Migrants brace for impact of Germany's political storms

Fears of 'Muslim tests' as far-right rises and pro-Palestinian protests come under scrutiny

Pro-Palestinian activists without a German passport are being urged to seek legal advice as authorities try to stamp out anti-Israel extremism. Getty Images
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Nazih Musharbash felt hurt when Germany’s president told people with Arab roots to distance themselves from Hamas.

Such a demand makes an “assumption that you are close to this group”, said Mr Musharbash, who has lived in Germany for 58 years after growing up in Bethlehem. “That is not OK.”

What is more, he told The National, “if the president demands that of me, why shouldn’t an employer, a colleague at work, or even a teacher from their schoolchildren?”

In another world these could be happier times for Germany’s Arab and Muslim communities, but the backdrop to our meeting is a revival of fears of 1930s-style purges of those deemed non-German. The spark was a recent meeting of pan representatives of the far-right, including the country's second most popular party, Alternative for Deutschland (AfD).

I can and must be able to criticise anyone’s politics, without being accused of being anti-Israel
Nazih Musharbash

Since the start of the year, mass rallies against the far right have taken place after the secret hotel meeting in Potsdam, near Berlin, was compared with the 1942 Wannsee Conference where the Nazis planned the Final Solution. The meeting’s rhetoric was too much even for French nationalist Marine Le Pen, who hinted at cutting ties with the AfD.

Efforts to ensure integration of new German residents have in fact being working well. After fleeing their homeland in 2015, so many Syrians are now thriving in Germany that it can take two years to get an appointment at a red-brick electric substation converted to a passport office in Berlin.

The office has six departments. One is kept busy by “Syria, surnames A to E” plus Iran. Another covers four whole continents.

The queue is about to get longer. A new citizenship law means people can become German after five years living there, instead of eight, making even more people eligible for citizenship. Model students in language classes can do it in three. Many Syrians qualify for the fast-track route. Turks also stand to benefit.

New routes are being thrown open to Moroccans, with Berlin so keen to recruit skilled workers such as electricians that it is offering “pre-integration” classes where people can start tackling German grammar at an EU-funded centre in Rabat.

Yet migrants in Germany are in the eye of political storms that are clouding this push for integration.

An unpopular government facing protests from all corners is under pressure to curb asylum claims, clamp down on anti-Israel dissent and win voters back from the far right.

There is also concern that the new migration law is not as good as it sounds – especially for those with pro-Palestinian views.

Legal advice to campaigners seen by The National states that “if you are not a German citizen, your pro-Palestinian activism can cause problems". Special advice is being drawn up for people working in culture and the arts as dissident voices come under scrutiny.

For those seeking citizenship, the new law says racist or anti-Semitic views are incompatible with Germany’s values and its historic debt to Jewish people, a measure meant to screen out anti-Israel extremists.

Anti-Semitic incidents quadrupled after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and have penetrated “all parts of our society”, Josef Schuster, the president of Germany’s main Jewish council, said on Thursday.

However, the new law leaves it unclear what amounts to anti-Semitism, leaving scope for local officials to do things their way and bring in questionnaires that amount to “Muslim tests”, said law professor Tarik Tabbara.

While MPs rejected a clause that would have specifically required applicants to support Israel’s right to exist, the new law “doesn’t shut the back door” to such a test, said Prof Tabbara, a former adviser to Germany's integration commissioner.

A questionnaire could ask people “what is their view of Israel, what do they think of Jews”, he said, as well as asking whether people have fundamentalist views on men and women.

“I’m a bit concerned," he said. "We’ve seen for a lot of years now that the question of equality of the sexes has been used against the Muslim population, especially by conservatives who usually don’t really care very much about equality of the sexes. They discovered this as a kind of test.”

Israel loyalty

All over Berlin there are symbols of Germany’s determination to atone for its past and show solidarity with Israel and Jewish people, including in the current conflict. An Israeli flag flies outside Berlin’s city hall. A Holocaust survivor appears on advertising screens holding a sign saying “we remember”. Israelis taking shelter in Germany have been told they can overlook visa rules until April.

