Two Tales of Islamophobia: The US and Germany

Dirty Jews and Ragheads:
If Modern America Resembles Weimar, the Tea Party Resembles…

By Betsy Rossinsky

I learned I was Jewish the hard way. Soon after my mother died, her ex-husband (my father) took me away to live with him. I was seven at the time.

“You killed Christ,” a pretty little girl named Peggy told me matter of factily on my first day at the new school. Apparently, Peggy’s mother didn’t like the sound of my name when she heard I was joining the second grade class. (She had called our housekeeper to verify her suspicion.)

“I didn’t kill Christ. The Jews killed Christ,” I replied, sure in my knowledge of innocence. My mother was an Episcopalian, who had sent me to Sunday School at the small church right across our street.

“Well, you’re Jewish,” Peggy retorted and marched away to join her friends.

That night I asked my father, “Am I Jewish?”

“Daddy is Jewish,” he said in a gentle voice. “When you’re grown-up you can decide who you want to be.”

He was wrong.

There ensued years of shame and ostracism: “Dirty jew piece of soap moneybags big nose kike.” I got called these names daily, and it always hurt.

I saw Peggy and her cohorts recently in the person of a blustering bigot on CNN, his face red and twisted as an heirloom tomato, sweaty with hate. Tied to the Tea Party, he exhorted viewers to demonstrate at mosques and declared September 11th “International Burn a Qur’an Day”. All terrorists are Muslim, he said – a contention that led Anderson Cooper to blurt, “What about Timothy McVeigh?” Muslims pledge allegiance to a separate state, he replied. But wasn’t that the rap on JFK and the Pope way back when? And of course there was the sophistic argument that Muslims are not Christian, ergo they don’t belong here.

So many of us – blacks, Jews, Japanese, Hispanics, Chinese, any kind of Catholic, you name it – didn’t and probably still don’t “belong here” in this roiling cauldron of a country, at least in the view of the Tea Party crowd and their ilk. I look into the black eyes of the receptionist at my local beauty spa. A fourth-generation Japanese, she says her mother is still traumatized by her time in the camps where Japanese-Americans were rounded up and penned during World War II. “After September 11th, I started to worry about racial profiling,” she tells me. “It happens you know.”

Her worries are well founded. In Dave Eggers’ masterful Zeitoun, he recounts the true story of a Muslim-American family, devastated by Katrina. Only their story had a twist.

The owner of a successful restoration & construction company, Abdulrahman Zeitoun prepared for the hurricane by sending his family to stay with relatives in Baton Rouge while he remained behind to look after their properties. After the levees broke on August 31st, he took the family’s canoe out to explore. Almost instantly, Zeitoun began to rescue people and even pets in need. At night, he kept hearing the howling of nearby dogs. On September 1st, he set out to find them, climbing up a tree and bracing a plank against the second story of a neighbor’s house:

Eggers writes, “He walked through the bedroom he’s arrived in, hearing dogs grow more hysterical. As he strode through the second-floor hallway he saw them: two dogs, a black Labrador and smaller mixed breed, in a cage. They had no food, and their water dish was empty.”

Zeitoun paddled back to his house, removed two steaks from the freezer, grabbed two water bottles, and returned to care for the dogs. Eggers writes, “In New Orleans, Zeitoun was invigorated. He had never felt such urgency and purpose.” It was not to last.

On September 5th, Zeitoun got caught in a mistaken drug bust by a mix of heavily armed National Guard, local and out-of-state police. No drugs were found, but Zeitoun was nonetheless sent to Camp Greyhound, an instant prison built while the city’s residents struggled to survive. . He was later moved to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a maximum security prison where he was held in solitary confinement and subjected to frequent strip searches, without ever having a chance to call his family or to secure a lawyer.

Bizarrely enough, the Department of Homeland Security, which runs the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), had published a four-page bulletin during Katrina and sent it to National Guard units and law-enforcement agencies throughout the region, warning of possible “terrorist exploitation of a high category hurricane”. FEMA may not have been any good at organizing the rescue of New Orleans’ Katrina victims, but they were good at organizing against nonexistent terrorism. “It happens, you know.”

The inhumanity stereotyping demonstrates has at its core the denial of another’s individuality and uniqueness. Hooding the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, for example, makes them anonymous and, for their captors, easier to torture. I have heard Jews call Arabs “animals” and Arabs dub Jews the same and worse. This assumption of sub-humanity reinforces the superiority of our affinity group and the otherness of everybody else.

