Debate Essay: Exclusion in the name of a minority

There is an enmity in Germany that is directed against Muslims just because they are Muslims. It is expressed in insults against women with headscarves, in damaging mosques, equating Islam and terrorism and also in acts of violence against Muslims. There is also racism in German society to which people are exposed because of their appearance or their origins. Both phenomena often occur together when people are identified as Muslims on the basis of their appearance.

In order to conceptualize this hostility towards Muslims, two collective terms are circulating in public discourse: “Islamophobia” and “anti-Muslim racism”. Both terms are highly problematic. They do not help to clearly identify grievances, but rather create new ones – through the conceptual and intellectual imprecision on which they are based and the way in which they are used. Instead of being used as analytical terms, they are often used as political combat terms to discredit positions that take sides with universal human rights. This can already be seen from the people who are accused of “Islamophobia” and “anti-Muslim racism”: not just fanatical right-wing extremists and rumbling right-wing populists, but also committed women’s rights activists and liberal reform Muslims. A differentiation between enlightening human rights criticism of Islam and resentment-laden hostility towards Muslims is no longer possible. And it is possibly not even wanted by those who use these terms in this way.

In the case of “Islamophobia”, the word meaning does not fit. Because that should actually mean fear of Islam, which would only be a psychological problem for those who feel it – just as other phobias are a burden for those who suffer from it. In the literal sense of the word, the term does not actually cover hostility towards Muslims. But what should be meant by “Islamophobia”? The Austrian political scientist Farid Hafez, who publishes a “Yearbook for Research on Islamophobia”, has presented a working definition. He means: “Islamophobia is anti-Muslim racism.” This definition explains little, however, because one indefinite term is explained in a circle with another indefinite term. One might as well say: “Anti-Muslim racism is Islamophobia.”

Hafez emphasizes: “Criticism of Muslims and of the Islamic religion is not to be equated with Islamophobia.” But what about the criteria for discriminatory precision and differences with “Islamophobia”? The author goes on to say that a “dominant group of people” strives for power and excludes a “scapegoat” from a “collective ‘we” ”. This is a very general definition that applies to almost all prejudices. It also mixes statements about the intended actors with the formal functioning and with the concrete content, in each case without a system. Then there is talk of the “figure of static Islamic identity”, which is “generalized” to include Muslims. This would mean approaches for a definition, but they do not result in a developed concept. Everything remains diffuse, inconsistent and contradictory.

Hafez said in an interview with the German newspaper “Tagesspiegel”: “Even if the holiest mufti were to campaign for a headscarf ban, that would be Islamophobic.” However, different motives could be imagined for such a demand. They can range from a fundamental rejection of everything Muslim to advocating women’s rights to a requirement of secularity for civil service. Instead of differentiating the possible reasons for calling for a headscarf ban and its scope, however, it is condemned across the board.

Can the term “anti-Muslim racism” then better capture the phenomenon of hostility towards Muslims? First of all, it causes irritation, because Muslims are not a “race”. The users of this term do not claim that either. In order to understand what is meant by the term, the underlying understanding of racism must be explained. It is based on the correct observation that the relevant discrimination in the present is seldom based on the ideological construct “race”. Rather, the allusion to “culture” serves to create resentment. Therefore, there is also talk of “racism without races”. However, this observation goes hand in hand with a mistake in reasoning: Ethnic peculiarities cannot be criticized from the standpoint of defending human rights, which is very possible in the case of cultural peculiarities that express themselves, for example, in anti-Semitism, discrimination against women or hostility towards homosexuals. The term “anti-Muslim racism” blurs precisely this difference.

Here, too, the question arises as to what the content of the concept associated with the term should stand for. In relevant literature, there is a lack of a clear definition of what is meant, as is the case with “Islamophobia”. Attitudes and forms of action as well as content and structural features are mixed up. The content-related question of a necessary selectivity is mostly omitted. Iman Attia, a social scientist who specializes in diversity studies, speaks of “power relations”.

Attia transfers this to “anti-Muslim racism”, which is supposed to be an essentialism with regard to Islam or a homogenization of Muslims. That would be appropriate if it were used to denote a negative attitude towards people that is only justified by the fact that they are Muslims. But Attia also sees a problem in the demand to differentiate between an enlightening and human rights criticism of Islam from a hateful, resentment-laden hostility towards Muslims. Because: “Even the ‘enlightenment-human rights criticism of Islam'” is exercised by a position that considers its own affiliation to be superior.” Does this also mean that the appeal to human rights should be made under suspicion of racism? However, the statement on the superior point of view applies: Human rights also have priority over cultures and religions.

