Politics in so-called liberal democracies these days is mostly about hating people outside politics. Migrants are by definition non-citizens when they arrive in countries of refuge, walled and warehoused on the social margins, charily granted only limited rights to participate in the political life around them; yet fear and loathing of the symbolic figure of the refugee have helped elect a crazed American president, topple a phlegmatic German prime minister, and drive the dis-United Kingdom out of the European Union.
Although the object of hate takes protean forms (the Polish plumber, the Mexican rapist) the migrant from the Middle East is central to this dynamic. (He—it’s always he—is variously defined as “Muslim” or “Arab,” terms apparently interchangeable.) You hear two things over and over.
1) Muslims are violent. Numbers materialize to support this claim, but the figures rarely withstand examination. (See, by comparison, the recent ignominious deflation of an influential but deeply flawed report by the right-wing Quilliam Foundation, which purported to show that 84% of “grooming gang offenders” in the UK are South Asian. Dr. Ella Cockbain, a lecturer in security at University College London, calls the report “bad science” and adds that “Without clear inclusion parameters, robust and transparent methods and good data, we should be very sceptical of pseudoscientific claims and spurious statistics.”)
2) This Muslim (or Arab) violence is rooted in “culture,” meaning it’s nebulous, fixed, and timeless, beyond remedy or repair. After all, Arabs (or Muslims) believe in “honor,” and the rest of us don’t. (Generations of young German men cultivated duelling scars in the name of “honor,” a male rite of passage more violent than most tribal initiations; and the motto of Hitler’s SS some seventy-five years ago was “My honor is loyalty.” These are facts best, and easily, forgotten.) Anthropologists endlessly debate the definition of “culture.” But right-wing agitators and their pseudo-intellectual enablers know perfectly well what they mean when they throw the term around. For them “culture” is bad statistics plus speculative explanations. It’s a toxic but intoxicating brew.
In this important article (published today in German in a slightly different version in Freitag) describing an anti-migrant meeting in Berlin on November 21, Christopher Sweetapple, an anthropologist working in Berlin, unpacks some of the origins of the “cultural” discourse in anti-immigrant sentiment. It’s a discourse increasingly seductive on the German Left. I hope that after reading it you’ll listen to this podcast: a conversation on December 3 between Christopher and two anti-racist migrants’-rights activists in Berlin, “Sahra” and Olympia Bukkakis. Together they raise issues, and amplify voices, silenced and erased by the pseudo-liberal discourse around “violence” and “culture.” Bios of all three can be found at the end of this article. Thanks to Christopher, Olympia, and Sahra for sharing their words with A Paper Bird.
From Abu Ghraib to Neukölln: Neocon Repetition Compulsion in Berlin
I wasn’t looking forward to going to Laidak but went anyway. The purportedly leftist pub is only an 8-minute bike ride from my apartment. They were hosting a talk, “Gewalt im Namen der Ehre – Triebstruktur und Neuköllner Unzumutbarkeiten,” organized by a local initiative with the cheeky name “Ehrlos statt wehrlos” (“honorless but not helpless” in English—abbreviated here to ESW). I hadn’t yet attended any of ESW’s talks or events but did, like many in this neighborhood and city, catch the exchange of Stellungnahmen when ESW popped into existence in early August this year—first their mission statement, and then, rather swiftly, a blistering response accusing ESW of fostering a blatant right-wing populist discourse, co-signed by anti-racist, feminist, Muslim, Jewish and Roma organizations and initiatives here in Berlin.
ESW’s fundamental provocation is baked into its name, its mission statement, and the title of the talk: “Fighting violence committed in the name of honor; alliance against unacceptable conditions in Neukölln.” Neukölln is a large, populous, centrally-located Berlin district. It’s nationally known for its multicultural population. The “unacceptable conditions” that ESW imagines itself to be bravely facing are problems mainly perceived in the desirable portions of North Neukölln. The “conditions” are Muslim men, doubtless numerous and apparently primed to commit violence solely motivated by honor, or Islam, or something. This talk promised to better unpack how, culturally and psychologically speaking, this honor motivation system works.
Its windowed wall revealed Laidak was already packed full of people, 20 minutes before the event was slated to begin. I castigated myself for not leaving home earlier as I walked in—should I just go home?—no, I’m already here, let’s see if I can squeeze in. The line of us apparent late-comers slithered past the bar into the dimly-lit backroom. By the time I finally crossed the threshold, all remaining spots were officially occupied. The fellas working the small table for the 2€ entrance fee at the door had to announce over my shoulder that the room was at capacity to yet more disappointed late-comers behind me. The speaker then arrived and had to make her slow way through the seated crowd to the lectern/front table, giving time for a few more people to maneuver into the door frame behind me. A man seated next to the speaker began talking. The bar was roaring behind us in the back; struggling to hear, we cajoled the door closed.
