New Attitudes towards Discontent: The Need for Prevention Work Encompassing the Whole Society
10. July 2016 | Uncategorized

In his article on the concept of prevention work that encompasses all of society, Sindyan Qasem writes: ‘Only by our acknowledgment of the unease, fear and anger of Muslim youths can we expect them to take the step of questioning their own black-and-white thinking and enemy images’. In order to work against anti-democratic positions that are hostile to freedom we need to be willing to take the experiences of young Muslims seriously and to address them in educational work.

Youths who identify themselves as being Muslim must fairly often witness how their religion is the subject of debates on security, integration and animosity. The implicitness with which especially young people want to be both Muslim and German is something that is questioned and rejected by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For youths, the discontent resulting from this

engenders creates the very climate that inspires radical answers. Prevention work that seeks to constructively avert the ideologization of young Muslims should thus also promote the recognition of German-Muslim identities by the society as a whole and put youths in the position to reclaim the prerogative of interpretation when it comes to ‘their’ Islam.

‘Just as her daughter was about to take a seat next to me, she pulled her child away and sat her somewhere else. I was speechless at the views that are being instilled in our young generation.’ – This account of racism vis-à-vis a woman wearing a hijab, and published in the online edition of a local newspaper, was subsequently commented on in MuslimStern‘s[i] Facebook page as follows: ‘unfortunately, this is not a one-off incident. The division of society is being successfully driven by Zionist and right-wing extremists.’

According to the operators of the MuslimStern site, which is subscribed to by about 100 000 people, its mission is to enlighten and inform about discrimination ‘against the Muslim minority’. In fulfilling its mission,[ii] MuslimStern mixes neutral reporting, social criticism that is driven by political apathy or genuine dismay with enemy images, victim ideology and conspiracy theories. By providing links to racism-critical reports on German news portals and short, biased commentary on refugee policies, Islamophobia, anti-Muslim racism or on the ‘Islamic State’, this Facebook page outlines a Muslim community that is forced to assert itself against an inflammatory media, corrupt politicians and a German society that is racist through and through. This kind of self-victimization, embedded in conspiracy theories and strictly bipolar worldviews is characteristic of a great number of freedom-curbing, anti-democratic movements. Among other things, this kind of narrative paves the way for problematic groupings and environments that can be called ‘Islamist’.

However, only some of the users of this type of Facebook pages and websites espouse ideological positions in their day-to-day lives. And just the fewest are in fact involved in Islamist or Salafist networks. Indeed, only isolated cases are actually fascinated with violence. Nevertheless, the MuslimStern example illustrates how attractive and close to home such assertions are: Incidences of unfairness are highly relevant to many young people – regardless of their religion or background. Behind their often harsh comments and ideological positions you can often find motives (concealed) that can be hooked into when providing civic education and doing prevention work.

Being disadvantaged when looking for an apartment or a job; attacks on mosques, one-sided mindsets and even physical violence are real phenomena that are not limited to radical nationalists and/or right-wing circles. The distorted perception that individuals of Muslim faith are a ‘problem group’ exists across all layers of society and independently of basic political views.[iii] On the Internet, for example, Islamophobic or racist comments are not found exclusively on sites operated by outright Islamophobes. This attitude can be found just about everywhere Muslims are talked or written about, for example, in the commentary section of online articles published in major newspapers.

Schools too, which serve as a mirror of society, are not without discriminatory views and attitudes. And obviously young Muslims are not indifferent to this. They have a real need to process personal experiences of discrimination or the experiences of discrimination made by their parents. They also have a need to talk about worries concerning their job prospects and this fear is reflected in their posts – both in social networks and in our workshops[iv]. In part, this fear turns to anger. Some youths may then make sweeping accusations that suggest ‘the state’, ‘the politicians’, ‘the media’ or simply ‘the Germans’ are responsible for their discrimination.

The disappointment and anger of young Muslims can be instrumentalized by Islamist propaganda. Real experiences and ideological interpretive schemes are thus consolidated into resolute enemy images: According to these, Muslims are a group that is threatened from all sides and forced to defend itself against hostilities and racism; if need be using violence. Presenting themselves as victims of societal resentment, however, prevents active and constructive engagement against discrimination.

