Germany’s War Against the Hijab. And Sweden’s Peace with it

Timo Al-Farooq
Jan 12, 2019 · 12 min read
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Sweden’s first MP to wear a hijab: campaign poster of the Green Party’s Leila Ali Elmi

After a recent evening flight from Doha, Qatar to the Swedish capital Stockholm I was walking towards a deserted immigration hall at Arlanda airport when I looked at the cubicles for EU-citizens and couldn’t believe my eyes: in one of the two the Swedish border police agent was black, a woman and wearing a hijab — the female Muslim headwear — in the same dark blue as her uniform.

Being a born and bred German, thus hailing from a nation-state that until this day bans people who wear religious headwear from becoming police officers or teachers, be they Sikh men or Muslim women, despite the enshrined freedom of conscience in Article 4 of our Constitution, I was naturally caught by positive surprise: had this been liberal, multicultural Canada, big whoop. But small and sheltered white-majority Sweden?

I stepped up to the agent (who looked Somali), handed her my passport, while she greeted me with a Swedish “Hej”, that traditional one-sylable greeting that in my foreign ears always sounds so refreshingly upbeat and intimate whilst maintaining cordiality, so unlike the merely colloquial and colorless English “Hey.” I replied with a friendly “Hi” and “As-salamu ‘aleikum” whereupon she in turn answered “Wa-’aleikumu s-salam.”

Unlike in Germany, where this scene might have raised eyebrows at the least and enmity and acrimony at worst, her colleague in the adjacent booth, a blonde and blue-eyed cliché Swede, who had definitely heared our exchange of salutations as the hall was totally deserted except for us approaching Business Class passengers, thus allowing sound to travel, couldn’t have cared less. She just went about her job and smiled (also something white German border patrol agents who make up the numeric majority of this federal police force rarely do) amiably at the first approaching passenger.

After swiping my travel document through the computer and it deciding that I was neither a threat to national security nor wanted by Interpol, I was handed back my passport with a pleasant “thank you”, again something I have never had the honor to hear emanate from a German federal agent’s mouth (they might say “Ok” or “Alles klar”, but never “Danke schön”), as if the passenger is the one providing the service and the officer the customer who is always right and therefore has the right to be gruff.

While walking to the exit I was so positively impressed by this short peek through the window of lived societal progressiveness, and so incensed at my own home country which is obstinately obstructive in all forward-looking matters, be it digitalization, e-mobility or religious inclusion, that I instantly logged into the Swedavia airport-WiFi and took to Instagram where I posted the following:

“Just landed in Stockholm from Doha. The Swedish border patrol agent was Somali, wore a hijab, and we greeted each other with a salam as if it were the most normal thing on earth. In the racist developing nation of Germany something like this would not be possible!”

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That I was taken by surprise in the first place is a shocking statement to the current state of diversity politics in a culturally backward-looking Germany which still loves to debate circles around questions already made redundant by reality: White Germans love to ask things like “Is Germany an immigrant nation?” while 1/4 of the population has an immigrant biography; or “Does Islam belong to Germany” while out of a population of 82 million Islam is practiced by roughly 5 million people in some form or another.

Other Western nation-states like the UK, Canada, the U.S. and even idyllic Sweden, a country famous for many things, from Ikea to Ingmar Bergmann, Spotify to Zlatan, but not exactly for it’s multiculturalism, ask similar questions: but the difference to Germany is that — despite rising islamophobia and anti-immigrant bigotry in all these countries — they have answered them more or less in the affirmative (the former two albeit rather begrudgingly due to their colonial past, immigration as de-facto reparations for all the nefarious crimes committed).

And the driving force behind such affirmations has simply been a political will to acknowledge shifting demographic realities on the one hand and the corresponding realization that cultural diversity in a nation-state context is a sustainable strength, not a weakness.

Germany’s cloth fetish

Not only does the hijab help white men (and self-loathing white women) to outsource their own misogynism when finger-pointing to it as demeaning to all women, thereby taking all agency away from the overwhelming majority who wear it out of their own free will, it also blatantly exposes the selectively islamophobic nature of their anti-religious agitation, since a male Jew wearing a kippa will not only not generate the same amount of outrage dispensed towards the hijab, but is furthermore perceived as someone that deserves special protection, unflinchingly granting him puppy license due to Germany’s genocide against the Jews. This gives rise to an uncomfortably legitimate question: will Muslims in Germany have to get holocausted first before getting to enjoy the minority protection they deserve?

