Criticism of religion? Blatant racism!

What a contradiction in terms! Thanks to the growing ethnicisation of religious affiliation and the religionisation of ethnicity, being both Muslim and German is often presented as something wholly incompatible. By Yasemin Shooman

On 14 March 2018, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany announced that it would be closing its head office after repeated death threats against its chairman, Aiman Mazyek, and other members of staff. This announcement was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of attacks on Muslims and their places of worship. In 2016 alone, German authorities recorded 91 attacks on mosques – that's more than one a week.

Even though most documented anti-Muslim criminal offences are committed by right-wing extremists, negative and derogatory attitudes towards Islam and Muslims are a widespread phenomenon, not only in Germany, but in all European countries.

This claim is backed up by analyses of the political and media discourse and also by countless representative studies that have been surveying public opinion for the past few years. For example, about 60 percent of Germans agree that Islam does not fit in the Western world[1], and 38 percent agree that a woman in a headscarf cannot be German[2]. In 2016, one in two people said that Muslims made them feel like "strangers in their own country".[3]

Yet these hostile attitudes are not new; they also existed before the so-called "refugee crisis". In a 2009 study conducted by Andreas Zick and Beate Kupper of the University of Bielefeld (published in 2011), 44 percent of those surveyed said that there were too many Muslims in Germany.[4]

Islamophobia is a major cohesive force for right-wing populism, which has gone from strength to strength across Europe. Political parties like the AfD in Germany, Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden, the Front National in France, the FPO in Austria, the SVP in Switzerland, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the Partij voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands and the Lega Nord in Italy are using the general mood of the population to make their policies attractive and acceptable to the so-called "centre ground" of society. Their successes at the ballot box prove that this strategy is working. The anti-Muslim rhetoric is used by these parties as a modernisation strategy and has in many places replaced the old "foreigners out" slogan. As part of this strategy, Muslims are declared an "unintegratable" minority and are side-lined as "outsiders inside" Europe.

Right-wing populists demonstrate in front of Berlinʹs main railway station (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Stigmatisation within a systematic paradigm shift: anti-Muslim rhetoric is being used by Europeʹs right-wing populists as a modernisation strategy and has in many places replaced the old "foreigners out" slogan. As part of this strategy, Muslims are declared an "unintegratable" minority and are side-lined as "outsiders inside" Europe

The ethnicisation of religious affiliation

The focus on religious affiliation is the result of a shift in perception and an Islamisation of the debates about migration and integration that has led to sections of the population previously regarded as either guest workers or foreigners increasingly being viewed as Muslims. As a result, religious affiliation is becoming ethnicised, which is why one can also speak of "anti-Muslim racism".

There is widespread agreement within the field of racism research that even though the term "race" became increasingly taboo as a result of National Socialist crimes, its power to have a social impact has not decreased at all. Indeed, its ideological content continues to be transported using other terms and codes.

That is why, for more than 20 years now, there has been an increasing shift from racism based on biologistic arguments to racism that is founded on cultural aspects, of which anti-Muslim racism is one kind. Anti-Muslim racism is based on the notion that Muslims are a homogenous group to which certain (generally negative) collective properties are ascribed and which is seen as not belonging.

It is not just practicing Muslims who are affected by this marginalisation, but also people who are "labelled" Muslims because of their appearance or their names – regardless of whether they themselves identify as Muslims or not. Thanks to the growing ethnicisation of religious affiliation and the religionisation of ethnicity, being both Muslim and German is often presented as something wholly incompatible.

The role of religion in anti-Muslim racism

But what role does religion actually play in anti-Muslim racism? It is noticeable that a rhetorical "indirect communication" that ostensibly attacks Islam only is sometimes used as a way of shaking off the accusation of racism. A clear example of this is the way that right-wing populists describe themselves as "critics of Islam".

They use this neologism to justify their hostile, anti-Muslim sentiments as a form of religious criticism, whereby the lack of analogous composite terms such as "critic of Christianity", "critic of Judaism" or "critic of Hinduism" is an indication that Islam is being singled out and that the aim here is not a general criticism of religion.

As with all other monotheistic religions – which are built on a claim to the truth and have patriarchal structures – it is, of course, legitimate to criticise Islam. The reference to egalitarian arguments alone, such as active support for the rights of women and homosexuals, is not enough to differentiate between legitimate criticism and a hostile attitude. What is needed is a much more detailed analysis of the respective context in which the criticism is expressed – by whom and with what motivation? – and the function of an argument in this context.

No one who is willing to look at both history and the present can deny the repressive potential of religions. However, seeing this repressive potential in Islam alone is an indication of the application of double standards, which is an important criterion when differentiating between sober criticism and hostile attitudes. If, in addition to this, emancipatory arguments are used to justify the discrimination and marginalisation of Muslims, it is clearly a case of an attempt to use human rights to legitimise racism.

Double standards

At PEGIDA demonstrations, for example, people held up placards that read "Islam = carcinoma". In short, Islam was being equated with a deadly disease. However, because "Islam" is not a social player, this raises the question as to whether, when their religion is being attacked pars pro toto, Muslims are in fact the actual target of this slur.

