April 6, 2010
April 6, 2010
April 6, 2010
It was a Sunday in September when they lost their son Jan*. He gave his parents a particularly tight hug, his father recalls, a long and intense embrace. The father says that he could sense that this was no normal goodbye, and that it was about more than the supposed vacation trip to celebrate the couple’s first wedding anniversary — which was the story that Jan, 24, and his wife Alexandra* had cooked up for him.
The two married couples headed to Budapest, where they boarded a plane for Istanbul. Jan placed one last call to his parents from a hotel.
Since then there have been only sporadic e-mails. These have been loving messages to his father and mother. But he also writes things that frighten his parents. He is living among brothers and doesn’t need much money, Jan writes. No, they can’t visit him — it would be too dangerous, he says. And no, he can no longer imagine returning to Berlin, to a life among the kuffar, the infidels.
Then, in December, he wrote that he didn’t know if he would live to see the next summer. Since then his parents have been looking in their mailbox every morning — and every morning it’s the same: nothing. They can hardly bear the uncertainty.
German intelligence agencies presume that Jan and Alexandra are now living in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. It is a world in which al-Qaida and the Taliban are strong and the state is weak, where conflicts are resolved according to the rules of the sharia and local chieftains. This is also allegedly the last refuge, at least for the time being, of Osama bin Laden.
The list includes Jan and Alexandra from Berlin, Michael W. from Hamburg — who tried to slip away last spring but was arrested in Pakistan and sent back — and the 19-year-old Berliner Omar H., who disappeared with his girlfriend last January. They are driven by the dream of a life that they see as a pure reflection of the teachings of Islam. They want to exchange the Western world for an archaic life in barren huts, where they only occasionally have electricity and where the Koran stands above everything.
The first two generations consisted of angry young men who yearned to go into battle, and opted to leave their women behind. The third generation is different, though. They are younger and highly ethnically mixed, often men and women who leave Germany together — or even shortly before the birth of their children — on their way from the Berlin district of Wedding to Waziristan, the porous border region skirting the Afghan-Pakistani border.
It was the day of the German parliamentary elections in 2009, and the autumn sun was shining in Berlin, but Jan and Alexandra weren’t interested in who would govern the country. They were going to leave Germany. They had rejected this society and this state. Jan and Alexandra packed their things into a rental car, picked up another couple, and the four friends headed off into exile. One of their traveling companions was 17 years old and six months pregnant — her husband had just turned 20. Their child would not be born in Germany. In this remote mountain region, a colony of Germans has sprung up — expats who have severed all roots and found a new homeland in the Hindu Kush. Germany’s Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) maintains a list of suspects who have taken off to Afghanistan or Pakistan — or at least tried to leave — over the past few years. The list has nearly 100 names. It’s a directory of the third generation of Islamist terrorists after the 9/11 suicide pilots and Germany’s so-called “Sauerland Cell”. Like their predecessors, they are eager to fight the holy war and die a martyr’s death. Intelligence agencies are now wondering who among this generation will become the next Mohammed Atta or the next Fritz Gelowicz, the ring leader of the Sauerland Cell — or who will emulate former Bosch employee Cüneyt Ciftci, who hailed from the quiet southern German town of Ansbach and carried out a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in March 2008, blowing himself to pieces and killing four people.
Sandy, Jim and Karen work at a downtown community centre where they help low-income residents apply for rental housing. Sandy has a bad feeling about Jim: She notices that when black clients come in, he tends to drift to the back of the office. Sandy suspects racism (she and Jim are both white). On the other hand, she also notices that Jim seems to get along well with Karen, who is black. As the weeks go by, Sandy becomes more uncomfortable with the situation. But she feels uncertain about how to handle it. Test question: What should Sandy do?
If you answered that Sandy’s first move should be to talk to Karen, and ask how Jim’s behaviour made her feel, you are apparently a better anti-racist than me.