“Berlin trägt Kippa” (Berlin wears Kippa) was the slogan of a recent organized protest against rising “anti-Semitism” in Germany’s capital city (in Germany, like in the U.S., anti-Semitism is routinely conflated with legitimate criticism of Israel, the former systematically employed to discredit the latter), but no one would dream of showing solidarity with Muslim women who face racist microaggressions on a daily basis by organizing a public demonstration under the banner “Berlin trägt Hijab.” Interestingly enough, this asymmetry in solidarity comes despite the fact that the number of women in Germany who wear the hijab exceeds the tiny demographic of Jewish men sporting a kippa by far.

Many islamophobic incidents go unreported and therefore do not find their way into hate-crime statistics. Whereas any overt criticism of Israel and Zionism (which Germans — in the best tradition of the Western Israel-lobby — love to confuse with Jewishness) can promptly land you in the anti-Semitism stats. Such is the discriminatory nature of white-majority German society’s stance towards religious headwear.

Furthermore, Germany’s hegemonial hijab-discourse is so hypocritical that the anti-hijabistas are not even sure if they oppose the cloth for its alleged misogynism or because it violates the core tenet of a secular society, the division of state and church. Depending on what is convenient, they jump back and forth between both arguments like kids playing hopscotch.

The hijab is allowed to be quintessentially American…

“No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice — one protected by the First Amendment.”

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Omar’s ascent to the highest echelons of American political power — as a person of color, a Somali refugee, a woman and a Muslim who proudly sports ethnic and religious garb — not only renders the neoatheist argument that the hijab subjugates women ad absurdum, but is also the latest testament to the still inclusive and upwardly mobile nature of American society, even in these nightmarishly poisoned and repressive Trumpian times.

This is still a society where a person belonging to an ethnic and religious minority with a quadruple intersectional biography (again: POC, refugee, female and Muslim), a profile which qua natura will be discriminated against at all fronts in the U.S., can become an elected official to the highest legislative body in the land of white hegemony. And all that whilst unapologetically and proudly sporting her hijab.

Congresswoman Omar is not the only public official in the U.S. to wear her hijab: Somali-American Kadra Mohamed is Minnesota’s first police officer to do so, the Twin Cities being home to one of the largest Somali communities in the diaspora. And the nation’s capital Washington, D.C. also allows female police officers to wear the hijab as part of their uniform.

In the cultural sphere, the level of American inclusiveness is similarly progressive: From the fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed, the first American to wear a hijab at the Olympics (Rio 2016) to hijab-wearing Barbies and Emojis: for all the Muslim Bans and American blood-for-oil wars in the Muslim world, all the islamphobic rhetoric, racist hate-crimes and police surveillance in American-Muslim communities, all collectively poisoning national political discourse and societal peace, the U.S. still remains true to it’s national identity of a melting-pot of cultures and faiths, going the extra mile to accomodate all religious sentiments and traditions. Even those of that selectively demonized and historically over-vilified other, American Public Enemy № 1: Islam.

…quintessentially Canadian…

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Ad campaign in Ontario, Canada poking fun at Quebec’s attempt to ban the hijab

Unlike in Germany, where multiculturalism is routinely ridiculed as the utopian, leftist-green ideology of pot-smoking, Birkenstock-wearing, vegan tree-huggers (I am reminded of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s famous “Multikulti ist tot” barb— Multiculturalism is dead — a statement made years ago when the demographic realities of Germany were already saying the exact opposite), Canada’s legislated and lived multiculturalism and religious accomodation has enabled people like Harjit Sajjan to first beome the police chief of Vancouver, one of the nation’s largest cities, and then go on to become Canada’s Minister of Defence after the Liberal Party’s landslide electoral win in 2015.

And with Navdeep Singh Bains, Minister for Innovation, Science and Economic Development, you have not one but two turban-wearing cabinet members in the current administration where of the 35 government ministers, 7 belong to visible minorities, so 1/5 of the cabinet.

