Can Europe Make It?

Spirit or reason? Muslim public intellectuals in the German and European far right

The wide space available for non-white, Muslim-background figures in the European far right is key in helping the movement grow into new demographics.

Julian Göpffarth Esra Özyürek
17 August 2020
Cupola of Dresden's Yenidze cigarette factory, built by entrepreneur Hugo Zeitz,1908-9.
Wikicommons/Geolina 163. Some rights reserved.

When Dutch and German far-right party members Joram van Klaveren (Party for Freedom) and Arthur Wagner (Alternative for Germany) recently announced their conversion to Islam, their stories were carried around the world by international news outlets. How can it be, the underlying question in most news stories went, that politicians in a movement that mobilises against the Islamisation of Europe can convert to the very religion their parties claim to contest? While their stories made for ideal teaser headlines in an ever-turning news cycle, they were also quickly left behind in the bin of exotic, marginal cases unfit for broader debate.

In reality, these two far-right European converts to Islam are only the tip of the iceberg, a phenomenon that reveals the surprising ways in which Islam and Muslims are being incorporated into the far right and its white identity politics in Europe. Over the past two decades a number of conservative and far-right white Europeans have turned towards not away from Islam – a trend that has not even spared Hungary and its far-right party, Jobbik. At the same time, a significant number of born Muslims have joined the European far right, a movement that as a bloc campaigns against the Islamisation of Europe. Since the early 2000s, Muslim figures in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, France, and Germany have come to play a significant role in the movement as public intellectuals who shape the far right’s message. Of them, some are converts to Islam, some are practicing born Muslims, and others are non-practicing or ex-Muslims.

Since the early 2000s, Muslim figures in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, France, and Germany have come to play a significant role in the movement as public intellectuals who shape the far right’s message.

One of the most widely known Muslim figures in the European far right is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-background “Islam critic” who gained prominence in the mid-2000s beyond the Netherlands as she criticised Islam from the right. Similar cases have emerged in many other European countries. Often called upon as “expert” witnesses, these ex, reformist, or self-declared “secular” Muslims help promote European identity as modern, enlightened, rational and threatened by a regressive Islam.

In northern Europe, the Scandinavian countries have been central in developing a transnational far-right ideology that envisions the continent as the pinnacle of a liberal modernity which must be defended against a regressive, illiberal Islam. Figures like the Iraq-born writer and poet Walid al-Kubaisi in Norway or the Christian convert of Somali-background Mona Walters in Sweden have emerged as key figures in the construction of Islam as a barbarian totalitarian other to a civilised Europe.

Far less attention has been directed to another group of Muslims in the European far right: practicing and converted Muslims who promote a vision that is sceptical of modernity, secularism and enlightenment and that instead advocates a spiritual European identity. In France, where the principal of laicité holds sway, Alain Soral, a member of the Nouvelle Droite, an intellectual far-right movement that emerged in the 1970s, could draw on a long tradition of far-right idealisation of Islam when he argued that France’s growing Muslim population should be seen not as a threat but as a vehicle for a return to a more spiritual understanding of nationhood and European identity.

Early twentieth century tapestry with Yenidze cigarette factory design. | Wikicommons/unknown author.

Far less attention has been directed to another group of Muslims in the European far right: practicing and converted Muslims who promote a vision that is sceptical of modernity, secularism and enlightenment and that instead advocates a spiritual European identity.

German orientalism

With its increasingly diverse population and robust far-right movement, Germany is no exception and sports its own white supremacist anti-Muslim movement that incorporates Muslims. Germany has a long history of accommodating contradictory discourses that simultaneously idealise Islam as a force resisting modernity and demonize it as a threat to European progress and modern civilisation. In the nineteenth century “Orientalism” was a fashion in literature, art and architecture. Industrial buildings that looked like mosques, such as Dresden’s Yenidze cigarette factory, were built in several cities, and it became fashionable to have “oriental carpets” as decorative elements in educated bourgeois households. National poets like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe saw the “Orient” as a source of spiritual calm and authenticity. At the same time, during the colonial period, Islam was seen as a threat to the expansion of Germany’s imperialism and an obstacle to the civilisation of the peoples in Germany’s East African colonies of Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania.

In the 1920s, parts of Berlin-based bohemia embraced Islam as a means of spiritual renewal of a country they saw burnt out by war and identity and economic crises. The Nazis idealised Islam as a manly, orderly, and belligerent religion that could be helpful in fighting against what they viewed as a decadent liberal Americanisation and Jewish world government.

These contradictory narratives about Islam did not disappear after World War II. Especially in the New Left milieus and around the 1968 student-led social revolution, Islam, specifically Sufism, emerged as a popular spiritual way out of capitalist and consumerist society. New Left intellectuals and activists like the white German convert Hadayatullah Hübsch travelled to Morocco in the early 1970s for a new spiritual experience. After German reunification in 1990, Islam became attractive to West German conservative Catholics disappointed in the West German modernising church. With them, some of the East Germans struggling to find a new identity in a reunified Germany gathered around Islamische Zeitung, a monthly publication of radical critique on the capitalist finance system and globalization led by the white convert and former catholic Abu Bakr Rieger.

Threat and renewal

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks of 9/11, Islam is commonly seen as a threat to a German way of life that represents European modernity. Islam has predominantly come to be seen not as a source of spiritual renewal but as a barbarian other invading a Europe that has become too tolerant. Nevertheless, the competing visions of “Islam as threat” and “Islam as renewal” continue to feed into the rival visions of German national identity as an embodiment of modernity on the one hand and as a spiritual alternative to western modernity on the other. Since 9/11, more Germans have converted to Islam and sought to create a German experience of Islam. Their current numbers are estimated at around 100,000.

