Constructing the Self, Constructing the Other

In her essay US-Turkish philosopher Şeyla Benhabib criticises the current lack of any serious multicultural dialogue between the civilisations. Instead, European and US intellectuals continue to focus on "Islamo-fascism", thereby blocking any constructive debate on Islam and migration in the West

By Seyla Benhabib

Last year marked the 50th Anniversary German-Turkish Recruitment Agreement, when Turkish guest-workers began to arrive in Germany, and this was celebrated with big fanfare by Turkish and German politicians on all sides. But the ink had hardly dried on some of these articles and the speeches had hardly ended, when the immigrant community in Germany was shaken to their core because of a set of murders committed by a neo-Nazi terrorist cell from the east German town of Zwickau, disregardfully referred to with the phrase "Döner-murders".

These so-called Döner-murders involved Turkish street vendors, some of them selling flowers, some of them selling Döners. The murders were committed in the years from 2000 to 2006 but came to light only in the spring of 2011. This reminded the immigrant community – now going on to 60 years of presence in unified Germany – of the arson attack in Moelln in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, in which three Turkish women in were killed in 1992 when a house was set on fire and a grandmother and her grandchildren were burned down.

Is the German state protecting its citizens properly?

I don't want to be alarmist, nor do I think that German society is collectively looking down on Turkish migrants. But there is something very wrong in the fact that, even after three generations, hate-crimes against migrants, against visibly foreign migrants, are continuing to take place. And perhaps even more worrying than that is something that migrants and Turkish intellectuals within the migrant community are pointing out to, which is that all this is leading to a decline in confidence that the German State is there to protect them as well.

Memorial ceremony for the vicitims of the right-wing Zwickau cell (photo: dapd)
Right-wing terror in Germany: Between 2000 and 2006 eight people of Turkish origin and a Greek national were killed by a group calling itself the National Socialist Underground. For years, German police and intelligence ignored indications of the racist background of the crimes

​​So this is the current situation. But how did it get there? The "guest-workers" were first brought to Germany to help get underway the post-war economic miracle. Even the use of the term "guest-workers" suggested from the start that they were not to be seen as regular migrants. European countries actually do have a labour-migration policy and they have a family unification policy: not all foreigners who come to Europe are simply there for political refuge or for asylum purposes. There has been an active economic policy of recruitment in many of these countries.

But what are we talking about, even today, in terms of figures? Sometimes it helps to get our facts a little straight about these matters. The largest foreign-born communities are in Germany and Austria with 10-9 per cent of the population; the Netherlands and France are in the middle range with about 6 per cent of the population that count as foreign; in Italy and Spain it is much less with about only 4 per cent.

But, when you look at these numbers – which at least for many countries are not that alarming –there has been a process of what I would like to call "othering": othering of migrant workers from Morocco, Turkey and increasingly of political refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Europeans here, Muslims there

And this "othering" has taken place partially because in the process of European unification, Italians, Spaniards and Greeks, who were also part of the economic miracle in countries like The Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany, now became "Europeans". And what did the others become? The others became "third-country nationals" and increasingly "Muslims". So there is also a kind of reconstruction of the migrants' identity under conditions of immigration.

It seems as if migrants coming from these countries has the label "Islam" written on his or her forehead: this is nonsense. Every migrant's identity is dependent upon both what are called sending regimes – regimes that are sending migrants – and reception regimes. Migrants' identities are constituted dynamically in interactions between countries receiving them and countries sending them.

Seyla Benhabib (photo: Reset DoC)
Seyla Benhabib is Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University and Director of its Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics

​​The Turkish migrant community became more and more religious, as a result of developments in Turkey itself, as a result of the rise of the AKP, but also because, beginning in the 1980s, many of the German conservatives started introducing Koran-schools.

The Koran-schools were first introduced into Germany to teach the Muslim community – the Turkish community, as well as the Moroccan and Afghan communities – by the CDU-CSU, who thought that it would be a good idea for them to have increasingly religious education. To this day, there is a big debate about whether or not the way to integrate the Turkish community is to build the institutions of the so-called Islamic community. Partially, this is the dynamic of Germany, which recognizes Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism as official religions.

Discrimination against Muslims in Germany

Germany is not a laïque country, and if you belong to either the Church or the Synagogue you pay a certain tax called the Kirchensteuer, i.e. 'church tax'. The problem is that this of course is discrimination against Muslims in Germany, because they don't have the State helping them to build the mosques or their own free association and so on. So there is an issue of the neutrality of the State, and this neutrality is supposed to be balanced constitutionally by recognizing the community.

