was: 35 years ago her family was forced to leave Iran, but she made it anyway! Shortly afterward my brother, who lives in the Eifel, phoned. Guess what, he said, they want to do an interview with me as a refugee! We both had to laugh. But I do think it′s a good thing that flight from one's homeland is being recognised as a social realm of experience. Germany has a huge history of people fleeing, which was brushed under the carpet for decades. These were traumatic experiences that our grandparents' generation never really came to terms with. Emotionally, that generation experienced something similar to what the people now coming to Germany are living through. And the prejudices that the refugees from the East had to contend with resemble what we hear today. People say they are dirty, don't want to work and that the men are skirt-chasers. The trauma these people are experiencing is partly the result of the disdain and lack of recognition they encounter.

The rumour that some refugees had raped German women persisted for weeks, even though most of the allegations proved false. It turns out that the incidence of sexual offences among refugees is no higher than among Germans, a fact that hasn't changed despite the large numbers now arriving.

Foroutan: Rumours can be difficult to dispel. They are used to justify underlying feelings of fear or prejudice. The rape myth is nothing new; decades ago Italian guest workers were accused of raping blonde women in Swabia. This is a narrative that recurs again and again in connection with foreigners. A great deal resonates within it – German blood is tainted, a people is at risk of being eradicated. It′s sheer prejudice: deep-rooted and deeply racist. The fact that it is not being labelled as such in the debate is despicable.

Why is such prejudice so virulent at the moment?

Foroutan: PEGIDA is certainly playing a major role. Its leaders have been harping on the alienation narrative for over a year now, always with the message: the people are being betrayed. Debates that revolve around the fear of identity loss must necessarily be conducted in public. But a society also needs to be armed with effective arguments, otherwise the boundaries of what can be spoken aloud shift rapidly and the crudest theses end up being earnestly debated. These then seep into the collective consciousness. The "people without space" (Volk ohne Raum) also started out as merely a discussion point in Germany, yet it wound up producing effects that were only too real.

PEGIDA supporters on Theatre Square in Dresden, 16.11.2015 (photo: Arno Burgi/dpa)
Naika Foroutan: PEGIDA leaders have been harping on the alienation narrative for over a year now, always with the message: the people are being betrayed. Debates that revolve around the fear of identity loss must necessarily be conducted in public. But a society also needs to be armed with effective arguments, otherwise the boundaries of what can be spoken aloud shift rapidly and the crudest theses end up being earnestly debated

Before the stereotype of the "Muslim man" came to the fore, economic refugees were the would-be opinion-makers' main target.

Foroutan: People said: we don't want any social parasites here, we want Syrian doctors. But that is currently not as important. Most Syrians, whether they are doctors or not, are after all Muslims. And according to one of the stereotypes, all they do is hang about in the refugee shelters or get into fights, nor can they control their sexual urges. Volker Beck recently posted a newspaper article on his homepage that told of overcrowded refugee shelters, with sexual assaults and beatings on the rise. It called for a limit to the influx – already at 850,000. According to conservative estimates, it was assumed Germany would absorb 1.5 million new citizens and pessimistic forecasts put the number at well over two million. The article dated from 1990 – it was about East Germans coming to the West!

Sexual promiscuity is not the only stereotype Muslim refugees have to deal with.

Foroutan: The gamut is huge. Muslims are labelled as violent, having little interest in education, homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynist, collectivist. Another stereotype claims that shedding these traits is not possible, because they are all part of Islam. There are umpteen studies that refute that notion. But empiricism has a hard time prevailing against prejudice. There's always a know-it-all who comes up with a quote from the Koran suras – taken out of context – that supposedly proves that Islam is inherently violent and anti-Semitic. But there are also numerous quotes from Luther and Kant that are deeply anti-Semitic. If they were to be cited like the ones from the Koran, you could readily describe Protestantism and the Enlightenment as inherently racist and anti-Semitic. Nowadays, though, we know that these stances have to be seen in their historical context, so we don't try to use them to delegitimise basic Western values based on the Enlightenment and Christianity. When it comes to Islam, however, other criteria are often applied. The argument is then that Muslims themselves interpret the Koran verbatim – but in fact most Muslims do not. Only the orthodox among them may be said to.

What impact does such stereotyping have on those Muslims who are forced to confront it?

