Tanja Dittfeld wrote “The Muslim Folk Devil in Germany: In Between Welcome Culture and Culture of Fear” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.
Despite its self-proclaimed welcome culture and subsequent appointment as Europe’s moral watchdog in the reception crisis, even Germany’s moral panic about the Muslim ‘other’ is so grave that here too rights are used to deprive rather than protect.
Once upon a time, Europe was a continent characterized by world wars, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Yet for the past half century, Europe has been busy sweeping its nationalistic and violent histories under the rug, and replacing it with a fairy-tale image of itself as a “zone of peace and a bastion of universalistic liberal norms, a protector and promulgator of human rights and a purveyor of an inclusive, cosmopolitan European identity.” (1) Confronted with the reception crisis , Europe has however gone from protagonist to villain in its own fairy-tale.
In the figurative and literal ruins of World War II (WWII), human rights have become the moral backbone of Europe. Sadly, the reception crisis has seen Europe’s supranational morality being substituted by an unproductive and unbecoming emphasis on unilateral, national level responses. The moral demise is worrisome, but even more so is the increasing use of human rights to foster selective deprivation instead of universalistic protection. Despite its self-proclaimed welcome culture and subsequent appointment as Europe’s moral watchdog in the reception crisis, even Germany’s moral panic about the Muslim ‘other’ is so grave that here too rights are used to deprive rather than protect.
While the reception crisis has made Europe’s moral panic about the Muslim ‘other’ abundantly clear, strangely little attention has been devoted to the stages in which moral panics unfold. Moral panics carry significant potential to enhance political power by triggering repressive changes in law or social policy through scapegoating certain people or issues as a threat to cherished morality and sociality. (2) An understanding of the processes underlying the moral panic about the Muslim ‘other’ can thus cast light on Europe’s demotion in its own fairy-tale. Given its ominous past and professed welcome culture, the unfolding moral panic in Germany is particularly curious and deserves scrutiny.
No to Nationalism, Yes to Homonationalism
While far-right campaigners gained strength in several European countries from France to Denmark to the Netherlands, Germany stayed somewhat of an outsider, sticking to its post-war parties – the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). However, just as populism is having a comeback in the US, so is it in Germany with new political movements, protests and attacks on reception shelters. If nothing else, the toxic reactions to the events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015/2016 explicate Germany’s panic about the Muslim ‘other’.
The othering of a certain group inevitably has an ominous tinge in Germany, but the deployment of homonationalism has proven efficient in circumventing unpleasant associations with the past.
The populist turn clashes with Germany’s declared morality in the reception crisis; the notion of a welcome culture, prompted by an idealistic Chancellor Merkel stating “Wir schaffen das!” at the onset of the reception crisis in September 2015. It also confronts Germany’s post-WWII cultural script that until the reception crisis made it taboo for German liberals articulate the implications of immigration in Germany.
The othering of a certain group inevitably has an ominous tinge in Germany, but the deployment of homonationalism has proven efficient in circumventing unpleasant associations with the past. Homonationalism, coined by Jasbir K. Puar in 2007, is simply put the conceptual alignment of ideas from Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) activism with ideals of nationalism. LGBT-rights became the latest frontier in human rights with the Declaration of Montreal in 2006 and the Yogyakarta Principles in 2007. While their implementation is at the heart of global culture and identity wars, LGBT-rights have become a marker of Western modernity. They are thus easily employed to legitimize xenophobia against non-Western others.
LGBT-rights have been used to frame migrants and refugees as threats to the security, culture and livelihood of the European nation state for more than a decade.
Though limited in the United States (US)—at least until Donald Trump stepped into the limelight—LGBT-rights have been used to frame migrants and refugees as threats to the security, culture and livelihood of the European nation state for more than a decade. Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, serves as an illuminating point in case as he repeatedly invokes LGBT-rights to argue for anti-Muslim policies including an immigration ban, prohibition of the Quran, and a tax on Muslim women’s headscarves.
A textbook example of homonationalism in Germany is the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party’s election poster depicting a supposed male gay couple with a quote stating “my partner and I attach no importance to the acquaintance with Muslim immigrants, for whom our love is a mortal sin.” (3) The poster simultaneously juxtaposes LGBT-people with Muslims, and displays a reductionist view on Muslim identities by leaving no conceptual space for queer Muslims. Ironically, when used to incite ostracism and social exclusion, homonationalism not only goes against the liberal values inherent in LGBT-activism, but also allows for national LGBT-issues and biases to be overlooked.
