Esra Özyürek is the Sultan Qaboos Professor of Abrahamic Faiths and Shared Values at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. She received her BA degree in sociology and political science at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and her MA and PhD in anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey (2006); Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion and Conversion in the New Europe (2014), and Subcontractors of Guilt: Holocaust Memory and Muslim Belonging in Postwar Germany (2023). In the wake of the recent events in Israel and Palestine, TANK spoke to Özyürek to better understand how the legacy of the Holocaust shapes narratives of belonging among Muslim populations in Germany.
Interview by Thomas Roueché
Portrait courtesy Susie Triffitt
THOMAS ROUECHÉ Your latest book, Subcontractors of Guilt, is a hugely ambitious project which brings together many different strands, from the history of memory and Holocaust memorialisation to the history of migration and racialised populations in Germany. To address either, let alone bring them together, is a vast project.
ESRA ÖZYÜREK A sad thing in German studies is that people don’t often see these connections. People who work on the Holocaust don’t often talk to those who work on migration – but obviously migration happened because of the war, and if there was no war, there would be no migration. These subjects are very much intertwined. Those are the people who rebuilt post-war Germany, but who are excluded from the narrative of reconstruction. That is disturbing because they’re always seen as having just arrived – so migrant populations are perceived as never having learned from the Holocaust, never having thought about anti-semitism. The early workers just laboured at the factories, and at that time there was no space for them to be integrated. But over time they settled, their children went to school and they became integrated into this founding memory of the nation.
TR One detail in the book that was fascinating was how you discuss the post-war reckoning with sexual liberation as an aspect of post-Nazi politics in Germany, which then becomes folded into a critique of the perceived religious conservatism of migrant populations.
EÖ That is something that fascinated me. This book came about because I was interested in Holocaust memory, and in particular Holocaust education for Muslims. Would you have a similar programme for Vietnamese people, or people from Ghana? What if someone has a parent from each country? So I started attending these courses. Of course, at that time I knew that Muslims in Germany tend to be seen as antisemitic, misogynistic and homophobic. What is interesting is that it is many of the same organisations that tackle issues of Holocaust memory and questions of gender – one of the projects I followed that takes Muslims to Auschwitz also tries to teach gender equality. To that organisation it is one and the same, and for the German public, it is likewise one and the same. So, I started reading and realised, oh, this is how they remember the Nazis. So while research shows us that the Nazis were not sexually repressed, the 1968 generation imagined them as so. Their sexual liberation was constructed against the idea of a fascist family unit. Along with this was the idea of going against the father, the name of the father in the Lacanian sense, the oppressive figure. So, society set out to liberate itself from Nazi fathers and their stuffy conservative families under the assumption that antisemitism was a personality failure that came from these bad families. At that time there were many big gestures along these lines, like students slapping politicians, but also people forming communes. Liberation from this conservative family was about liberation from the structure that had caused antisemitism. Thus, society then looked to Muslims, who likewise have conservative families and oppressive fathers, and saw a need for them to liberate themselves in order to become democratic citizens rather than anti-semites. These new citizens needed to follow the path that a generation of Germans had taken. Of course, one of the many problematic aspects of this perspective is that while the parents of the 1968 generation may have been Nazis, the parents of immigrants are not. But the discourse frames them as such.
TR How does that relate to the widespread discourse around honour killing within the German media?
EÖ Maybe we should start by talking about violence against women in general. People use the concept of femicide in Germany as elsewhere – around the world, violence against women is common. The numbers in Germany, the UK or Turkey are not low. Everywhere men are killing women, and they are most often killed by people who know them or are close to them. There is a cultural difference, however, in that while in the UK or Germany it is often the husband or lover who is the killer, in Turkey it might also be the brother, the father or another man in the family. The murder of Hatun Sürücü in 2005 who was killed by her brother because she was having a relationship with a German man became an iconic case, and set up a sense of difference – how barbaric these people must be; we would never kill our siblings; even if in Western society it is not at all unusual for a woman to be killed by her husband. So there are programmes that are set up to teach gender equality to Muslims in Germany. I find it striking that these programmes tell the youth, “You are different, you are sexist. What’s wrong with you? Fix this problem within you.” Research shows us that the boys in these programmes do not buy into these theories; they do not think, “If my sister goes out with another boy I will kill her” – rather, they learn from the media that this is how they should think. These opinions are more prevalent amongst gang members, but where they are found, they have been learned from the media. They are also learned through these programmes, which becomes a form of racial violence. They are told how sexist they are, and they have to take this onto themselves to prove that they are not.