The debasement and rejection of the Islamic faith has above all consequences for those people who are seen as Muslims when the term "religion" is used in a deterministic way and their general and, in particular, negative behaviour is interpreted in the light of actual or attributed affiliation to a religion. In such cases, the "integral properties" of Islam that are being criticised lead to notions of collective characteristics of "Muslims" without any major break in the argumentation.

Infographic showing the election results of right-wing parties in Europe (photo: DW)
With 94 seats, the AfD (Alternative for Germany) is the third strongest party in federal government. In recent opinion polls the party is indeed outstripping the Social Democrats. Franceʹs Front National led by Le Pen achieved 33.9 percent in the second round of elections in 2017. In Italy, a right-wing alliance associated with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi recently carried off 37 percent of the votes to become the strongest party in parliament, while in the Netherlands, Geert Wildersʹ PVV could point to an improved electoral result in March 2017

Here too, this is a case of double standards. After all, "critics of Islam" do not generally use the same standard to ascribe all negative behaviour of baptised people to Christianity.

Such interdependency between the hostile attitude towards a religion and the hostile attitude towards members of the relevant faith is familiar from a variety of areas including anti-Semitism. The purpose of referring to the "vengeful" God of the Old Testament is to transfer this supposed characteristic of their God to the Jews.

In other words, there is a definite link between the image that outsiders have of a religion and the image they have of those who adhere to that religion. Mechanisms that lead to the stigmatisation and marginalisation of a minority via attacks on the religion with which this minority is associated must, therefore, be taken into account in the analysis.

Dominance conflicts and the forging of identities

Some of today's conflicts relating to Islam and Muslims in Western societies can be explained by increasing societal participation. Given that one of the main accusations levelled at Muslims is their alleged lack of integration, this initially sounds paradoxical. However, integration in the spirit of participation also results in dominance conflicts. It is not, for example, the backstreet mosques that generate a defensive reaction, but impressive places of worship that show Muslims to be members of society who are visible in the urban context.

Anti-Muslim discourses are, therefore, steeped in the need to relegate Muslims to a subordinate role in society and to deny that they are part of German and European society. This is why, by alienating them, identity-related questions relating to the non-Muslim majority society are renegotiated.

In this context, anti-Muslim racism serves both the stabilisation of a national community structure (a key phrase here being Deutsche Leitkultur, "defining German culture") and the invocation of a supranational "Western" identity. The desire to keep one's own nation "ethnically pure" and "culturally, religiously pure" or at least to safeguard the dominance of one's own group within that nation, is extended to include the desire for a supranational Europe that is at least homogenous.

It is, therefore, important to note that current anti-Muslim racism in the context of migration societies is not being directed at a new target group, but is just increasingly using such contexts of reasoning that focus on the characteristic of religion in particular.

Yasemin Shooman

© 2018

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Dr Yasemin Shooman is Head of the Academy Programs of the Jewish Museum Berlin and obtained her doctorate at the Centre for Research on Anti-Semitism at TU Berlin on the subject of Islamophobia.


[1] cf. Bertelsmann Stiftung (Publ.): Religionsmonitor. verstehen was verbindet. Sonderauswertung Islam 2015, p. 8, mmenfassung_der_Sonderauswertung.pdf.

[2] cf. Foroutan, Naika u.a.: Deutschland postmigrantisch I. Gesellschaft, Religion, Identität, Berlin 2014, p. 6.

[3] cf. Oliver Decker/Johannes Kiess/Elmar Brahler (Publ.), Die enthemmte Mitte. Autoritäre und rechtsextreme Einstellung in Deutschland, Giessen 2016, p. 49.

[4] cf. Andreas Zick/Beate Kuupper/Andreas Hovermann, Die Abwertung der Anderen. Eine europäische Zustandsbeschreibung zu Intoleranz, Vorurteilen und Diskriminierung, Berlin 2011, p. 70.

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Comments for this article: Criticism of religion? Blatant racism!

We need to learn what Islam is.
We need to differentiate between Islam and Muslim.
We must be able to analyse and criticise the bad ideas in Islam.
Coming up with derogatory terms such as racism and islom-o-phobia are not conducive to an open dialogue, but stifle any kind of rational exchange.
This article is yet another emotional attempt at demonising those who dare take a critical look at Islam.
I for one am sick and tired of being asked to be tolerant of the intolerant.

Stefan Kees29.06.2018 | 00:32 Uhr

The title of this article is a classic example of the "affirming the consequent" fallacy. In the text, it argues that right-wing populists *sometimes* portray themselves as "critics of Islam" to shake off the accusation of racism, but the title virulently and provocatively claims that criticism of religion is "blatant racism !". It is not just the far-right, or racists, or xenophobes who are wary of Islam, and its intentions and aspirations. Nor is the focus on Islam merely a strategic ploy to cloak one's "racism" in more tolerable clothes: there are good reasons for people who prefer to live in a society akin to that in Germany today to fear a dismantling of various precious freedoms, going just by the statements of at least some adherents of Islam and by looking at Islam's practice and aspirations around the world. Atheists are being killed, either legally or extra-legally, in numerous Muslim countries with scriptural justification being freely provided, to quote just one example among many.