His introduction recapped the allegations in the event description on Facebook—street violence against Jews, queers, women and the homeless is on the rise in North Neukölln; Muslim men are the culprits; the media and leftists disallow public discussion and action about this state of affairs; somebody has to take the wheel. He then introduced the speaker.
The lecturer chose to remain anonymous. As promised in title and introduction, her argument made authoritative claims about the cultural psychology of Muslim masculinity in order to better inform the audience, decidedly non-Muslim in address and evident composition, how to combat the plague of violence anecdotally, statistically, tautologically presented as Muslim in character. The question of Muslim-on-Muslim violence (thankfully) was not on the agenda. This was a discussion about why they, Muslim men, are doing this to us—“us” including both victims of their violence and those who profess solidarity with these victims.
This supposed plague of violence was only vaguely presented. Both the introductory comments and her speech raised the specter of “what we all know to be true,” that more Muslims in town have meant more crimes against us. Such a truth should be confirmable with data and evidence. One would expect, first and foremost, a clear examination of the rate of violent crime for the area in question. But no such criminological evidence or discussion was offered. One might also expect the speaker to tarry over data made public by local anti-violence and victims’ advocacy initiatives, like MANEO or ReachOut, or by the Berlin Police. None of which indicates a Muslim crime wave in North Neukölln or elsewhere.
Instead, factoids were marshalled haphazardly. One moment, she mentioned survey results about secondary-education-students’ attitudes as evidence for widespread antisemitism and homophobia among youth with migrant backgrounds. Not long after, she dismissed the inadequacy of official police statistics about hate crimes, offering an example (it was unclear to me whether this was hypothetical or actual) of an alleged Muslim extremist charged with a crime for making the Hitler salute at a Quds Day demonstration. His action, she said, was officially designated as “far-right” and not “Islamist,” which we were invited to see as patently ridiculous. Of course “motivation” for particular crimes may be misreported or botched by authorities. Shouldn’t this, though, spur further thought about the validity of “hate crimes” as a classification per se? And how are we supposed to assess whether or not a Muslim crime wave is underway when all we’re left with is a heap of uncollated incidents and this dismissal of official numbers as Fake News?
Just as the actual North Neukölln Muslim crime wave was asserted by fiat rather than demonstrated, so too was her confident and detailed exposition of the psychological mechanisms which motivate these Muslim perpetrators asserted without locating the source and citational history of her framework. And I can understand why. In the first case, it is always better not to show your hand when the data clearly say otherwise. And in the second, had she provided her audience with sourcing for this psychosocial account of the Muslim Mind, the jig would have been up. This psychosocial vocabulary she walked us through to explain why they do this to us is familiar to anyone sentient during the USA’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Post-Freudian “drive theory,” a quasi-hydraulic account of an “honor/shame” mental economy, a constant slippage between ethnicity, race and religion—none of this strays far from Raphael Patai’s 1973 The Arab Mind. These ideas are embarrassing relics for contemporary social scientists and professionals, and they were central to some of the most disastrous attempts to mobilize the human sciences in recent memory. Their resurrection is shocking and repellent.
Writing for the New Yorker during the Bush years, Seymour Hersh was perhaps one of the first to draw public attention to how Patai’s idiotic 1973 work had become a handbook for US military and intelligence institutions at the time. Throughout the 20th century, US anthropology, whether ensconced in universities or on contract for the RAND corporation, churned out military-friendly readymades: “national personality” studies and Area Studies cultural psychological profiles of Patai’s sort, perhaps most notoriously in Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). Like this ESW talk, Benedict’s book traffics in speculative metapsychology using “shame” and “honor” as primary referents to map the Japanese Mind and Japanese Culture. Other disciplines got in on the grift (Edward Banfield’s 1955 The Moral Basis of a Backwards Society, which studied the “primitive” manners of southern Italy, is a hilarious iteration in political science’s specialized language); but eventually even mainstream anthropology turned one, then several, corners, leaving much of this entire approach in the dust. Not coincidentally, the year in which Patai’s book was published, 1973, was also the publication date of Talal Asad’s edited volume Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter—a dissection of the profession’s deep implication in imperial power which is actually studied and read today without a tongue lodged in cheek.
The Arab Mind’s authoritative, racist fable of the so-called “Arab” psyche armed the personnel of Abu Ghraib prison with actionable fantasy-knowledge about vulnerabilities in “Arab” masculinity, partially motivating several of the forms of sexual humiliation and torture inmates endured. Even more than other anthropological excursions into imperial apologetics, Patai’s ideas are fictions fitted for military use. They found a further theater in which to enact themselves in the still-running show at the USA’s other famous prison colony, Guantanamo. The American Psychological Association and other umbrella organizations of professional psychologists continue to grapple with how their profession was enlisted in enhanced interrogations and torture. For its part, the main professional organization of anthropologists, the American Anthropological Association, recoiled at the rollout of the US Army’s Human Terrain System, which sought to give social scientists the role of battlefield advisors on matters of local culture and custom in Afghanistan.