Pro-Palestinian symbols are less obvious; a lamppost sticker here, a scrawl of "boycott Zara" on a fashion shop window there. Some presentations and exhibitions have been taken down, Mr Musharbash says.

The president of the German-Palestinian Society, Mr Musharbash sympathises with Jewish people going through tough times, but worries too that criticism of the Israeli government is being conflated with anti-Semitism.

He says that Germany should, by its own historical logic, owe a debt to the Palestinians too because it was in the aftershocks of the Holocaust that people were displaced from what is Israel today.

“I can and must be able to criticise anyone’s politics, without being accused of being anti-Israel or being against Israel’s right to exist,” he said.

“It is an advantage of democracy that you can openly express your opinion without going to prison. If this is suddenly narrowed down so that you cannot express your opinion as used to be normal, there will be disappointment in this democracy, and trust in this democracy will go astray. That does not encourage integration.”

Mr Musharbash accepts there are some elements in the pro-Palestinian scene who act outside the law, such as Islamists, Hamas supporters and people who shout ignorant slogans at rallies.

German intelligence believes a wide range of extremists is seizing on the unrest, from supporters of ISIS and Al Qaeda to Turkish communists, with Berlin the main breeding ground for criminal behaviour. Police have been injured in pro-Palestinian clashes.

Zaid Abdelnasser, a leading figure in a banned pro-Palestinian network called Samidoun, was considered so far beyond the pale after Hamas attacked Israel that even a far-left group called Red Aid ended its campaign to save him from deportation.

Three men from Lebanon, Egypt and the Netherlands were arrested in December in an alleged Hamas plot involving a secret weapons cache in Europe, which prosecutors claim was destined for Berlin.

Several prosecutors have determined that the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is also punishable because it is linked to Hamas and can be seen as a call for Israel’s elimination.

What is murkier is when anti-Israel views do not amount to crimes, but are nonetheless considered so offensive to Germany’s post-1945 principles that they could land migrants in hot water.

“It’s pretty unclear when someone meets this threshold,” Prof Tabbara said. “The new clause runs against some kind of behaviour that is not criminal, that doesn’t meet the threshold of criminal law. Where it begins, that’s going to be a tough issue to sort out.”

While Germany bans Holocaust denial – which is to question a historical fact – subjective views on Israel come with stronger legal protection, MPs have been told. One state, Saxony-Anhalt, has nonetheless said it will require aspiring new citizens to recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Authorities could not generally harass people just for attending protests, or scour their social media at will, migrants are reassured. However, they are advised to consult a lawyer if their residency is up for renewal, for fear they could be intimidated.

Minority concerns have not gone totally ignored. A new expert commission on hatred against Muslims is shortly to begin work in Berlin, after an internal survey found shocking levels of anti-Islam and anti-Jewish sentiment in the city.

Ministers are also showing increasing frustration with Israel. “There are rules even in the right to self-defence, and international humanitarian law remains valid even in a fight against terrorists,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said this week.

But Germany’s stance that protecting Israel is a fundamental “reason of state” remains rock-solid. A spokesman for the chancellery this week defined that credo like this: “If in doubt, we stand on Israel’s side.”

Far-right lurks

Blue election posters for the far-right AfD have popped up in Berlin before a February 11 by-election.

Unease at the AfD’s right-wing rhetoric burst on to the streets after party members were caught holding secret talks on “remigration” of foreigners.

It is not often a ruling party welcomes mass protests but the rallies showed a “silent majority” in Germany taking to the streets, said Social Democrat Cansel Kiziltepe, the top Berlin official responsible for integration.

Virtually everyone seems to have a reason to demonstrate in Berlin. Next to rallies on the far right and the Israel-Gaza war, there are farmers holding a vigil against budget cuts, Russian and Ukrainian flags waved, a one-man animal rights protest, even a show of anger at Argentina’s new president.