TR There’s an anecdote at the end of the book where the organiser of one of the programmes calls you to tell you how successful the trip has been, and his metric of success is that two of the young Muslim boys, after having visited Auschwitz, made out with two Polish girls in a club. Sexual liberation is in some way a sign of progress away from being antisemitic.
EÖ I think it showed the organiser that they prioritise their own pleasure over submitting to their parents. If they accept their father’s authority in their imaginations, they cannot accept the authority of German culture. You need to make them slap their parents like the 1968 generation did because the antisemitism belongs to their parents. People often talk about “imported” antisemitism in Germany today, perpetuating the idea that you would need to import antisemitism in a country where police figures show that 84% of antisemitic crimes are perpetrated by the far right. Likewise, there is plenty of sexism in Germany that has nothing to do with Muslim communities or individuals.
TR Central to the book is the story of German Muslims going to visit concentration camps, and their reactions – of horror and fear that what happened to the Jewish minority might happen to them – being seen as fundamentally inappropriate by people working on these programmes or at the sites. This obviously touches on the discourse around the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
EÖ This is a huge topic. In Germany, in recent years, there has been a lot of debate and discussion about Germany’s colonial past in countries like Namibia, where they practiced some of the methods that were later used in the Holocaust. To even discuss this, however, is seen by some as relativising the Holocaust. Many nations were engaged in colonialism but the Holocaust is unique, and uniquely German. It’s like the idea that antisemitism is unique and different from all other racism. Even to raise this point in Germany is problematic at the moment. In recent weeks, it has become really, really difficult to talk about these things. I’ve had at least three events cancelled on Holocaust memory and Muslim-Jewish relations. It is very sad that we have come to this place. Holocaust memorialisation was there to fight against racism and show us how horrible it is, but now it has become a way to further racialise already marginalised and racialised groups, rather than to listen to other forms of suffering.
TR Before we get to the present moment, I wanted to ask you about what’s happened since Angela Merkel famously accepted over a million refugees at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015. This seemed like a watershed moment in German politics. At the same time, it seems like the left in Germany has been going through many contortions around issues of migration.
EÖ Things change quantitatively, rather than qualitatively. These discourses have existed for generations, whether clustered around the events of 9/11 or German reunification – the idea that the country is “full” has been going on since the 1970s. The same is true in the UK and Denmark as well as many other European countries. There’s an idea that, “Oh, we could have had economic justice if we didn’t have these migrants”; this nativist left-wing discourse is getting stronger across the world and Germany is no different. Ultimately, Germany has been better at dealing with the large influx of refugees than, for example, the UK. Germany has been giving people training, including integrating them into the labour market. But at the same time, anti-immigrant sentiment is strengthening across the political spectrum.
TR Which brings us to the difficult subject of the last few weeks. At TANK, we were shocked to see that an award that our friend and contributor Adania Shibli was supposed to receive at the Frankfurt Book Fair was cancelled, seemingly on the basis that she is Palestinian and her book deals with the history of the Nakba.
EÖ There has been de-platforming of Palestinians, and it has also been shocking to see the de-platforming of Jews in Germany, many of whom are self-exiled from Israel and constitute a vibrant leftist community. Meanwhile, institutions such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a great institution that for a few years had a monthly programme of Jewish-Muslim conversations, have come in for criticism even for hosting dialogue. Somehow it feels like the German public space and discourse around this issue is even narrower and more oppressive than the Israeli one.
TR How do you see the reception of your book playing out on a more popular level, in terms of the people who you spoke to for your research?
EÖ I had really worked hard to end the book on a positive note, saying maybe these people who are engaging with the memory of the Holocaust and fighting antisemitism, despite this negative, unfair burden put on their shoulders, may be able to change society. They may be able to change the script of memory culture, and they can show that non-ethnic Germans can also do this work and in turn, expand the definition of what a German can be. But now, it will be really difficult, of course, to pull people into this kind of work. I still believe in the power of the memory of the Holocaust. No matter from what angle you’re entering from, or however you are learning about the Holocaust, it has a transformative power. Any suffering has a transformative element, but because this was so big, so well planned, and so on, and because so many other countries across the world were implicated, it really makes you think deeply. It is a great loss when this politicisation happens around that memory and around antisemitism, and people are pushed into different corners. How then will people care about each other’s suffering? Even if right now Israel is accused of committing international war crimes, it doesn’t diminish the narrative of the Holocaust in any way. ◉