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Germany's structural racism against Muslims

September 14, 2022

A state-appointed panel has found that Muslims in Berlin are at a disadvantage across the state's institutions. It has made a number of recommendations, including doing away with Berlin's "neutrality law."

Silhouette of a woman
Muslims are discriminated against in German state institutions, the report foundImage: Frank May/picture alliance

The state of Berlin has a structural problem with its treatment of its Muslim community, an official expert commission concluded earlier this month.

The Berlin Senate set up the commission, the first of its kind in Germany, as a response to the far-right terror attack in the western city of Hanau in February 2020, when an extremist killed eight people of non-German descent, a German Romani, and his own mother, before killing himself.

More than two years later, the panel's findings are in — and they paint an unfavorable picture of a city that, despite its surface-level projection of diversity and inclusion, has a lot of work to do.

"A common (racist) attitude in the imagination of the 'majority or dominant society' favors a close link between Islam and poverty," according to the report, as many of Berlin's Muslims trace their German origins to low-skilled immigrants.

As a result, Muslims, "like all immigrants marked by racism, are confronted with entry barriers, exclusionary practices and structural discrimination."

The report criticizes a lack of awareness and insufficient classification of anti-Muslim behavior and crimes, which has led to an underreporting of such incidents. It also cites a lack of transparency when domestic intelligence agencies surveil Muslim organizations.

Sexism plays out within the broader discriminatory context, especially for women who wear headscarves. The report concluded that Muslim women are less likely to receive sexual health screenings or have claims of sexual violence against them be taken seriously. The same goes for treatment of resulting trauma.

On the cultural front, few leadership roles for Muslims have led to "major underrepresentation" and the presentation of cliches about Muslims.

What is diversity?

The report's recommendations

Berlin's Muslim population may be marginalized on many fronts, but it is hardly marginal. While no official count exists, Muslims are thought to comprise about 10% of the German capital's more than 3.8 million people. Some are newcomers, such as refugees from the Syrian War, who arrived in the last five or six years, but many have lived in Germany for generations.

To address ingrained discrimination, the commission's proposals focused on four aspects of public administration: Law enforcement, criminal justice, cultural life, and education. Covering all these areas was the recommendation to provide training and professional development for state employees, including teachers, judges, and police, to help them more easily spot signs of bias.

"Not everyone who makes some racist comments is a racist. Some of them don't realize it is a racist thing," Safter Çınar, a spokesperson for the Turkish Association in Berlin-Brandenburg (TBB), told DW. "The concept of 'what is racism?' is fairly new in Germany."

The report's authors, a small group of academics and researchers from Berlin's higher education and institutes, have also called for more state financial support for Muslim cultural, religious and artistic activities. With a more nuanced depiction of Muslims in the media, they hope to improve public perceptions and undo stereotypes.

Some tougher legal measures were suggested, as well. These included establishing a department within Berlin's state police tasked specifically with investigating anti-Muslim racism, as well as new oversight positions in the criminal justice system to call out structural discrimination.

"We must discuss what happens when somebody who is working for the state acts racist. What is the consequence?" Çınar said. Neither he nor the TBB was involved in the report.

Safter Çınar, TBB
Safter Çınar, center, welcomed the report's findingImage: DW/D. Akal

An end to 'neutrality'

The report's call to end Berlin's so-called neutrality law has received the most attention. The law, from 2005, forbids state employees from wearing religious or ideological symbols at work. As the name of the law implies, the idea is to create a neutral state apparatus that gives no favor and provides equal treatment to all people.

However, in practice the neutrality law has run into accusations of discrimination. While it applies to all backgrounds in principle, it has most gravely impacted Muslim women who wear a headscarf. Over the years, there have been multiple instances of otherwise qualified candidates getting denied civil service positions due to their religious observance.

In 2015, Germany's Constitutional Court ruled that a general headscarf ban violated the federal constitution, known as the Basic Law. The Federal Labor Court came to a similar conclusion in 2020, when it upheld a state court's ruling in favor of a Muslim woman who was unable to take on a teaching role due to her insistence on wearing the headscarf.

Sandra Scheeres, SPD
Sandra Scheeres, former Berlin education minister, appealed a court decision over allowing teachers to wear headscarvesImage: Senat Berlin

The neutrality law, according to the courts, contradicts equal opportunity and anti-discrimination protections at both federal and state levels. Advocates for doing away with it say that denying jobs to outwardly observant Muslims undermines efforts to improve Muslim representation in public life — the kind of measures that the Senate-sponsored report calls for.

Yet abolishing the law is not so straightforward. Sandra Scheeres, a former Berlin education minister, has appealed the 2020 Labor Court decision. The state's left-leaning coalition government has promised to amend the neutrality law, if the higher court rejects the appeal. That it won't strike the law outright reflects the mixed support for the law among the ruling parties.

There is also disagreement within Muslim communities. The TBB, for example, has taken no official position, Çınar said, because the board is split. Some want to uphold the law; others, like him, want it gone.

While the government waits on the court, which has not set a date for a ruling, its justice department is awaiting more consultation: A second panel will form early next year, according to a statement from Berlin's Justice Ministry, to develop a "prevention strategy" that implements the recommendations.

Any new protections or support that come into force are part of larger anti-discrimination efforts. In Germany's capital, which likes to view itself as open and welcoming to people of all backgrounds, "anti-Muslim racism is just one type of racism," Çınar said.

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