Can Europe Make It?

Kanak Attak: discursive acts of citizenship in Germany

Kanak Attak in Germany is an anti-racist collective of people with mixed ethnic backgrounds who aim to turn the dominant discourse on migration upside down. They invite us to consider the role of intellectuals in migration regimes.

Duygu Gürsel
9 November 2012

There are four facets to citizenship: legal status, rights, participation, and belonging. Traditionally defined within national identities, it is usually established in a particular geographic and political community. However, this classical understanding of citizenship fails to consider “acts of citizenship” which go beyond legal status and at the same time involve a break from habitus.

There are four facets to citizenship: legal status, rights, participation, and belonging. Traditionally defined within national identities, it is usually established in a particular geographic and political community. However, this classical understanding of citizenship fails to consider “acts of citizenship” which go beyond legal status and at the same time involve a break from habitus.

My aim is to provide an example from Germany. In recent decades, there has been an important shift from studying citizenship as a legal status to including practices of citizenship. Most studies focus on how immigrants participate in the political systems of their country of residence, but Engin Isin goes a step farther.  To him, the real question is how subjects transform themselves into claimants (to justice) in unexpected conditions. Over and against the traditional idea that immigrants are logically excluded from citizenship, Isin argues the opposite: immigrants make citizenship possible. Thinking through a relational conception of group formation, he insists: “Ways of becoming political, such as being citizens, strangers, outsiders and aliens, do not exist themselves, but only in relation to each other”.

Following Isin, in this article, I look at discursive acts of citizenship, focusing on an anti-racist collective of “postmigrants”, Kanak Attak from Germany. Kanake is a pejorative word for racialised people in Germany. By naming themselves in this way, the group invokes colonial history and racism and changes the direction of the gaze from the object of the discourse to the one producing it.


Poster of Kanak Attak’s first Berlin event, SO 36, Kreuzberg, 1999.

The citizenship regime in Germany

Germany’s immigrants consist largely of so called former ‘guest workers’, mainly from Turkey and other south-eastern European countries. People with a history of migration constitute today approximately 20 per cent of the German population (these numbers vary up to 40 per cent depending on different categorisations of people’s migration history). Half of them hold German citizenship. In Germany, citizenship has been based on ethnic identity. The transformation of citizenship law in 1999 combined the notorious German ethnic-based citizenship with birth-place based citizenship, extending full citizenship rights to immigrants. After the victory in 1998 in which the Social Democrat (SPD)-Green government attained a majority in the Bundestag, they implemented their manifesto promises undertaken during the election campaign and proposed a liberal citizenship reform which also makes way for dual citizenship.

However at that time there were also local elections and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) which had lost ground, started a campaign locally with a populist discourse against dual citizenship; “Yes to Integration, No to Dual Citizenship”. As a result, the CDU won the local elections in Hessen where the SPD used to be the dominant political party, and they also changed the majority in the Bundesrat. The liberal reform proposed by the SPD and the Green was duly blocked using the Bundesrat’s right of veto and a compromise has been reached between the SPD-Green government and CDU, CSU, FDP for a reform of citizenship without dual citizenship. This has ensured the disappearance of the migration's rights issue from the political agenda alongside a deterioration in the rights of immigrants.

In 2005, the new immigration law took effect with a focus on integration policies requiring new immigrants to take courses in social integration, focusing on both language and ‘orientation’ in cultural matters. Whereas the transformation of citizenship law indicates a movement towards civic values from an exclusionary ethnic understanding of membership, the integration policies and discourse create barriers for immigrant entry. They signal that only a certain kind of immigrant is wanted - highly-skilled immigrants - and set the terms for winning the rights of citizens, while pushing these racialized citizens to justify their entitlement to these rights.

Kanake in Germany

Kanaka means human in the Hawaiian language but has been deployed as a pejorative/racist word to refer to so called guest-workers and their children in Germany. To see the connection, we must consider the colonial history of Germany (and Europe) and its connection with racism in post-World War Two migration in Germany. During the nineteenth century, “Kanakermann” was used to praise the seafaring abilities of Germany’s South Pacific “comrades.” However, as Kömürcü-Nobrega argues, this version of history ignores the oppression and exploitation of the South Pacific population by European colonizers and the recasting of German colonialism as “good colonialism”. The word “Kanak” migrated into the German language, taking on the connotation of a non-human or sub-human being and ultimately becoming a racist word especially reserved for so called guest-workers and their children.

To understand the emergence of Kanak Attak, it is important to look at the profound changes in the 90s in Germany, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the subsequent socio-economic crisis, increasing racism and right wing extremism, and new neo-liberal regulations such as the change in the right to asylum. Dramatic changes also occurred in the lives of immigrants; for example, they faced racist attacks and pogroms against immigrants in Solingen, Mölln, Hoyerswerda, and Rostock in the 1990s. The struggles commonly associated with migration have been extended to include not just the immigrants themselves but their children as well. Earlier fightback concentrated on workers’ rights, accommodation rights in Germany, and Turkish politics, but in the late 1990s, racism and right wing extremism became more pressing factors.  Immigrants responded by addressing civil and political society in their books, hip hop songs, movies, organizations, and networks, and by joining political parties.