It is an arbitrary expansion of the term racism behind the concept of “anti-Muslim racism”. The dimensions of racist discrimination are thus misunderstood and ultimately played down as a whole. In this way, objections to the headscarf expressed in the present appear to be just as racist as the discrimination against Jews in the past. In addition, there is a strange confusion of terms. For example, in view of the actual discrimination against women, there is already debate of “anti-feminist racism”. Such creations make the term “racism” absurd, which makes it all the easier to instrumentalize them. With such definitions, however, it is not a question of how precise they are and what misunderstandings they can open up in terms of content. In this discourse, one is dealing with concepts of hegemony with which ideological currents and groupings undertake or want to undertake a normative drawing of boundaries against human rights criticism.

This includes the “identity left” as the first actor, which can ideally be distinguished from the “social left”. While the latter deals with issues of social inequality, the identity left is more interested in different groups of victims. What is meant are social minorities with certain ethnic, gender or religious affiliations. A commitment against their discrimination is only to be welcomed from a human rights perspective. The identity left sees these groups as a general collective, behind which the associated individuals or the values ​​specific to this group have to take a back seat. Any objection to ideas that are widespread in such a group – for example, the rejection of women’s rights in ethnic or religious communities – is therefore not perceived as legitimate criticism, but as a renewed disadvantage of the entire collective. The commitment then no longer applies to standing up for individual basic rights, but for a communal identity.

This view is also carried to the Muslims. Since they are sometimes actually discriminated in society, any criticism of the minority appears reprehensible. This way of thinking explains why the identity left in such a context rejects attitudes such as enlightenment, women’s rights, individualism and criticism of religion, that were once considered constitutive for the left. This can lead to feminists being attacked as “Islamophobes”. Affected were and are, for example, Necla Kelek and Alice Schwarzer. But if they speak out against discrimination against women among Muslims, it has something to do with demanding human rights and not with hating Islam. And it is not hostility to Islam, but criticism of religion, when questions about the validity of Islam are asked from an educational perspective. From an ethical and historical point of view, it is about a critical examination in the meaning of enlightenment.

The second major actor using these terms are Islamists. They want to influence the public discourse and equate criticism with racism. Islamism here means the political endeavors that seek to overcome the secularity of the state in the name of religion. This does not necessarily have to be done with terrorist violence, there are also legalistic Islamists. You want to be influential in the long term. Often they are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, in some cases only ideological closeness, in others organizational affiliations. For them, too, it is about the identity of Muslims, for whose interests they claim a monopoly. However, this goes hand in hand with presumptuousness, since most believers in Germany take a disinterested or distant attitude towards this.

In the discourse of these Islamists, “Islamophobia” and “anti-Muslim racism” are used as political slogans precisely because of their diffuse definition of terms. Any criticism of the situation in the Muslim minority can be condemned with these terms. This also applies to the discrimination against minorities, which also exists within minorities such as Muslims. It is known from surveys at EU level that the aversion to homosexuals or Jews is disproportionately widespread among Muslims. Nevertheless, such objections are dismissed as “Islamophobic” or “racist”, as they are allegedly directed against the collective of Muslims in general.

The identity left and Islamists and the discourse they promote are shaped by anti-individualistic human rights relativism. Because we are not talking about individuals, but collectives. A departure from the collective can thus be identified as “racism”. At first glance, it may be surprising that liberal Muslims in particular are often given this label. From the point of view of the Islamists, however, this is consistent, because it is precisely the liberal Muslims who are jeopardizing their claim to a monopoly of representation for the Muslims. The fact that supporters of an identity left support these positions can be explained by the abandonment of earlier left ideals. Because in this discourse, identities and not individualities play a role. In this respect, the identity left is not linked in terms of content, but is structurally linked to identity rights. Their reference groups differ: in the case of the left-wing identity it is the minorities, in the case of identity rights it is the people. What they have in common is collectivism.

The identity left and Islamists, however, do not form a single bloc. A contrary view, labeled “Islamo-Gauchisme” in France, is an inadequate oversimplification. Because here different interests intertwine: the commitment to minority rights and the demand for representation. Nonetheless, there is a partial harmony that can be seen, for example, in the left disinterest in the dangers of Islamism. Former Juso boss Kevin Kühnert also recently complained about the left wing’s silence. Occasionally, however, strange alliances between Islamists and the left can be established, for example when it comes to Israel.

