In times of increasing anti-Muslim racism, creating spaces for young people to talk and share their experiences is becoming increasingly important. In this context, the concept of empowerment is often mentioned, but rarely defined. ufuq.de’s Sakina Abushi and Pierre Asisi explain why they prefer to speak of pedagogical rather than political empowerment in their work and point to pitfalls and contradictions in prevention of violent extremism (PVE) projects.
At one of our workshops in a school in Spandau, a district of Berlin, a young girl turned to her friend who had been actively participating in a discussion about Islamic religiosity and asked, ‘How do you know all that?’ Her friend answered proudly, ‘Because I’m Muslim.’ A week later at a high school in Kreuzberg, a girl thanked us at the end of the workshop: ‘Thanks for being so nice to us. We could finally speak our minds and were treated as equals.’
This was the same girl that an hour earlier had angrily exclaimed:
‘Why am I regarded as a foreigner even though I have a German passport? It’s not really a surprise: If Germans keep telling me: “Well, you have black hair and brown eyes, so you’re a foreigner,” at some point I am going to say: “All right then, I’m a foreigner!”’
In Friedrichshain, a boy explained how his mother is often insulted on the street because of her headscarf, and how angry and helpless this makes him feel. His classmate, whose mother converted to Islam 20 years ago, quietly told us about conversations with his grandfather that upset him: When the boy goes to pray, his grandad gets annoyed. He says he can’t understand it and wishes his grandson would ‘just be normal.’
Pedagogical spaces for ambiguity and difference
The relief felt by young people when they finally find a space where they can talk about the issues that affect them is often palpable in our workshops. They may not know exactly who in their class belongs to which religion but once these differences have been brought up, they also are courageous enough to ask each other questions. Young Muslims proudly share their knowledge in the classroom and feel like experts. Those who dare to talk about everyday racism are commended for sharing their experiences rather than being dismissed. They understand that they are not alone in their experiences of alienation and together question the idea of how they want to live. Our programme is aimed at all young people – regardless of their religion – and is intended as a universal prevention measure: dialogue about values, identity, and belonging is intended to prevent extremist attitudes of any kind. At the same time, Islam and religiosity play a special role for us: The context in which we work is characterised by ever increasing anti-Muslim racism. Many of the young people we work with have grown up with the feeling that they do not fully belong, whether in their schools or in German society at large.
When the workshops go well, we can create a space where young people feel accepted, gain confidence, and start talking to each other about values, religion, and identities. They get to know new role models and vocalise what they already feel: that there is a problem in the relationship between ‘Islam’ and Germany. The worst-case scenario for us is when the young people feel patronised: when they have the feeling that they are being lectured to or, even worse, designated as ‘Muslim youth’ and presented as a deficient, problematic group whose attitudes must be altered. In these situations, it can be the case that the workshop comes to a complete standstill.
And this defines our dilemma: We can see daily that our workshops are appreciated and that both young people and educators find them meaningful. However, the theoretical, pedagogical, and political associations of our work present us with challenges that require constant consideration. Our programmes operate within the horizon of preventing violent extremism (PVE) – we are publicly funded with this mandate. Our dilemma with our work is that we are ultimately participating in a security discourse that we want to deconstruct and which, according to Schirin Amir-Moazami, has produced a security knowledge that she summarises as follows:
‘That ultimately, in every Muslim who dedicates themselves to the Prophet, there lurks a suspect Muslim subject, at risk of terrorism and difficult to contain, sitting on a bomb that can explode anytime, anywhere. […] Security knowledge ultimately includes formats and approaches that are not solely focused on identifying a direct threat. A suspect “Muslim milieu” is also brought to awakening through caring and precautionary techniques such as prevention, education, and dialogue.’ (Amir-Moazami 2018, 26-27.)
The risks inherent to PVE
Universal prevention approaches face the challenge of preventing a phenomenon without labelling their target groups and stigmatising them as a problem. These approaches address all young people regardless of religion and origin, thus reflecting findings of empirical research that point to the multitude of individual, societal, and political factors in radicalisation processes. In this way, universal prevention differs from approaches of secondary prevention or disengagement work, which aim to reach those at risk or already radicalised (Reicher 2015, 245-246). Universal prevention addresses ‘completely normal young people.’