Even if the ESW speaker didn’t deign to mention Patai or the ignoble tradition to which her discourse belongs, neocon canards do plainly rhyme. They’re a chord easily heard. They gather together comfortably in symbolic space, and they apparently still pack a room. They impose a clash-of-civilizations geopolitics and a billiard-ball model of cultures. They compel a battlefield stance and combat posture whenever the Islam alarm is tripped. They buttress a bundle of irrational certainties about the Islam-designated-out-group, certainties which do not withstand scientific scrutiny. Their recent history and track record is repellent because neocon concepts reek of guarded racial animus and evangelical zeal, not notably noble motivations. Bootstrapped to interpretations of a perceived crime wave, neocon concepts algorithmically suggest a character roster of acceptable victims who, not so subtly, mirror the imputed switchpoints of the lone villain’s psyche—a villain we might call Muhammad Doe. Neocon concepts provide a narrative arc for the salvation of the victims and the vanquishing of the villain. First, we must know our enemy, his culture and his psychology, his habits and hang-ups. Then—the rest is (recent) history.
In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Franz Fanon directed the reader’s focus to the psychosocial double-binds facing both the colonized and “the other, the white man, who had woven me from a thousand details, anecdotes, stories.” “Woven” is a fitting word to convey the fabrications at the heart of racist oppressions: fabrications that incite an insincere empiricism hell-bent on collecting “a thousand details, anecdotes, stories,” all in the service of extravagant mythologizing about the violent Other meant to excuse violence against the Other. Lamentably, this is no less true in Neukölln than in Abu Ghraib. ESW’s name inverts an old Social Democratic slogan from the 1930s; a party official proclaimed that Hitler had stripped the SPD of strength but not honor. Negating an anti-Nazi rallying cry is perhaps not an auspicious move. The call not to be “defenseless” against migrants carries an undertone of threat. A YouTube account—self-branded with an “anti–deutsch” symbol and a byline that reads “Donald Trump, OI, OI, OI!”—posted a recording of parts of the November 21 talk, with an ominous #bashback hashtag. Before these concerned citizens start drawing up their plans to bash the Muslim Mind out of Neukölln, they might take heed of this old Hegelian chestnut: “Evil resides in the gaze which perceives evil all around it.”
The revival of these tropes in ESW’s discourse—or, why not? hate speech—here in Neukölln breathes fresh life into ongoing anti-Muslim racism: that is evident. The task remains to keep the benefit of the doubt alive: to hope that the interest in these ideas on display this November at Laidak is still partially open to facts, still persuadable. But I have no illusions that the task ahead—to disabuse a sizeable swath of the activist left in Berlin of their seemingly cherished neocon clichés—is easy. That remains a large and unappealing undertaking.
It continues to baffle any person actually aware of the conservative and right-wing discourse of the USA to encounter the same language and arguments recycled by young academics who declare themselves antifascists. But this garbage anthropology is not simply baffling or laughable; it’s also dangerous. By smuggling pernicious neocon ideas into progressive spaces, whether leftist cafes or queer-feminist organizations, and arming its hosts with pseudo-knowledge about Islam and the Muslim Mind, the minimal gains made against encroaching anti-Muslim racism are brazenly rolled back. This is a threatening situation for everyone, not least for the Muslims and those-perceived-to-be-Muslim who actually live here.
Again, please listen to further discussion of these issues on the podcast, with:
Olympia Bukkakis, a performer and artist who has lived in Neukölln, Berlin since 2012. She has been deeply involved in the burgeoning drag scene there and organizes the successful show Queens Against Borders. Olympia is a white, trans-femme Australian and a radical leftist as yet unaffiliated with any political parties or organizations.
Sahra (name changed), an activist and educator who also lives in Neukölln, Berlin. After growing up in elsewhere Germany and completing her studies abroad, she came to Berlin and spent many years working inside queer-feminist and anti-racist initiatives and organizations. “Sahra” is a queer German Muslima of color and radical leftist and is unaffiliated with any political party.
Christopher Sweetapple, an anthropologist who lives in Neukölln. He is in the midst of completing his dissertation about his fieldwork among queer anti-racist activists in Berlin; he is the editor of the recently published The Queer Intersectional in Contemporary Germany (available as a free pdf from Psychosozial-Verlag). Christopher is a white US citizen, cis gay man, and radical leftist.