From open to latent Islamophobia

Two people stand outside a mosque after paint was sprayed on the façade of the building the night before, Leipzig, Germany, 20 April 2017
A mosque in Leipzig, Germany, after a paint bomb attack in 2017 (image: Jan Woitas/dpa/picture alliance)

Sociologist and Islamic studies expert Imad Mustafa was commissioned by the Group of Independent Experts on Islamophobia (UEM) to conduct the first academic study of the discourse around Islam in Germany's political parties. His findings have recently been published in book form

By Joseph Croitoru

When the Group of Independent Experts on Islamophobia (UEM), which was set up by former Interior Minister Horst Seehofer in 2020, announced that it was commissioning an investigation into the discourse around Islam specifically in Germany's political and parliamentary parties, it was a welcome development: such a study was long overdue. The author commissioned to produce the study, sociologist and Islamic studies expert Imad Mustafa, published his findings for the years 2015–2021 online in June 2023. 

Although the UEM discussed these findings in detail in its report last June, they attracted scarcely any public attention. The recent publication of Mustafa's investigation in a slightly altered format, as a book whose title translates as 'Islam is (not) a part of Germany'. Islam and anti-Muslim racism in the party system and the Bundestag, did not change that in any way. 

Although people across Germany protested for weeks against right-wing extremism and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, their focus was not on these groups' agitation against Muslims and what this means for Germany's political landscape. In view of this fact, Mustafa's findings deserve greater attention. 

Although it is common knowledge that the AfD has effectively established an Islamophobic discourse both in the public arena and within Germany's various federal state parliaments, the extent and the development of this discourse is not as widely known. Right from the word go, the AfD has in its election campaigns for national and state parliaments openly denied that Islam has any place in Germany. Between 2017 and 2021, however, there has been a downward trend in the number of explicit statements to this effect. At the same time, however, there has been an increase in the AfD's total number of other anti-Islamic statements – whether explicit or implicit. 

Three woman wearing headscarves are seen from behind walking along a street
After the Hamas massacre in Israel on 7 October, Muslims in Germany have reported a rising number of insults and attacks on Muslim women wearing headscarves (image: Monika Skolimowska/dpa/picture-alliance)

Muslims are viewed as 'the others'

The AfD doesn't always make a direct link between Islam and the issues of migration, integration, refugees and asylum, which the party portrays as a threat to a German culture it construes as homogenous, Christian and western. When they are not stoking fears of "Islamisation" and even the establishment of Sharia law in "parallel societies", the right-wing populists of the AfD use vague terminology linked to conspiracy theories. Terms such as "foreign and clan crime" or "oriental sphere" function as Islamophobic codes. Moreover, by using the term "Islamic" in place of "Islamist", Islam as a whole is painted as a threat. 

The centre-right CDU and its sister-party the CSU also warn of parallel societies and criminal clans. In the rhetoric of these two parties too, Muslims are clearly painted as "the others", and there is also a definite tendency towards generalisation. The CDU also sees itself as the protector of a mainstream German culture shaped by the Judeo-Christian West, the values of which they expect Muslims to embrace.

The embracing of these values and hard work are the only ways for Muslims to become an integral part of society. There is no acknowledgement of Islam's place in Germany in the CDU/CSU's election manifestos. Indeed, Horst Seehofer went so far as to speak out against such an acknowledgement in 2018. Incidentally, in the draft of the CDU's "basic programme" published in December 2023, the paragraph "Jewish life is a part of Germany" is immediately followed by "Muslims who share our values are a part of Germany". 

Where do the liberals of the FDP stand?

Islam and Muslims are mentioned much less frequently in the election manifestos of the liberal FDP. Unlike the AfD and the CDU, the liberals avoid talk of a German cultural community, focusing instead on a commitment to the German constitution. 

That being said, the FDP does – such as in its 2021 manifesto for the general election – sometimes include a latent link to anti-Muslim narratives in places where it stipulates that integration courses should teach values such as gender equality, acceptance of different sexual orientations, and tolerance for all forms of faith and none. 

The stereotypical division of Muslims into those who are willing to integrate and those who are not integrated – as done by the CDU – also resonates with the liberals. While they do signal their desire to recognise Islamic associations as corporate bodies under public law, they would most likely only grant this status to "liberal Muslims". 

The Social Democrats and the Greens

The centre-left SPD and the Greens use language that is much more inclusive, and references to Islam appear in a far weaker form. These parties may adopt an anti-racist position – though this position is less explicitly anti-Islamophobic – but their references to Islam still have an identity-giving function for them. On the topic of integration in particular, Imad Mustafa sometimes detects implicit assumptions in relation to Muslim migrants by both parties, assumptions that are loaded with prejudices and reflect clichés on the anti-Muslim spectrum such as homophobia, patriarchy, sexism and antisemitism

And when the Greens declare, as they did in 2017, that Islam is part of Germany, they attach this belonging to a long list of conditions. In this respect, Mustafa has the impression – and not unjustly so – "that the Greens seem to be inextricably associating Islam as a religion with being different, being dangerous and posing a threat". In his view, the party's updated position from 2021 ultimately remains ambivalent: similar to the FDP, it holds out the prospect of equality in law for Muslim associations – but only credits the "liberal" ones among them with standing up for "gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights and feminism".

The only party that gets by without any anti-Muslim narratives and threat scenarios is the left-wing party Die Linke, which has adopted the clearest and most decisive stance against Islamophobia, especially within the AfD. 

Having analysed three random Islam-related parliamentary debates from 2015, 2018 and 2021, Mustafa comes to the conclusion that the general thrust of these debates was influenced by stereotypical notions and narratives. 

Imad Mustafa says that ever since entering parliament in 2016, the AfD has managed to "shape the discourse in the parliamentary parties of the centre right with the motions it proposes". Moreover, on the subject of integration in particular, the AfD's provocations have made the tone of the debate more heated, and it has to some degree managed to gain control of the discourse. 

One consequence of this is that when engaging with the AfD on this topic, the other parties frequently try "to paint themselves as especially eager advocates of integration and other educational measures". It is to be hoped that other investigations will follow Mustafa's informative study. 

Joseph Croitoru

 © 2024  

Mustafa, Imad. "Der Islam gehört (nicht) zu Deutschland". Islam und antimuslimischer Rassismus in Parteiensystem und Bundestag. Transcript Verlag (Bielefeld, 2023) 267 pages, €39. Also available through Open Access on the publisher's website.