Though the reported abuses leading to the shelter mainly came from fellow asylum seekers, the fact that security staff and translators were also perpetrators has been conveniently downplayed in public discourse.
When Berlin-based gay rights organization Schwulenberatung launched a LGBT-only shelter in February 2016, left- and right-wing politicians likewise triggered the moral imperative of LGBT-rights by portraying supposed male, heterosexual Muslim asylum seekers as a homogenous bunch of folk devils that threaten the security of LGBT-people. Though the reported abuses leading to the shelter mainly came from fellow asylum seekers, the fact that security staff and translators were also perpetrators has been conveniently downplayed in public discourse.
The counterintuitive use of LGBT-rights is enabled by the cultures of fear that characterize late-modern Western societies. Frank Füredi, author of the book ‘Culture of Fear Revisited,’ argues that whereas fear was traditionally associated with a clearly formulated threat like death or hunger, fear now appears to have an independent existence. This means that subjective perception rather than the actuality of danger matters for what, who and how we fear. (4) Cultures of fear encourage all human experiences to be approached as potential threats to be managed, which in turn allows for moral panics to rise.
Stage 1: The Muslim Folk Devils Come Knocking
In the first stage of moral panic, a group, person or issue emerges as a social threat, often by media framing the threat in a simplistic and stereotypical way that fuels public concern. In the post-WWII era, a standardized way of talking about and handling refugee problems among national governments, relief and refugee agencies, and other NGOs arose. These discursive and representational tendencies have entered the way journalism and media report on refugees. (5)
A Sea of Humanity
During the reception crisis, the portrayal of refugees as “a miserable sea”, “blur of humanity” or a “vast and throbbing mass” has become normalized on television, in newspapers and on social media. (6) Seeing that cultures of fear rely on the performative capacity of borders to monitor, protect, and sustain the mutually exclusive imaginings of a securitized ‘inside’ and a threatening ‘outside,’ (7) this imagery provokes a fearful sense of national security failure. The impression of a mass invasion is particularly present in Germany, where more than a million asylum seekers have been registered since Chancellor Merkel announced her open-door policy, making Germany the country in the EU receiving most refugees from Africa and the Middle East.
A median of 59% people across 10 EU countries voiced concern about asylum seekers increasing terrorism including 76% in Hungary, 71% in Poland, 60% in Italy, around 61% in Germany and the Netherlands. (9)
Moral panics are further marked by the level to which societal and personal expressions are out of proportion with the threat posed by the so-called folk devils. (8) Prior to the wave of violence in Europe in the summer of 2016 in Paris, Nice and Brussels, a survey showed that a median of 59% people across 10 EU countries voiced concern about asylum seekers increasing terrorism including 76% in Hungary, 71% in Poland, 60% in Italy, around 61% in Germany and the Netherlands. (9) Within a week of the summer of 2016, Germany tragically experienced an axe attack on a train, a mass shooting in Munich, a machete attack and suicide bomb in Ansbach. With three of the attacks carried out by refugees, and two of them – the axe attack and the suicide bombing – believed to have an extremist motive, the emerging notion of an “Islamic Invasion” must enforce and heighten fears.
The conflation of the refugee with the terrorist demonstrates that even though there are no races but merely genetic differences, racism has not disappeared. Religious and cultural racism thrive, and the xenophobia displayed in Europe’s response to the reception crisis is symptomatic of the racialization of religion. Muslim refugees and asylum seekers are ascribed a certain relation with Islam and therefore expected to follow certain social practices that are considered detrimental to the European fairy-tale.
Helplessness as a Refugee Characteristic
The racialization of Islam is aided by the lack of names, distinguishing marks and personal details in the visual and textual representations of refugees, which render them a dehistoricized and universalized singular category of humanity. These anonymizing representations enable crass generalizations as exemplified in the aftermath of the Cologne attacks, when Kristina Schröder, Chancellor Merkel’s former minister for family affairs, tweeted: “For far too long, we have overlooked a misogynist attitude among Muslim men,” and Muslim men being accused of “sex jihad” against white, blond women during rallies in Leipzig.