These worries, fears and attitudes need to be addressed in our pedagogical work and civic education. When dealing with experiences of discrimination, resentment and unease, it is important to proceed with caution. Especially since Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism are not a fantasy, it is critical that educators listen and show genuine interest right from the start. Some of the things your pupils say may tempt you to shout out: ‘No, that’s not true!’ But it is only by taking note of their unease, fear and anger – and also acknowledging it – that we can expect them to take the second step and question their own black-and-white thinking. In this connection, it makes sense to convey to the youths that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism is in fact a variety of group-based misanthropy.[v] Once they understand that the different types of discrimination (sexism, discrimination against handicapped individuals, homophobia and anti-Semitism, for example) function based on similar mechanisms, they also start to deal with their own prejudices in a self-critical way and recognize that it is not just Muslims who have to deal with discrimination. Thus, youths who already have experiences with a so-called ‘regime of belonging’[vi] are quickly able to recognize the mechanisms of the various forms of discrimination. On this basis, they can also approach the question, in a self-reflective way, of how far religious affiliation and religious practices can be accommodated as part of our social coexistence. The central, guiding question: ‘How do we want to live?’ allows youths to reflect independently and to make suggestions on how social coexistence can be achieved – at schools, for example.

Not only is self-reflection on a cognitive level important, so too is the experience of self-efficacy. This argumentation thus should always go hand in hand with probing various options for taking action, active engagement against discrimination and advocating social participation. Viewing social grievances as unchangeable engenders a sense of powerlessness that can make young people susceptible to the simplified and ideological interpretations offered by Salafists. The starting point for this situation can be search movements in connection with such questions as: ‘Who am I?’, ‘How do I want to be?’, ‘Where do I want to go?’, ‘Why is the world so unfair?’.

The orientation processes of many young, more or less religious Muslims can be viewed as having an emancipatory, integration-seeking character. In the end, getting accepted as equal members of the German society is what they wanted. Things become problematic though, if these youths are denied this acceptance and if they don’t get answers to their questions; or – even worse – if these answers come from an ideological viewpoint. With the intention of spreading their own ideological worldview, videos and speeches like the ones that are disseminated on such platforms as ‘Generation Islam’ or ‘Die Wahre Religion’[vii] pick up questions on identity, orientation and purpose. These sites regularly point out phenomena that allegedly prove how immoral, hedonistic and individualistic our society is and that it rejects Muslim youth. Individuals can elaborate their experiences with racism and discrimination on these sites. Topics such as gambling, Youporn or the power of banks are addressed. The selection of topics isn’t random. It singles out controversial topics that are looked at with disgust by many people regardless of their background and religious affiliation.

Successful prevention work thus also faces the challenge of reacting sensitively to people’s concerns and insecurity. It must forestall ideologization and, at the same time, must avoid stigmatizing when addressing youths so that their resentment is not aggravated further. The objective of preventive work can thus not merely be a progressive, educational prevention of indoctrination; it must encompass alternative proposals and outbalance the fascination for ideological interpretations and point out real perspectives in our society. This alternative must be attractive for youths, so an appropriate language is to be used. To achieve this it can indeed be helpful to ask: ‘What can Hizb-at-Tahrir, the well-known Salafist Sven Lau, or MuslimStern do that we can’t?’ Being part of society has to be more appealing that withdrawing into ideology!

That’s why prevention work is directed at ‘perfectly normal’ youths and young adults who might occasionally come into contact with indoctrination attempts. It differs from deradicalization work that sets in with individuals who are already active in pertinent groups and who have internalized corresponding worldviews and behavior. Primary (or ‘universal’) prevention doesn’t begin when a propensity for violence has already taken hold; it begins much earlier to prevent anti-democratic, illiberal positions or behavior long before any ideologization has taken hold.

Creating alternative offers can be understood in many ways an involve many different spheres of work. [viii] The possibilities include educational and extracurricular work at schools; child support measures, youth and family counseling; educational guidance, social psychological support, clubs and social organizational work but also programs that are offered by youth and social welfare services and the police. The importance of networking the various players becomes visible in the work with youths. Networking helps the players in this field to reach these youths in times of typical juvenile insecurity and difficult phases of adjustment. Networking helps to encourage capacity building and empowerment; especially when they get real chances of participation in the society.

Prevention is thus tantamount to civic education, it reinforces democratic values and social cohesion at the same time – and this independently of a specific target group. Instead of defining a supposedly uniform category of ‘young Muslims’ who also ‘require strict monitoring’, and thereby fueling their stigmatization by society, prevention work can open channels to bring about change in the whole society in dealing with questions on Islam, religiousness and anti-Muslim racism.

