Germany's New Interior Minister Angers Country’s Muslim Leaders

Hans-Peter Friedrich has upset Muslims before with his historical views. Now, critics say, he hit more bad notes during the annual Islamic Conference, where he invited Muslim participants to form a "security partnership."

Freia Peters

Already lambasted for saying Islam has no historical connection to Germany, newly anointed Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friederich (CSU) dug himself a bigger hole at his debut this week at an annual conference meant to help integrate Muslims into German society.

Calling for a "security partnership," Friedrich invited Islamic conference participants to "act together to prevent radicalization and extremism." The interior minister called specifically for more vigilance in Muslim organizations and cultural centers. The conference took place Monday in the iconic German Historical Museum in Berlin.

While recognizing that Islamic extremism is indeed a problem, critics said Friedrich's focus on security was counterproductive. Rather than encourage cooperation, many of the Muslim group members in attendance said, his comments ended up arousing suspicion.

Aiman ​​Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims, went as far as to say the conference failed. He described the meeting as a "security conference in disguise." "We're conducting phantom debates. I don't know how the conference is going to move forward," said Mazyek. "We've been in the same place for years."

In 2006, then Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) organized the first Islamic Conference in order to promote dialogue between the German government and Muslim residents. Stressing that Islam has an important place in Germany, he gathered together representatives of federal, state, local governments as well as members of Muslim associations. But when Friedrich took office earlier this month, he sent a very different signal to Muslims in Germany.

Of course, people of Islamic faith belong to Germany, he conceded, "but to say that Islam belongs to Germany is false, and has not been shown to be so throughout history." Friedrich repeated this statement at the Islamic Conference, asserting that the country has a Christian history. Friedrich argued that, in light of the recent attack at the Frankfurt airport and the "self-radicalization" of young people in Germany, there needs to be a new agenda of prevention and education.

The Interior Minister described the conference as a "very lively discussion." Many observers viewed it as an outright scandal. In a joint statement, nine of the conference's 10 independent Muslim representatives sharply criticized Friedrich, calling on him not to jeopardize the annual meeting's "long-standing efforts towards dialogue, and other recent achievements."

Many observers expected the new minister would employ either charm or symbolic gestures to try to reassure Muslim officials and resolve current tensions. Instead, Friedrich's call for greater cooperation between Muslims and security forces only added more fuel to the fire.

Ihsan Ünlü, the Secretary General of the conservative Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Ditib), said Freidrichs's debut was unfortunate, and that his statements had "not been very conducive for the progress of the conference."

Even moderate, independent Muslim participants criticized the minister's handling of the Conference. Sociologist Turgut Yüksel warned Friedrich against putting all recent progress towards integration at risk, while Abdelmalik Hibaoui, an Islamic scholar, called on Frederick to clear up doubts about his intentions. "Most Muslims do not agree with his statement," said Hibaoui.

Many Muslim conference participants say the fight against extremism is not the only issue that needs urgent attention, with broader questions still unresolved about how Islam will fit into the fabric of German society.

During the conference, Education Minister Annette Schavan (CDU) provided details on how Islamic theology courses are gradually being introduced in German universities. The conference did not, however, focus on the effort by many associations to gain recognition as religious organizations. Such regonition is a prerequisite for introducing denominational Islamic religious instruction in public schools, a goal that has actually reached a cross-party consensus.

"This conference has been indecent," said Renate Kuenast, parliamentary leader of the German Green Party. "With the new Interior Minister Friedrich, the Islamic Conference has failed as a path towards integration."

"Friedrich is trying to enlist Muslim associations as deputy sheriffs," added Mement Kilic, integration policy spokesman for the Green party. "The Interior Minister still owes German Muslims a well-focused debate concerning integration policies in the coming years."

Political scientist Hamed Abdel-Samad summed up the mood of the conference as follows: "All substantive issues were overshadowed by Friedrich's comments on Germany and Islam. Many Muslims were very upset. I'm trying to take this lightly, even though his statement is out of place. It is not the job of a politician to naturalize a religion in a society. The discussion of whether or not Islam belongs to Germany does nothing to help the integration progress."

Read the original article in German.

Photo - Libertinus

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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