But, scapegoating also serves a far more insidious purpose. For demagogues, it is a highly effective way of rallying support and deflecting our attention from the true source of our discontent. In 1933, Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism (set italic) documented the way that Hitler was able to conjure up a lethal mix of Christian superiority, German nationalism, and notions of racial purity to defeat the ineffectual, liberal Weimar Republic. Reflecting on the “social effect of mysticism” in swaying working and middle-class people to act against their own self-interest in the middle of the Great Depression, he wrote, “It was precisely the wretched masses who helped to put fascism, extreme political reaction, into power.”

Sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it?

As the forces around the Tea Party “movement” coalesce, we see the same bitter brew of rabid patriotism, racial hatred, and Christian fundamentalism. Just as in the days of Germany’s Weimar Republic, we also have an eviscerated liberal regime, failing to address the root cause behind wide-scale and growing unemployment and economic instability.

Yet, the policymakers responsible for our misery – the scoundrels who provided tax breaks to companies that out-source jobs and who deregulated financial institutions, allowing their banking buddies to grow even richer from flagrantly corrupt schemes that continue to wreak havoc on our economy – many of these same characters now beat the drum for the Tea Party. They have found a way to both avoid accountability for their past crimes and possibly regain power by deflecting our attention to what Imam Shamsi Ali, the director of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, dubs, “Islamophobia”.

It’s not too late, though. Newsweek writer and CNN moderator Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-American, stood up to the incredibly misguided Jewish Anti-Defamation League, which opposes the establishment of the Ground Zero Islamic Community, and returned the First Amendment Freedom award and “generous” honorarium the League had presented him in 2005. Noting that he was “personally and deeply saddened” by the League’s position, he urged a return to its “historic robust defense of freedom of religion in America.”

Zakaria and others like him must not stand alone. We all need to unite against those who would cast stones, seek to divide us, and deny our human rights. Only when every child finds not shame, but joy in discovering the mysteries of his or her true identity, is the real American Dream truly realized.

BETSY ROSSINSKY is the nom de plume of a Philadelphia-area businesswoman and journalist and occasional contributor to ThisCantBeHappening!


A Would-Be Paul Revere in Germany:
“The Muslims Are Coming!”

By Victor Grossman

             Berlin–The “mosque menace” is not confined to Lower Manhattan or the USA. In many European countries similar alarms are being sounded, usually in tones recalling Paul Revere: “The Muslims are coming!”

Although according to Sarkozy in France, Berlusconi in Italy and the militarized neo-fascist Jobbik Party in Hungary the danger is more from the Roma people (also called Gypsies), more often than not it’s those scary Muslims who are seen as the most menacing threat. Yes, we better watch out!  Switzerland had its referendum against minarets, bleached-blond rabble-rouser Wilders won third place for his “Hate Islam” party in the Netherlands and now bar-room battlers  in Germany are being called upon to struggle against the Turks and any or all of their Islamic fellow-religionists.

The best-known crusader for Germanic purity at the moment is Thilo Sarrazin, no typical rabble-rouser, but rather a finely dressed, proper looking Prussian-type banker, with bristly mustache and a slightly drooping right eye.  To the embarrassment of some of its leaders, he has long been a member of the Social Democratic Party, and for years was minister of finance in the city-state of Berlin.

In those days his righteous anger was not focused against immigrant groups but against “lower castes” in general, and he wielded sharp scissors against social programs. Since Berlin has been heavily in debt for years, this was long accepted as unpleasant necessity. His notoriety began with comments that the jobless should be satisfied with the dole money they got, or even less. A sausage and some sauerkraut made a good, inexpensive dinner, he pointed out, and as for heating, he argued that “…people should consider whether they can’t get along at home quite sensibly with 15-16 degrees (c. 60 degrees Fahrenheit) by putting on a heavy sweater.”

He insisted that pensions should really be cut, not raised, and people should take care of pension problems privately, with as little government aid as possible. As for families, he inquired: “How can I arrange things so that only those people get children who can manage with them. Some women get two, three or more children even though they lack the “where-with-all” or the “personal characteristics” to see to their education.  That means that the social system must be altered “so people are not able to improve their standard of living simply by having children, as is the case today.”