One lamppost sign that pleaded “Stop the coalition chaos” near Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s office has been amended to read simply: “Stop the chaos”.

What is clear is that the AfD is tapping into a deep well of voter frustration as it enjoys a bounce in the polls.

Surveys show Mr Scholz’s government is deeply unpopular, caught amid economic woes, high illegal migration and an image of weak leadership. A rush of more than 300,000 asylum claims last year is a top voter concern.

The next general election is not until 2025 but voters could use regional elections in three eastern states, the AfD’s heartland, to give Mr Scholz a kicking in the autumn.

Any co-operation with the AfD is taboo, but a win in the east could make it harder to stop the AfD having at least some sway.

The talk of mass deportations “has made clear what that would mean for vulnerable groups”, Peggy Piesche, a director of a civic education agency, told a meeting of Berlin councillors on integration. (“Shouldn’t you be neutral?”, fired back an AfD man, speaking up for the only time in a three-hour sitting.)

There is talk of trying to ban the AfD, although that is a long and difficult process. A court ruling this week that stripped a small neo-Nazi party of state funding could point the way to an alternative.

Some worry that the whole debate is a gift to the AfD, which complains of a campaign against it. At least the word “remigration” is on everyone’s lips now, the AfD claims.

Deportation drive

It is not only the right-wing fringe talking about deporting migrants.

A day before easing the path to citizenship, MPs passed another law that aims to send 600 more failed asylum seekers a year back home.

The offer to Morocco, likewise, comes with a price tag – that the government in Rabat must take back more migrants who travelled illegally to Germany.

Ministers are under pressure from local authorities who say they cannot find housing for the 329,000 people who sought asylum last year, almost a third of them Syrians. There are stories of cramped bedrooms and people living in containers. The strained situation has helped fuel the AfD’s rise.

Many of those in limbo in Germany made a difficult journey to get there.

At the EU’s borders, smuggling gangs often run by ethnic groups such as Syrians, Afghans or Moroccans are in increasingly aggressive and sometimes armed competition.

In northern Serbia, along a land route to Germany, these groups “have tried to fence off different sections of the border to control independently”, said David Suber, a University College London researcher who has advised border police in Europe.

“It’s not chance that the nationalities of these groups reflect the nationality of some of the largest migrant populations, also because in general people on the move coming from Syria, from North Africa or from Afghanistan are some of the largest groups that are trying to cross to Europe,” he said.

“But this does not mean that Syrian smugglers smuggle only Syrians. The groups are generally open to clients from any nationality or background.”

Germany has brought in emergency checks at its southern and eastern borders. The quicker road to citizenship is meant to balance all this by making the legal route more attractive than smuggling.

The three-year route is open to people who speak excellent German or show they are particularly well integrated. Elderly Turkish “guest workers” who helped rebuild West Germany can skip parts of the process.

Last year 1,004 Syrians acquired citizenship by the fast-track route in Berlin, more than all other nationalities put together. A new relaxed stance on dual nationality means people can settle in Germany without cutting ties with their homeland.

“It’s so hard to be in a new community, even if the community supports you,” said Syrian refugee chef Malakeh Jazmati.

“German people are welcoming, especially in Berlin. Friendly people around me in the community support me very well. But I’m still pining to live in my Damascus.”

At the far right’s secret meeting there was talk of using people’s dual nationality against them, stripping them of German citizenship without leaving them stateless.

Is the new generation of dual citizens walking into a trap? On this at least, Prof Tabbara’s answer is reassuring, as long as things do not get really out of control in Germany.

A German passport “gives the same right to everyone who has the nationality”, he said. “It’s not that we could say having two passports is a good reason to be treated differently.

“If this is happening, then we would already be in a situation where the rule of law doesn’t protect you anyway.”

Updated: January 26, 2024, 6:00 PM