I am grateful to Alexander Locascio for the translation of this perceptive piece.
by Gruppe Soziale Kämpfe
The successful prevention of the “Anti-Islamification” Congress in Cologne last September was the result of one of the largest anti-fascist and anti-racist mobilizations of the last few years. The abortive congress can be regarded as an attempt by the European right to consolidate its forces by means of the theme of the “Islamification of Europe” and the promotion of a pan-European right-wing party. The counter-mobilization also raised questions concerning anti-racist positions and strategies against rising anti-Muslim racism in Europe, and brought these questions to the attention of a broader public.
Broad coalitions – such as that in Cologne – are important and necessary components of a struggle for hegemony. It is just as important to bring an anti-racist critique into these struggles, a critique that does not appeal to tolerance, cultural difference, or freedom of religion. These “values” do not break with the logic of culturalization, but rather strengthen it from the “left”. Strategies must be developed concerning how to push back against (local and everyday) mobilizations against immigrants as “Muslims” without falling into the trap of culturalization. Thus, the following two questions are of foremost importance for us:
The National Competitive State and Security Policies
1) Why is “Islam” such an attractive bogeyman for so many people? The right’s capacity for mobilization has to be considered within the context of capitalism’s upheavals and neoliberal and authoritarian strategies of the ruling block. 2) To what extent can we actually speak of an anti-Muslim racism (AMR for short) without therefore falling into the trap of overlooking right-wing elements within Islamic movements? Reactionary political-religious movements within Islam must be criticized along with the social conditions in which they emerge, taking into account the racism of the majority society and the economic, cultural, and political contradictions of globalized capitalism.
Our thesis is: AMR is one aspect of processes of the culturalization of the social question. Within these conflicts (at least since the 1980s), the question of cultural identity and difference becomes central, and the capitalist conditions for racism and the hierarchical subjugation of immigrants are pushed into the background. The neoliberal block in power, by mobilizing through the bogeyman “Islam”, can organize consent for security policies while rolling back social security. This is an authoritarian way of processing social antagonisms that rests upon the organization of racist compromises. One challenge for an anti-racist critique consists in understanding how growing sections of the population are integrated into this racist compromise, in order to develop counter-strategies.
Discussions concerning the social position of Muslim religious practices have become a central field of social conflict. Extreme right-wing and right-conservative forces (including parts of the Christian Democratic Union/CDU, the major conservative political party in the Federal Republic of Germany) place emphasis upon the mobilization of social alliances against immigrants as “Muslims” (understood in a homogeneous sense) or practitioners of “Islam” (understood in a singular sense). In doing so, they can organize broad acceptance and a racist consensus with regard to “foreigners” and “their culture”, alleged to have no place in the national community.
Common to all of these mobilizations is that they depict “Islam” as a homogeneous, static culture of the other (that is to say, cultural non-Germans/Europeans) and ascribe to immigrants an essential cultural identity as Muslims. This culture is alleged to be incompatible with the majority society, leading as it does to social problems (Islam as the supposed cause for the inability or unwillingness to integrate) and posing a threat to “society”. According to the respective ideological position, German society is either understood as being Christian-occidental and held together by means of the German language, or as being Western-secular. In both currents, “Islam” is regarded as an anti-modern, backwards culture.
AMR must therefore be analyzed between the conflicting poles of culturalist and orientalist constructions on the one hand, and their modification and “renewal” within debates concerning “the society in which we live”, a process that takes place within a constellation of social force relations (economic, political, and ideological-cultural).
In the imagery concerning immigrants within the Federal Republic of Germany, religion or culture did not initially play a dominant role. Immigrants were regarded as “guest workers”, their (structural) racist subjugation within the Fordist Wirtschaftswunder society of post-war Germany was fixed by their socio-economic status, their position as low-level workers, as well as along lines of nationality. In the 1980s, cultural-religious moments emerged in the construction of “the other”, focused upon immigrants from Turkey. With the second Persian Gulf War, “Islam” was made a theme, initially as a supposedly politicized religion, and then as a bellicose religion with the connotation of “Arab terrorism” since September 11th 2001.
The Processing of Social Antagonisms from “Below”
To this extent we speak of a metamorphosis of the discourse concerning the “other”: it constructs immigrants in a religious-cultural way as Muslims and “Islam” as bellicose-terrorist. This discourse is racist because it cements relations of power that aim at the exclusion or subjugation of “immigrants” as “cultural others”. Social “problems” and antagonisms within capitalist society are therefore associated with an “identifiable” group – an “ethnification of the social question”. This points to a far-reaching shift in the social balance of forces – in political discourse, within the state, and within civil society.
