Berlin 2021 is not Tehran 1979

Several media reports in recent weeks have focused on the potential threat presented by Islamist groups in Germany. The discourse is fraught with generalisations, both sides accusing the other of their inability to differentiate, writes Tayfun Guttstadt

Essay by Tayfun Guttstadt

The latest round of this ongoing debate was triggered by the assertion that "legalist Islamists" have already elbowed their way into many key positions and are working tirelessly to infiltrate state and society.

Alarm bells were sounded – for example in a commentary by Monireh Kazemi in the Neuer Zurcher Zeitung postulating that the situation in Germany, one of the wealthiest and most politically stable nations in global history, "is a dangerous reminder of the situation in Iran shortly before and during the Islamic Revolution of 1979", or in other words the situation in a nation where most of the population are Muslim, enduring a hopeless chain of domestic and foreign policy crises.

Many other individuals from a wide range of backgrounds applauded this dramatic take and spun it out even further with the reproach: "left-wingers" in Germany had so far remained silent over the problem of Islamism, or even helped it on its way – due to unawareness, ignorance and/or ill-placed considerateness. It was time, they agreed, to tackle the problem together and with all available powers, otherwise we might wake up tomorrow in a mullah republic.

These and other claims of a similar nature opposed the view that comments raising the spectre of "legalist Islamists" are not just excessive and imprudent, but part of a campaign clearly designed to distract from the actual problem – white racism – and stigmatise Muslims.

Those on this side of the debate say that in truth, the danger emanating from Islamism barely exists, that it only arises as a result of anti-Muslim racism or is at any rate exaggerated. And contrary to the claim that the left wing remains silent over Islamism, the entire white-German majority society is permeated from left to right by racism and the colonial mindset, mainly expressed as panicked Islamophobia and general suspicion, they say.

The entire debate is intermeshed with the commotion over the phrase "political Islam", not least placed on the terminology map by the foundation of an "Observatory on Political Islam" by the Austrian government.

Former chairman of the Young Socialists Kevin Kuhnert has been deputy federal party chairman of the SPD since December 2019 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Willnow)
For more nuanced criticism of Islamism: in the wake of the Islamist-motivated attacks in France, a debate on how to deal with the dangers of radical Islamism has also flared up in Germany. Former Young Socialist leader and deputy federal leader of the SPD, Kevin Kuhnert, claims that 'the left' is silent on Islamist attacks and is thus making itself vulnerable. Tayfun Guttstadat counters that "a homogenous 'left', to which one could attest general failure in the fight against radical tendences among Muslims, is as much of a fiction as the 'Islam' or the 'Muslims' who would allegedly take up positions themselves against this or that"

"Islamism" and "political Islam" are inaccurate terms

The first thing to do here is to conduct a reality check on these standpoints emanating from homogeneous groups and apparently clear-cut contexts. A homogeneous "left", to which one could attest general failure in the fight against radical tendences among Muslims, is as much of a fiction as the "Islam" or the "Muslims" who would allegedly take up positions themselves against this or that.

Moreover, the potentially useful terms "political Islam" and "Islamism" are often recklessly deployed. As has been noted in many commentaries: in a secular democracy, it should of course be possible to conduct democratic politics inspired by religion without coming under suspicion.

That Islamism – in the sense of a political ideology that aims to subjugate the whole of society to an extremely strict interpretation of Islam – exerts a highly influential power in predominantly Islamic countries for the most part, cannot be seriously disputed. From the Islamic Revolution in Iran to the power of the Taliban, or the rise of Muslim-conservative mainstream parties in numerous countries to the jihadist fighters of both genders acting within global networks: actors who take Islam – admittedly in a variety of interpretations – as the basis of their conduct and ideas have to a large extent taken control of the political, social and ideological sphere over the last four decades. From the early 20th century through to the 1960s or thereabouts, the picture still looked different, the dominant ideologies being nationalism and socialism.

It should of course be noted in the light of such a broad appraisal that these groups can by no means be lumped together – potentially more divides, than unites them.

While the term "Islamism" has taken root as the term to describe uncompromising movements ready to use violence, the term "political Islam" is far more complex, despite its suggestion of exactitude. Even when, as some correctly note, the term was defined and used in many serious-minded academic studies of recent decades, the problem persists because most people will neither read nor adopt these definitions. In a society where anti-Muslim racism represents a grave danger and frequently claims victims, this problem cannot be simply passed over.

Don't exclude, but raise awareness of problematic attitudes

Moreover, experts do not agree when political activity should be classified as "political Islam" – that the nationalist-Islamist Turkish movement Milli Gorus is ascribed to "political Islam" is undisputable. But what about all the people from Turkish families in Germany linked to the Milli Gorus network for social reasons and who simply attend the organisation’s centres out of habit?