Although we classify our work into the broad field of universal prevention, we and our trainers in our workshops are repeatedly faced with the challenge of explaining the standpoint of our own project: on the one hand, to address all young people, regardless of religious affiliation, but above all to talk mainly about one religion. Thus, despite our own position within universal prevention, we run the risk of playing into the hands of an essentialisation born out of the funding logic of prevention programmes: Since we go into the classroom with a focus on the topics of Islam, anti-Muslim racism, and Islamism, we address young people at least indirectly as ‘Muslim’ and neglect other identity characteristics such as gender, class, or sexual identity. Another risk we must avoid is paternalism towards the young people: To apply for grants, we must – at least to some degree – claim to understand the position of those we engage with in our workshops. We maintain that these young people need to be empowered, but we do not want to offer target group education that reproduces the binary logic of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and thus ultimately reproduces racism (Fava 2015, 234).
Experiences with target group pedagogy already exist in Germany: the ‘foreigner pedagogy’ (Ausländerpädagogik) of the 1960s and 1970s regarded the children of the then ‘guest workers’ as deficient foreigners who were to assimilate in Germany (learn German in separate ‘national classes’) but who would eventually return to their homeland (Franz 2018, 313-314). The ‘intercultural education’ (interkulturelle Pädagogik) and ‘migration pedagogy’ of the 1980s and 1990s were dedicated to the study of ‘foreigners’ and their attitudes and promoted understanding and tolerance – and not infrequently reproduced culturalist and cultural-relativist assumptions about the ‘other’. Currently, we are experiencing a kind of ‘refugee pedagogy’ that revisits the ‘foreigner classes’ of the 1960s with its ‘welcome classes’. The great danger of target group pedagogy, however, is to remain stuck in the binary logic of ‘us’ and ‘them’. We are looking to pursue a pedagogy critical of racism with the aspiration to counteract such a binary logic.
Muslim youths – or those regarded as such – are often very aware of this dichotomy and the negative attributions associated with it. More politically minded young people can be very sceptical about our work. It can be the case, for example, that they are annoyed when Islam is brought up once again. They may question our intentions or on whose behalf we are working. Feeling that they are being treated differently, and this being accompanied with direct and structural discrimination, can reinforce a feeling of alienation amongst young people. Many wonder, ‘Why can’t I just belong?’, ‘Why do I have to constantly explain and defend my identity?’ Of course, we are also often met with approval and participants are relieved that they can finally talk about these issues in a nuanced way. However, universal prevention approaches do run the risk of promoting withdrawal tendencies amongst young people and may encourage their search for alternative identity and community opportunities. They could also be used by Islamists to argue their thesis that Muslims have no place in Western societies.
Identity and participation in the ummah
Topics of belonging and community play a central role in Islamist ideology. Islamists can provide an attractive offer: ‘Are you searching for a space where you are recognised unreservedly? Become part of the ummah, the community of Muslims who don’t care about your parents’ origins.’ At the heart of this is the promise of an egalitarian and solidarity-based community of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in which social and origin-based differences, and the associated marginalisation and discrimination, are overcome.
Against this background, our approach is to explicitly address experiences of non-recognition and devaluation and recognise them as legitimate needs and interests. For this reason, we explicitly encourage educators in our training courses to give space to these controversial issues so alternative responses can be developed together with young people. For the most part, the issues and questions raised by Islamist groups are not problematic in themselves. They often address world issues of social injustice, war, and poverty. It is rather the answers that are problematic, which may have been taken out of context, over simplified, or simply be generalisations that reinforce a victim narrative based on an explicit juxtaposition of ‘us Muslims’ and ‘the non-Muslims’ (OCCI 2018, 7).
In this respect, Islamist groups place no importance on coming up with constructive answers to actual existing injustices – for example, through the promotion of social participation and the commitment to legal equality – but rather focus on a withdrawal to a supposedly exclusive Muslim community. This simultaneously serves the desire for recognition, representation, and self-efficacy – albeit not as equal members of society, but as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ committed solely to the cause of the ummah. The victim narrative thus goes hand in hand with the promise of a community that is free of racism and worth advocating for through online campaigns, stalls in pedestrian zones, or Islam seminars. Islamist groups offer the kind of social participation that is often denied to young people in their everyday life. However, these groups are not concerned with social participation but ultimately with withdrawal from society and for this reason such offerings do not represent empowerment.