As its title might suggest, Feridun Zaimoglu's book, Kanak Sprak: 24 Mißtöne vom Rande der Gesellschaft, played an important role in the emergence of Kanak Attak.  Zaimoglu says:

“The feeling of playing in the league of the damned has united all of them [immigrants] in the conviction that they must stand up for themselves against the culturally hegemonic expectations. The foundation of this community is still a negative self confidence as it articulates itself superficially in seeming self-recrimination: Kanake! This derogatory term becomes a word of recognition and identification that binds these Lümpenethnier together.”

Ultimately, the introduction of Kanake as a label recognisable beyond ethnicity was a “provocative intervention,” leading to heightened sensitivity and many debates.

Mark Terkessidis, a former member of Kanak Attak, says that the notion of Kanake provided a collective platform beyond descent (herkunft), something missing in the self-organizing immigrant groups which divide themselves up according to ethnicity. Vassilis Tsianos, another member, explains how the paradoxical category of Kanake creates the possibility of a new kind of anti-racism:

“The paradox is that, in reality, and that is the good part, we are not pleading for the inclusion of the category in the census. Precisely the impossibility of instrumentalizing such a category shows the paradox of these relations that function in a very real way in daily life: they create Kanaken and they also create the possibility for Kanakized people to position themselves. Moreover, at the same time it is an extreme paradox because there is no legitimate recourse to legitimate public discourse. In addition, using this paradox, we are attempting to formulate a pole where anti-racism leaves aside its defensive position of self organization and identity politics. We present a solid plea for an offensive anti-racism: with humour, hedonism and at the same time with the instrumentalization of all possible forms of medial representation which makes the relations dance, at least in terms of categorization. And the rest is politics.”

With the inclusion of “Attak” in its name, Kanak Attak took the offensive, critiquing the defensive status quo of anti-racist work in Germany. The weak reaction of the leftist anti-racist movement during the racist attacks on immigrants and refugees in the early 1990s had shown the limits of the “German” left.

Despite civil society’s silent protests as epitomized by Lichterkette (candle-lit demonstrations), Bojadžijev, co-founder of Kanak Attak, sees the reaction of the anti-racist movement in Germany as both too little and too late. The Bundestag blockade protesting the change in the asylum law on 26 May 1993 remained symbolic; protesters, “could not manage to launch a social debate about racism and migration”. The slogan “open borders for all” was also an ineffective and defensive form of politics. Accompanied by moral arguments, its use was limited to campaigns against the deportation of refugees to countries of origin with crises and/or ongoing wars.

Most Kanak Attak members were born in Germany, have studied in German universities, and are affiliated with the German left. Interestingly, in an interview, one member noted that they were the first immigrant generation to attend universities in such numbers, and likened their struggles to the feminist movement at the end of the 1960s. Their discursive act was also an intervention against the dominant position of the “German” left.

It was love!

When I asked (former) members about the emergence of Kanak Attak, they said excitedly: “It was love!” They were not really talking about Kanak Attak as a group; rather, they were pointing to Kanak Attak as an act which is not yet over and still carries the potential for innovation: “I don't want to stick to the project itself, I am more interested in its possibilities” Bojadžijev said in 2001. As a discursive act, Kanak Attak emerges not only through rational, calculated choices but also through paradox and feelings. And it is not about fixing a group identity, rather holding onto the possibilities of the project rather than the project itself:

“So the people who do not have blonde hair and blue eyes and German first and surnames, people of migrant background would start to talk publicly saying all these things. That it should not just be the case that we are against Germans, or let me tell you what life is like for us. But it should make a political standpoint against the racist laws, against the everyday racism against discrimination… Many people did not share this and I think we were a political organization. We did politics. Certain people called this elitist. I would say, politics.” (Interview with a co-founder of Kanak Attak, 2009, Berlin)

This new scene, created through unexpected acts, was first and foremost a new discursive scene, aiming to break the hegemonic debate and empower a new perspective on anti-racism. In a bid to fight the racism which regulates justice, the group’s Manifesto states: “We claim not only the extension of civil rights and other privileges to all groups, but we point at the apparently obvious regulation of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and the absurdity of the dehumanising living conditions that racism promotes under interrogation” (Kanak Attak Manifesto, 1998). Their analysis cannot be reduced to an identitarian position, from an already formed actor called “the immigrant” who asks for recognition and equal rights. Rather they aimed to go beyond the identities on offer and to produce a social analysis which questions racism and power relations in the context of migration.

Many of their best interventions were in the domain of culture. For example, Kanak TV was a Cologne-based collective that produced videos intended to shift the viewer’s gaze from the object of the discourse to the one producing the discourse. One video was shot during the “40 years of migration” event when the red-green coalition and the ostensible changes in the discourse against immigrants were being celebrated at the Cologne Philharmonic in 2001. Nana Heidenreich and Vojin Sasa Vukadinović, members of Kanak Attak, explain that The Kanak TV group pretended to be from the Turkish press and interviewed German visitors in English, preventing them from accessing the easily available prevailing German discourses. In the interviews, they picked topics connected with the alleged “disability in integration” associated with the so-called cultural differences of immigrants. They reformulated questions ‘normally’ put to ‘immigrants’, and asked: Where do you come from? When do you want to go back?, A popular German singer has beaten up her ex-girlfriend: do you think violence against women is part of your culture? The percentage of women working in the universities is too low, do you think this reflects systematic discrimination against women in Germany? etc. Interviewees were shocked by these questions, a creative intervention designed to “make the ossified conditions dance by singing them their own melody”, at least at the discursive level.

