About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    The Displaced, Displacing Gaze
    Becoming a Stranger to Oneself and Others

    It’s possible to be a foreigner even when you are not foreign – namely, when you are always seen as foreign by others. What happens, though, when suddenly a lot of other, new, genuine foreigners arrive? The person wrongly regarded by racists as foreign may himself experience a sort of racism towards foreigners. A look at the dialectic of racism in Germany, a country of immigration.

    I’m one of those contrary Germans. Regardless of how many times someone asks where I really come from, or – even more indiscreetly – where my parents are from, I always reply: from Cologne. Over the past five decades I’ve learned to respond to comments along the lines of ‘You really don’t look like you’re from Cologne’ with, at best, a smile.

    Personal experience of racism

    This has served me pretty well so far. I’ve even overcome my reservations about associating publicly with other non-German-looking Germans. This idiosyncrasy, undoubtedly a kind of racism by avoidance rooted in negative experiences with racists, developed during my childhood in Cologne. Back then I was usually assumed to be a child of guest workers, and that meant my status was extremely low. This outraged and insulted me, because I wasn’t a child of guest workers: I was from the place where I had come into the world, and that has never changed. Today I know that this is called ius soli – the right of the soil. It’s the only law that takes a child’s birthplace as its starting point.

    In my outrage, of course, lay the kernel of my own racism: I didn’t want to belong to the lowest caste, I wanted to be a Brahmin. The reason why I speak such emphatically correct German is probably so that people are at least disabused the minute I open my mouth. It’s a strategy I’ve observed in many people whose outward appearance is similarly different from that of a ‘normal’ German. Usually it works. The tactlessness of those who praise you for your excellent command of the language must just be shrugged off. Over the years there’s been less and less of that, which is good news.

    Recently, though, there’s been a very sudden shift, and the worst of it is that I can’t quite work out the direction things are going in. During my childhood, the coordinates of the street were fixed. There were the old Nazis who insulted me as they passed. They were very careful to make sure there were no witnesses, and they weren’t physically violent. There were the people my own age who were naïve enough to repeat things they’d heard adults say. Ignoring them was difficult, if not impossible. And there was the apprehensive general public, who never quite knew how they ought to communicate with someone like me in order not to be racist. This cotton-wool feeling of foreignness that I encountered everywhere was perhaps the hardest to deal with, because for a long time I didn’t know what caused it: did it emanate from me, or from them?

    The aftershocks of World War Two

    Until unification in 1990, Germany was in a kind of quarantine. As a consequence of the Holocaust, and above all the resulting loss of face after the total defeat of World War Two, racism was taboo in both East and West Germany. In East Germany the taboo was absolute: there was no contact to speak of with foreign workers, and the official version was that the Fascists lived in West Germany whereas the Socialist GDR was already working on creating a new kind of human being. Because of this, there was no useful examination and addressing of the past.

    In West Germany there was the same taboo, but the society used a different strategy to get back to normality. It was, to put it crudely: learning from mistakes. What the Americans did immediately after the war – forcing people who lived near concentration camps to see them from inside – gradually became the cultural orientation of a whole society. Money was paid to Israel under the heading ‘reparations’: a legal first. Reparations had never before been paid to a state that had not, as such, received any injury (because at the time the Holocaust took place it did not exist, and because the injured parties were private individuals). When the gloomy 1950s finally came to an end, the increasingly uncompromising examination of National Socialism began.

    All the consciousness of guilt and the clarification and atonement that subsequently occurred was driven by the urgent desire to be a fully-fledged member of the community of peoples again. For Germans, normality was the great meta-narrative, and remains so to this day, especially since the fall of the Wall and German unification. The problem with the achievement of normality as a motivation was that Germans believed once they had addressed and come to terms with the past they would be able to draw a line under the unpleasant Nazi era with its genocidal murderers. This attitude became apparent immediately after the end of the war and hasn’t changed to this day. It is characteristic of many Germans’ historical consciousness.

    This is why racism could never truly be overcome in West Germany, either. It was already evident in the way guest workers were treated. When they didn’t want to return to their homelands once the work was done, they were reluctantly accepted as permanent guests: and that, initially, was how it remained. Right into the twenty-first century prominent politicians were still insisting that Germany was not a country of immigration, although de facto it had already been one for half a century.

    Positive and negative racism

    One important reason for this blindness was the taboo around the racism that did actually exist in society. That which in the GDR was completely blanked out provoked general uncertainty in West Germany, with its guilty conscience. Many tended to feel uncomfortable in the presence of foreign-looking people who were nonetheless clearly German, because they didn’t know what would constitute non-racist behaviour. The majority glossed over their embarrassment by simply paying me no attention. This often led to encounters in shops in which both words and eye contact were generally avoided.

    Then, in the 1980s, there was a peculiar backlash. Thus it might happen that I would be sitting unsuspectingly outside a café in Bonn and someone would suddenly sit down beside me, uninvited, to rave about Turks and what wonderful people they are. Or I would be smiled at by total strangers in a very blatant fashion, as if they were trying to say: it’s good that you’re here among us. This, incidentally, is happening to me more often again these days. I never knew how I ought to respond to it. Most of the time I would just stare back, nonplussed, then fret that my reaction may have come across as unfriendly and turned a positive racist into a negative one.

    When the two Germanys united and, just a few years later, a wave of xenophobic attacks rolled across the country, Germans were shocked. They had, after all, thought they had overcome racism. However, people like me felt great relief, because finally that which had been denied had become visible. In the period that followed I saw how people freed themselves of the suspicion that hung over them like a sword of Damocles – that all of them were xenophobes – with candlelit vigils and declarations of solidarity. Public behaviour became more relaxed. On the one hand, racism was socially acceptable again: racists gained seats in state parliaments and city halls, all of which was very disagreeable. But at the same time they constituted a visible embodiment of racism, and for all those who would otherwise have doubted their own perceptions (of this actual, existing racism, to which others refused to admit), this was a good thing.

