'Deutsch!' New German initiative seems intent on racializing imams

Racialization of language plays into a wider discourse of the civilization mission

Dr. Farid Hafez   | 13.11.2019
'Deutsch!' New German initiative seems intent on racializing imams

The writer is a political scientist at the University of Salzburg and non-resident senior researcher at The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. 

AUSTRIA, Salzburg  

Traumatized by the experience of a unique, “industrial killing”, as it were, of six million Jews during the Nazi regime, Germany today considers itself to have been going through a period of post-racialism. Despite such a prevalent consideration, however, it stands not for every single German citizen. What we mean by this Germany is, rather, the dominant groups entitled to power, who define the curricula, publicly remember the Holocaust, draw on such discourses as the Jewish-Christian heritage of Europe and/or shape the discourse on one of the most marginalized groups in Germany today: the Muslims.

Racialization refers to a set of norms, practices, and institutional arrangements that reflect, create, maintain and further generate disparities in societies. Societies riddled with such disparities mostly consider themselves widely as “color-blind” and "multicultural/multiracial". Germany is no exception here. A very specific trait of the racialization of German identity is the incorporation of the language. German identity -- so goes the logic; not only in Germany, but also other European countries respectively -- is constituted by the ability to speak German. It is similar to Samuel Huntington’s idea in his book "Who are We? Challenges to America's National Identity", where he defines Latino Americans as the “primary other” that changes the American cultural landscape in the U.S. But, for Germans, as well as many other continental European countries, speaking the language is so firmly tied to the idea of who a real German is that not speaking German automatically excludes one from the collective identity of Germanness.

Most importantly, this idea is not only an idea, but translates into practice as well as institutional arrangements. In a daily conversation, for example, speaking broken German might cause the individual in question to receive a harsh and arrogant reaction. On an institutional level, public administrations may abstain from including various languages from their arrangements. In upper Austria, where a right-wing political party governs together with the conservative Peoples’ Party, there have even been attempts to declare German as the only language pupils are allowed to speak at breaktime in school.

Recently, such a policy seems to have reached the highest echelons of German politics. While an estimated 90% of all Muslim clergymen come from other countries, the German Cabinet has recently introduced a draft bill that would require clerics from countries outside of the EU to prove their proficiency in the German language to be allowed to reside in the country. Theoretically, the law would apply to clerics of all religions. But it seems that the primary target of the law is Muslims. The document specifically refers to imams, who “organize the religious belief” in Germany’s mosques. “We expect foreign imams to be able to speak German,” said a spokesperson of the Interior Ministry.

This would also challenge the other religious minorities in Germany, from the Catholic Church to the Jewish community, but even the dominant and largest church in the country, the Protestants. The German Catholic Bishops’ Conference already made a statement in March this year, saying that the new ordinance should not make it impossible for foreign-born clerics to come to Germany. Is this just an unintended consequence for Muslims? Probably not. Imams do seem to be the main target of the law. 

The draft states that “for religious reasons, clerics often take on an influential role in their communities”. According to Interior Minister Horst Seehofer from the Christian Social Union, German language skills are “imperative for successful integration". This narrative relates to the larger discourse of politicizing Islam by the German Interior Ministry, which is shared by many European governments. According to this discourse, imams are not only to lead their communities in prayer and provide religious counseling, but are also enablers of integration, leading their communities to become part and parcel of their societies. The logic goes that they must be fluent in German themselves to understand the environment they are living in. This, however, is the “positive aspect” of the argument.

A less explicit implication is that Muslim institutions should be transparent and should hence speak German in order for the dominant society to “understand” them. Here, the allegation is that Muslim institutions are not open about their beliefs, their conversations and their activities. Similar to the public discourse about the Jews around the turn of the 20th century, which required that Rabbis preach in German in synagogues and publish their religious literature in German, Muslims today are asked to have German sermons during their Friday prayers.

The racialization of language here also plays into a wider discourse of the civilization mission, which implies the idea of the “white man’s burden”, with whose help Muslims could become “civilized” and help to create what the Interior Ministry has for a long time been calling a “German Islam”. The coalition agreement of the German government already states that “we will push back radical Islam. We expect imams from foreign countries to speak German”. This concatenation of radical ideology and language skills makes clear how language is framed here.

While a number of -- especially young -- Muslims may argue that having a German-speaking imam may indeed be helpful for their cause to serve Muslims of different ethnicities, there is clearly a difference between whether these requirements are imposed on religious personnel by the state or the decision to address the congregation in German is taken by the local community itself. This latest initiative, which has yet to be decided upon by the Federal Council of Germany, reinforces a specific racial reading of language, thereby supporting the idea of a closed German identity.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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