(Not) A minority: Muslims between inclusion and discrimination

In a guest contribution the political scientist Saskia Schäfer argues the case for citizens of modern societies to acknowledge the complexity, temporality, and variability of identities.

By Saskia Schäfer / 11.7.2017

In Gunter Gaus’ long interview in 1964 Hannah Arendt described how, as a young child at home, she was not at all made aware that she was Jewish. She said her entirely areligious mother never used that word at home, and this part of her identity was first made known to her at some point through other children’s antisemitic comments on the street. Later, in school, she was instructed to leave the classroom immediately should teachers make any antisemitic comments – mostly about Eastern European Jewish children – and to relay the exact wording to her mother, who would then complain to the headmaster.

Her opinion on the crucial importance of Jewish identity solidified over the years, even before the Holocaust. In the interview she said: ’When you are attacked as a Jew, you have to defend yourself as a Jew. Not as a German or as a citizen of the world or of human rights or something.’

And the neighbours? How does one defend those who are branded as not belonging based on their identity?

In these times of strengthening nationalism with ethnically homogenising perceptions of identity, it is not only Jewish Europeans, but also to a growing extent Muslim Europeans who are subjected to multiple attacks. In Germany these range from the inadequate attempts to come to terms with the executions of nine Turkish-German and Greek-German micro-entrepreneurs by the extreme right, to around ten racially motivated crimes carried out every day in 2016. Muslims, male and female, grandsons and granddaughters of former migrant workers, and those that wish for an open and diverse society are banding together and trying to counter the growing nationalistic fury. But with what? ‘More headscarves on talk shows, more religious diversity in school lesson,’ some say; ‘the abolition of the privileges held by the old-established religions,’ others counter.

Ten years ago the Ethnologue Arjun Appadurai wrote a book about ‘The Fear of Small Numbers’ where he examines the origins of so-called ethnic conflicts. In it he argues that the liberal political theory had originally provided special rights for minorities, which it understood as procedural and temporary amalgamations of people. This is how thinkers like John Stuart Mills and Alexis de Tocqueville wanted to protect political systems from the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ After the European categorisation of different races and ethnicities had then gained acceptance through colonial policy and been disseminated through censuses and maps, these special rights were often delegated to so-called ‘substantial minorities’, that is to minorities that were almost unalterably defined by their ethnic or religious affiliation. Instead of taking a stand for land reforms as exploited farmers one year, and advocating the establishment and outfitting of schools as educationally oriented fathers in the next, the concerns were attributed in the long term to certain ethnically assigned minorities and majorities, and not just from without, but also by the members of these declared minority categories themselves.

These prayer flags in the Yunnan province of Southwestern China signal the presence of the Tibetan ‘ethnic minority’ there. But is a categorisation into different ethnicities justified? © Hannah Illing

I have encountered similar tensions between different possibilities of self-representation of so-called minorities in my own research into public discourses on Islam in Indonesia, the most highly populated majority Muslim country in the world. Since the beginning of democratisation in 1998 the members of both smaller and larger Muslim organisations, as well as LGBTQ Muslims, have increasingly been subject to attacks there. They are accused of using the practices and symbols of Islam even though they are apostates and therefore not Muslims. These allegations appear in different forms and on different levels. An example is the rumour that followers of Ahmadiyya, a now globally active organisation founded in the late 19th century in then British controlled India, have modified the Islamic profession of faith, which would amount to a grave insult to the Prophet. This rumour does not correspond to the actual practices of Ahmadiyya. In actuality praying Ahmadis recite the profession of faith five times a day during their worship. Even the most senior politicians regularly fuel this rumour by, for example, proclaiming at conversion ceremonies: ‘Thank God, the former Ahmadis recite the profession of faith!’ Such statements quickly turn into headlines, and so rumours endure that the Ahmadis are insulting the Prophet. When in 2011 a physical assault on a group of Ahmadis in West Java ended in the death of three Ahmadis, the perpetrators were not only given very light punishments, but the allegedly provocative behaviour of the Ahmadis was highlighted and one of the group was imprisoned for several months after being identified as an agitator.

The Ahmadis have begun to fight back against this and a change in the representation of Ahmadis in the media is being observed. It is becoming obvious just how much they haven’t had a chance to speak in the first place. Their defence was instead taken over by human rights activists. After the attack in West Java Ahmadis themselves were also eventually invited onto the talk shows, and after a handful of speakers emerged, their perspectives were also mentioned in articles. But just how can the Ahmadis defend themselves? Which arguments will be listened to? My discourse analysis shows that two interpretational schemata dominate above all: the argument of religious freedom for minorities, and nationalism. Both are powerful discourses in Indonesia. My hypothesis is that today human rights and nationalism are barely functioning as life lines for the Ahmadis who have been discriminated against and marginalised. But I argue that the severe reduction in public discourses can have dangerous longterm consequences for these two sole interpretational schemata. As the political scientist Elizabeth Shakman-Hurd has demonstrated in her newest book in the field of International Relations, the reduction of identity to one dominant aspect closes the door to the possibilities of diverse alliances. If the majority of Indonesian Muslims don’t see the Ahmadis as brothers and sisters in faith, then it depends on their acceptance of human rights and the strength of national sentiment as to whether or not they will tolerate the existence of the Ahmadis. And indeed, if they see the Ahmadis as human beings at all. We are well aware of how quickly societies change, how quickly categories assigned to groups can be excluded from the community. The shaky tolerance founded on one or a few identity markers gives rise to the twofold danger of this marker losing importance in a society, or of the corresponding category falling out of the group to which it was understood to belong.

What this means for the current situation in Europe, is that it may not only be about defending my neighbours’ right to their otherness, but of consistently questioning to what extent this otherness actually exists. The Swiss Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan believes that European Muslims are not a minority at all, but are simply European citizens. Instead we have to draw on the complexity, temporality, and variability of identities. The identity of the working woman, the father, the girl playing handball, the class parent, the female chemist. Societies have to move beyond the fantasies of homogenisation brought on by strengthening nationalisms and the splintering into more and more fragmented identities, and they must find a way to acknowledge specific identities without putting them in the way of the fluid and constantly renegotiating formation of procedural and problem-oriented alliances.

This article was first published on thenewfederalist.eu, the magazine of the Young European Federalists. The content they produce is also published in French, Spanish, German and Italian.


Saskia Schäfer (Germany)

She is a political scientist, received her PhD from the Freie Universität Berlin and has completed research stays at Columbia University in New York and at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include discourse and media analysis, religious and political authority, secularism, public morality, Islamic feminism and Islam. Saskia Schäfer has carried out extensive research in Southeast Asia.


Sarah Robinson (United Kingdom)

Studies: French and German Language and Literature

Languages: French, German, English

Europe is… complex and invaluable.

Author: Anja

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