Compare this to Germany and you will find that of the 16 cabinet members within the Merkel-administration, not one is a person of color, has an immigrant background or belongs to a religious miniority. And that despite the rapidly growing ethnic and religious diversity in the country where today already 24 % of the population in Germany has an immigrant background, half of these people being naturalized German citizens, and 5% of the population are Muslims, today Germany’s largest religious minority.

…and even quintessentially Swedish…

Even the electoral win of the misleadingly and unaptly named “Sweden Democrats” with their populist anti-immigrant, right wing agenda, has not put a stop to Sweden’s living up to its reputation as one of the most progressive societies in the world: in a landmark moment, that same general election of 2018 saw one Leila Ali Elmi of the Green Party— like Ilhan Omar also of Somali descent — become Sweden’s first member of parliament to wear a hijab, while in Germany many prominent members of its Green Party still view the hijab as a symbol of blanket oppression and overtly engage in liberal racist statements against Muslims that rival those of the right-wing AfD party.

Sverige today is home to the third largest Somali diaspora in the Western world (after the U.S. and the UK, even before Canada with its hyperliberal immigration policies). And despite rising islamophobic antipathy in Swedish society and racial profiling of non-white and Muslim male youths by an overwhelmingly white police force, these new Swedes don’t have to hide their religiosity and can go on to become police officers and border patrol agents, without any infringements on the expression of their faith, as evidenced by the hijab-wearing uniformed black woman who checked my passport at Arlanda airport’s immigration and who is the point of origin for this article.

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Swedish police hijab (Photo Credit: Matti Österling

To my knowledge, after the inclusive policies of the Swedish police force, female Muslim firefighters and military personell will also be allowed to wear the hijab as part of their uniform in the near future.

Iman Aldebe, the Swedish designer responsible for the police hijab I saw at Arlanda, and whose modern interpretations of traditional religious headwear are already part of the workwear of Swedish-Muslim nurses and paramedics, commented on the motivation of Muslim women behind wanting to wear the hijab at the workplace by saying the following:

For these women, it’s only a garment. You put it on for religious reasons, but it’s not like you’re walking around and preaching. You just want to be like any other woman.”

2015 Swedish retailer H&M featured Aldebe’s styles in its fall catalogue. It doesn’t get any more inclusive than this, does it?

…but not quintessentially German

Germany, the largest economy in Europe, political heavyweight within the EU next to France (another country that likes to play down the xenophobic fabric of its white-majority society while passionately subscribing to the identity politics of ethnic exclusion where the value of black, Arab and Muslim life — just like in Germany — is determined by your success at football World Cups), seems to like going around in circles on the carousel of political and public discourse when it comes to the two Is of immigration and Islam.

Tautological nonsense like “Islam is not a part of Germany, but Muslims are”, coming from various senior conservative politicians over the last decade; tilting at the windmills of Islam by criminalizing the hijab; repeatedly committing the folly of trying to integrate immigrants without including them, thus reinforcing the stereotype of the arrogant, narcissistic and megalomanic German with his historically destructive delusions of grandeur and “My way or the highway”-approach to everything of import: all unrefutable evidence of Germany’s Peter Pan-like unwillingness to grow the fuck up and shed its infantile and pathological white supremacist self-centeredness.

With regards to the hijab: even though the Bundesverfassungsgericht in Karlsruhe, Germany’s highest court tasked with protecting the German constitution, has ruled the general hijab-ban for teachers in public schools to be unconstitutional, and Berlin’s highest labor court has declared Berlin’s “Neutrality Law” which prohibits religious clothing in civil service jobs like teaching, police, etc. to be diametrically opposed to the ruling of the federal judges, implying the need for it to be scrapped, Germany in general and it’s largest and most cosmopolitan city Berlin in particular continue to bar Muslim women who wear the hijab from becoming teachers and judges, police-officers and paramedics, border patrol agents and firefighters.

It will be interesting to see how long and far Germany will be able to tread this path of societal regression, futilely trying to hold on to a past that — thank God — is no more.

This article first appeared in German in the online magazine “MIGazin” (Migration in Germany) as well as the online edition of the German weekly “der Freitag”

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