What about the countless non-profit organisations run by Muslim citizens, associations that make a valuable contribution to civil society and also frequently conduct important interfaith dialogue, but that sometimes overlap with organisations that are seen as actors of "political Islam"?

Germany’s Muslims, especially young Muslims born in the country, should not be shunned, but made aware of problematic positions within their own communities. This is already happening in many places without the need for external influence, because young Muslims are educated and active participants in society. This sensitises them to issues such as homo- and transphobia or anti-Semitism, or they recognise parallels with their own experience of racism.

There is no question that nationalistic, highly conservative and also Islamist views are gaining currency among youngsters with Turkish and Arab backgrounds in Germany, in some cases to a worrying extent. I work in Berlin schools myself and I know that in some of these, most of the students believe that homosexuality is haram and that gays are therefore despicable; and that moreover, in some neighbourhoods the private lives of these young people are policed by a robust patriarchal order grounded in Islam. It is also no secret that the primary target of misanthropic statements and deeds by young people from strict Muslim backgrounds are Jews and Alevis, who are often left to deal with the abuse alone. Many of the teachers who are not from a migrant background themselves are simply not equipped to deal with these problems.

It is also unfortunately true that some of those who should address these grievances do not take them on, whether out of a lack of interest, ignorance or political calculation. Because Muslims in Germany – whether viewed as Muslim scholars, average followers of the faith, or supporters of more extreme positions (based solely on their appearance) – represent a stigmatised minority, the caution of some political actors is to a certain extent understandable and appropriate.


 Resident in Berlin since 2016, Tayfun Guttstadt is a cultural scholar, author and musician (photo: Keren Chernizon)
Was Islamisten und Rechtextrem: „Undemokratische Strömungen in den muslimischen Communities müssen ebenso beherzt bekämpft werden, wie rechtsradikale Strömungen in der deutschen Mehrheitsgesellschaft. Eine Hochstilisierung des "politischen Islam“ in Deutschland zu einer Bewegung, die kurz davorstehe, die Republik zu übernehmen, leitet fehl. Berlin 2021 ist nicht Teheran 1979, stellt Tayfun Guttstadt klar.

Downplaying right-wing radicalism

In short: yes, there are also actors and organisations in Germany that should be taken seriously and that – regardless of all the differences between them – fall under the political Islam umbrella because they disseminate undemocratic, sometimes barbaric ideas. These ideas find considerable resonance within Germany’s Muslim communities in particular.

In some milieus and/or areas this mix represents a very real danger for non-Muslims (primarily Yazidis, Jews, Alevis and Armenians) ex-Muslims, outspoken women, critics of particular structures or ideologies and non-heterosexuals. To somehow belittle this danger or the fear of those affected by it, to gloss over the frequently brutal consequences and to not provide unconditional support to the victims, is absolutely unacceptable.

The undemocratic and fascistic tendencies within Muslim communities must be fought with the same vigour as those within Germany’s majority society. And there is one key point to mention here: whipping up the dangers presented by political Islam in Germany into a force that is on the brink of capturing the republic, is barking up the wrong tree. Berlin 2021 is not Tehran 1979.

To behave as though we must now take all conceivable action, otherwise we might wake up tomorrow in an "Islamic republic" is not only absurd, it also distorts perception of the true dangers currently facing Germany.

Right-wing radical Germans are not only members of by far the largest potentially violent anti-democratic group in this country, they also enjoy partly open, partly hidden sympathies that run deep into the heart of society.

They are also well organised, with access to important power centres that have been consolidated over the decades and proven efforts to establish parallel structures within the army, intelligence service and police – often with success. Weapons cache discoveries, chat groups, murder attacks – the regularity and severity of last year’s events alone show the extent of the danger. The media display an astonishing reticence over the issue – compared with the headlines on Islam-related stories.

There is a very clear imbalance here, which also concerns the political sphere. To behave as though a few radical preachers in Berlin Neukölln present a larger threat to the republic than the brown-hued German brew of paramilitary sport groups, brotherhoods, neo-Nazis and their supporting networks in and outside parliament, this also has a counter-productive effect in the long-term on efforts to combat undemocratic forces within the Muslim spectrum.

The atmosphere of general suspicion and the persistent stigmatisation of Muslims not only hampers the crucial separation of democratic and undemocratic forces within Muslim communities, it also fuels a sense of frustration and disappointment even among those who are only deemed to be Muslim because of the way they look.

It is time politics and the media sent a signal that the dangers posed by Islamist activities can be recognised and thwarted without resorting to immoderation and populism. To behave as though criticism of Muslims and Muslim institutions is lacking in Germany in the year 2021, or as though the republic could introduce a headscarf ban tomorrow, is certainly not helpful.

Tayfun Guttstadt

© 2021

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Tayfun Guttstadt, born in Hamburg in 1987, is a cultural scholar, author and musician. He has been living in Berlin since 2016 in Berlin. His areas of interest span identity processes, nationalism and the music of the Middle East.

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