The ethnification of the social question was consummated in the 1980s within the context of Helmut Kohl’s “spiritual-moral turn” (“geistig-moralischer Wende”). This shift was initiated by political conservatives, but was then accepted and strengthened by the left, with the plus and negative signs inverted. The left thus allowed itself to get sucked into the cultural field of discourse. The orientation towards tolerance for other cultures because of their “difference” characterizes multiculturalism as an ideology of the liberal-bourgeois spectrum. It excludes the “social question” and consolidates the picture of other cultures.
Now many former advocates of multiculturalism proclaim its failure and formulate the demand for the cultural integration of immigrants. The previous SPD-Green government made an attempt of at least reforming German citizenship laws in order to promote political equality, but otherwise continued with the ethnification of the social question. Class antagonisms and social relations of power vanished in the project of the “Third Way” (known in German as the “Neue Mitte”), whereas neoliberal social and economy policies intensified social antagonisms. Immigrants are particularly affected to a high degree by precarization, while their social situation is simultaneously declared to be the result of (failed) integration, for which the handling of cultural difference is responsible. Social contradictions are associated with an ethnicized underclass of (mostly young) immigrants, whose lifestyle is supposedly responsible for the fact that they have no chances on the labor and educational markets.
At the very latest with the grand coalition between the CDU and SPD, the theme of Islam as a “security problem” has been pushed to the foreground. This is being implemented through new relationships between state integration policies and initiatives and associations within civil society: Muslim organizations are invited to “integration summits” as representatives of “immigrant interests”. These groups do in fact advocate conservative and in part questionable positions concerning basic rights – but they also only represent around 20% of the Muslims in Germany.
The capacity for mobilization of anti-mosque movements is a part of the wide-reaching shifts in the cultural-ideological field. But the conjuncture of anti-Muslim, racist discourses in various social spheres and groups is tightly bound up with social upheavals within capitalism and the hegemony of neoliberal policies at the national and European level. In the competitive state, social security is hollowed out. At the same time, security apparatuses are revved up and security policies intensified. Foreign and security policy is directed against new enemies: political Islam and terrorism.
Alliances for Transnational Social Security
Anti-Islamic discourses have a double effect: On the one hand, they mobilize consent for the extension of security policies and the defense of “western”, European interests, with military means amongst others. On the other hand, the interpretative frameworks contained within these discourses – social conflicts and the contradictions of capitalist globalization become conflicts between religions, conflicts between cultures, and are made into “security problems” – are taken up from below in order to conduct struggles over the distribution of social wealth and for social security in an exclusionary manner, and in order to form alliances on the basis of racist cultural constructs or national identities.
Whereas in Fordism the integration of subalterns was consummated via material concessions, the welfare state, and the promise of a calculable/desirable future, the present, neoliberal phase of capitalism has nothing to offer other than fear, control, and security. Noticeable is how campaigns “from above” are picked up, elaborated, and answered from below. Through the security discourse and the culturalistic and anti-Muslim constructions contained within it, neoliberal strategies gain acceptance from below and find a resonance in the experiences of insecurity by precarized workers or groups threatened by social decline. The security discourse, racism, and the spread of insecurity are intertwined with one another (in a contradictory manner).
Some everyday distributive or competitive struggles are construed in a racist manner. Those still employed in relatively secure wage labor and who have an affirmative position with regard to neoliberal reorganization accept intensified working conditions as a challenge. The more the pressure increases and the more these workers struggle in order to keep up, the more vehemently they demand the same of others. Those who cannot or refuse to hold their own are qualified as excludable. This is the manner in which the neoliberal answer to the increasing precariousness of the middle class and the extension of authoritarian and disciplinary policies against the so-called underclass is accepted and lived.
But a critique of AMR that breaks with the logic of the culturalization of social antagonisms is only possible when Islamic religious and cultural movements are taken seriously as a component of these conflicts. The diverse (!) movements in religious and political Islam must be criticized, while at the same time not disregarding the hierarchical and racist social relations in which they are embedded. An interventionist anti-racist politics must create alliances for social security and confront culturalistic interpretations of social antagonisms within them.
How can perspectives be developed in which the interests of many groups can be combined in solidarity? Cross-cultural, counter-hegemonic orientations and identities can only emerge in the long-term in common discussions that cross the barriers of different social groups without disregarding their differences within capitalist and racist relations of power. Some approaches might be the efforts towards a transnational network for a “social Europe” and global justice “from below” (such as campaigns for global social rights) and the extension of anti-racist counter-mobilizations towards (long-term) social alliances against anti-Muslim racism and precarization, security policies and economic nationalism.
This text originally appeared in German in issue Nr. 533 / 21.11.2008 of ak - analyse & kritik - zeitung für linke Debatte und Praxis