Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

How much longer will Germany remain patient?

In the wake of four high-profile attacks, it’s being asked whether Germans will remain welcoming to the one million refugees their government accepted last year. Alaa Abdel-Ghani writes from Munich

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In the span of just one week last month, many Germans experienced their own Brexit moment. Just like a lot of Britons felt they were wrong to have voted for Great Britain to leave the EU, so too some Germans have had second thoughts about their country letting in close to a million refugees last year, the most generous migrant policy in all the world. The welcome mat that Germans brought out for the asylum seekers, mostly from Syria, has given way to wariness following four high-profile attacks in July.

A teenage Afghan immigrant seriously injured three on an ax rampage on a train on 18 July. He claimed allegiance to Islamic State. On 24 July, a migrant from Syria killed a pregnant woman and wounded two others with a meat cleaver. German authorities have said this was not a terrorist attack and that the attacker knew his victim. On the same day, a Syrian immigrant whose deportation to Bulgaria had twice been delayed tried to bomb a music festival in Ansbach, Bavaria. His lack of a ticket meant he was not let in, so he blew himself up outside, wounding 15.

The worst attack was here in Munich where Ali Sonboli, a German 18-year-old, killed nine people near the Olympia shopping mall before killing himself on a busy Friday night on 22 July.  The dead included seven teenagers, five of them under 16, a 20-year-old and a 45-year-old woman. Sonboli, whose weapon was a Glock pistol he’d purchased illegally, apparently tried to lure his victims to the site of the massacre with a message on a hacked Facebook page, promising free meals to anyone at a McDonald’s at 4pm. Police believe the gunman may have recognised some of his victims.

Even though the police have published no links to Islamist terrorists, the fact that Sonboli has a Muslim background -- being the son of Iranian refugees who came to Germany in the 1990s -- has been enough for some Germans to lump Sonboli with Muslim refugees who have flooded the country seeking a life of peace from the war-torn countries they left behind. “At the very least, he did not seem to assimilate very well into German society,” one of the prerequisites that university student Matthias Krueger says is needed if you want to set up shop here.

“I don’t know whether all immigrants can smoothly integrate into our society or other Western societies and whether they can accept Western values,” Krueger told Al-Ahram Weekly. “I do worry about the entry into Germany of people whose attitudes are not like ours.”

It would seem only natural that Germany would be on edge after last month’s attacks, not to mention a shooting attack in Cologne this week in which a 34-year-old man was seriously injured, although police said there was “no evidence the attacker was of a terrorist background”.

But truth be told, Germans, at least in Munich, do not seem all that concerned. There are no visible policemen or police cars, and throughout the summer weeks crowds ply the pricy shopping avenues of Marienplatz and Karlplatz. The Olympia mall held no security checks following the massacre, nor was the city put under a state of emergency, apparently to not hold Germans captive through fear and to maintain the liberal lifestyle that the West embraces so heartily and extremists loathe so much. And so far Germany has not witnessed the scale of mass terrorist murders seen recently in France, Belgium and Turkey. The German government has tried to play down the attacks on its territory. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière insists they had nothing to do with migrants.

But if so, how will Germans react if their government continues to deny that a problem even exists? “If Germany’s entire ruling class and media pretend there is no crisis, how will they fix it?” asked Krueger. “If trust in the traditional establishment is destroyed, what’s left?”

Not all Germans are as calm as their government. “Has the world gone mad?” Spiegel Online asked in a 25 July article reflecting the mood of many in Germany. “It feels like the world is out of step, that multiple crises are encroaching upon us and that the distant world of international politics is about to get dangerously personal,” it wrote. “How are we supposed to deal with the feeling of living in an era that we no longer seem to understand?”

This blurry, uncertain era could be encapsulated in Ludwij Vorstadt, close to the central train station, a Munich neighbourhood which looks anything but German. Mini-markets and cafes owned by Turkish immigrants line its streets and the night attracts hordes of young down and out Africans from Eritrea and Somalia. Syrian refugees market their wares in Arabic signs taped on their store windows which offer services such as vets for animals as exotic as camels and special hair dresser sections for hijab wearers.