All too gradually, Sarrazin became impossible as a Social Democratic minister in a city-state government, especially when the Left Party joined to form a coalition. Therefore he was kicked upstairs into an extremely remunerative job on the top floor of the Federal Bank, a cousin of the American Federal Reserve bank. Before leaving he fired off a final salvo indicating his new field of endeavor. In an interview targeting especially the three to four million people in Germany with a Turkish background, he asserted: “I don’t have to recognize anyone who lives off this state, but rejects this state, and who doesn’t properly care for the education of his children while constantly producing more little girls to wear headscarves.”

Quite understandably, the Turkish population, citizens and non-citizens, of first, second or third generation, pointed out indignantly that it was they who had done much of the heavy, dirty work in rebuilding West Germany, often at low pay, and who now, in countless cases, were moving into a wide variety of trades and professions. The fact that all too many were still caught in semi-slums, received only second or third- class education and were rejected when job-hunting, with all the consequences, was not completely their fault. And many were making real contributions to society.

But Sarrazin stepped up his attacks, saying, “The Turks are conquering Germany, just like the Kosovars conquered Kosovo, with a higher birthrate.” He extended his attacks to the many more recent Arab immigrants: “Since Arab boys can’t make out with their Arab girls they use easier-to-get lower-class German girls, whom they then despise for being so easy to make out with.”

At the same time he attacked Turkish men for allegedly not marrying in Germany but instead importing illiterate Turkish women. He insisted that Muslims were less intelligent, and that their increasing numbers posed a threat to the general intelligence level in Germany. All of this was clearly aimed at building on and increasing existing prejudices and getting groups to look down upon or hate each other. 

The unions opposed him, his Social Democratic Party also picked up the criticisms, though an attempt to expel him from his Berlin party group was unsuccessful. His new institution, the Federal Bank, cautiously criticized him for engaging in political statements which had nothing to do with banking, but kept him on in his high managerial position.

Now Theo Sarrazin has published a book, “Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab” (Germany Does Away with Itself”), which warns in dire terms that unless German women hurry up and have more children, the country will be overrun and ruled by Muslims in a number of decades. He claims that there are such things as Jewish genes, which he praises, and Turkish genes, which are responsible for the lower intelligence rates. Most leaders of the Jewish Congregation objected to any such references to “Jewish genes” and were highly critical, but some members joined in attacks against the Muslims.

The book was publicized across the media with talk shows, reprints and debates. Some, as in the Springer Press (similar to Murdoch’s media empire), were highly appreciative and reprinted long excerpts, while others were highly critical. With all the publicity, the first edition sold out immediately.

The SDP is still debating what to do about him (while one of its most prominent “wise men”, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, expressed barely-disguised affirmation, saying, “If he had expressed himself a little less crudely, I could have agreed with much of what he said.”

Therein lies the true danger of a Thilo Sarrazin: Not in any imagined Muslim rule some day (a totally ridiculous idea when confronted by the facts), but rather that so very many Germans have been infected by the bacteria of nationalism and xenophobia, fearing or hating anything new or strange to them. Such feelings, all too common all over Europe and North America, but have an especially sinister tradition in Germany, especially in times of depression, which can occur or re-occur almost anytime. Seventy years ago the menace was supposedly the “Jewish danger”. Now it’s Muslims.

Two very different reactions should not be overlooked. Gesine Lötzsch, co-president of the Left Party, insisted that a man with such views was “intolerable in such a public position.” The same party’s delegate in the Bundestag, Sevim Dagdelen, herself from an immigrant background, denounced Sarrazin’s “racist tirades.” Saying, “It is unacceptable that a managing member of the Federal Bank spreads such poison which splits society,” she went on to call on the SDP to “do something at last and expel Sarrazin from their party.” Dagdelen compared his views with those of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD).
Sure enough, the neo-Nazi internet bloggers were quick to voice support for Sarrazin. With an anti-Muslim group called PRO Berlin making plans to enter next year’s elections in the capital city, and with growing ties forming with racist, anti-Muslim groups in many countries, the call for opposition to Thilo Sarrazin and his propaganda has gained dramatic urgency.        

VICTOR GROSSMAN is an American journalist who lives in has lived in Germany for most of the last 60 years. For more information about him see the article by ThisCantBeHappening writer Linn Washington elsewhere on this site.