Radical Respect? Reflections on Emotions in Pedagogy and Civic Education Using the Example of Anti-Muslim Racism and Anti-Semitism

Picture: Ian Dooley/ unsplash.com

Anger and aggression are emotions that can lead young people to exhibit anti-Muslim racism and Antisemitism relating to Israel. In this article from the journal series Ligante [1], Dr Jochen Müller, Co-Executive Director of ufuq.de, shows that it makes sense for pedagogues to ask what is really behind problematic statements made by young people. He argues for an increased consideration of emotions in civic education and warns against leaving the realm of emotions to ideologies.

The aim of the following observations is to question the provocations and ideologically based positions of young people with regards to their common emotional motivations. Anti-Semitism relating to Israel and anti-Muslim racism are taken as examples of currently virulent provocations and ideologies that are also prevalent amongst young people. This paper will firstly discuss the fact that social developments and individual experiences evoke emotions, and that these lead to reactions that can extend to ideologically based thought and action. It will then draw general conclusions regarding dealing with emotions in civic education and pedagogical work with young people.

First, let us highlight a common aspect of anti-Muslim racism (AMR) and anti-Semitism (AS): racism, according to Shooman (2014), “is the generalising and absolutising valuation of actual or fictional differences for the benefit of the accuser and to the detriment of the victim, in order to justify their privileges or aggressions.” And, in describing anti-Semitism, Horkheimer and Adorno (1944) tell us, “The real profit on which the compatriot is counting is the sanctioning [verification] of his rage by the collective” [2]. These quotes point to the similarities and differences between AMR and AS [3]. The aspect that is particularly relevant here from a pedagogical perspective, and that is common to both ideologies, concerns demand: what motivations lead to ideologically formed positions and provocations appearing attractive to certain young people? The quotations of Shooman (2014) and Horkheimer and Adorno (1944) provide initial answers: there is talk of emotion, namely anger and aggression. But why does it apparently help many people to construe others as inferior and hostile groups? And where does this anger and aggression come from?

Dr Jochen Müller; Picture: Kostas StamoulisDr. Jochen Müller is a Islamic studies scientist, co-founder and co-executive at ufuq.de. Müller lived and worked in the Middle East for many years. He has worked  as an editor and author on Islam and Muslim lives in Germany since 2007. The history of colonialism, Global North-South-Politics, the Middle East conflict, Antisemtitism, Islamophobia and Islamic extremism in Germany are amongst his interests.

Experiences, emotions, provocations, ideologies

With the rise of populism in recent years, the role of emotions has also been increasingly discussed in politics. Mostly, this is done with the intention of exposing the politics of populism as propaganda and criticising it for stirring up emotion instead of following rational thought. As understandable as this impulse is, the question of the role of emotion is thus resolved in an all-too familiar way: under the auspices of Descartes’ postulate (“I think, therefore I am”) and the ubiquitous juxtaposition of body and mind, emotions as expressions of corporeality and femininity are subject to general suspicion. In contrast, reason and rationality are desired, at least in politics and the public sphere. Yet emotions have undergone a reassessment in pedagogy and civic education in recent decades, which challenges the prevailing dualistic concept of emotionality and rationality. After all, emotions precede any belief, attitude, or stance. There is no thought that does not involve emotion. In short, no situation is evaluated, nor does any resulting positioning or action take place based solely on rational consideration. Rather, emotions form part of every consideration, and are a substantial motive for subsequent actions. Emotions often enable access to content in the first place, particularly in pedagogy and civic education — for example, by being held up as an authentic expression and description of experiences or subjective states (cf. Schaal, 2019, p. 4 ff.).

In our example, anger and aggression would thus initially be understood as authentic expressions of suffering or as reactions to actual or perceived violations of boundaries — both in specific situations and against the backdrop of lived experience. For example, experiences such as not belonging, being excluded, being rejected, or treated with contempt activate the pain centre in the brain — that is, they generate individual pain and are therefore amongst the most important triggers of aggression [4]. In this way, reactions to personal circumstances and subjective experiences are also always found within the context of collective or social developments and upheavals.

Logo BAG RelExThe “Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft religiös begründeter Extremismus”, abbreviation: BAG RelEx, promotes and supports exchange between civil-society actors in the field of prevention work and deradicalisation. The Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft provides a platform for professional exchange and supports the development of quality standards.

