The White Man’s Burden

I am sorry, but if you are a white man, you don’t get to define what racism is.”

adichieNot everyone would agree with Chimamanda Adichie’s statement in a video circulated on social media recently. Who gets to define what racism is? How far away from ‘white’ should you be to have a say? How much discrimination do you have to experience for your opinion to be valid?

Don’t try to answer any of these questions, because they are total nonsense. The real question is: why are people even arguing about what is and is not racism? I often come across highly emotional discussions about whether or not racism – and other types of discrimination – are widespread problems or not. Mostly, these arguments involve a white or otherwise privileged person trying to assert that they are not part of the problem, or that things really aren’t that bad after all.

The last time I witnessed this, was at Amnesty International’s panel discussion on racism in Germany. I attended the event to learn more about institutional racism and the rise of openly xenophobic positions in German society. I had expected all participants to agree on the fact that a problem existed in the first place.

Not Stephan Mayer of the CDU/CSU. He confused the panel discussion with a platform for political campaigning. Sure, he said, there is right-wing extremism in this country… but there is also left-wing extremism! And Islamist extremism! “Germany is a pluralist country! Germany has proven to be very cosmopolitan and tolerant!” Empty phrases. It immediately became clear that Stephan Mayer had a very limited understanding of racism – and he had no interest in expanding it.

Racism is not just the fact that there were more than 1000 attacks on German refugee camps in 2015. Racism also means feeling less safe when passing by an Arab looking man on the street at night; being kind of surprised that your doctor is black; asking a German citizen where they are really from, just because they have a darker complexion; calling a Roma ‘gypsy’, because “for me that is not a negative word”; assuming that Chinese have a different understanding of hygiene than we do. Continue reading

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Come take my hand: thoughts on white supremacy and the refugee crisis

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 papierarrival 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). Continue reading

Stop Fighting on our Bodies

I spent New Year’s Eve 2015 in Egypt, one of my favorite places on the planet, a source of great inspiration and self-fulfillment; at the same time, a place of pandemic sexual harassment, a country that often has me cringing with frustration over the way women are treated inside the family or out in the public, a country that was also the inspiration for my Bachelor thesis about sexual violence against women in the political realm.

Now, on that same New Year’s Eve, Cologne in Germany became a staging ground for mass harassment and even rape of women by allegedly North African men, possibly refugees, possibly living in Germany for a couple of years already—the details remain unclear as news of false accusations surface while others are proven to be true. What is very clear, however, is the public debate that arose from this incident and the instigative way that it was portrayed in the media. Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the most read and respected German newspapers posted an image of a black arm reaching between white women’s legs (they later apologized for the racist way this could be interpreted); FOCUS, a .. well, let’s say not the most unprofessional, and equally popular German news magazine showed a similar image on their cover of a white woman’s naked body with black handprints on it.

focustitelSo returning to Germany after my holiday, I had no desire whatsoever to engage in any debates on the topic, because I knew that I was going to face a front of hysterical white people. And by white I don’t mean skin colour, being quite pale myself. By white I am talking about people who grew up in Germany and understandably have little or no experience with Arabic or Muslim societies. And whether they are ignorant racists that protest against refugees using public swimming pools, or fairly open-minded students of political sciences, most of them will easily fall for the rhetoric of the barbaric Arab man who just does not fit into our civilized, progressive culture, where women are supposedly empowered and free and respected… Continue reading

The Great Rebellion of our age: thoughts on the Paris terrorist attacks

History repeats itself. As simple as it sounds, it never ceases to surprise me how the exact same thing happens over and over again and we choose not to learn from it.

Around the same time the killings in Paris happened, I read an article about the “Great Rebellion” or “Sepoy Revolt” in India, 1857, when 300 Sepoy—local soldiers recruted by the East India Company—insurged against their British officers, rode to Delhi and massacrated each and every Christian citizen, men, women and children alike. What followed were countless brutal battles and finally the victory of the British troops that invaded Delhi and on their part slaughtered thousands of civilians.