Two understandings of empowerment: political and pedagogical
We have already described the dilemma we face as an actor in the field of universal prevention: Namely, on the one hand, to pursue the goal of strengthening or ‘empowering’ young people, while on the other hand, avoiding the reproduction of deficit views and racism. Nowadays, empowerment is also a central concept in educational and youth work, although a precise definition of this term is usually not included in the work. It is not uncommon for funding applications and project descriptions to reproduce the deficient and narrow view of the ‘persons to be empowered’, without critically addressing any preconceptions. For example, in October 2018, the European Commission published a call for proposals under its Civil Society Empowerment Program, inviting civil society organisations to develop counter and alternative narratives to extremist messages. The call made reference to the challenges of the ‘war on terror’ and thus explicitly placed empowerment in the context of preventing extremist ideologies and incidents (European Commission 2018).
Such usage of the term gives rise to the question whether the concept loses its political and emancipatory significance. However, the concept of ‘empowerment’, if it is reflected and transferred into a corresponding pedagogical practice, is actually well suited to work in a preventive way and sensitise against inhuman ideologies. Therefore, two understandings of empowerment will be presented in the following part of the article, namely the political and the pedagogical one. Subsequently, we will explain why ufuq.de subscribes to a pedagogical concept of empowerment and show how we put this concept into practice using an example from our project work. Of course, we often experience empowering moments in our workshops, for example when young people leave the class bolstered and with new (challenging) questions about their world. However, despite all the satisfaction we get from this, we are very aware of the limits of our work and its limited impact on discriminatory and violent social conditions.
The political concept of empowerment
In principle, two definitions of empowerment can be distinguished. Empowerment as a political concept – which was coined and sharpened in the US civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and later in the women’s movement – plays an important role today in education work critical of racism. Starting from an examination of one’s own experiences of discrimination (as part of a structurally discriminated group) and the social structures that foster this discrimination, individuals acquire the ability to articulate their own needs and organize collaboratively. Based on one’s own newly strengthened resources, the goal of empowerment is to develop participatory and resistant strategies to change social structures. In doing so, empowerment is directed back at the subject: it means self-definition, self-determination, self-organisation, and self-liberation of those affected by marginalisation and discrimination (Rosenstreich 2018, 7-8).
In our work, we do not claim to provide such a form of empowerment. This is because political empowerment fundamentally is non-transitive: one cannot ‘empower’ third parties in this sense. When dominant social groups impose empowerment programmes for minorities, the concept of empowerment, as political self-organisation, is reduced to absurdity. Moreover, defining young people of certain religious or social backgrounds as target groups for empowering measures solidifies social differences and assumptions about deficits and ‘problems’ of this group. The definition of target groups thus reflects the dominating binary logic of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Moreover, political empowerment is critical of forms of power. For this reason alone, there should be doubt when empowerment is being organised and financed from within the institutions of mainstream society. Audre Lorde, US-American ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’, explicitly warned against relying on the support of the ruling group: ‘For the master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house’ (Lorde 1984, 112). Against this backdrop, our work cannot be described as political empowerment: We have power by virtue of our professional positions and have resources to match. Yes, some of us have personally experienced migration. Many of us have parents who immigrated to Germany. Many of us have experienced discrimination.
But people are multidimensional – as are our affiliations – and we, as civic educators, act from positions that are relatively privileged and subsidised by public institutions. We are heard – unlike many others. Reflective, political empowerment can therefore only be thought of and implemented as a self-organised and power-critical instrument of those affected by marginalisation and discrimination themselves. Empowerment in this context requires a space free of power and hierarchy and tends to take place in activist circles – well-meaning pedagogical interventions have no place here. However, reflected political empowerment can go hand in hand with power-sharing strategies.
In our workshops, we observe a form of empowerment that starts on an individual level. We are guided by the (social) pedagogical concept of empowerment, first formulated in 1979 by Barbara B. Solomon in her book Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities. Solomon described empowerment as an approach to space-based social work that promotes processes of self-empowerment (Herriger 2014, 25). Empowerment represents a concept of social work in which members of socially marginalised groups are no longer seen as deficient, but are appreciated and bolstered as ‘experts of their own cause’ (Theunissen 1998, 103). Central to this understanding is the emphasis on the resources of the young people. In this sense, our workshops create spaces for reflection and social self-location. An important tool here is peer-to-peer education: the conscious collaboration with workshop leaders who are as close as possible to the lived world of the young people and who bring similar backgrounds with them.