This kind of dichotomization of the deserving and undeserving refugee serves to exacerbate the demonization of Muslim men.
In March 2016, the European Parliament adopted a report about the challenges of women refugees and asylum seekers in the EU, including the situation of LGBT-asylum seekers. (10) Already in September 2015, Berlin classified LGBT-asylum seekers as a social group in need of special treatment and protection with regards to housing, therapy, and health care, akin to pregnant women, unaccompanied children, and the disabled. Insofar, LGBT asylum seekers are now clustered into the same category of helplessness and speechlessness as women and children, rendering them deserving of fort Europe’s care and control. (11)
Granted, women and LGBT-people are subject to specific forms of gender- and sexuality based persecution while fleeing and waiting for asylum more often than men. However, this kind of dichotomization of the deserving and undeserving refugee serves to exacerbate the demonization of Muslim men. Moreover, by far most refugees who reach Europe are men, (12) and as they are not ascribed the same speechlessness or helplessness as women or LGBT people, their arrival is easily taken as a manifest threat. The new folk devil in Germany is thus cast as the male, heterosexual Muslim asylum seeker.
LGBT-Rights as a Global Security Issue
In August 2015, the United Nations (UN) Security Council held its first ever meeting on LGBT-rights. The meeting included first-hand testimony from an Iraqi and a Syrian male, gay refugee about their experiences of being beaten, imprisoned, and threatened with death, and the widely-publicized videos of ISIS executing allegedly gay men. They emphasized that widespread persecution of LGBT-people existed before the current conflict in Syria, and that the brutality practiced by ISIS is often supported by society at large. (13) While the meeting avoided the dehistoricizing universalism that often strips people in the refugee category of authority to give credible narrative evidence or testimony about their own conditions in politically and institutionally consequential forums, (14) the testimonies can still be turned into a testament of Muslim asylum seekers as importers of homophobia.
The meeting was not mandatory for the Security Council’s members. Yet, Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, described it as an attempt to integrate LGBT-rights into all discussions of human rights by international bodies like the UN. With the integration of LGBT-rights being one of the most controversial tests of human rights’ universality, it is commendable that leeway is being made. Nonetheless, the UN agenda is also somewhat a civilizing mission, carrying echoes of imperialism while suppressing the colonial history of the institutionalization of homophobia.
The notion of a universal sexual morality further provides a carte blanche to demonize anyone not complying with it.
Locally situated, cultures of fear are shaped by dynamics of global power relations. (15) A ruling by the Court of Justice of the EU in December 2014 finally established that when verifying the sexual orientation of an asylum seeker, authorities should always comply with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, the notion of a fixed, universal LGBT-identity can at the national level force LGBT-asylum seekers to undergo humiliating and invasive procedures in order to prove that their queerness is adequate to earn them the protection of human rights, especially in scenarios with dubious asylum legislation and/or authorities’ lack of experience and professionalism. (16) The notion of a universal sexual morality further provides a carte blanche to demonize anyone not complying with it. With a moralizing gaze directed at Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, it also becomes easier for recipient countries to overlook their own halting LGBT-rights.
Germany presents a glaring exception, when it comes to marriage equality. While increasingly a norm across Western Europe, even in Catholic countries like Ireland, France and Spain, Germany does not recognize same-sex marriage but only allows same-sex partnerships. LGBT-people also have limited rights to adoption and in-vitro fertilization. Not only is Germany Western Europe’s largest country, often hailed as one of the most progressive, but its outlier status is even more curious because, contrary to Chancellor Merkel and her party, roughly two-thirds of Germans politically want same-sex marriage legalized. (17)
With a public that is for LGBT-rights and tends to equate Muslim asylum seekers with increased risk of terrorism, it is not strange that homonationalism is so easily thriving in Germany.
Stage 2: The Rise of a Not Explicitly Fascist Organization
In the second stage of moral panic, moral ‘crusaders’ devise coping mechanisms and solutions. These often reveal ideologies, hierarchies, and social fissures of societies, typically registered along the lines of systemic forms of structural violence such as racism and homophobia. (18) With the unfolding moral panic in Germany seeing no shortage of anti-Muslim rhetoric, unsettling parallels with the rise of the Nazis in the early 1930s are palpable.