Since 9/11, more Germans have converted to Islam and sought to create a German experience of Islam. Their current numbers are estimated at around 100,000.

Today, these competing narratives of threat and renewal feed into how the German far right envisions German identity in relation to Islam: it claims on the one hand to defend and embody a liberal, progressive and modern Europe and on the other hand yearns for a traditionalist spiritual re-rooting. Since its foundation in 2013, the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and its surrounding far-right milieus have oscillated between these opposing visions of German identity and whether Islam should be seen as an “other to” or an “enhancer of” it.

The rationalist approach in AfD

The dominant West German base of the party inclines towards a rationalist approach, celebrating Germany as the embodiment of western liberal modernity. Held up in contrast to German/European rationalism, then, Islam is either seen as entirely incompatible with Germanness or as compatible only if Islam is fundamentally reformed and turned into a “liberal” or even “secular” Islam. Yet a number of mainly East but also a few West Germany-based spiritualist public intellectuals, on a mission to counter a “soulless” western modernity, have come to see Islam either as a competitor or an enhancer. Various Muslim-background public intellectuals in the far right have found a place in both currents.

It is the two rationalist approaches to Islam that are most visible in German public debate and that have allowed the far right to build bridges to a mainstream discourse that is sceptical if not outright hostile to Islam. Similar to al-Kubaisi in Norway, Walters in Sweden and Hirsi Ali in the Netherlands, German figures like Turkish-background sociologist Necla Kelek or Egyptian-background political scientist Hamed Abdel-Samad have emerged as prominent rationalist “Islam critic” with ties to a predominantly West German AfD milieu and conservative circles of the governing Christian Democratic Union’s far-right association, Werte Union. Both Kelek and Abdel-Samad have declared their break with Islam and argue that it is incompatible with German identity as it is in fact not a religion but a fascist political ideology. Both are close to factions in the AfD that self-identify as atheists or Protestants and celebrate Germany’s tradition of rational thinkers and discipline.

Palestinian-background psychologist Ahmed Mansour and Kurdish-background former lawyer and current self-declared liberal Imam Seyran Ates have also become popular figures in rationalist far-right circles. While Ates has strong links to a Berlin-based New Left milieu that emerged in the 1980s, Mansour is close to the Green Party. While both underline their distance to parties like the AfD, their contributions as “liberal Muslims” find resonance in parts of the far right. In 2018, Ates gave a celebrated talk at an event of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party of Austria. Only a drastically reformed Islam, they both argue, can be compatible with German identity, reform that can only be brought about through a new sexual revolution inside Muslim communities that will break the religion’s inherent patriarchism, authoritarianism and anti-Semitism.

The spiritualist current in AfD

Less visible but with a growing influence is a spiritualist current in the German far right that sees German identity as a counter movement to rational modernity, consumerism and liberalism. Here, Islam is either seen as a competitor in the fight against liberal modernity or as a potential ally and a source of spiritual renewal. Islam has gained surprising support among far-right figures surrounding the far-right think tank Institut für Staatspolitik, based in East Germany. The think tank has close links to Thuringia’s AfD leader, Björn Höcke, and its even further far-right intra-party association, Der Flügel, now officially dissolved. Although a West German himself, Höcke is known to oppose a West German-dominated vision of German identity as liberal and modern, promoting instead a mythic vision of German identity that draws on nineteenth-century romanticism and calls for ethnocultural homogeneity.

Islam has gained surprising support among far-right figures surrounding the far-right think tank Institut für Staatspolitik, based in East Germany.

Yenidze, Dresden at sunset, 2015. | Wkicommons, ubahnverleih. Some rights reserved.

In this spiritualist camp of the far right there is ongoing argument about whether Islam should be seen as friend or foe. Figures like the Dresden-based white Muslim convert painter Muhsin Sebastian Hennig, who co-authored with Höcke the book Never twice in the same river, represent a camp that sees German identity and Islam as deeply connected in a long tradition of spiritual resistance against rational modernity. Hennig converted to Islam in the 1990s and before becoming an influential figure in the East German far right had strong links to the milieu around the monthly newspaper Islamische Zeitung and Abu Bakr Rieger. As an influential figure in the intellectual milieu surrounding the East German AfD, he argues that Islam would help to counter the spread of Anglo-Saxon liberal capitalism and rationalism.

Arguably still more vocal is a camp that also views German identity as predominantly spiritual but that considers Islam not as a potential ally but as a competitor. Here, a younger generation of ex-Muslims such as the YouTube influencer Feroz Khan call for a spiritual revival of German identity as a counter to Islam and Islamisation. This group also includes ex-Muslims such as Sabatina James, who converted to Catholicism. They claim that Germany would be unable to stand up against a strong Muslim identity due to its lack of self-love and self-respect and its overemphasis on the dark sides of its history – tropes that have a long tradition in Germany’s post-World War II far right.

Visions of Islam and pastures new

By highlighting the prominence of born, ex, and converted Muslims in the German and European far right, we are able to see how diverse current visions of German identity are in this ever-growing and diverging movement. More importantly, these figures exemplify how Islam is a key function of the far right’s self-vision.

Most interesting, though, is the wide space available for non-white and Muslim-background figures in the European far right. Their arguments and stances are key both in helping the movement grow into new demographics, including that of Muslim minorities, and in boosting their legitimacy in the centre by signalling that the far right is no longer racist. The ideas Muslim intellectuals promote help the movement to simultaneously reproduce and challenge competing national visions of German identity. The similarity between Muslim far-right figures in Germany and other European countries demonstrates how closely visions of Islam work together with the (re)production not only of national identities but of a transnational European identity conceptualized either as a spiritualist challenger to Western rationalism or as its very embodiment.

Yenidze, Dresden, August 2019. | Wikicommons/S. John, Elsterwerda. Some rights reserved.

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