If then, the demand for racist and anti-Semitic ideologies is currently on the rise (in all strata, classes, or milieus), then it seems reasonable to assume that there are social developments which significantly contribute to certain motivations in many people that are characterised by anger and aggression and can lead to ideologisation. For the emergence of anger and aggression — and here we can refer to the words of Shooman (2014), and Horkheimer and Adorno (1944) — it seems, to a certain extent, to be irrelevant whether people objectively suffer from certain social conditions (for example, poverty, alienation, discrimination) or whether they merely perceive the conditions as crisis-like but are, themselves, not actually affected, or only affected indirectly. The growing attractiveness of ideological offers such as AMR and AS can thus be seen as the result of individually experienced and interpreted crises but indeed also as the result of socially driven crises and perceptions of crises.

This can be exemplified by two very different aspects that have shaped the experience and perception of many people in Germany (but not only there) since the 1980s/90s and have dominated public discourse on the reasons for growing racism and anti-Semitism: that of the hegemonic impositions brought about by neoliberalism and the history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, which is considered the main motive for anti-Semitism directed at Israel.

Under neoliberalism one of the several things that many people suffer from is that, in the wake of advancing technologies and the capitalist penetration of public and private life, they feel increasingly disconnected and at the mercy of developments over which they have no control. For them, liberalisation also means the loss of fundamental orientations and frames of reference, such as heteronormativity or patriarchal family structures, as well as regional or work-related bonds. Liberalisation goes hand in hand with individualism, materialism and the impositions of flexibility and personal responsibility, which replace state networks of regulation and care, and oust experiences of collective security and commitment. All of this can convey a sense of powerlessness, cause pain, and become a trigger for anger and aggression [5]. Of course, these developments and phenomena are contradictory; of course, not all perceptions of crisis can be attributed to neoliberalism. And people are also affected by them very differently and may react differently. However, in the context of these (and other) social developments, there is no doubt that many people have experiences that are crisis-like for them or that cause pain, suffering, and existential fears.

The same applies to the history and the current state of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here, too, the perceptions, emotions and convictions of many people are determined by definite historical experiences such as flight, expulsion, or the death of family members. Equally important are the worldwide colonial and post-colonial conditions — that can be experienced daily on a personal level – of oppression, dependency, and discrimination, which can be projected onto the conflict. There are also people who are not directly — or are only indirectly — affected, who, for example, are the fourth generation of their family to live in Germany, and do not have Palestinian roots. Many young people with a migrant background and youth who have anti-Semitic views have had experiences of not belonging in Germany and/or come from marginalised milieus and families that have been discriminated against and excluded in a particular way. There is, therefore, much more than the conflict in the Middle East behind their frustrations [6]. In this way, two spheres of experience have been outlined in which emotions play a central role and can seduce people into the wrong answers to real or perceived suffering, or to real or perceived injustice.

The return on the investment in ideological or “populist” offers of various stripes is obvious: racist and anti-Semitic (but equally far-right or Islamist) interpretations of the world and ideologies of inequality construct an “us” and provide a surface to project resentment, anger, or hatred. While the constructed “us” consists of the good and the equal, the other is instrumentalised as a scapegoat or lightning rod. These offers promise valorisation, affiliation, and recognition (pain relief) through the collective validation of individually felt anger and the devaluation of others. In terms of perceived crisis, they give particularistic answers: “You belong to us” and “We’re going to be great (again)” [7]. In these offers (explanation for misery, surface to project emotions, easy solutions), the profits for the frustrated, openly anti-Semitic Berlin Palestinian youth, for example, and the frustrated, openly racist and/or anti-Semitic young East or West German AfD sympathisers can be found. It is in the context of political and social developments, that anger about personally experienced suffering, which may then be interpreted or perceived as humiliation, for example, finds its outlet in collectively shared hatred.