Within societies characterized by longer-lasting moral panics, dangers are amplified and a society’s capacity to deal with the experience of adversity is undermined. (19)
In the early 1930s, Germany was in an economic depression, its Weimar democracy crippled and humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles. By contrast, contemporary Germany is an economic powerhouse, and Chancellor Merkel is a prominent leader in the EU. However, within societies characterized by longer-lasting moral panics, dangers are amplified and a society’s capacity to deal with the experience of adversity is undermined. (19) Therefore, past and present, Germany’s political elite is in a bind to placate the aggrieved, maintain power, and regain Germans’ faith in the ability of the government to deal with the crisis.
The AfD has understood how to play into the securitized insider/threatening outsider dichotomy, thus nurturing Germany’s culture of fear.
By following the trends of internationalism and humanism, Chancellor Merkel alienated those on the right-wing of the CDU/CSU, and provided the AfD with fertile ground to introduce new mechanisms to deal with the perceived Muslim folk devils. (20) While the AfD began as a Eurosceptic party in 2013, it has—aided by German fears—gradually taken more far-right views including anti-Islam platforms calling for bans on minarets, the call to prayer, full-face veils for women and headscarves in schools. Party leader Frauke Petry has similarly suggested that police should use firearms against immigrants at the border “as a last resort”; for failed asylum seekers to be housed on Pacific islands, and the country’s refugee office to be turned into an emigration bureau. In this way, the AfD has understood how to play into the securitized insider/threatening outsider dichotomy, thus nurturing Germany’s culture of fear. Should AfD’s success prove lasting, Germany is facing a political spectrum closer to the European norm. Fascism in Germany is not necessarily more dangerous than fascism elsewhere, but it is arguably more disappointing in the backdrop of the country’s history.
A study published by Leipzig University in mid-June 2016 indicates that of the 2,420-people interviewed, those supporting AfD showed the highest opposition to homosexuality.(21) Yet, despite forfeiting its position as guardian of traditional, biblical families and values by using LGBT-rights to scapegoat Muslims, the AfD has had a remarkable streak of electoral victories at the regional level. Most notably, the AfD got 21.8% of votes in the regional elections in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in September 2016, whereas CDU came third with 19%; the party’s worst result yet in the state that includes the Chancellor’s own electoral district.
“If you have a homosexual identity, then you are in a way of the modern. It is the modern subjectivity that you adopt, and that makes you more modern than the heterosexual Muslim.” – Patrick Wielowiejski
It is not remarkable that the AfD’s incoherent ideologies and political strategies still allow for them to gain political momentum within a state of moral panic. When panic rules, a direct relationship between the process of problematization and the experience to which it refers is not necessary. (22) The justification of the ideological inconsistency is nevertheless curious.
Patrick Wielowiejski, a PhD student at Humboldt University Berlin who researches gay-friendliness in the Western European far-right, offers two explanations, the first being: “If you have a homosexual identity, then you are in a way of the modern. It is the modern subjectivity that you adopt, and that makes you more modern than the heterosexual Muslim.” The international sexual morality promoted by the UN has indeed enabled an equation between being LGBT and being modernized. Whether a cultural and/or religious Muslim, a Muslim asylum seeker who is LGBT is not racialized in the same way as a Muslim asylum seeker who is not. The binary of the modern and premodern, victim and victimizer, is thus established on a singular and not plural axe of identity. Without ‘victim-blaming’ and notwithstanding occasional gestures of solidarity, the juxtaposing of LGBT-rights and Muslims is further aided by the historic, Muslim silence on LGBT-identities and rights in both Europe and the US. (23)
The second explanation offered is that “[t]hey do not have an essentialist view of the Muslim other or the immigrant other, it is more like a form of culturalism.” As such, supposed Muslims from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are considered difficult to integrate due to their alleged conservative and backward cultural backgrounds, rather than inborn traits. A culturalist notion of Muslim asylum seekers is traceable in Germany’s first post-WWII integration law that passed in July 2016, partly to ward off the far-right wing. It includes new workfare employment opportunities, subsidized language classes, lessons in German laws and cultural basics alongside a denial of residence permits to those who fail to take up the offer of integration assistance. The law is void of the recognition that integration works best when there is a dialectical relationship between newcomer and national – a relationship perhaps made impossible by the weakened social fabric of Germany.
