His national credentials are indisputable. Named ‘best German abroad’ in January by football tabloid Kicker, it was the fifth such crowning for the Ruhr-born midfielder, following four consecutive years as Germany’s player of the year.
Joel Schalit is News Editor of euractiv.com. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming collection, Everywhere But There: Essays on Europe’s Diversity Crisis. His most recent book is Israel vs. Utopia.
Yet, on the last day of May, Andrea Kersten, head of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Saxony, told Die Welt that the Muslim soccer star was ‘unpatriotic’ for going on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and posting a picture from his trip on Facebook.
Careful in how she phrased her condemnation, Kersten qualified her reproach by calling Mesut Özil out for not singing the national anthem at football matches, as though his silence was expression of the tension inherent in being both Muslim and German.
Receiving over 2.1 million likes for the footballer’s post, and numerous adulatory comments from his fans, Kersten contended that Özil’s trip to Mecca was a publicity stunt, meant, though she declined to say so directly, to sell Islam to Germans.
The proof was in the post’s popularity. According to the AfD leader, the warmth with which it was received, is a sign of “a world gone wrong” because in Islam, patriotism is superfluous, “while ostentatious avowal to Islam is seen as exemplary,” she told Die Welt.
It’s a tendentious objection, for sure, but one that expresses the goal of the AfD’s campaign to marginalise Muslims in Germany. According to the manifesto adopted at Alternative für Deutschland’s convention in May, Islam is ‘unconstitutional’ because it is an ideology, not a religion.
Amongst the many criticisms leveled against it at the gathering, the challenge to Islam’s constitutionality is perhaps the most profound, because of how it places the faith outside German society. Not just any facet of it, but the legal core of postwar German identity.
By saying that Islam is anti-constitutional, it places the faith in the same leagues as real anti-constitutional currents in German politics, specifically, the extreme right. Islam is no different than fascism, is the message being conveyed. As an ideology, its aims are just as revolutionary.
The AfD manifesto attempts to prove this by pointing out that Islam sees itself as the one true religion, falling afoul of the freedom of religion guaranteed by Germany’s constitution – a freedom, the document contends, that stems from Christianity.
Never mind, of course, the history of tolerance exercised in Muslim countries, towards religious minorities, for example, like the Jews, who, up until the establishment of the state of Israel, were often treated better than they were in Europe, such as in one-time Christian states, like Germany.
It’s also an especially curious position to take by the AfD, since much of the tolerance promoted by the constitution was framed in light of Germany’s persecution of its minority communities under Hitler – most particularly, again, former Jewish population. The historical revisionism is revealing.
The AfD would be considered anti-constitutional if it were to explicitly espouse anti-Semitism. Though there are elements of it in its demonization of German Muslims, the party’s targeting of Islam for its unconstitutionality is a way of deflecting the inevitable charge that its indulging the same reflexes that the Nazis once nurtured, using another minority community, as a proxy.
Nothing could epitomize that better than by taking down Germany’s most iconic example of Muslim integration than Özil, a third-generation German of Turkish descent. The fact that the footballer is one of the wealthiest athletes in the world (Ozil was ranked #93 amongst the world’s highest-paid athletes in 2015, according to Forbes) does little to dispel a sense of resentment towards him.
If Muslims can flourish in Germany like this, in the eyes of east German politicians like Karsten, it must mean that something is wrong with the country, as there are no parallel success stories which she can point to, that communicate integration the same way, under reunification.
Never mind Angela Merkel, or Joachim Gauck, or countless other former citizens of the DDR, who run the country today. Their success doesn’t communicate Leitkultur (leading or common culture) like being a virtuoso soccer player. That’s precisely why Özil’s success is so upsetting. For every Angela Merkel, there are thousands of Ossies like her who will never exercise ‘leadership’ the same way.
Instead, what ethnic Germans, especially those from the former DDR, see in Özil are the role models of the Merkel era. The mirror they hold up to Germany is a decidedly complex one, which bears little resemblance to what they see when they only look for themselves. There must be a conspiracy afoot. When in doubt, blame it on Muslims.