When I was young, my second cousin, who is about fifteen years older than me, used to play with us during our summer holidays in Cairo and Alexandria. A few years ago, when I met him at a family gathering in Egypt, I was told that he would not shake my hand anymore, because I am a woman and he and his wife do not touch people of the other gender. At the time I felt a little irritated, maybe even insulted, and – to be honest – I ridiculed their decision. Maybe that is how Europeans are feeling now about the arrival of a great number of refugees with all their cultural peculiarities. Maybe that is why Switzerland has issued a law obliging students to shake their teachers’ hands if requested. Maybe that is also the reason why Germany is discussing the ban of the so-called ‘burkini’—a full-body swimsuit used by veiled women—from public baths.
Thinking about it now, I realize that my cousin did refuse to shake my hand, yet he never asked me to follow his example and stop shaking hands, neither did he ever force any of his beliefs onto me or even ridicule me for having my own cultural quirks. I was the one being intolerant and judgemental all the while considering myself superior for being secular and liberal. I hear people in Germany worrying about all the Arabs and Muslims coming here, because ‘we don’t want to apply the Sharia here’ or ‘soon we have to celebrate Christmas in a Mosque’ or ‘they just don’t want to integrate and learn our values’. I am confused: where are the mobs of Muslims demonstrating for an implementation of the Sharia in Germany? I haven’t seen any—none of the new-arrivals, none of the third generation Turks, Iranians and Arabs living in this country. Where are the veiled women throwing burkas over bikini-bearing Germans or at least boycotting public baths due to the unfamiliar nudity? Where are the Syrians or Iraqis or Afghans forming political parties to abolish handshaking in Germany? Last time I checked, it was Europeans forcing their allegedly superior values onto the newcomers, being intolerant of other people’s religious freedom, supporting racist, xenophobic generalizations about ‘the Muslims’, refugees, Arabs etc.. Last time I checked, it was Europeans who felt irritated and insulted, because someone asked for the freedom not to shake a hand without ever trying to make this a general law (by the way, I hardly know any Muslims who don’t shake hands).
In her book Plantation Memories, Grada Kilomba writes that there is a psychological process of splitting off a so-called ‘Other’ as an antagonist to the ‘self’. The antagonist part of one’s own self contains all those traits that one despises about oneself and tries to renounce. One thus projects them onto another person or group.
„The white subject is somehow divided within her/himself, [and therefore] she/he develops two attitudes toward external reality: only one part of the ego – the ‘good’, accepting and benevolent – is experienced as ‘self’; the rest – the ‘bad,’ rejecting and malevolent – is projected onto the ‘Other’ and experienced as external.“ (Kilomba, 2010)
Maybe we are so convinced of the violent character of Islam, because it functions as the antagonist self that comes to represent the violence of our own societies and states. Crimes by what we call ‘the West’ – individuals or states – are ignored or considered exceptions that oppose an advanced system of values. The actions of all the others, however, are generally interpreted in relation to their cultural, religious or ethnic background. As Frantz Fanon describes it:
„When people like me, they like me ‘in spite of my color.’ When they dislike me; they point out that it isn’t because of my color. Either way, I am locked in to the infernal circle.”(Fanon, 1952)
Somehow the European / Christian / White population has managed over the last centuries to monopolize virtue and goodness, to present itself as the peak of civilization. A large part of this process is based on the denial of its antagonist self by projecting it onto, and therefore demonizing, the Other.
But when I look at the long history of slavery and colonialism, when I hear about refugee camps being set on fire in Germany, whether I think of the sweatshops that produce our fashion or the American secret services that produced modern torture techniques… I can only ask the same question that James Baldwin asks in his brilliant essay on growing up as a black man in the U.S.:
„How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should? (…) The Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards.“ (Baldwin, 1962)
Black people in the United States had to realize long ago that humanitarian values were not the thing of Europe/the West, but simply privileges granted to those in the inner circle of white supremacy—if at all: During the Second World War German U.S. citizens were portrayed by the U.S. media as a threat undermining American society just the way that Muslims are being portrayed in Europe now. Even the poor Dachshound was renamed Freedom Hound. Hard to believe that back then German refugees were the suspects in a clash of cultures with the United States. Makes you wonder if the supposed unsurmountable obstacles between cultures aren’t mere inventions of an economical or military cause.
I believe that if we try to step down from our high white horse for a moment, then we might actually have a shot at redefining terms like tolerance or integration – which at the moment seem to mean little more than the generosity of allowing the ‘Others’ to become like us … or at least like we think we are.
Baldwin, James: Letter from a Region in my Mind. The New Yorker. 1962.
Fanon, Frantz: Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press. New York. 1952.
Kilomba, Grada: Plantation Memories. Episodes of Everyday Racism. Unrast Verlag. Münster. 2. Auflage. 2010.
Naumann, Thomas: Feindbild Islam – Historische und theologische Gründe einer europäischen Angst. In: Schneiders (Hrsg.), a.a.O.. S. 19-36.