Kanafanis challenge Austrian integration policy

May 19, 2009 — News

Written by Nina Mühe, Liz Fekete

The Kanafani Inter-Cultural Initiative (Kulturverein Kanafani) in Vienna, which publishes the journal der.wisch, has set itself a goal: to challenge the mainstream political debate in Austria over ‘integration’.

The IRR’s ‘Alternative Voices on Integration’ project attended the Kanafani Inter-Cultural Initiative discussion forum ‘Integration – a miracle cure put to the test’ in Vienna on 5 March 2009.

‘Integration can be compared to a carrot, bound to a stick and hanging in front of a donkey’s nose. Each time the donkey goes forward and tries to reach it, the carrot is just moved further away.’

With these words, the German social scientist and political writer Mark Terkessidis sought to illustrate the often farcical nature of German and Austrian approaches to integration, as well as how government integration policies impact on members of minority communities seeking citizenship via naturalisation. Terkessidis, also a member of the German anti-racist association, Kanak Attak, and a founder of the Institute for Studies in Visual Culture in Cologne, was speaking in front of an audience of over 200 people (a large number of whom were students) at the atmospheric Semper Depot, a former theatrical warehouse in Vienna’s Lehargasse district. The Kanafani Inter-Cultural Initiative and the human rights organisation SOS Mitmensch were the organisers of the event, which was followed the next day by a practical workshop on ‘Exploring the possibilities of anti-racist praxis’.

It was no accident that so many students attended the forum. The Kanafani Inter-Cultural Initiative and Kanak Attak are among a number of exciting movements taking root in various European countries and enjoying considerable support amongst second- and third-generation university-educated migrant youth. (Another such organisation is L’Indigène de la Républic in France.) These initiatives are inspired by Black and Third World radical traditions as well as past and contemporary scholarship on racism, Orientalism and Islamophobia. The Kanafanis, as they have come to be known in popular parlance, are a dynamic group of activists promoting inter-cultural action and alternative political discourse. Through this lecture and its first lecture series on ‘Islam as concept of the enemy’, as well as articles in der.wisch (which we are proud to acknowledge has included translated work from the IRR’s own journal, Race & Class), the Kanafanis are attempting to connect young Austrians to a wider liberatory politics. Hence, the association’s decision to name itself after the great Palestinian novelist and pan-Arabist fighter, Ghassan Kanafani, who believed that students’ education needed to relate to their immediate surroundings. Hence the practical aim of this Kanafani integration forum was to challenge the mainstream understanding of the term integration, to inspire a different and non-stigmatising discourse around Austria’s immigrant communities, and to re-animate the discussion about how best to combat discrimination.

Changing the house, not the inhabitants

The meeting’s moderator, Mona Singer, professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna, introduced Terkessidis as an ‘engaged scholar’, in the tradition of the acclaimed French philosopher and anti-globalisation writer Pierre Bourdieu. In this evening lecture, Terkessidis, drawing on the allegory of the donkey and the carrot, argued that not only is the concept of integration, as used in Germany and Austria, imprecise and inherently unstable, but it acts on the assumption of a norm, defined by the majority, with minorities treated as ‘strangers’ obliged to fit into a fixed and unchanging social structure. Terkessidis felt that there was a need to break with the politically degraded concept of integration and create instead an entirely new political discourse. We must change the house, not the inhabitants, he argued, if we are to bring about societal and institutional change.

While national debates display profound symptoms of political gridlock, Terkessidis felt that in Germany the importation of ‘diversity management’ policies from Scandinavia, and countries such as the UK and the US, had led to positive change at a local and community level. The changing demography of German society might not influence national politics, but if political parties, institutions, and cultural associations were to survive locally, they had to be more open to cultural diversity. Terkessidis concluded by calling for a positive debate that ignored the fiction of a common past in favour of building a common future, a new sense of community making use of the rich potential of cultural diversity with all its challenges.

Terkessidis also touched on the historical context in which German integration policies had evolved (or rather failed to evolve). He maintained that German approaches to integration had stayed largely stagnant since the 1970s when charts to measure ‘cultural closeness’ and ‘social distance’ were first introduced. (Such charts produced a kind of league table of minority assimilation, with Greeks, for instance, regarded as more difficult to integrate than the Spanish, and Turks ranked on the very lowest level of integration.) It is a debate, said Terkessidis, that tends to speak in apocalyptical terms about impending fire (Brandherde), the source of which could be found in problematic patriarchal family structures within immigrant communities (read Turks), and the threat posed by ‘ghetto formation’ as second- and third-generation youths failed to advance educationally.[1] How can such a continued debate be relevant, asked Terkessidis, in the diverse societies, cities and districts in Germany and Austria today?

Provoking discussion

The lecture was followed by an animated discussion, focussing on whether a society with a common future needed also a common set of values, or whether universal human rights standards and constitutional guarantees of democratic freedoms were enough to ensure a common future, from which newcomers were not constantly locked out. Some members of the audience questioned whether diversity management, which they saw as a neoliberal concept, could be a useful tool in the fight against injustice. But Terkessidis maintained that whereas this was a legitimate criticism in the US context, diversity management in Germany, where disadvantage and ethnic origin had now become synonymous, was a significant step forward. In the absence of anti-discrimination laws, notoriously weak in Germany [2] ‘diversity management’ strategies imported from abroad have promoted much needed institutional change at the grassroots, he said.[3]

For the Kanafanis, the event had had a significant impact. Not only had it attracted a large audience but also it had resulted in significant newspaper and radio coverage. ‘Each lecture we organise draws in new sets of people’, Baruch Wolski told us. ‘When we invited Étienne Balibar, a lot of students came to the lecture. Now, university professors are taking note of our forums, as well as the articles we reproduce in our journal der.wisch; they are seeing that there are new writers out there and adding their names to university reading lists. We are gaining in relevance. Sometimes you are astonished. We are being noticed, and that is really beautiful to see.’

Related links

Kanafani Inter-Cultural Initiative

IRR Alternative Voices on Integration project

Read an IRR News story: Austria: ‘provoking and connecting’ the Kanafani way

[1] In fact, the fault lies in the historical failure of the German educational system to adapt to the needs of Turkish pupils. According to Stephen Castles, until at least the late 1970s, virtually nothing was done to prepare teachers for the task of teaching foreign children (in particular there was no specialist teacher training). In effect, the education system worked to virtually guarantee the second-generation immigrants remained at the lowest occupational and social levels of society. (See Stephen Castles, 'The social time-bomb: education of an underclass in Germany', Race & Class (Vol. XXI, no. 4, Spring 1980). Today, the differences in the educational performance of immigrant children and native students is more pronounced in Germany than in almost any of the forty other countries studied by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). [2] See Marcus Lieppe, 'Reports from a developing country: on the failure of the anti-discrimination law and the perspectives thereafter', Statewatch (Vol. 16, no.3-4, May-July 2006). [3] In Austria, the focus has been less on the anti-discrimination laws than the complete failure of the criminal justice system to deal with racial violence as well as institutionalism racism within the police. See Amnesty International, 'Victim or Suspect - A Question of Colour: racial discrimination in the Austrian Justice System' (AI Index: EUR 13/002/2009).Kulturverein Kanafani, Postfach 143, 1070 Vienna, Austria. Email: der.wisch@kanafani.at. Web: www.kanafani.at.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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