In the first moment

For pedagogy and civic education, it may not be so relevant to know the exact causes of feelings such as frustration, powerlessness, anger, and aggression, which can be behind the provocations or ideological positionings of young people. For people from any particular social background, these causes are extremely complex and individual, and this paper has only touched on the examples of neoliberalism and the conflict in the Middle East. What is more, psychosocial aspects inherent in young people’s biographies, such as alienation from family or traumatic experiences (often in early childhood), contribute significantly to the attractiveness of extreme positions and provocations or the offers made by ideology (as they have a compensatory effect) (cf. Plha/Friedmann, 2019) [8].

Irrespective of the individual motives, educators are faced with an extremely challenging task. On the one hand, against the background of their obligation to respect human dignity and to protect young people under attack from discrimination, it is necessary to clearly oppose racist, anti-Semitic, and other derogatory positions, for example in the classroom (cf. § 11 SGB VIII; Cremer, 2019). On the other hand — precisely so that they can reach out to individual “problematic” young people pedagogically and, if necessary, disconcert them — they must be able to address the emotions expressed in the positions of the young people and draw them into conversation, thereby affording them recognition and acknowledgement to a certain extent.

In this dilemma, pedagogues have different pedagogical and didactic instruments and stances at their disposal [9]. The first moment in which they are confronted with “extreme”, provocative, derogatory, and anti-social positioning and behaviour of young people is often decisive, and it is this moment which may likely cause educators the greatest personal, pedagogical, and political discomfort. To keep control in such a situation, it may help to remember that these positions (1) have “come about” under specific conditions, (2) the emotions behind them are authentic, and they (3) usually point to real and legitimate but unmet needs. What does this mean in detail?

When such positions are considered in terms of where they stem from, the aim is not — as is often suggested — to relativise them. The goal of pedagogical work always remains to convey individual responsibility and the ability to act, even if the circumstances seem difficult. In this context, confronting the content of the positions, including giving clear signals and, if necessary, arguments about boundaries, can be part of a reaction. However, for the signals, cognitive content, arguments, and methods to resonate with the young people, they must be delivered with a pedagogical attitude that the person in question perceives as clearly sympathetic or approachable. This attitude must reflect the knowledge of how problematic positions have developed, that is, it must take into account that individual experiences and socially conditioned circumstances have contributed to these positions, laid the foundation for young people’s emotions and underlie their convictions. Against this backdrop, “radical respect” is required, which applies equally to all young people, even if they hold anti-Semitic, racist, far-right, sexist, homophobic, Islamist, classist, or other derogatory positions.

Depending on their own biographies and experiences, educators will react with varying degrees of sensitivity to sexist, anti-Semitic, racist, or other sweeping devaluations. However, the pedagogical premise of respect for the person always applies, even if the young person displays unacceptable positions and behaviours. Educators should confront the positions of “their young people”, but never dismiss or disrespect them. Thus, while outrage and lecturing (there is often a call for “action”) in the face of racist or anti-Semitic positions are understandable (and may be justified in political discourse), this is out of place in the pedagogical setting because it is usually overwhelming and counterproductive (defiance). The emotions expressed in the form of problematic positions are “there” — they are authentic and cannot be ignored. Instead, they should be addressed precisely when the positions derived from them are diametrically opposed to one’s own convictions and when the boundaries of the principle stating that controversial subjects should be treated as such (Beutelsbach Consensus) have long been exceeded.

“Radical respect” is perhaps also easier to achieve when it becomes clear that behind the unacceptable and sometimes ideologically legitimised positions and provocations, there are usually legitimate interests and needs, such as desires for belonging, recognition and self-efficacy. Here the ideologies (and the angry or aggressive young people) give wrong answers to the right questions. Like a seismograph, AMR and AS also give an idea of the extent of the social deficits that lie behind them but that do not usually appear directly in the concrete forms of behaviour. This could be discussed afterwards.

Pedagogical work and civic education must not leave the field to ideologies and their simplistic interpretations of the world but must pose questions and create spaces for working out alternative answers. In doing so, pedagogy must constantly maintain a balance between respect and confrontation. It must protect individuals and groups from discrimination and, at the same time, make emotionally coloured, provocative, and discriminatory positioning the starting point to begin an exchange of ideas and to reflect on these in a calm and approachable way. This promotes a receptiveness for alternative interpretations, and (as far as possible) allows a deliberative and voluntary communication of values.

