What a Supermarket Shelf in Britain Can Tell You About Islamophobia in Germany
What’s so special about a photo of a supermarket aisle? Usually nothing, but the picture above that I took during my current visit to London inadvertently shows the key difference in levels of social progress between my home country Germany and Britain. And is one of many reasons why the only truly multicultural country in the EU should be glad it’s leaving that sinking ship, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Let me explain: What you see above is a West London outlet of Tesco — one of the UK’s largest supermarket chains — wishing its Muslim customers a blessed Ramadan. In the UK nothing new, but for me as a German it is something that I have to this day never seen in any of the major German chains back home in Berlin, not even in the “ethnic” Muslim neighborhoods. And I am from Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, in a past life a vibrant Turkish and Kurdish area, until that white settler-colonialism better known as gentrification veni-vidi-vicied our asses and ethnically cleansed the place with its locust-like hipster “lifestyle” (is pretentiousness really something worth celebrating?) and army of greedy real-estate brokers.
Germany’s unholy approach to the Holy Month
While in the UK social inclusion of the Muslim faith is the norm rather than the exception, in Germany every tentative step towards religious accommodation put forward by progressive forces (especially if the religion in question is Islam) is met with the full brunt of a reactionary and racist backlash: for example the supermarket chain Kaufland’s decision last year to sell a Ramadan calendar was met with angry white consumers venting their bigotry on social media and calling for boycotts.
Even though individual stores in Germany do have Ramadan promotions, it is far from a concerted, broad “effort” like in Britain. Despite the fact that England’s and Germany’s Muslim population both lie at roughly 5 %, the capitals London and Berlin being home to the majority of Muslims of their respective countries, the disparity in levels of religious and social inclusion of people of faith other than Christianity and Judaism (and of immigrants and people of color in general by the way) is criminally high.
Again, take Berlin for example, the epicenter of German cosmopolitanism and worldliness, where you will be hard pressed to find a black person driving a bus, let alone hold a “higher” job serving the public. And the few ones that do are sure to attract the unwanted liberal-racist attention of white Germans believing themselves to be progressive while either bluntly staring at that black person as if he were E.T. (white Germans are the uncontested Champions of the (Liberal-)Racist Stare: they will stare down anyone that looks slightly alien to what their incestuous provincialism is historically accustomed to), or – as the more subtle racists do – overengaging with him awkwardly, thus overcompensating for a cultural backwardness so scientifically fascinating it blows your mind (what year is it again, 2019?).
Returning to Ramadan: I am sure that none of those solitary German chain stores cautiously inching their way towards accommodating Muslim consumers would go as far as putting up a sign saying “Here for you this Ramadan” like Tesco did: simple words symbolizing the fundamental difference between empathy and indifference. They are a testament to what it means to actually go the extra mile in terms of social inclusion, beyond the finish line of mere tolerance, whatever profit-making motivation may lie behind this kind of symbolic gesture.
Not only can the strategic placement of the Ramadan Mubarak well-wishing be seen by every passerby on Bath Road glancing through the door of that store, but the season’s greetings appear at not one, not two, but three neuralgic points within the environs of the premises. Proof of just how Tesco and other UK food retailers value their Muslim customers (again, for whatever capitalist-economic benefit).
On the other side (of the English Channel): If a German chain store would actually have the audacity to wish its Muslim customers a blessed Ramadan, especially with such intensity as Tesco did, all cross-party discursive hell would break loose in neoatheist Deutschland due to this kind of blatant kowtowing to the whims of a painstakingly constructed and orientalized historic “other.”
Cranford, the part of Hounslow where I took the picture, is not even an exclusively Muslim area. In immediate vicinity of the world’s second busiest airport, London Heathrow (the busiest being Dubai), with descending passenger planes flying over your head by the minute (sometimes so close for comfort that you find yourself wondering if that flying cruise ship of an A380 is going to shave the top-floor off that airport Travelodge you’re walking past), the Eastern European “new Brits” make up a significant visible portion of the local district population, next to the traditional South Asian Britons of various religious denominations.
Are any of them offended by this blatant regard for Muslim culture? Is anyone of them crying wolf about a creeping “Islamization” as it would have been painted by many a white German consumer? No. Why should they: their sense of cultural identity is realpolitikal and strong enough to understand that a) Muslims – like all former subjects of the British Empire – are part and parcel of Britain and b) that the accommodation of one culture does not necessarily come at the neglect of another, as right-wing bigots will readily have you believe in their zero-sum game of cultural warfare.
Plus, given all the Eastern European supermarkets and off-licenses in an area with a traditionally heavy South Asian presence (around the corner from the Ramadan-well-wishing Tesco is an outlet of the Polish deli chain Mleczko, founded in 1996, in London by the way, not in Poland), it is clear that immigrant milieus can co-exist wonderfully. And for that matter can live and let live alongside non-immigrant inhabitants just as well: between all the ethnic stores in this Western part of Hounslow you will also find the archetypical British sports pub: none of the hooliganesque-looking white people standing outside for a smoke during halftime seem to mind that the air reeks of Subcontinental spices, loud Punjabi Bhangra music pumps out of a pimped motor vehicle not worth pimping, and that most faces passing by are not white, and if they are, are talking in Slavic tongues into their mobile phones and kids’ faces.
