A Tale of Two Countries: While Germany still criminalizes the hijab, Sweden embraces it

Germans are known and ridiculed for clapping applause when their passenger plane makes its landing on an airport tarmac, but I myself feel the need to clap whenever I see a black bus driver, a Turkish customs official, an Asian police officer or an Arab fireman in Germany because these sightings are so rare in my country it’s embarrassing.

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Germans are known and ridiculed for clapping applause when their passenger plane makes its landing on an airport tarmac, but I myself feel the need to clap whenever I see a black bus driver, a Turkish customs official, an Asian police officer or an Arab fireman in Germany because these sightings are so rare in my country it’s embarrassing.

Before telling the story of how differently Germany, my home country, and Sweden, a country I adore, treat Muslim women wearing the hijab, especially in the workplace, it is pertinent to provide the reader with some general background information regarding the demographic make up of these two EU members, along with some broad understanding of their very different takes on identity politics and lived multiculturalism. 

1 in 4 people living in Germany today have what the country calls a “migrant background”, which in the UK is often known as BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic), or in Canada as belonging to a “visible minority.” 

This relatively high number would technically classify Germany, a country of 82 million people, as a multicultural one. But unlike the UK or Canada, these immigrant Germans, whichever generation they belong to and no matter how long they have been in the country, have little political or social representation in the country of their residence which – despite its diverse demographic reality – is still exclusively run by whites, thus rendering the former virtually voiceless. All of this is in spite of the fact that Germany’s largest minority population, the Turks, having been in the country since the 1960s. 

Even at the lowest levels of positions of power, be they in politics or education, the emergency services or local councils, law firms or insurance companies, the media or real estate firms, the lack of ethnic diversity and representation in Germany is shockingly outrageous. In 2018, Andrea Dernbach, one of the few progressive voices at Der Tagesspiegel, one of Germany’s leading centrist daily newspapers, wrote a piece titled “Diversity and Inclusion: Where Germany Is Still Too White”, revealing just how monochromatic German workplaces from classrooms to newsrooms really are. The skin color of choice? White, of course. 

Germans are known and ridiculed for clapping applause when their passenger plane makes its landing on an airport tarmac, but I myself feel the need to clap whenever I see a black bus driver, a Turkish customs official, an Asian police officer or an Arab fireman in Germany because these sightings are so rare in my country it’s embarrassing. Can you believe that something so ludicrously boring as a black bus driver remains an exciting oddity in Germany, even in the supposedly oh so multicultural capital of Berlin? 

Sverige: From emigrant nation to a nation of immigrants

Now take a look at Scandinavian Sweden on the other hand: today, the once overwhelmingly white country of currently 10 million people boasts large numbers of first, second and even third generation immigrant populations, such as Turks and Kurds, Somalis and – in recent years due to ongoing conflict – Syrians. 

According to the government agency Statistics Sweden (SCB), at the turn of the 20th century Sweden’s foreign born population comprised a measly 0.7%. In 2010, this number was at 14.3%. 

And a mere seven years later in 2017, the percentage of of inhabitants with a foreign background had risen to 24.1%, almost as high as in Germany. So what after the First World War had been a nation of net emigration is today a nation of net immigration, something that is clearly visible upon visiting any urban center in Sweden. 

And while the number of Muslims in Sweden was estimated at 200,000 – 250,000 in 2000, according to Pew Research Center, that number had risen to over 810,000 in 2016. That is 8.1% of the population, an already higher percentage than in Germany which – as mentioned – has a much longer tradition of Muslim immigration, the majority from Turkey. 

Unlike Germany, Sweden is known for it’s inclusive and holistic policies in everything from education to the environment, gender to health care; its globalist world view part and parcel of Sverige’s positive image within the international community of nations as a peace-loving and progressive country, thanks to avowed internationalists like former Prime Minister Olof Palme or former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (who both coincidentally met a violent death: the former murdered, allegedly by right-wing elements in the Swedish intelligence services as one theory goes, the latter having died in a mysterious plane crash, both cases remaining unsolved to this day). 

