Merkel and "the danger of self-Islamisation"

Anti-Muslim racism means more than just discriminating against Muslims. It is an ideological worldview that pleads for the restructuring of society and more control in the view of the "Islamic threat". Those who do not bow to right-wing demands are deemed guilty of Islamisation. By Ozan Zakariya Keskinkilic

By Ozan Zakariya Keskinkilic

After class, a letter to the editor from a "worried" citizen is waiting for me in my mailbox at the Alice Salomon Hochschule (ASH Berlin). Thomas F.* responds therein to a guest commentary I submitted to the Suddeutsche Zeitung on the occasion of the Day Against Anti-Muslim Racism, which commemorates the murder of Marwa El Sherbini on 1 July 2009 in Dresden.

Thomas F. introduces himself as a long-standing member of the FDP party. He claims to have a cosmopolitan viewpoint. Nothing could justify hatred and violence. And yet, he says, he has reached the limits of his tolerance. He complains that women wearing the hijab have become an everyday sight. And he doesn't have the time to list in his letter all the atrocities committed in the name of Allah. But he does want to paint a picture of what is going on. The handwritten letter is thus accompanied by a drawing showing three people wearing a niqab and burka. The outraged critic of Islam captions the picture with: "I wouldn't have voted for this lady if I had seen her like that – it's Chancellor Merkel."

The caricature of a veiled Chancellor has been circulating on right-wing Internet forums for years. The Islamophobic blog pi-news features an open letter accusing Angela Merkel of deceiving the people. Sharia law has infiltrated Germany's legal system under her rule, it contends. The letter goes on to claim that Merkel wants to Islamise Germany. Here, too, she is shown wearing a headscarf. In the background a crescent moon with a star appears in the night sky above the Bundestag. The place-name sign for Berlin is written in Arabic script.

Self-Islamisation and "kaffirisation" among Germans

In its handbook "Der Islam – Fakten und Argumente" (Islam – Facts and Arguments, 2017), the AfD party faction of the state of Thuringia calls this phenomenon "self-Islamisation" and asserts that it is widespread among German politicians. The former Federal Minister of Justice Heiko Maas is another popular target of such accusations. The authors of the publication allege that he visited a Berlin mosque after the terrorist attacks on "Charlie Hebdo" and a kosher supermarket in Paris. The SPD-party politician is seeing to it that "Muslims are staged in the media as victims", they say, and is thus the perfect example of "self-Islamisation".

Germany's former justice minister Heiko Maas (SPD) gives a statement relating to the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris while on a visit to Berlin's Sehitlik mosque on 09.01.2015 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen)
Heiko Maas im Fokus rechtspopulistischer Verschwörungstheoretiker: Die Autoren einer islamfeindlichen Publikation der AfD-Fraktion Thüringen werfen dem früheren Justizminister vor, nach dem Terroranschlag auf Charlie Hebdo und einen koscheren Supermarkt in Paris eine Berliner Moschee aufgesucht zu haben. Der SPD-Politiker betreibe eine „mediale Inszenierung von Muslimen als Opfer“ und sei damit das perfekte Beispiel für eine "Selbstislamisierung".

The "Islamisation of the Occident" is ostensibly being fostered "by a kind of over-eagerness on the part of non-Muslims, in particular non-Muslim politicians and public figures, to bow to Islamic principles", according to this "Islam fact check". In other words, these so-called self-Islamised Germans are traitors to the people. They are said to be cosying up "to the enemy".

The topos of "self-Islamisation" recalls the historical charge of "racial defilement". It condemns all those who cross "racial" or cultural boundaries, who betray the "master race" or "leading culture" and thus contribute to the destruction of their own "race" or their own people. "Self-Islamisation" is the successor to "kaffirisation". "Kaffir" is a racist slur once used to refer to a black person, so that "kaffirisation" meant in the German colonial discourse an alleged cultural degeneration among white Germans who lived too long among blacks in colonial Africa.