When Kanak Attak was formed, integration was already seen as a magic formula for achieving social cohesion in German society. But Kanak Attak members argued against the discourse of integration. Their slogan “No Integration!/no integración!” was especially provocative, because till that time, “integration” was accepted as a sine qua non without being challenged as a concept.

Members questioned the way in which integration discourse legitimizes the concept of a “leading” German culture (Leitkultur) presiding over “backward” cultures associated with, for example, the subordination of women. In effect, they turned the discourse upside down as in the video mentioned above, casting a shadow on its legitimacy by demonstrating the injustice against racialized groups.

Kanak Attak also unsettles every attempt to fix Kanak Attak:

“Kanak Attak is a community of different people from diverse backgrounds who share a commitment to eradicate racism from German society. Kanak Attak is not interested in questions about your passport or heritage. In fact it challenges such questions in the first place.” (KA Manifesto, 1998)

Die Beute was a Frankfurt journal where many Kanak Attak members worked. Here, they were in contact with Italian leftist thinkers, and a number published their work in the journal. Both factors significantly affected the development of their ideas. For example, the operaismo (workerist) tradition which emerged in Italy in the 1960s is important to them. Then there is the concept of the “autonomy of migration”, introduced by Yann Mouiler Boutang from the French political autonomy movement in the early 1990s. Kanak Attak borrowed the notion from Boutang and developed it, focusing not only on Germany but also on the European migration regime in discussions, activities, projects like Projekt Migration, and in international cooperation, as for instance, with the European Social Forum or the Frassanito Network. To think migration from the point of view of its “autonomy”, means to emphasize the social and subjective dimensions of migration movements. Kanak Attak members argue against traditional immigration theories that depict immigrants as victims of migration trapped between state and capital. Serhat Karakayali, a member of Kanak Attak, underlines that the subjectivity is not free of structural constraints, but there is always the potential of an “excess” that can emerge within a field of tension that transforms the whole field.

According to this approach, analysis should begin with the struggles of migration which the migration regime with all its systems of control lags behind. As Deleuze once said: "The final word on power is that resistance comes first...".  Since class in this analysis is not taken as an ontological concept with a focus on a predetermined subject, the struggles of movements can take different forms and compositions over time. Kanak Attak brings migration and gender relations into debate. They do not only attend to different fractions existing within the working class, but also to new political combinations emerging directly from struggle.


In the eyes of Kanak Attak, “immigrants act as citizens and insist they are already citizens”. By eschewing victimization, one begins to see new ways of being political and activist citizens. Kanak Attak argues that immigrant strategies write new scenes of citizenship which, among other things, organize education, medical care, work and other socio-economic and political institutions. To trace those acts, in Berlin in 2001, they searched through personal and official archives, using their findings to organize a “history revue”. The event was called “Dieser song gehört uns,” (This song belongs to us) the title of a CD released by Kanak Attak in the same year. At the event, they exhibited their research documenting the struggles of immigrants, such as the wildcat strike at Ford Motors in Cologne in 1973 and a history of housing problems. The images gleaned from the archives were part of the stage design, projected in a cinematic style. Overall, as Heidenreich and Vukadinović, emphasize  - it was an important intervention in the historiography of migration in Germany where the struggles of immigrants have been silenced/ignored:

“History was presented as a discontinuous course of events and not as a teleology from roots to the present; Kanak Attak's “history revue” was not a story of finding one's origins. It was therefore never about finding the subject of agency, but to understand the struggles of migration (as a movement) as a core concept for anti-racist practices.”

However, Kanak Attak’s aim has not been just to give a voice to silenced immigrants. Rather, the group questions the logic which victimizes and silences immigrants. By focusing on the struggles of migration, one thing Kanak Attak aims to trace is how racism continually reorganizes itself.

From a traditional perspective on citizenship, it may be argued that Germany kind of moved in the last decade from an ethnic to a civic citizenship.  However from an 'acts of citizenship' perspective, citizenship as a traditional institution does not extend to embrace the new ways of being political in a migration context. Kanak Attak’s way of analysing the migration regime and racism is also a process of resistance that discovers new ways of life, new ways of being political which challenge and change the existing citizenship system.

I argue that their discursive acts are important not for the sake of procuring the political participation of “immigrants”, but because they pursue struggles which result in new political compositions and new understandings of citizenship. The group does not exist any more as such, but they continue acting in different formations, such as in the more professional: Network of Critical Migration and Border Regime Research (Kritnet). But their discursive acts continue to teach us how to seek out new possibilities for rethinking citizenship in the context of migration.

This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Oecumene Project and the Open University, launched in November 2012.

An editorial partnership with Open University

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