Despite not being immune to the firebrand of right-wing populism and Islamophobia currently sweeping through the European “Union”, Sweden as part of the Nordic model of progressive economic and social policies remains a society still sufficiently steeped in social democratic values, whereas the former bastions of social democracy like France and Germany have ultimately fallen like dominoes to the relentless onslaught of the corporatocratic armies of neo-liberalism. 

“Macronomics” are currently continuing to do in an already socially unequal France what Merkelism has already accomplished in Germany: exacerbate already dire social inequities even further, and thereby lay the groundwork for right-wing extremism to foot-soldier through to elected office, ultimately making immigrants – especially the most otherized of them all: Muslims – the scapegoat of choice. 

I believe it is this combination of traditions (progressive domestic policies embedded in a postwar cosmopolitan mindset) that is responsible for Swedish children being fluent in English and the rapid and – unlike in Germany – utterly unagitated transition from an ethnically homogenous society to a nation of immigrants that consistently ranks in the top ten of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report. 

Even their Muslims look way happier than our ones back home in Germany. Like veteran German politician Wolfgang Schäuble once said: “A society’s level of progress is measured by how at home its immigrants feel.” 

And if there’s one issue where the fundamental divergence between progress-oriented, diversity- embracing, happy Sweden and reactionary, historically and cerebrally xenophobic Germans with their perpetual nagging and petty resentment towards life is at it’s most visible: it is that piece of cloth Muslim women from West to East wear, better known as the hijab, as the following anecdote will show. 

As-salamu ‘aleikum in Arlanda

One winter evening about a year ago I arrived in the Swedish capital Stockholm on a flight from Doha, Qatar and was walking towards a deserted immigration hall at Arlanda airport when I looked at the cubicles for EU-citizens and couldn’t believe my eyes: one of the two the Swedish border police agents was black, a woman, and wearing a hijab — the female Muslim headwear — in the same dark blue as her uniform. 

Being a born and bred German, thus hailing from a nation-state that until this day and despite the enshrined freedom of conscience in Article 4 of our Constitution bans people who wear religious headwear from becoming police officers or teachers, be they Sikh men or Muslim women, I was naturally caught by positive surprise. Had this been liberal, multicultural Canada, big whoop. But small and sheltered lily-white Sweden? 

Still awestruck at this unparalleled level of inter-sectionality and representation, I stepped up to the agent (who looked Somali), handed her my passport, while she greeted me with a Swedish “Hej”, that traditional one-syllable greeting that in my unaccustomed ears always sounds so refreshingly upbeat and intimate whilst still maintaining professional cordiality, so unlike the merely colloquial and colorless English “Hey.” I replied with a friendly “Hi” and “As-salamu ‘aleikum” whereupon she in turn answered “Wa-’aleikumu s-salam.” 

Unlike in Germany, where this scene might have raised eyebrows at the least and enmity at worst, her colleague in the adjacent booth, a blonde and blue-eyed cliché Swede who had definitely heard our exchange of salutations – as the arrival hall was totally deserted except for us approaching Business Class passengers, thus allowing sound to travel – couldn’t have cared less. 

She just went about her job and smiled (something white German border patrol agents who make up the numeric majority of this federal police force rarely do, especially to non-whites, their subconscious Übermensch-mentality emanating from their stone-cold eyes and their menacing frown always reminding me of what Hannah Arendt meant by the “banality of evil”) amiably at the first approaching passenger. 

After swiping my passport through the computer and it deciding that I was neither a threat to national security nor wanted by Interpol, I was handed back my travel document with a pleasant “thank you”, again something I have never had the honor to hear escape from a German federal agent’s mouth (they might say “Ok” or “Alles klar”, but never “Danke schön”), as if the passenger is the one providing the service and the officer the customer who is always right and therefore also has the legal right to be rude. 

While walking to the exit I was so positively impressed by this short peek through the window of lived societal progressiveness, and at the same time so incensed at my own home country which is obstinately obstructive in all forward-looking matters, be it digitalization, e-mobility solutions, or religious inclusion, that I instantly logged into the airport-WiFi and took to social media and vented: 

“Just landed in Stockholm from Doha. The Swedish border patrol agent was Somali, wore a hijab, and we greeted each other with a salam as if it were the most normal thing on earth. In the racist developing nation of Germany something like this would not be possible!” 

