New Year’s Eve 2016 in Cologne: “It is a poisoned debate“

Fantasies of the right seemed to have come true. Sociologist explains why that very night leaves more of an impression than the terror attacks.

A blick from the Dom to the Main Station: how will be New Year's Eve this time? Foto: dpa

Mr. Nassehi, it has been one year since the Cologne new year's eve with its incidents. Since then there have been terrorist attacks in Würzburg, Ansbach and, most recently, Berlin. Does Cologne still stand out?

Armin Nassehi: Yes. The terrorist attacks were carried out by individuals who were different from the refugee crowd after all. Cologne on the other hand looked like a mass phenomenon.

What do you mean by that?

An image, almost a cliché, had come to life. Strangers you’d usually meet around town suddenly become a collective thread. The perpetrators of Cologne often were described as an amorphous crowd of people that was all equally wild, equally dangerous. Even if you hadn’t seen it, you could vividly imagine it.

Like a figment of the imagination of Pegida?

Yes. By now we know that about half of these people were refugees. The other half were people of an migration background who have been in Germany for longer and come from partly problematic, ethnically segregated areas and hid behind a large number of refugees. These had been deviously hiding behind a large number of refugees. For the attacked women and, even more in the public debate, it looked like a homogeneous group.

Was there a connection between these men?

As a scientist I teach my students that talking about other cultures and large groups creates more identity than there actually is. Groups we identify from the outside as such are very heterogeneous themselves. During that New Year’s Eve, on the other hand, there had also been a culture clash. There were men who had experienced a more authoritarian upbringing than most people know in Germany. Men who come from societies where traditional domination plays an important role, especially in the home countries of most of the perpetrators.

I can see that you feel uncomfortable when saying this.

The person: Nassehi, 56, is sociologist. He grew up in Tübingen, Gelsenkirchen, München, Landshut and Tehran and studied sociology, philosophy and educational sciences. He writes about the modern, changing society.

The scientist: Nassehi: obtained his doctorate with his thesis “Die Zeit der Gesellschaft”. In 1998 he became a professor of sociology at the University of Munich. His work focuses on sociology of religion; his sociology is mainly based on Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory.

It is a dilemma: do I use a generalising and culturalising argument? Or do I, as a scientist, express adequately that it is no coincidence that these men originate from certain family structures where the concept of honour, the family bond, religion as a source of identity and orientation towards patriarchal peer groups play an important role? This dilemma already begins with the identification of such cultural obstinacy, because this does not serve as an explanation for everything, regardless of the fact that the social structure in gangs committing right-wing violence is very similar. In the end, the entire communication about these issues is poisoned because every exaggerated term describing a collective is as inadequate as the denial of the negative effects of migration and fleeing a country. In Cologne this dilemma reached a visible climax, even if it only affected a small part of the migrant population.

By now some of the perpetrators were sentenced for theft and two for sexual harassment. Is an adequate appraisal of the events possible?

Hardly. The night of Cologne almost has something mythical about it by now. People say “Cologne“ or “Domplatte“ (the local name for the cathedral) and everyone knowswhat is meant by that. At the same time we still don’t know what has really happened. It was difficult to gather evidence, the police could not handle the situation. The state can not give closure to the victims. It can only punish what can be proved. This is actually proof that the state functions according to the rule of law. But this must sound cynical to many of the affected women.

The right immediately found a language to express themselves after this event. A lot of leftists found that difficult. Why?

When communicating, there is an excessive fear of being racist by pointing out any differences at all. This is actually a sign of a certain dishonesty in the leftists’ argumentation that pays too much attention to origin and cultural affiliation. Now this slightly neurotic sensitivity clashes with the allegation of being sexist. Which issue is more serious? Some tried to escape this by putting it into perspective. Such things would happen at Oktoberfest as well. This has been perceived as a mockery of the victims.

Why is it mocking to say: this kind of behaviour seems familiar –from festivities in Germany?

It was perceived as mockery because the behaviour in Cologne was unique in its dynamic and its extent. The reaction seemed to prove that leftist and feminist groups are completely insensitive to negative effects of fleeing a country and migration, even if a mere fraction of the migrants are concerned. This is why that night could turn into a symbol of the failed multicultural society. Each statement relativising the events sounds like a wish to distort them, because you wish them to be different. It also shows that we in Germany have no experience of debating the negative effects of migration controversially.

