Mesut Özil, Angela Merkel and Islamophobia in Europe

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Despite the fact that they lost 3-0, it wasn’t only the Turkish national team that was embarrassed last Tuesday night. The first thing that was problematic was that at a match in Berlin, the Turkish supporters outnumbered the German ones, and the second was that throughout the match Turkish supporters booed German midfield star Mesut Özil every time he touched the ball.

The following day there was lots of comment in the German press about how Turks in Germany weren’t patriotic enough, and how they were failing to integrate into German society. It brings to mind English politician Norman Tebbit’s infamous ‘cricket test’ when he criticised immigrants from India and Pakistan for not supporting England in a cricket match.

Of course footballers play for other international sides than the country that their grandparents came from. People even play for countries that they weren’t born in, and as all Turkish supporters are aware Marco Aurélio Brito dos Prazeres is not particularly Turkish. The abuse from Turkish nationalists didn’t seem to effect Mesut Özil much as he put in a great performance and scored the second goal.

More serious than a football match, however, is what these sort of comments in the German press represent. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel felt driven to join in with the general condemnation of immigrants. Speaking to a meeting of members of her party she announced that “This [multicultural] approach has failed, utterly failed”, and that “the idea of people from different cultural backgrounds living happily side by side did not work.”

Of course when these people are talking about people from different cultures they don’t mean the Dutch, or the Belgians many of whom also live and work in Germany. What they mean is people from Islamic backgrounds, and particularly Turks and Arabs.

Recent opinion polls show exactly what sort of audiance Merkel is playing too. One recent poll showed that 55% of Germans think that Arabs are “unpleasant people”, and that 33% believed that the country was overrun by foreigners. Nor are these attitudes confined to fringe political parties. A recent book by a board member of the German central Bank argued that “Muslim immigrants were lowering the intelligence of German society”.

Nor is it Germany alone. The panic mongering in Germany is similar to that in other European countries. The newly elected right-wing Swedish member of parliament, Björn Söder, stated that “we'll be facing the same problem that Iran did in 1979. It can happen really fast.” Of course, he didn’t bother to mention that the Iranian population is 98% Muslim, and even the highest estimates of the number of Muslims in the Danish population put the number at 5%. Even assuming that every single Muslim in Sweden is some sort of Islamic fundamentalist, it is still quite hard to imagine so few people launching a rerun of the Iranian revolution.

The banning of the burqa in France is a similar issue. To read the international media, one would think that France was overrun by women covered in black. In reality there are about 1,000 women in the whole of France who wear a burqa. This ban in France follows the passing of a similar law in Belgium back in April, and similar bans are now being discussed in other European countries such as the UK, Spain and Italy, and have already been introduced in specific cities in Italy and Spain, such as Barcelona. The question this raises is why the political elites of Europe have suddenly found a passion for women’s’ rights, or whether it is not a question of women’s rights anyway but a question of demonising outsiders. UK Conservative MP Philip Hollobone puts it very clearly wearing a burqa is “offensive”, and “against the British way of life”.

What is happening here is not about women’s rights, but a racist campaign. Racism in Western European countries and the US is a lot more subtle than it was 40 years ago. Back in the 1960s during the period when mass immigration to Western Europe began, the British Conservative party could openly play the racist card. “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” was a slogan that it used in one election. Nor was it just restricted to the political sphere. Immigrant workers looking to rent a flat were often confronted with the letters NBNI at the end of newspaper ads, which meant ‘No Blacks, No Irish’.

Such overt racism is no longer possible today. That doesn’t mean that racism has disappeared, but has just changed its face. Today it orchestrates its campaigns against immigrants and ethnic minorities by appealing to workers in a different way. Islamists are accused of trying to destroy democratic values, and take away women’s rights. These are the arguments used both in defence of imperialist interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan or when campaigning against the other at home. The racist right today paints a picture of a Europe on the point of being overwhelmed by Islam.

Of course if we look at the facts Europe is not being ‘overwhelmed’ by Muslims at all. If we take Germany as an example the number of Turkish immigrants into Germany last year was at its lowest level since 1983, asylum applications are about a sixth of what they were in the 90s, and last year saw more Turks returning to Turkey than going to live in Germany, so in fact the numbers are falling.

Why then are we seeing a re-emergence of this sort of campaign now. It is because of the ongoing economic crisis. At times like these politicians look for ‘outsiders’ to blame. It not only gathers support for the nation state, but also divides the working class, weakening it and helping employers to drive down wages, and ultimately this is at the root of this racist campaign.




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