That I was taken by surprise in the first place is a shocking testament to the current state of diversity politics in a culturally backward-looking Germany which still loves to debate circles around questions already made redundant by reality. White Germans love to ask things like “Is Germany an immigrant nation?” while 1/4 of the population – as I have mentioned above – has a migrant family history. Or “Does Islam belong to Germany” while out of a population of 82 million, Islam is practiced by roughly 5 million people in some form or another. 

Other Western nation-states like the UK, Canada, and even idyllic Sweden, a country famous for many things, from Ikea to Ingmar Bergmann, Spotify to Zlatan Ibrahimović, but not exactly for it’s multiculturalism, ask similar questions. But the difference to Germany is that – despite rising Islamophobia and anti-immigrant bigotry in all these countries – they have answered them more or less in the affirmative (Britain admittedly rather begrudgingly as due to its colonial past, legal immigration from the outreaches of the former Empire has always had the feel of de-facto reparations for all the nefarious crimes committed). 

And the driving force behind such affirmations has simply been a political will to acknowledge shifting demographic realities on the one hand and the corresponding realization on the other that cultural diversity in a nation-state context is a sustainable strength, not a weakness. 

Germany’s cloth fetish

The relationship of white-majority Germany towards the hijab is best described as obsessive- compulsive disorder (OCD): No single issue will get my neo-atheist white compatriots – be they liberal or conservative, left-wing or far right – so riled up and their blood boiling with the same religious zeal that they fanatically oppose in Islamic-framed radicalism like that piece of the female Muslim headwear. 

Not only does the hijab help white men (and self-loathing white women) to outsource their own misogynism when finger-pointing to it as demeaning to all women, thereby taking all agency away from the overwhelming majority who wear it out of their own free will, it also blatantly exposes the selectively Islamophobic nature of their anti-religious agitation: a male Jew wearing a kippah will not only not generate the same amount of outrage dispensed towards the hijab, but is furthermore perceived as someone that deserves special protection, unflinchingly granting him puppy license due to Germany’s genocide against the Jews. 

This gives rise to an uncomfortable but legitimate question: will Muslims in Germany have to get holocausted first before getting to enjoy the minority protection they deserve? Like popular German recording artist Xavier Naidoo put it in a song of his: “Muslims are the new Jews.” 

“Berlin trägt Kippa” (Berlin wears kippah) was the slogan of an organized protest last year against rising “anti-Semitism” in Germany’s capital city (in Germany, like in the U.S., anti-Semitism is routinely conflated with legitimate criticism of Israel, the former systematically employed to discredit the latter), but no one would dream of showing solidarity with Muslim women who face racist microaggressions on a daily basis by organizing a public demonstration under the banner “Berlin trägt Hijab.” 

Interestingly enough, this asymmetry in solidarity comes despite the fact that the number of women in Germany who wear the hijab exceeds the tiny demographic of Jewish men sporting a kippah by far. 

Furthermore, Germany’s hegemonic hijab discourse is so hypocritical that the anti-hijabistas are not even sure if they oppose the cloth for its alleged misogynism or because it violates the core tenet of a secular society, the division of state and church. Depending on what is convenient, they jump back and forth between both arguments like kids playing hopscotch. 

The hijab has become quintessentially Swedish…

Returning to Sweden: as already mentioned, even this Nordic nation (nordic still commonly being associated with whiteness) has seen a steadfast and utterly nonchalant progression from an overwhelmingly white to an ethnically diverse society, especially in the urban conglomerations of Stockholm, Göteborg and Malmö. 

Even the 2018 electoral win of the misleadingly and ineptly named “Sweden Democrats” and their populist anti-immigrant, right-wing agenda has not put a stop to Sweden’s living up to its reputation as one of the most tolerant societies in the world: in the same general election which saw the Sverigedemokraterna secure a whopping and historic third place, Somali-born Leila Ali Elmi of the Green Party became Sweden’s first member of parliament to wear a hijab. 

In Germany, many prominent members of its Green Party still view the hijab as a symbol of blanket oppression of women and on occasion will engage in liberal racist statements against Muslims that are not very far from the smack-in-your-face racist ones of the right-wing AfD party. 