In Ludwij Vorstadt, Mateen, owner of the Mateen Grocery, says German officials are “a bit cold” when it comes to the needs of who comes into Germany. Germans can indeed seem robotic even though integrating foreigners from completely different backgrounds is more complex than writing instructions on how to use a dish washer, which Germans are probably very good at.

Still, says Mateen, the Germans have been relatively good at introducing some immigrants into their culture, avoiding some of the problems that immigrant groups run into countries like France. “But they don’t have a history of integrating a big diverse population like France. This is all fairly new to them.”

“It was well meant but unfortunately very badly organised,” a French hotel receptionist in Munich Dorothee Scholer said of the refugee influx. “Showing heart and helpfulness in such a case has to be well prepared and thought through. The government should do more, considering that it welcomed so many of them in the first place.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel insists she was right to allow around a million migrants and refugees to arrive last summer. But her task is not easy amid her own acknowledgement that terrorists may have infiltrated the migrant route to Europe, growing unease in Germany over the asylum seekers, and the ability of individuals to carry out attacks, seemingly at will, across Germany and the rest of Europe.

In the wake of the attacks, some Germans are asking why Merkel thought that Germany would succeed in assimilating refugees where France has basically failed. Germany did a fairly remarkable job in the 90s and 2000s integrating their fairly backward eastern German brethren into the existing culture of West Germany. “But they never took a bite this big, all at once,” Mateen said.

Many Germans will say there was no need to take in so many refugees when they didn’t really have to. “We could have drawn a red line and accepted a more modest number of immigrants and refugees,” Betty, a bank teller told the Weekly during a break caused by a computer glitch.

On the flip side, says Laura Bithell, a British university student studying architecture in Germany, “if any country can do it, Germany can. The Germans have an orderly state, and they are an orderly people. They are efficient and follow rules and procedures.”

Many also fail to see how Merkel could have been able to prevent some of the recent attacks.
In Munich, a natural born citizen went berserk. In Reutlingen, an argument between a couple got out of hand. “How could have Merkel prevented that?” asks Bithell. “Apart from that, just a handful of terrorist attacks out of a million refugees; that’s an excellent ratio.”

Merkel and the great majority of Germans have behaved with exemplary kindness and generosity to the waves of largely Syrian migrants who have sought refuge in their country. Despite the risk of playing into the hands of the racists of the Pegida movement and the Alternative für Deutschland Party, Merkel has stuck to her guns, apparently determined to demonstrate that the strength of modern Germany lies in its tolerance and civilised behaviour toward those in desperate need.

“Certainly our government needs to take whatever further measures are necessary to prevent terrorism,” Betty conceded. “But these measures should be proportional and reflect the real dangers that Germans, and those who have come to Germany as guests, are facing.”

Despite the attacks “shame on other European countries which have shut their borders to refugees”.

“I don’t mix all refugees with terrorists,” adds Scholer. “Real refugees have nothing to do with terrorism and shouldn’t pay the price. Refugees need as much security as we do.

“There are many bad Syrians and Turks and there are wonderful Syrians and Turks. Get to know them first. Only then, will you know the difference.”

Just like Barack Obama, Merkel believes Muslim refugees want to live the European/American dream. But Germans probably thought that all they had to do was let the refugees in and they will rejoice at their new freedoms and embrace the new ways. Women would take off their hijabs, men would realise that an egalitarian society works best and their religion becomes a quiet, private affair. That has not necessarily been the case. “If she [Merkel] continues to do this, she risks helping transform the German people—and Germany itself—into something very different than the democratic, peaceful and friendly nation of today,” student Krueger warns.

It remains to be seen what the consequences will be from this rapid succession of attacks in Germany and whether they are a temporary jolt or the beginning of a trend of no return. The security issue has become intensely political, as the country prepares for general elections next year and earlier regional elections.

So far, Germany has given sanctuary to a million foreigners from chaotic points of origin. But nobody can say for sure how Germans will react to a few more attacks from those they have so far warmly welcomed.

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