    And so I really was integrated into society, after three decades in my invisible niche. Saleswomen and cashiers looked at me; people in general didn’t initially assume that I couldn’t speak the language. For a while I almost forgot that I’m not actually a real German.

    Until now.

    While other Germans are anxiously watching the news and specialising either in a fear of terrorists, rapists, cultural displacers, freeloaders, disease bringers, or in the collapse of the EU as a result of the refugee crisis, I am constantly trying with one eye to gauge what this means for my and my children’s status in the anonymous public sphere, i.e. on the street, in daily life. How safe are we from the mob? How strong is the civilising layer that keeps the violent, the radical simplifiers, the rabble-rousers, the collective psychopaths in check while I go shopping or for a walk, drive my children to school, or just walk around outside with friends?

    I can’t answer this question, because nothing in my environment appears to have changed. But I notice that my own behaviour is no longer the same. Whereas in the past I was always alerted by a kind of internal early-warning system to the sudden appearance of neo-Nazis, these days I also notice when Muslim-looking men arrive on the scene. Will they pull guns, throw bombs, grope women? Amber alert! This usually only lasts a couple of seconds before the new arrivals turn out to be entirely harmless. But the conditioned reflex is there.

    What is infuriating is that I too, as a non-German-looking German, have again become the object of this particular attention from other people. And I can’t even hold it against them. I’d probably mistrust myself, at first, if I were to cross my path as a stranger.

    This fear, which has arisen on the one hand because of the influx of refugees, and because of the terrorist attacks by Islamist fundamentalists in western European cities on the other, seems to have nothing in common with the pathological racism in which the xenophobes are trapped. What sets neo-Nazis apart is that, fundamentally, their attitude is not based on common political ideas but on a common psychological disorder. This is what brings them together. The reversal of cause and effect – seeing foreigners as the reason – is consistent with common self-preservation mechanisms that apply to other disorders, too. I am sure that these people are in fact strangers to themselves.

    New, traumatic racism

    The new racism, to which I have also succumbed, operates differently. It could be described as traumatic, because it has a lot to do with the events in Paris last year and on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. In other words: this racism operates like the pathological one, via a person’s outward appearance, but it is based on actual events. And that makes far more people susceptible to infection than was the case before, because it doesn’t even appear to be racist. It’s a new variation of invisible racism, surfacing as valid concern. And who would want to contradict that?

    This is where, in a number of respects, the boundaries become blurred. IS terrorists and rapist refugees both come from the same Islamic cultural realm. Islam as the common denominator of evil: this alone converges so many prejudices that the distinctions between neo-Nazis, opponents of Islamification and ‘concerned citizens’ are in danger of disappearing altogether.

    One thing should not be forgotten: that the media presentation of these dramatic events played a significant part in the emergence of this traumatic racism. Meaning: the majority of us have not personally experienced anything at all. Pathological racism, too, is known to be most virulent where there are fewest foreigners.

    The presentation in the media allows us to participate in events that are happening in our immediate environment – in our country – but which remain, nonetheless, invisible to our eyes. I have never yet seen an IS terrorist, was never present at a massacre, did not have to look on as North Africans sexually harassed German women. But precisely this combination of media omnipresence and invisibility in daily life fans my fears. At the moment, when I drive into town, my senses are constantly checking my surroundings for signs of danger; only when I spot a police presence do I feel a moment of relief. This too is new for me.

    As a man who could, in the broadest sense, be taken for a Muslim, I too, as I have said, am under observation. There is yet another fear, though, directly connected to this. I ask myself: won’t the massive influx of southern-looking people give the pathological racists a boost? Currently the answer has to be yes, because there are concrete statistics about the right wing’s current popularity.

    Immigrant children versus refugees?

    With this thought I am once again revealed to be a racist, because my fear of racists is itself racist. With the left chamber of my heart I welcome the poor refugees, while with the right chamber I fear the strengthening of racism precisely through the refugees’ presence. I would describe this as racism of the second order, or oblique racism. There are people who feel antagonism towards refugees precisely because they themselves are the children of immigrants.

    As a racist anti-racist, I believe that ‘miscegenation’ of the German people could finish off the Aryan delusion once and for all. And so: come on, all the little dark people! What I’d really like to do is flood the whole of Germany with foreigners, so that even people in the farthest-flung corner of the Republic will finally see sense and learn to live with people who look different to them.

    However, at the same time, I was all too often the victim of ordinary, stupid German racists, and I don’t want this group to get any bigger. And when Muslim men rape German women, this group does get bigger.

    Oh, how I hate them, these pathological haters! And things are just getting worse and worse with me: now I will initially distrust anyone who seems to me too German. Because who knows whether a fearful person’s traumatic racism might not, at any time, turn into pathological hate racism?

    How I would like just to see people as individuals! Each one different from the others – wouldn’t that be fantastic? But there are too many patterns in my head, too many habits of perception, too many fears, and fears of fears.

    Oh dear – we are all racists.
    Steven Uhly was born in Cologne in 1965, the child of a German mother and a Bengali father. He gained his degree in Romance and German Studies and became a novelist. His most successful book to date was the novel Glückskind [Lucky child], which was also made into a film. His most recent is the novel Kingdom of Twilight, to be published in English in the US and Britain this autumn. After living for a while in Brazil, Uhly now resides in Munich with his family.

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2016
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