Aren’t we constantly discussing this?

But we avoid uncomfortable questions. Look how it is often uncomfortable for leftists to talk about the origin of the men in Cologne. But one of the principles of leftist thinking is that specific circumstances define us. This includes cultural backgrounds. You simply have to take into acccount that some standards and experiences with public and private institutions of many countries of origin are not compatible with those in Europe. This is not an argument in favour of culturalization. To turn a blind eye to it plays down the dimension of some of the events. And it is not helpful that incompatible groups like this, for example potentially violent far-right peer groups, exist in Europe as well. The number of attacks on refugees from the far-right speaks for itself. At the same time, from the sociological point of view it must be made clear that terms such as “the North Africans“, “the blacks“, and “the women“ are not defensable in empirical terms, because there are big differences within these groups. Nevertheless, there are cultural differences, and cultural conflicts. Even if it is uncomfortable, those who mean well in particular have to seriously consider these issues. We cannot leave the debate to those who say: we have always known it.

After the Berlin attack the perpetrator’s possible country of origin was quickly mentioned. Has the debate been more measured than the one after Cologne?

You can identify two stages. During the first one everyone, including me, hoped that it wouldn’t be a refugee. I was afraid that after that a reasonable debate about the effects of migration and escape from danger wouldn’t be possible anymore. Others were hoping that it would be a refugee, because they can use it to underline their politics. During the second stage the perpetrator was discussed in a more differentiated way, as was the strategy of the 'Islamic State’.

Do you think it matters for many Germans whether the perpetrator was a refugee or a migrant?

For many it probably doesn’t. But the tone of the debate was moderate. The AfD (Alternative for Germany) and the Identitarian movement couldn’t mobilise a lot of people for their demonstrations after the attacks. But we could see many Muslims on the street protesting against violence and showing their grief. It was impressive.

Is this the beginning of a new “Us“ that stands against the fear strategy of AfD and IS?

Some would like it to be. But I don’t believe so, especially as such beliefs in an “Us“ are rather trite. There is something beguiling about the atmosphere after an attack: everyone stands together, encourages each other, demonstrates that life goes on. It resembles mourning rituals we know from religions. But this beguilement doesn’t last long. Also this beguiling 'Us’ isn’t maintainable. It satisfies the need for strong statements and moral support, but it is politically insignificant.

Do you fear that this “Us“could be exploited by politicians?

That might then be called “Leitkultur“ (leading culture). In modern, liberal societies there should simply be as little “Us“ as possible, since integration – of all population groups – is not a problem of commitment but a question of practice. Integration means putting up with each other and having the decency not to pester each other. The question is under which circumstances this is possible. Strongly segregated, patriarchal migrant communities conflict with that just as much as the petit bourgeois general suspicion against everything that is different.

Currently, public discourse seems obscene. Leftists celebrate in social networks because the man who kicked a woman down the stairs in Berlin is a Christian Bulgarian and not a Syrian. The teenagers who tried to set a homeless man on fire in Berlin are refugees, which makes rightists cheer.

Many people feel that these times are confusing, both leftists and rightists. Something like a fundamental law of perception applies here: If things get complicated, we hold on to visible things. Nothing generates more attention and order than: origin, skin-colour, religion, language. Of course, these features mean something, but just not everything. What all these differences have in common is that it’s about strongly male-dominated peer groups, where the violation of rules is not considered deviant behaviour but the consistent condition for belonging to the group.

A left-wing club in Leipzig has recently written in an open letter that there have been problems with sexual assaults by guests who were refugees.

I am a learned pedagogue and one of the experiences one acquires in this job is that the people you support can indeed be arseholes. Those people in Leipzig were smart enough not to steal away nor to simply change sides, but to admit that they are caught in a dilemma.

Some leftists thought that it would have been better to sort that out internally.

Luckily they haven’t done that. We should be happy about everyone who can admit that they are caught in a dilemma. Our political discourse suffers from the fact that only few people have the courage to do that. That does not only apply to leftists.

To speak out on dilemmas is unattractive. Saying that the world is complicated doesn’t make politicians seem particularly strong.

That’s true, currently, elections are rather won with simplifications. But where credible decisions are concerned, simplification quickly reaches a dead end. If Merkel’s “We can do it“ had at least hinted at the related dilemmas, the hateful campaigns against refugee politics might have had more difficulties.