But what this means is that in effect you are reinforcing one definition of collective identity over other definitions of collective identity, while in Turkey itself the struggle between the laïque and the Muslim identity, and what exactly this Muslim identity means, is being debated. So we should pay attention to the construction of religious identity, and particularity Islamic identity, within the European context.

Currently, a perfect storm is gathering more and more momentum since September 11th with regards to Islam in Europe. The first point is, and here I agree with Ian Buruma, that we are dealing both with a situation of economic insecurity – Europe is facing one of its worst economic crises probably in the last thirty years and also dealing with a process of political alienation, because this construct called the "European Union" is becoming more and more technocratic and less and less intelligible to normal people.

The newly-built mosque in Cologne (photo: dpa)
Downfall of the West? The Cologne Central Mosque, still under construction, caused controversy: The project has been opposed by local residents, right-wing groups, and neo-Nazis

​​There really is a problem of technocratic rule and domination now within Europe to be solved. Within this context, to use Zygmunt Bauman's phrase, "strangers are dangers" and they become even more significant dangers under conditions of political and economic alienation.

Charade of American politics

Second, we are in the midst of the profound bankruptcy of political elites, not just in Europe, but globally. I think that the techno-media-globalization has killed the independent and honourable statesmen or stateswomen. We have politicians who are liars, entertainers or masters of kitsch, and this has something to do with the televisual politics of our age. Just look at the way we do and undo candidates, the charade of American politics of the last months. "sex sells", but it also diverts, and makes us not think about anything else that is significant.

Third, I believe that there is also the opportunism of the intellectuals. I call this 'opportunism', because the response to the Salman Rushdie affair is not to condemn Islam, but it is to have made the distinction between Khomeini, who announced the fatwa against Rushdie, and everyone else.

Young Muslim women at Berlin's Sehitlik Mosque (photo: dpa)
"Like any civilizational tradition, like any great religion, Islam has its own arguments, its own debates, its own fanatics and its own tolerant people." Pictured: Young Muslim women at Berlin's Sehitlik Mosque

​​Like any civilizational tradition, like any great religion, Islam has its own arguments, its own debates, its own fanatics and its own tolerant people. I mean, where are we if the European intellectuals – particularly the French and the Dutch – keep thinking that the Enlightenment means engaging in a kind of "Protestant Fundamentalism"?

Now, is there is one single model of the relationship between religion and politics? No, there isn't. There are multiple models of the relationship between religion and politics. Turkey, for example, imitates France, which is one of the most laïque countries. In USA we have the First Amendment, and you tell me how you can construct the history of this Amendment in terms of these banal oppositions of "toleration" and "fanaticism". You cannot.

So what I see spreading is that – instead of having actually generated the serious multicultural intercivilizational dialogue, by trying to understand the standpoint of the other and engaging in a conversation – what some European intellectuals did and some in US as well, who keep taunting "Islamo-fascism", is simply to block channels of conversation.

Hope from the margins of Europe

Hence, we had the scarf affair – "every woman who covers her head is an oppressed minion" – we had honour-killings – "every Turkish brother or father is about to murder his daughter or sister if she goes off with someone else", we have the problems of arranged marriages etc. It is not that migrant communities do not have these problems. But when you pick these incidents up as the way to talk about the "other", you reduce the otherness of the other to scandal. And scandal is not reasonable conversation.

If you are really serious in working with these communities you have to do what some of the women's groups have done, namely go into the community and try to generate the kind of dialogue that is necessary within these communities.

I am not very hopeful, at the present, about European politics. For me hope comes from the margins of Europe. It is coming from this new generation of migrants who are calling themselves "mishmash" Turks, who don't properly speak the language but who are now capable of talking back and not just being talked about.

I also think that, with all its problems, the "Arab Spring" has taught us that Islam is capable of changing itself. And that, in effect, it wasn't just the fact that Osama bin Laden was murdered that brought Al-Qaeda to an end; but that al-Qaeda has come to an end in many parts of the Arab world and North Africa because the young people have rejected it, and hopefully that they will re-enter the conversation with Europe.

Seyla Benhabib

© Reset DoC 2012

Seyla Benhabib is Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University and Director of its Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics. editor: Lewis Gropp/