Sverige today is home to the third largest Somali diaspora in the Western world (after the U.S. and the UK, even before Canada with its comparatively hyperliberal immigration policies). And despite rising Islamophobic antipathy in Swedish society and racial profiling of non-white and Muslim male youths by an overwhelmingly white police force, these new Swedes don’t have to hide their religiosity. 

Since 2011, when 26-year-old Donna Eljammal became Sweden’s first hijab wearing police recruit, Swedish Muslim women wishing to wear this sartorial article of their faith don’t have to choose between their religion and their career anymore. They can go on to serve their country as police officers and border patrol agents, without any infringements on the expression of their religious beliefs, as I myself witnessed first-hand upon meeting the hijab-wearing uniformed black woman who checked my passport at Arlanda airport’s immigration. 

To my knowledge, following the inclusive policies of the Swedish police force, female Muslim firefighters and military personnel will also be allowed to wear the hijab as part of their uniform in the near future. 

Iman Aldebe, the Swedish designer responsible for the police hijab I saw at Arlanda, and whose modern interpretations of traditional religious headwear are already part of the workwear of Swedish- Muslim nurses and paramedics, commented on the motivation of Muslim women wanting to wear the hijab at the workplace by saying the following: 

“For these women, it’s only a garment. You put it on for religious reasons, but it’s not like you’re walking around and preaching. You just want to be like any other woman.” 

In 2015, Swedish retailer H&M featured Aldebe’s styles in its fall catalogue. It doesn’t get any more inclusive than this, does it? 

…but is still not allowed to be quintessentially German

Amid all these progressive developments in Sweden, one question begs to be answered: what is wrong with Germany? Why is it proudly regressing when it comes to the politics of ethnic and religious inclusion rather than progressing like Sweden? 

Germany, the largest economy in Europe, political heavyweight within the EU next to France (another country that likes to play down the xenophobic fabric of its white-majority society while passionately subscribing to the identity politics of ethnic exclusion where the value of black, Arab and Muslim life – as in Germany – is determined by your success at FIFA football World Cups), seems to enjoy going around in circles on the carousel of political and public discourse when it comes to the two Is of immigration and Islam. 

Tautological nonsense like “Islam is not a part of Germany, but Muslims are”, coming from various senior conservative politicians over the last decade, or tilting at the windmills of Islam by criminalizing the hijab or repeatedly committing the folly of trying to integrate immigrants without including them, thus reinforcing the stereotype of the arrogant, narcissistic and megalomanic German with his historically destructive delusions of grandeur and “my way or the highway”- approach to everything of import, are all irrefutable evidence of Germany’s Peter Pan-like unwillingness to grow up and shed its infantile and pathological white supremacist ways. 

With regards to the hijab: in 2015 the Bundesverfassungsgericht in Karlsruhe, Germany’s highest court tasked with protecting the German constitution, ruled the general hijab-ban in place for teachers in public schools to be unconstitutional. In 2018, Berlin’s highest labor court declared Berlin’s misleading “Neutrality Law”, which prohibits religious clothing in civil service jobs like teaching, police, etc. but is de-facto a hijab ban, to be diametrically opposed to the ruling of the federal judges, implying the need for it to be scrapped. 

It is 2020 now, and the situation on the ground hasn’t changed: despite landmark legal rulings from the highest courts in the land who have ultimate appellate jurisdiction, Germany in general and it’s largest and most cosmopolitan city Berlin in particular keep failing to implement these rulings and continue to bar Muslim women who wear the hijab from becoming teachers and judges, police officers and paramedics, border patrol agents and firefighters. 

It will be interesting to see how long and far Germany (and countries like France with its burkini ban at French beaches and French retailer Decathlon’s banning of its sports hijab due to public white outrage or Austria with it’s hijab-ban in elementary schools), will be able to tread this path of societal regression, futilely trying to hold on to a provincialist past that – thank God – is no more. 

Luckily, the majority of Swedes have understood how human development ideally works: like a perpetuum mobile of constant re-examination and self-improvement, rather than an eternal state of civilizational catharsis in which one is not only immobilized by one’s own backwardness, but also astonishingly proud of it.