Someone who admits a dilemma must expect to be applauded by the wrong side…

…otherwise it wouldn’t be a dilemma. This fear of reaction is characteristic of the tribal culture we live in. We feel that we belong to our own tribe and, if possible, should not do anything which could appeal to other tribes. In a speech, I once praised the CSU’s operative integration policy. If you ignore mainstream nonsense and populist semantic excesses, this policy in Bavaria really is going in the right direction. For saying that, I have had to take harsh criticism. And for writing that young, underemployed men can produce problems in public space, six weeks before Cologne.

Why? Crime statistics show that young men are a dangerous group. I grew up in East Germany and had to learn to avoid such groups.

Many well-meaning persons would have no problem with saying that about extreme right-wing male peer groups who are prone to violence in East Germany, but when it comes to refugees, they fear being considered racist. That’s how simple semantic cultures are sometimes. Good and bad, black and white, instead of empirically looking more closely.

Much surround the refugee debates is reminiscent of discussions in countries where war is raging. In Ukraine, for example, people with a different opinion are often accused of helping the enemy.

There is a similarity. What we have been experiencing for several years now is an increasingly fierce culture war for who has the narrative authority to decide what can be said and what is deemed “normal“. It is not a coincidence that issues such as family politics, gender roles, sexual orientation and the migration question are the decisive triggers of this culture war.

Are they the marginalised and left-behind who are talked about so much?

Without a doubt, there is a problem with the increasing economic precariousness of some population groups, but this does not explain the success of right-wing populist, xenophobic and reactionary thinking. This purely economic thesis sometimes sounds like the left-wing equivalent to the oversimplified AfD-story of overwhelming immigration as an explanation for almost everything. There is precarity in the well-to-do classes. They are the losers of modernisation in the sense that they have lost the authority to consistently say what is the right way of life.

But this has been developing for a while.

Indeed. For three decades, sociologists have been continuously diagnosing new complexities – and thereby underestimate the force of inertia of well-established institutions and forms of life. Therefore, a culture war arises between winners and losers in the fight for the power of definition and over what can be said. A previously excluded third party is now entering this battlefield: refugees. One party can show solidarity with them, the other can’t. For those who feel dependant on their power to define, the refugees are proof that everything here is going wrong.

A lot of this sounds like what the CDU used to say in the past.

At least until the 1970s, yes. The change is most visible in the CDU/CSU.

How fundamental is the change of power among the people who have a say in deciding what is considered as normal? As fundamental as the change from nobility to the bourgeoisie as the leading class?

I would not call it a real change of era. Quite the contrary: it is almost as if what had always been promised by the Enlightenment is now coming to pass. It is always about establishing new speakers: the lower classes, people who have a different denomination, women, people who are culturally and ethnically different, homosexuals. There are increasingly fewer groups who can clearly assert themselves over others. Until recently, that was a privilege for well-educated, native, heterosexual men with careers…

that is, for old, white men.

This is what they are disrespectfully called – it’s culturally symbolic, standing for these new rights. At some points, there have certainly been semantic exaggerations, in academic environments, for example. But all of that is just a symbol for the fact that the issue of the power of definition of what is valid, has become more confusing. In any case, these rights don’t make the world simpler, instead they reorganise power options. Right-wing populism all over Europe has, at any rate, shifted the focus from questions of distribution to questions of cultural definitions.

What is the AfD’s utopia?

The 1950s. That’s why they jump at everything that was different back then. Why are people interested in gender roles today? Why are they interested in sexuality? Why do people talk about migration? Because it was the time of the self-sufficient, homogeneous nation-state, where the foreigner really was a stranger. Back then, even the Frenchman was a stranger. But today, not even the AfD could say that without sounding ridiculous. The utopia is a less complex society.

And what is the alternative utopia, more complexity? That doesn’t sound very appealing.

The question is how we can become more resistant to deviations in a volatile world, how we can better tolerate what is different. Since this is difficult at the moment, many people are content with very simple explanations. This applies to the whole arsenal of right-wing cultural criticism, to the left-wing illusion that everything is just a problem of distribution. Maybe we need a completely new understanding of what makes up modern conditions of life, which we possibly still envisage far too much in terms of the categories of the classical industrial society’s institutions.

Original in German/auf Deutsch: „Die Diskussion ist vergiftet“

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