Anyone who objects to the concepts of “Islamophobia” and “anti-Muslim racism” does not deny that there is hostility towards Muslims. Because the argumentative criticism only says that the two terms cannot capture what is meant in a developed collective term. This is related to the deficits mentioned and the lack of discriminatory precision, which in turn make political instrumentalization possible in an abusive sense. So that these objections are not perceived as purely destructive comments, an alternative terminology with a conceptual character should be proposed here: the apparently simple designation “hostility towards Muslims”.

It enables a differentiated discourse. The starting point for this consideration is the basic notion that all individuals as human beings each have rights. It follows that discrimination against Muslims on the basis of their religious affiliation is not permissible: it is an indirect element of human rights to exclude such discrimination. But the principle of individuality takes precedence over the respective collective. Objections to the behavior of social groups from a human rights perspective are therefore possible. Commitment to the human rights of a minority does not mean that the relativization of human rights should not be an issue in this minority. However, this view indirectly pervades the discourse on “Islamophobia” and “anti-Muslim racism” as political catchphrases.

This is exactly what should be avoided with the alternative term “hostility to Muslims”. A definition takes place here in two steps. First of all, there is a short version: “Anti-Muslim hostility means hostility to Muslims as Muslims.” This formulation is based on the fact that the aversion is directed against someone simply because they are Muslim. This is to be distinguished from the fact that something can be brought forward against Muslim individuals or groups for different reasons. Islamists, for example, are often rejected because they negate democracy, human rights and secularity. However, such a view has nothing to do with hostility towards Muslims, although it is directed against a Muslim organization. Ethical objections to a particular image of men among Muslims are also more likely to be explained by ideas of dignity. They have something to do with gender equality, but nothing to do with hostility towards Muslims.

The following long version should be proposed as a more detailed definition: “Anti-Muslim hostility stands for all attitudes and actions that generally assign negative characteristics to individuals or groups considered Muslims in order to legitimize aversions or degradation, discrimination or acts of violence.” Aspect about differentiating attitudes and actions. Both are summarized under a common generic term, which does not have to be associated with any equations in terms of extent and consequences.

In order to get further with a differentiation in terms of content in a selective sense, “hostility” and “criticism” have to be distinguished from one another. “Hostility” stands for the rigorous front position, “Criticism” stands for a differentiated and rational reflection. If these two levels are systematically mixed up, as is done by those who work with the terms “Islamophobia” and “anti-Muslim racism”, this discredits criticism and belittles hostility. The supporters of the two concepts sometimes see differences here. Nevertheless, it is usually only a one-time statement as a mere determination. The differences are then no longer relevant for dealing with the alleged forms of “Islamophobia” and “anti-Muslim racism”. So all possible phenomena can be labeled with it.

This already begins with the title of “the Muslims”. It can justifiably be pointed out that “the Muslims” do not exist. They differ in terms of content, formal education, individual belief intensity, ethnic origin or social affiliation. Similar differentiations have to be made with other social groups. Nonetheless, peculiarities in their attitudes to social issues or behavior can be demonstrated for all groups. It is, for example, an empirically verifiable finding that acts of violence are disproportionately committed by men. However, the reference to this has nothing to do with hostility towards men, because it is not a blanket statement about all men. Nonetheless, it can be asked which factors can explain this abnormality.

This is a content-related task of social science research. If, for example, it comes to the conclusion that the rejection of homosexuals and Jews among Muslims is disproportionately high and that this can also be proven for different European countries, then a social fact is named. If one takes a critical view of these views, which occur above average among Muslims, this initially has nothing to do with hostility towards Muslims. One can only speak of this if the sweeping assertion is derived from it that all Muslims have relevant prejudices. It is similar with the image of women in Muslim communities. In terms of gender equality, they lag behind other societies. But the critical reference to this has nothing in itself to do with hostility towards Muslims – on the contrary, it is often motivated by human rights and in a Muslim-friendly manner.

Nonetheless, anti-Muslim actors like to use such verifiable facts to legitimize their blanket degradation of a religious minority. They present themselves as “Islamic critics” without being in the sense of a rational, reflective criticism. In contrast to critics, such anti-Muslim actors reveal double standards. If, for example, someone criticizes discrimination against women among Muslims alone, without the commitment being otherwise relevant for their own self-image, then the instrumentalization of a justifiable criticism for the spread of resentment reveals itself. Even if anti-Semitism is seen primarily among Muslims, but is not perceived in the majority society, this topic is being used to stir up prejudice.

A term based on differentiation and selectivity is important for public discourse. On the one hand, it is a matter of naming the disadvantage of individual Muslims and, on the other hand, removing the ground from the defamation of criticism from a human rights perspective that goes along with the terms “Islamophobia” and “anti-Muslim racism”.

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