Our aspiration is to deliver a solidarity-based pedagogy critical of racism, and which ideally promotes pedagogical empowerment processes. We consciously speak of racism-critical educational work here: We are not exclusively concerned with changing individual attitudes, but rather continuing to deconstruct the binary division of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ of belonging and not belonging, which structures the institutions in our society (educational institutions, parliaments, media, economy, etc.) and is expressed through racism and discrimination (Broden 2018, 825-826). This is also connected to our aim of practising solidarity beyond a communitarian sense of belonging that is purely based on national, ethnic or religious grounds (Mecheril 2018, 6). We stand in solidarity with those who are discriminated against – not only by recognising their experiences in our workshops and showing them that they belong, but also through our publications and political interventions. In our work, we ourselves try to avoid discrimination. Where we can, we seek to share our power with minoritized groups by providing them with time, space, money, publicity, and other resources.
Pedagogical empowerment in practice: The model project bildmachen
In realising this pedagogical approach to empowerment, we face several challenges. The first challenge is not to appropriate or speak for the groups with whom we work pedagogically. The pedagogy of solidarity makes marginalised voices heard, because young people are actually very good at speaking for themselves – where we can, we create space for them to do so.
Our workshops are good in those moments where we have the confidence to rely on the process, where we resist the temptation to give answers and instead ask the right questions. The second challenge is when the space created is used by young people to express themselves in ways that we ourselves would not, and articulate positions and interests that we do not share. Furthermore, here it is often difficult to resist binary divisions: We are individualistic – they are family-oriented; we are areligious – they are religious, etc. At the same time, it is important to develop a sense of when differences exist that are relevant to addressing social issues – and when an emphasis on differences reinforces the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’. We do not want to engage in a pedagogy that acts as an advocate for the ‘other’ while simultaneously constructing them as a group in the first place.
This approach can be illustrated in our bildmachen project, which is funded by the federal program ‘Live Democracy!’ (ufuq.de 2019). The project promotes critical media skills of young people when dealing with extremist messages. Our long-term goal is to encourage young people to develop their own perspectives on social, political, and religious issues. Young people learn to create memes and GIFs, which are particularly fitting for social media and can be easily created on their own smartphones. This is also about having fun. After all, memes and GIFs work so well thanks to their brief and often funny messages. At the same time, young people learn how they can share their memes and GIFs on online platforms and thus get involved in debates themselves – and help shape them. Through their own work, young people put out alternative answers to religious issues and topics in everyday life.
Our approach in the workshops is very open: as far as possible, the young people should decide on the topics themselves. We usually start with ‘universal themes’ and personal social media use. We make sure to not force the issue of Islamism. Experience from the workshops also shows that only a few young people bring up this matter, but a great many have something to say about racism and hate speech. Given the importance of experiences of discrimination and racism in radicalisation processes, the workshops develop a preventive effect here by offering spaces for recognition and reflection on strategies for dealing with these sorts of experiences. At this point, the ‘empowering moments’ mentioned previously can absolutely start to occur if the participants’ own experiences are taken seriously and counterstrategies are discussed together.
The first taste of success in the workshops comes when the young people learn to expose ‘fake news’. The participants can think about their own media use and receive concrete tools and assistance. All of this can already be seen as promoting critical media literacy and thus contributing to educational empowerment. As the workshop progresses, the young people themselves become the producers. The media produced by the young people can be seen as alternative narratives rather than victim narratives, in which an existential opposition between ‘Muslims’ and ‘non-Muslims’ is constructed and the tendency to withdraw from society is promoted. Alternative narratives are narratives that – in contrast to counter-narratives – do not relate directly to extremist messages, but very much relate to topics dominated by extremists (Eser Davolio and Lenzo 2017, 3). In the workshops, we must face the challenge of dealing with content in the form of memes and GIFs that contradict our own attitudes and positions. Memes with problematic content sometimes arise in the workshops – for example, through the intentional or unintentional reproduction of sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise discriminatory images.
These are the difficult, but also the fruitful moments in the workshops, when our educators’ training in civic education comes into effect to encourage the young people to think about this content against the backdrop of information conveyed about extremist ideologies: ‘How do you think this image would impact someone who is affected by it?’ The emergence of such images is therefore by no means to be understood as a failure on the part of the trainers; rather, these images confirm the relevance of our work to enable the group to confront these sorts of positions. It goes without saying that our workshops cannot deal with all the social imprinting that such images bring to light, but they can certainly provide impulses that can be used to promote reflection and awareness.
ufuq.de has grown steadily in recent years – over time, a small two-man project has become a medium-sized organisation with over twenty employees, who bring a wide variety of professional and personal backgrounds with them, and work on a variety of different projects. We constantly challenge ourselves to reformulate the terms and concepts we work with and to test them for their practicality. In this respect, this article can only offer an insight into processes that are ongoing and depict questions that we will continue to discuss. We repeatedly ask ourselves what it is we need to create empowerment-oriented spaces. What does our claim of providing a pedagogy that is based on solidarity and critical of racism mean practically for our work?