Not just youths are encouraged to question their attitudes; we also want to get educators, municipal administrators, politicians and the media to reflect on how they deal with the the topic of Islam. Indeed, in addition to sensitively dealing with discrimination, preventing ideologization, and showing opportunities to participate in society, prevention also means conveying the idea to young people that Islam and Islamic-motivated ideas are in no way alien or hostile to democracy. In fact, they are an integral part of it. Islam should be understood as one of many resources for peaceful coexistence in society. Presently, foreign fighters, IS returnees and the fear of jihadist groups still dominate the discussion. These individuals can only be reached by de-radicalization measures, successful approaches for which have already been developed. Nevertheless, only delicate prevention work that is comprehensive, inclusive and conceived for the long-term can create a social climate in which calls for ideologization will largely fade away unheeded.

This article was originally printed in the anthology ‘Handlungsempfehlungen zur Auseinandersetzung mit islamistischem Extremismus und Islamfeindlichkeit: Arbeitsergebnisse eines Expertengremiums der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’ (translation: Recommendations for action in dealing with Islamist extremism and Islamophobia: Work results of an expert panel of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation), published by Dr. Dietmar Molthagen for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Forum Berlin, Berlin : Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Forum Berlin, 2015.

Illustration: The campaign #schauhin documents day-by-day racism and puts a spotlight on the experiences of youths and young adults with migrant backgrounds.


[i] MuslimStern is an active blog that has been online since the end of 2014; it claims to document cases of Islamophobic and racist discrimination. As part of the ‘What are you posting? – Online civic education for young Muslims’ project, young ‘teamers’ intervene in the often one-sided discussions by offering alternative points of views.

[ii] ‘Pro Mosaik interviews MuslimStern’, 2 January 2015., 26.09.2015

[iii] Cf.Andreas Zick, Anna Klein: Fragile Mitte – Feindselige Zustände. Rechtsextreme Einstellungen in Deutschland (translation: Fragile middle – hostile conditions. Extreme right-wing attitudes in Germany). Publisher: Dietz Verlag, Bonn 2014.

[iv] Some of the experiences gained from the workshops offered by are summarized in: Jochen Müller, Götz Nordbruch, Deniz Ünlü: ‘Wie oft betest du?’ – Erfahrungen aus der Islamismusprävention mit Jugendlichen und Multiplikatoren (translation: How do you pray? Experiences from Islamism prevention efforts involving youths and multiplicators), in: Wael El-Gayar, Katrin Strunk (publ.): Integration versus Salafismus. Identitätsfindung muslimischer Jugendlicher in Deutschland (Integration versus Salafism. How young Muslims forge their identities in Germany), Wochenschau Verlag, Schwalbach 2014.

[v] Using the concept of group-based misanthropy makes sense not just in relation to anti-Muslim racism. If so-called ‘Islamist’ or ‘Salafist’ ideologies are also understood as a form of group-based misanthropy, this illustrates the danger that religiousness is correlated with ideology. At the same time, the methodical similarities in the ideologies of inequality can be recognized – both from the Islamist and anti-Islamic camps.

[vi] Birgit Rommelspacher: Was ist eigentlich Rassismus? (So what is racism?) in: Claus Melter, Paul Mecheril (publ.): Rassismuskritik: Rassismustheorie und –forschung (Racism criticism: Racism theory and research). 2nd ed. Wochenschau Verlag, Schwalbach 2011, pp. 25-38.

[vii] Generation Islam is a web portal that is closely associated with the Islamist Hizb-at-Tahrir. It produces videos that offer ideological interpretations of current issues targeted at juvenile intellects. The group ‘Die Wahre Religion’ (‘The True Religion’), which came into the public eye through its numerous Quran distributions activities, operates a website claiming to have theologically ‘correct’ answers to religious questions. Its appeal is primarily to novices who are interested in Islamist thought.

[viii] Refer to Wael El-Gayar, Katrin Strunk (publ.) for the latest on this discussion: Integration versus Salafismus. Identitätsfindung muslimischer Jugendlicher in Deutschland. Wochenschau Verlag, Schwalbach 2014; Rauf Ceylan. Michael Kiefer: Salafismus. Fundamentalistische Strömungen und Radikalisierungsprävention. Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2013; Götz Nordbruch: Überblick zu Präventionsprogrammen im Kontext ‘islamischer Extremismus’ im europäischen Ausland. DJI, Halle (Saale) 2013. The experiences made by prevention work dealing with right-wing extremists is also helpful, see Reiner Becker, Kerstin Palloks (pub.): Jugend an der roten Linie. Analysen von und Erfahrungen mit Interventionsansätzen zur Rechtsextremismusprävention. Wochenschau Verlag, Schwalbach 2013.

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