Emotions can be seen as an opportunity. Anger and aggression indicate underlying experience, reveal motivations behind extreme positions, and can explain why ideological offers such as racism and anti-Semitism may appear attractive. Furthermore, emotions, feelings and moods should be taken seriously in pedagogy and civic education. They can be addressed and made the starting point to derive action-guiding perspectives on the world (How do we want to live?) [10]. In other words, pedagogy and civic education must not leave the realm of emotions to ideologies. Knowledge and arguments retain their place [11]. However, it is just as important for pedagogues and educators working in civic education to have a sympathetic ear and kind heart towards “their” young people even and especially if they demonstrate extremely provocative positions. Because without connection there can be no education.


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[1] The article was written in the context of the Infoshop, Das Verhältnis von Antisemitismus und antimuslimischem Rassismus (The Relationship between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Muslim Racism) at the symposium, Für Volk und Glaube” Die extreme Rechte und religiös begründeter Extremismus (“For People and Faith?” The Far-Right and Religiously Justified Extremism).

[2] Emphasis in quotations by the author. The statements by Horkheimer and Adorno refer to modern anti-Semitism, not to the special form of anti-Semitism relating to Israel. However, in the opinion of the author, it can be transferred to this discussion. In general, more detailed explanations and definitions of AS and AMR will not be provided.

[3] The main differences of AMR and AS can be outlined as follows:

1. Modern anti-Semitism is directed against crisis phenomena in the context of social modernisation, personified by the Jewish community. On the other hand, proponents of anti-Muslim racism present themselves as modern, in distinction to the supposedly unenlightened, backward Muslim community.
2. In this context, the AS has a bottom-up approach: the people against the rich, powerful Jewish community. AMR has a top-down approach, in that it defends a supposed superiority perceived to be under threat.
3. Against the backdrop of the idée fixe of a Jewish world conspiracy, eliminationist anti-Semitism leads to threats of annihilation, while in racism those who are construed as other are generally supposed to stay where they belong (cf. Müller, 2010).

[4] This is shown by imaging techniques in neuroscience (cf. Bauer, 2011, p. 58).

[5] Feelings in Western Europe in the first decades of the 20th century against the backdrop of rapid modernisation, economic crises and the experiences of world war are perhaps comparable: Sigmund Freud (1930), for example, diagnosed the “Uneasiness in Civilization”, and Oswald Spengler (1922, 1923) conjured up the “Decline of the West”.

[6] For more information on anti-Semitism relating to Israel, see Müller (2018).

[7] Alternative responses, on the other hand, are not aimed at particular interests, but at universal solidarity and justice: “We should all be doing well.” Practical experience has shown that the difference between particular and universal responses to similar perceptions of crisis can be addressed well in schools.

[8] Michaela Glaser discusses other motives for people turning to these sorts of offers in her article in this issue of Ligante #2.

[9] Examples: Protest, Provocation or Propaganda? (ufuq.de, 2016); The Kids are All Right (ufuq.de, 2018) Darauf kommt es an! Jugendarbeit für Menschenrechte und Demokratie (Cultures Interactive, 2019).

[10] This is especially true in view of emotionally charged social questions about the future (cf. Bude, 2016). For further discussion, see Besand (2018).

[11] Thus, at the latest in cognitive pedagogical processing, for example, the particularities of specific phenomena, the respective narratives and their critical reflection will have to be taken into account — for example, on anti-Semitism in political education in Germany’s plural, multi-ethnic society, on racism and slavery in “US narratives”, on the role of colonialism and wars of liberation in the self-image of France, or on imperialism in Central Asia in Russian history books.

This article first appeared in the journal series, Ligante published by the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Religiöser Extremismus. Volume 2 “Für Volk und Glaube?“ Die extreme Rechte und religiös begründeter Extremismus, and can be downloaded here (pdf). We thank BAG RelEx for their permission to publish the article here.

For further reading

Adolescence and Belonging: Religious and Ideological Diversity in Schools, www.ufuq.de, February 2021.

Prevention Work: Showing Alternatives to Salafism, www.ufuq.de, May 2019.

Between Diversity and Stigmatisation: Anti-Semitism and Education in a Plural, Multi-Ethnic Society, www.ufuq.de, May 2018.

The articles on this website are are published in the context of Kompetenznetzwerk Islamistischer Extremismus / KN:IX.