In doing so, it is also important not only to look at current events, but also to raise questions about broader historical and social contexts. In this way, historical processes in society, as well as personal experiences and narratives play an important role for us to be able to react to present developments. Current discourses of belonging are also related to historical movements of exclusion, while the example of migration biographies can be used to show both individual and societal developments that continue to have an impact in everyday life. This engagement with history can be a way to classify migration as a normal social phenomenon that has always been present, and at the same time to appreciate the achievements of the parent generation of young people with migration biographies.
Secondly, we are aware that pedagogical approaches alone are simply not enough, and we must think on a larger scale. If we hope that a pedagogy critical of racism is not merely meant to bring about redistribution (of material goods, resources, power, recognition), but also a turning away from binary logic, then our pedagogical offers to young people would have to be flanked even more strongly than before by structural measures that include political and social framework conditions and are directed at the institutions that surround them. These could be concrete political interventions, attempts at network building, or mandatory training for educators. It would be conceivable to only offer workshops for young people on the topic of Islamism if these were accompanied by further training for employees of the respective institution on the topic of anti-Muslim racism. Yet such idea and arrangements have often failed due to institutional obstacles such as the lack of time resources of the educators or simply due to a lack of willingness on the part of the educators or institutions to deal with their own attitudes and positions in such training courses.
Thirdly, we face the challenge of asking the right questions in our work. Racism and Islamism are contemporary phenomena of the 20th and 21st centuries. In this respect, the polarisation that we are currently experiencing in our society is also directly related to the dissolution of boundaries within the context of neoliberalism.
The attempt to draw new borders (both inter-societal and in terms of the nation state) can be understood as a response to the dissolution of these boundaries as can the obsessive preoccupation with ‘the Muslims’ (‘the migrants’, ‘the foreigners’, ‘the refugees’, and so on) as an evasive movement (Franz 2018, 327). Against this background, the question arises whether it is really about the integration of the ‘other’ – or whether questions of distribution and structural questions about inequality should not rather be the focus?
Do educators really need to think about how to prevent young Muslims from becoming radicalised? Or should they rather concentrate on work that helps form and shape the identity of young people of all backgrounds in contemporary Germany?
Fourthly, we advocate high-quality, widely accessible civic education and believe that this is the best way to achieve informed democratic participation. Furthermore, it is the best guarantee against the proliferation of hatred in all its forms. Civic education should be understood as a right of all, rather than something that considers an entire generation as at risk – in the sense of preventing extremism. Political decision-makers should focus on the needs of young people and not on the prevailing discourses that define them as a problem. In this context, civic education must also offer the space to think about political and social alternatives without prematurely placing young people under suspicion of extremism.
The dilemmas and challenges we have described here ultimately cannot be solved completely. We must constantly question ourselves: Does this project further contribute to narratives of ‘the Muslim’ as the ‘other’? Are we contributing to the normalisation of diversity at all? What does it mean for us as an organisation to respond to the financial incentives of government funding programmes that are ultimately rooted in security discourses and interests? One question that remains open for us, for example, is: Should we inform young workshop participants that they are being addressed within the context of a PVE- initiative? Should it be made clear to them why a particular educational offer is being made to them? Or would this waste an opportunity for a trusting pedagogical encounter from which they (and we) could benefit, both now and in the future?
We cannot ignore the fact that we reproduce the binary logic of ‘us’ and ‘them’ through pedagogical offers specifically tailored to a target group. This is still true if this offer is based on an attempt at empowerment or redistribution, and even if we flank these pedagogical offers by a deconstruction of binary logic. On the other hand, we cannot ignore real existing injustices and inequalities. Discrimination against young people and the fact that they are labelled as ‘Muslim’ are real experiences and have real consequences. Our experience shows that despite all the contradictions, it is possible to work in a pedagogically empowering way and support spaces for young people that are important for pluralism, democracy, and a sense of togetherness. As long as we continue to experience our work as meaningful to young people, we must live with this contradiction and navigate it as best we can.
This text was first published in the anthology “Empowerment und Powersharing” (Jagusch/Chaheta 2020). We thank Beltz-Verlag for the permission to republish.
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