Because Germany has not dealt with its colonial and racist past beyond the scope of the third Reich, and is unwilling to give up white privilege, there is a tacit fear of the legitimate anger from the ‘othered’ bodies and the subsequent dissolution of Germaneness.
Following Furedi, the development of a culture of fear has both a historical and social context. (24) Whereas the social context enabling the rise of the Muslim folk devil is relatively clear, the rise of nationalism still seems detrimental in Germany’s historical context. Berlin-based academic Iris Rajanayagam argues that the othering of male, Muslim asylum seekers is caused by an unconscious, racist paranoia. When asked to elaborate, Rajanayagam explains that because Germany has not dealt with its colonial and racist past beyond the scope of the third Reich, and is unwilling to give up white privilege, there is a tacit fear of the legitimate anger from the ‘othered’ bodies and the subsequent dissolution of Germaneness.
Racist paranoia does not change that in the muddy dissolution of its welcome culture and the worrisome revival of nationalism, Chancellor Merkel’s repeated assurances that Germany will remain Germany present a misleading notion of German culture as static and at best sound hollow.
Stage 3: Diminishing the Threat: Oh, But Which One?
The last stage in the unfolding of moral panic is that the perceived threat diminishes and the panic recedes. Germany’s nationwide EASY registration system shows a noticeable reduction in the numbers of refugees and immigrants from January (92,000) to July (16,000). This suggests that the arrival of new Muslim folk devil is already diminishing – much thanks to the sealing off the Balkan route and the shady deal between Turkey and the EU. However, the threat to be diminished is not the Muslim folk devil. Echoing the words of Füredi, (25) the only thing Europe ought to fear is the culture of fear itself for it can lead to a (European) continent divided by ethnicity, signaling the return of demons Europeans thought it had exorcised long ago.
When the reception crisis began unfolding in 2015, modern Europe’s carefully constructed self-image started resembling a bull in a China shop. Cultures of fear thrive in Western societies due to a weak sense of shared meaning and subsequent lack of consensus about how to attribute blame and responsibility (26) for the root causes and consequences of the reception crisis. Regardless of whether refugees are seen as linked to terrorism, crime or taking away jobs, Europeans overwhelmingly believe that the EU is doing a poor job of handling the reception crisis with a staggering 94% of Greeks and 88% of Swedes. (27)
Within the moral panic about the Muslim other, it is not actual cultural and religious identity differences that create a clash. Rather, it is the perceived latent threat of a clash that cultural and religious differences embody.
The EU’s failure to cope with the reception crisis presents surprising instrumental incapacity, but also a significant loss in the assumed meaning of being a European. Given that the reception crisis has already raised fears about the future of a unified European identity, reactions to the perceived risk of refugees are likely to also emphasize the probability of adverse outcomes to national identity. This loss of a shared meaning between Europeans is not only enabling for far-right parties to create folk devils out of Muslims, but also for political opponents to create folk devils out of each other. With the left-wing comparing right-wing rhetoric with Nazism, and Chancellor Merkel declaring the AfD a challenge to the German government and society, Germany is awfully close to making the same mistake that allowed for Donald Trump to become president of the US. The mistake being to ignore that in a culture of fear, perception and not reason is the hegemon.
The emergence of the male, heterosexual Muslim folk devil breathes life into political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s civilizational clash thesis, foreseeing that people’s cultural and religious identities would be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. However, the thesis should not be taken too affirmatively. Within the moral panic about the Muslim other, it is not actual cultural and religious identity differences that create a clash. Rather, it is the perceived latent threat of a clash that cultural and religious differences embody.
Amid fear-driven xenophobia, the question remains of how Europe will go from villain to protagonist again? Given that we do not live in a fairy-tale, the sudden appearance of a magical helper to help solve Europe’s identity crisis alongside the reception crisis seems unlikely. However, in a world where Trump is US president, the war in Syria is continuing, and nationalism is having a renaissance, is it really the male, Muslim asylum seeker that we should fear? If late modernity does not allow for us to be anything but fearful, is it not the fault lines of structural violence revealed by the scapegoating of male, Muslim asylum seekers, allowing for individuals and communities to be stripped of rights, that we should be fearful of and approach as a risk to be managed?
• • •
The author and editor thank Patrick Wielowiejski for his dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.
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