Teacher Alev Erisoz Reinke giving a refugee language class in Bonn (photo: DW/M. Hallam)
Immigrants help immigrants: migration researcher Naika Foroutan is already noticing a dramatic social shift: "These people who for years have been treated as the ones who need integrating are suddenly a matter-of-fact part of German society and in a position to help." Many of those who have built their own livelihoods in Germany are helping the refugees on their arrival. With language courses, for instance, such as the teacher Alev Erisoz Reinke shown here giving a class to refugees

Foroutan: At some point, people tend to start behaving according to the expectations others have of them. Should prejudice against Muslims continue to circulate so widely, this could have an extremely negative impact on the refugees' sense of identity. At the same time, many Muslims are currently breaking with stereotyped images. Mosque communities are taking in refugees, supplying them with food and shelter, offering them language courses – regardless of whether they are Muslim or not. There are also many Muslims among the volunteers accompanying refugees on their visits to public offices or the doctor. They are working as Turkish and Arabic interpreters. All of a sudden, they are in demand as experts. These people who for years have been treated as the ones who need integrating are suddenly a matter-of-fact part of German society and they are now helping the new arrivals to navigate their way through German bureaucracy.

So has the large influx of refugees had a positive impact on German Muslims?

Foroutan: Theoretically speaking, yes. Provided we find a better way to deal with the widespread hostility toward Muslims. Instead of questioning our own sensibilities, we have to date primarily focused our attention on those who are perceived as foreign, as different. This is downright absurd. In reaction to the thesis that Germany is not a child-friendly country, for instance, we would not launch debates or conduct scientific studies showing everything that is supposedly wrong with children. We would question our own societal values. We need a debate about ourselves.

Why does German society hold on to these stereotypes so tenaciously?

Foroutan: This is not a specifically German phenomenon. Challenging your own stereotypes is always difficult. Educating people about prejudice does, however, play a rather minor role in Germany. We need to raise our children to feel the kind of empathy that would prevent them from disparaging others. When we perceive discrimination in any form, it should cut us to the quick.

Ultimately, the prejudice we are seeing today is directed at the kind of diversity that has long existed in Germany.

Foroutan: But this diversity is unevenly distributed. Of the 16 million people with a migration background, 15.5 million live in the former West German states. In the East, diversity is not yet a reality. Apparently, this situation has had a negative impact on the older generations. We published a study in February showing that adults – those aged over 26 – in former East Germany have a much more defensive attitude toward Muslims. East German youth, however, are almost as open toward Muslims as those in the West.

How do you explain this discrepancy?

Refugees en route to Germany (photo: Armin Weigel/dpa)
So has the large influx of refugees had a positive impact on German Muslims? "Theoretically speaking, yes,″ says Naika Foroutan. ″Provided we find a better way to deal with the widespread hostility toward Muslims. Instead of questioning our own sensibilities, we have to date primarily focused our attention on those who are perceived as foreign, as different. This is downright absurd"

Foroutan: Young people in eastern Germany have grown up in a society post-2001 that sees itself as a country of immigration, in other words, a united Germany. Even if this does not specifically relate to their surroundings, they have nonetheless been shaped by images and knowledge imparted by schools and the media. Direct contact is thus not a necessary condition for an open attitude, or for developing an awareness of resentment and discrimination. It is well known that young people who have been socialised for example by organisations such as Aktion Suhnezeichen (Action Reconciliation) are highly sensitised to anti-Semitism. This is the case even though many of them have never met a Jewish person or visited Israel. If we have managed to raise awareness against anti-Semitism, surely it must be possible to do the same for prejudice against immigrants, Muslims, blacks, Asians and others. Society has to be taught to act without prejudice. It must be an inherent part of its guiding principles. This also applies, incidentally, to prejudice against East Germans. This, too, is something we have failed to work on. As a result, it is striking back at society in the form of shifting such prejudice onto others.

The Council for Migration, of which you are a member, drafted a demand for guiding principles nearly a year ago. Why does Germany need its own guiding principles?

Foroutan: We need a narrative that will carry our society into the future. One that formulates objectives and creates procedures that respond to the new realities. Other countries already have such principles. Canada, for example, describes itself as a country of immigration with the motto "Unity in Diversity". For Canadians, this is more than just an advertising slogan. In businesses and schools, there are mandatory quotas so that social diversity is adequately reflected. The people are proud of their country's diversity; it is at the core of Canadian identity. Germany argues by contrast mostly in terms of demographics when it comes to immigration: pensions must be secure even 25 years from now. In the long term, this will not hold up as a cogent narrative. It still needs an ethical and emotional component.

Sending those arriving here the message that they are only welcome because there are not enough children in Germany is not particularly inviting.

Foroutan: It's banal, because what is happening at the moment harbours many more opportunities. It is catapulting Germany into a different era, in which we could do a great deal that is right. We need only to trust the signals coming from society: whether cathedral provost, conservative suburban family or Antifa refugee helper, whether migrant or old established Munich family – so many people in Germany are lending a hand and showing that they are ready for a new narrative and for real change in the world they live in. But it seems like the noisy minority with their scare tactics and defensive attitude are attracting more attention from the politicians. I hope very much that those who oppose them speak up and are heard.

Interview conducted by Karen Kruger

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2015

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Naika Foroutan is professor of Integration Research and Social Policy at Humboldt University in Berlin and deputy director of BIM (the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research).

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