That, for what it’s worth, was the preferred solution offered by my instructor at “Thinking About Whiteness and Doing Anti-Racism,” a four-part evening workshop for community activists, presented earlier this year at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore.
My own answer, announced in class, was that Sandy should approach Jim discreetly, explaining to him how others in the office might perceive his actions. Or perhaps the manager of the community centre could give a generic presentation about the need to treat clients in a colour-blind manner, on a no-names basis.
The problem with my approach, the instructor indicated, lay in the fact that I was primarily concerned with the feelings of my fellow Caucasian, Jim. I wasn’t treating Karen like a “full human being” who might have thoughts and worries at variance with the superficially friendly workplace attitude.
Moreover, I was guilty of “democratic racism” — by which we apply ostensibly race-neutral principles such as “due process,” constantly demanding clear “evidence” of wrongdoing, rather than confronting prima facie instances of racism head-on. “It seems we’re always looking for more proof,” said the instructor, an energetic left-wing activist who’s been teaching this course for several years. “When it comes to racism, you have to trust your gut.”
I felt the urge to pipe up at this. Racism is either a serious charge or it’s not. And if it is, as everyone in this room clearly believed, then it cannot be flung around casually without giving the accused a chance to explain his actions. But I said nothing, and nodded my head along with everyone else. I’d come to this class not to impose my democratic racism on people, but to observe.
Most of the other 13 students were earnest, grad-student types in their 20s — too young to remember the late 1980s and early 1990s, when political correctness first took root on college campuses. The jargon I heard at the bookstore took me back to that age — albeit with a few odd variations. “Allyship” has replaced “solidarity” in the anti-racist lexicon, for instance, when speaking about inter-racial activist partnerships. I also heard one student say she rejected the term “gender-neutral” as sexist, and instead preferred “gender-fluid.” One did not “have” a gender or sexual orientation; the operative word is “perform” — as in, “Sally performs her queerness in a very femme way.”
The instructor’s Cold War-era Marxist jargon added to the retro intellectual vibe. Like just about everyone in the class, she took it for granted that racism is an outgrowth of capitalism, and that fighting one necessarily means fighting the other. At one point, she asked us to critique a case study about “Cecilia,” a community activist who spread a message of tolerance and mutual respect in her neighbourhood. Cecilia’s approach was incomplete, the instructor informed us, because she neglected to sound the message that “classism is a form of oppression.” The real problem faced by visible minorities in our capitalist society isn’t a lack of understanding, “it’s the fundamentally inequitable nature of wage labour.”
The central theme of the course was that this twinned combination of capitalism and racism has produced a cult of “white privilege,” which permeates every aspect of our lives. “Canada is a white supremacist country, so I assume that I’m racist,” one of the students said matter-of-factly during our first session. “It’s not about not being racist. Because I know I am. It’s about becoming less racist.” At this, another student told the class: “I hate when people tell me they’re colour-blind. That is the most overt kind of racism. When people say ‘I don’t see your race,’ I know that’s wrong. To ignore race is to be more racist than to acknowledge race. I call it neo-racism.”
All of the students were white (to my eyes, anyway). And most were involved in what might broadly be termed the anti-racism industry — an overlapping hodgepodge of community-outreach activists, equity officers, women’s studies instructors and the like. Most said they’d come so they could integrate anti-racism into their work. Yet a good deal of the course consisted of them unburdening themselves of their own racist guilt. The instructor set the tone, describing an episode in which she’d lectured a colleague of colour about his job. “When I realized what I was doing, I approached him afterward and apologized,” she told the class. “I said to him. ‘I’m so sorry! I’m unloading so much whiteness on you right now.’ “
Another woman described her torment when a friend asked her to give a presentation about media arts to a group of black students — an exercise that would have made a spectacle of her white privilege. “Should I say yes? Or is it my responsibility to say no?” she said. “But then [my friend] may say, ‘I want you to do it — because you have a particular approach …’