German Muslims: shamed into hiding and segregation
Unlike here in London (or in England in general), where new Poles and old Pakistanis are allowed not only to keep, but to express their respective cultures with unrestrained abandon, Germany has a different approach to Diversity Management: it shames it’s immigrants (especially the ones with darker skin-tones and names like Muhammad or Mutombo) into submission and self-denial, subsuming them under a white German Leitkultur that exclusively feeds on the cultural assimilation of ethnic minorities.
Bigoted reactions in Germany to all things Muslim are not surprising in an agnostic at best and neoatheist at worst country where minority representation and religious inclusion remains scandalously low, creating a climate that allows Islamophobia to flourish freely: Germany prides itself on being liberal and “tolerant” (by the way: tolerance is nothing but a bare minimum of human decency, so nothing to be proud of dear white Germans), but doesn’t allow people of faith who choose! to wear religious headwear, be they Muslim, Jew or Sikh, to become public school teachers or police officers, or hold any other positions in the civil service.
Especially Muslims are de-facto denied the right to practice their faith within the full freedoms legally guaranteed to them by the German constitution, racist public opinion making them pray in nondescript back-alley mosques and basically forcing them to hide their full religious identity. And to shop in their own “ethnic” stores because Germany’s leading supermarket chains still vehemently oppose accommodating the tastes and related dietary requirements (e.g. halal certified products) of a significant portion of the country’s population, demographically and in terms of buying power.
And while Home Secretary Sajid Javid on Tuesday unveiled his “Ramadan Package”, a bundle of comprehensive security measures aimed at protecting mosques across England and Wales and ensuring the safety of Muslim worshippers in the wake of the New Zealand and Sri Lanka terrorist attacks, Germany – where Islamophobia and violence against minorities is dangerously on the rise like in many EU countries – has to my knowledge implemented no such broad and proactive measures.
By the way, Javid — like London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, is a British Muslim. To this day, supposedly multicultural Germany has never had a Muslim government minister, and Berlin — the country’s ethnically diverse capital and home to the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey — has never seen a Muslim mayor.
This is (Muslim) England
All this points to the fact that in Britain Islam is normalcy, despite what the islamophobe English Defence League and assorted white trash Brexiteers might say or do. Britishness and Islam are not at odds with each other, and the fact that mainstream British society – no matter how fractured – has come to this consensus and Muslim cabinet ministers and mayors, hijab wearing women in public service and halal certified international fast food franchises like Nando’s and Quiznos are not an oddity but a nonchalant everyday reality of the British societal landscape, shows just how inclusive and advanced even a brexiteering Britain is compared to the rest of right-wing populist infested Europe that really has no moral high ground to criticize others.
What’s the difference between a British Sikh and a German Turk?
In the course of writing this article, Prime Minister Theresa May had this to say during Wednesday’s Parliamentary Questions: between congratulating the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on the birth of their son and shamelessly instrumentalizing Liverpool’s miraculous remontada against Barcelona in the Champions League’s Semifinal 2nd leg match in order to raise parliamentary and public morale on the Brexit front, Ms. May said:
“Monday marked the beginning of Ramadan, a time of peace, devotion and charity. And I know that members from across the house will want to join me in saying to Muslims in the UK and across the world: Ramadan Kareem.”
An inclusive rhetoric bursting with agency and goodwill, virtually unthinkable in my home country of Germany, where the slightest accommodation of Muslim culture is all to often seen as a sign of weakness by a reactionary white establishment, and as fostering “Islamization”, each time leading to a full blown cultural identity-crisis.
But Ms. May didn’t stop there, following up with:
“And later today I will be hosting a reception to celebrate Vaisakhi, and celebrate the immense contribution that the Sikh community makes to this country.”
I can’t recall German Chancellor Angela Merkel – even though she has said and done more for Muslims in Germany than anyone before her – standing at the lectern of the Bundestag during Ramadan and saying that she would celebrate Germany’s Turkish population’s immense contribution to the country (the post-war German “Wirtschaftswunder” was basically their and other foreign guest-workers doing).
And the fact that too many Germans not only can’t tell the difference between a Hindu and a Sikh, in fact are not even aware of polytheistic Hinduism and monotheistic Sikhism being entirely different religions, but also stare at turban-wearing Sikhs on the streets with the same amused incredulity they harass bus-driving black people with, doesn’t help Germany’s case for inclusiveness and progressiveness either.
Britain remains the only truly cosmopolitan society in Europe, even when it leaves the EU, leaving its “Zuchtmeister” Germany and an even more islamophobe and racist France (a country that criminalizes Muslim identity to a point where 60 % of prison inmates are Muslim, even though Muslims only constitute 8% of the population, and whose exclusionary identity politics and social exclusion have turned many born and bred French Muslims into terrorists against their own country) to stew in the stinking juices of their own, self-induced backwardness.