The term laments the supposed rampant impoverishment among these "lost" compatriots, accompanied by excessive alcohol consumption, the infiltration of foreign terms into German and so-called "mixed marriage". The "kaffirised European" is therefore held up as an example of the problem of "intermingling" between seemingly natural opposites. This process would endanger the racist colonial lines of demarcation and must therefore be sanctioned in order to maintain "our" claim to dominance over "the others".The talk of "self-Islamisation" works in a similar way. Non-Muslim "do-gooders" are accused of submitting to the dictates of multiculturalism, of tolerating Islam and courting Muslims. It is insinuated that they are helping to "abolish Germany", which is why they become the target of hatred and violence if they do not observe the set boundaries.

An anti-Muslim racism without Muslims

The conspiracy theory of Islamisation therefore even works without Muslims. The lynchpin is the projected figure of the Muslim, i.e., a fictional contrasting foil, not anyone who actually exists. This invented figure is suspected of being the cause of social grievances, is blamed for the ills in society, and as such is projected onto bodies marked as Muslims and even personified by white accomplices (like Chancellor Angela Merkel). I therefore speak here of an anti-Muslim racism without Muslims.

Anti-Muslim racism means more than just discriminating against Muslims or those perceived as such. The phenomenon has grown to become an ideological worldview that pleads for a restructuring of society and exercising more control in the shadow of the "Islamic threat". Those who do not bow to right-wing populist demands are deemed guilty of Islamisation. As self-Islamised Germans they forfeit the right to see themselves as part of the "true people", let alone to represent it politically.

An AfD supporter holds up an anti-Islam, anti-Merkel placard in Hamburg on 31.10.2015 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt)
Kanzlerin Merkel als erklärtes Feindbild der Rechtspopulisten und Islamhasser: "Das Bild einer selbstislamisierten Kanzlerin ist deshalb mehr als eine billige Islamkarikatur unter vielen. Es steht für eine Ideologie der Reinheit, die Pluralismus bestraft und Herrschaft über andere fordert", schreibt Ozan Keskinkılıç. .

Security measures derived from anti-Muslim narratives then pave the way for the dismantling of democratic freedoms and rights, for demands for compartmentalisation, extending all the way to the surveillance of society as a whole and attendent disciplinary measures.

Merkel as a Jew? Overlaps with anti-Semitism

The image of a self-Islamised Chancellor is therefore more than just another cheap caricature of Islam. It stands for an ideology of purity that castigates pluralism and calls for domination over others. It is hardly surprising then that the image of Merkel as a Jewish puppet-master is also popular among right-wing extremists. Merkel's supposed Israeli identity card, a forgery, is currently circulating through the Internet. The Chancellor is cast here as a Jew who wants to take revenge on "us Germans" for the Holocaust and is therefore flooding the country with refugees, a view also held by PEGIDA supporters and other conspiracy theorists on the World Wide Web.

Merkel as self-Islamised figure with a headscarf is therefore fully interchangeable with Merkel as Jewish powerbroker. Both stand for the alleged loss of German identity and sovereignty. Both represent a foreign power as being responsible for all the evils in the country. This shows how anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim conspiracy theories work together. They share images of lies and cunning, of foreign infiltration and cultural alienation. They are interconnected, often in ambivalent ways.

The master narrative of the Muslim who conceals his true intentions and endangers the security of the nation has now gained credence far beyond the extreme right, stirring up widespread fear of refugees, migrants and Muslims. As part of the myth of the "Judaeo-Christian West" it is taking on never-before-seen dimensions. Judaism is being appropriated and turned into a tool for the defence against "Islam", Jews played off against Muslims.

The myth is thus perpetuated among right-wing populists and "concerned citizens", who outsource anti-Semitism from their own sphere of responsibility and project it onto Muslims in order to exonerate "us" from any guilt, while themselves remaining hostile to Jews.

If we are to undermine such strategies of divide and rule and to build a bulwark against discrimination, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism must be dealt with together rather than as competing ideologies. Intersectionality, i.e., an understanding of how different forms of discrimination are intertwined, is the magic word for a consistent critique of the pervasive longing we are seeing today for purity, homogeneity and dominance over "the others".

Ozan Zakariya Keskinkilic

© 2019

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

*Name altered by the editor

Ozan Zakariya Keskinkilic is a lecturer at the Alice Salomon Hochschule Berlin. He lectures and conducts research on (anti-Muslim) racism, anti-Semitism, Orientalism and (post-)colonialism, as well as on Jewish-Muslim relations.