The roots of the revolt lay in the British imperialistic violence and their ruthless invasion of Indian soil since the beginning of the 18th century. Lord Wellesley, a cunning rhetorician, with the help of the conservative media, had managed to portray the Indian Mogul Tipu Sultan as an evil Muslim monster, a raging fanatic, a cruel enemy, to convince the British Parlament of an expensive and controversial crusade, aimed at demonstrating power over all European rivals, as well as striking preemptively against potentially hostile Muslim empires. Thus, British presence in India had developed from an economical partnership to an exploitative occupation, that not only annexed two thirds of the territory, but also portrayed the Christian colonizers as liberators, that were to free the Indians of their dark backwardness and bring them salvation. However, the Indian population’s fear of the missionaries had fueled resentment toward British rule and boosted the rise of Islamist groups eager to end the kāfir (unbeliever) regime on Indian soil. After the rebellion had been put down, the Mogul emperor, who had cooperated with the Sepoy—most of whom were Hindus—, was accused of partaking in an international Muslim conspiracy. Instead of questioning their own foreign policy, the British found the reason for all bloodshed in Islamist fanatism. As always was and until today has remained the case, the Western imperialists refused to understand that forcing a racist and hegemonial regime onto a foreign land must have two effects: to turn the population against the intruder and to offer a breeding ground for any type of extremism.

Without wanting to justify any kind of violence no matter what its history may be, I will link the bloody events of Delhi to those of Paris in two senses: (1) that the violence we have seen in Paris twice this year, in New York’s traumatic 9/11 attacks, and in various other Western cities, rose from the ruins of Western Imperialism; and (2) that the way violence is dealt with in the media and in society in Europe and the USA is something that we as the civil society urgently need to challenge. Continue reading

Sisyphus in the Arab Prison

Night was no longer night, since there were no more days, no more stars, no more moon, no more sky. We were the night. We had become nocturnal: our bodies, breathing, heartbeats, the fumbling of our hands moving effortlessly from one wall to another in a space shrunk to the dimensions of a tomb for the living, although whenever I say that word, I should use “surviving” instead, yet I really was a living being, enduring life in extreme deprivation, an ordeal that could end only in death but that seemed strangely like life.“

(The Blinding Absence of Light)

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novel „The Blinding Absence of Light“ is an attempt to describe the agonizing experience of former Moroccon prisoner Azīz Binbīn… an attempt that can only fail, because how can one describe 18 years without ever leaving a 4 ½ square meter cell, without ever standing up straight, without a glimpse of light, without medical care, and without a single word to and from the outside world? How can one imagine to sleep standing in order not to freeze to death, to live in a tiny room with a hole for a toilet not eating anything but beans for six thousand six hundred and sixty-three days, to pull out one’s own decaying molar with a piece of wood, and, finally, to not only survive such a horrific ordeal, but to stay human all the while?

When reading some of the numerous accounts by and about prisoners in secret desert prisons of Morocco, underground torture facilities in Syria, or other unfathomably cruel prisons throughout the Middle East, my mind often reached the limits of what it could – and wanted – to imagine. Continue reading

The power of space: How Gezi Park became the symbol of an uprising

Gezi Park was not exactly the place where I could take my girlfriend“,

says Cenk, a leftist activist, as we are sitting in a small cafe in one of the many side streets of Istiklal Caddesi. Earlier, Feride, a German-Turkish girl had mentioned the same feelings towards a park that had been used mainly by prostitutes, drug dealers and homeless people:

I had never really been to the park before… because it wasn’t exactly a safe place.“

During my research project on the Gezi Park movement I spent three months in Istanbul in fall 2013 and conducted interviews with people who had been in some way involved in the protests. Almost all of them told me that they had participated for two reasons: the park and its trees as the last green spot in the city; and later the police violence.

But if it is true that noone had actually used that allegedly last natural area of Istanbul, then why would anybody have bothered to protect it?

Gezi Park; Picture taken from http://galeri7.uludagsozluk.com

Gezi Park; Picture taken from http://galeri7.uludagsozluk.com

If the park was not visited by the public anyway, why did young people of all ideological backgrounds feel the need to settle down and build a tent city there?

With these questions in mind I started studying the meaning of space and power and discovered how the mere symbol of a public square can unite a whole generation. Continue reading