Indeed, the question raised in the article can be turned on its head: why is it that only Islam, and no other non-Christian religion, raises such wariness and fear in Germany ? Is it because there is a global anti-Islam conspiracy by enemies of Islam, who should then be fought via Jihad as numerous interpreters and adherents of Islam would have it ? Or is it because this can be best understood by the fact that Islam is a deen, a way of life, that comes with socio-political injunctions to its believers to shape and convert society to conform to its own views of "good" and "peace" ? It is another matter that these believers cannot agree upon what these injunctions are. And of course, so do other religions, but they do not give any indication of threatening the German state and the current way of life in majority German society, either at present or in the future. To put it differently, it would be useful to rephrase a sentence from the article in this way - "Anti-Islamist discourses are therefore steepd in the need to relegate Islamism to a subordinate role in society, and to deny that it is a part of German and European society. By alienating Islamism, identity-related questions related to the non-Muslim majority society are renegotiated". And indeed, this is true, and from a liberal perspective, highly desirable, if only since one's way of life is otherwise threatened and often at the cost of death (as the FKK, the Pride Parade and sauna goers should surely appreciate). One can also be sure that when Hindutva attempts to gain a hold in the German socio-politico-legal sphere, there will be an "anti-Hindu" movement for justifiable reasons.

The desire to "safeguard the dominance of one's own group within that nation", where that group is the one that wishes to maintain the freedoms enshrined in the German constitution and in German society today, is a highly valuable one, and should be supported. A desire to maintain, within Germany and in Europe, the dominance of the UN and European Declarations of Human Rights over the (Islamic) Cairo Declaration of Human Rights is not racism.

Charvaka29.06.2018 | 19:45 Uhr

I there are also other fundamental aspects of this isuue. The global capitalist culture has a tendency to homogenize other cultures, drawing them into its orbit through a global commodifation and appropriation/expropriation process. It is odd if you are mot a "liberal" today. In short, what is lacking in the analysis above is the socio-economic context in which this type of racism operates.
There is an important sphere that has contributed in lack of "integration": the labour market. Perhaps the example of France is the most striking in excluding "Muslim" job-seekers from entering the job market and from occupying certain occupations. This must be investigated in the case of Germany too.
Another aspect that is missing is what we mean by a "Muslim". In Europe there are "liberal" Muslims too, who they hardly different from most Europeans in many, if not most, things.
Another essential point to make is that the "centre-ground" discourse,i.e. the so-called liberal policies and discourse of the last few decades with a focus on identity politics has played a role in stigmatising minorities.
Finally, there is a blackout in the mainstream media of the role of Western states in destablizing "Muslim" countries not only through wars, but also through economic policies imposed by international institutions. Personally, why should integrate in a society where the majority have been complicit/passive before destruction and the suppport of dictatorships, IMF policies, humiliation, etc?

Nadeem30.06.2018 | 13:25 Uhr

Sure, a straw of truth in the accusations about critics of Islam. That does nothing however to excuse the fundamental flaws in that faith. The list of critics is impressive, from Churchill to Voltaire.The implication that the critics are somehow wrong or unfair is absolute propaganda. The root of "islamophobia" is indeed Islam, raw and unreformed.

Islamists around the globe have had remarkable success preying upon the feeble-minded and sanctimonious elements of the political left to conflate legitimate and desperately needed criticism with racism and xenophobia.The absurd result has been to threaten and demonize the very people who are risking their lives n the pursuit of human rights. If God exists, may he/she/it bless Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Raheel Raza, Imam Tawhidi and the millions of like-minded Muslims and ex-Muslims fighting to drag Islam from the horrors of seventh century Arabia and into the light of the modern world.

George Apostolou18.07.2018 | 19:41 Uhr

Worldwide, in which single country can a Muslim woman conduct a symphony orchestra with a large choir performing Handel’s Messiah?

Answer: Lebanon

Boghos L. Artin...23.12.2019 | 18:07 Uhr

I know that there are hate crimes against Muslims, and Muslims often have trouble intergrating. I am sorry for all of your troubles. However, I am a critic of the big three Muslim - Christian - Jewish religions, and I wish I had had someone tell me that there were criticisms of these religions before. I had grown up sort-of Christian, and I didn't know that you COULD criticize religion, I've gotten in arguments with Japanese people that say that America is a Christian nation [yeah Japanese people expect a HUGE amount of decorum if you want to say any controversial opinion]. I want people to tell me the truth even if I am upset about it, sure I may be upset for one week, but after several months who regrets when people tell them an upsetting fact including the fact that the religions are all superstitions (like Santa Claus) that have no scientific basis, and threatening to kill or disown people who leave the faith is horrible. That means that people don't believe your religion b/c they are afraid of the consequences not because its true. Everyone should have the right to believe whatever they want to believe whether they were born Muslim, Christian, or whatever. I agree that it is very difficult to learn to live in a culture that is different from the one you were in.

Alex11.01.2020 | 18:37 Uhr