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“Are We German or German-Iranian?”: Reflections On Identity In the Wake of the Munich Attack

The following is a guest article written by Shaliz Navab and Neda Ghotbi. Shaliz is an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. She was a manager of the Refugee Speaker Programme for the Scottish Refugee Council in Glasgow and works with diaspora youth communities through Iranian Alliances Across Borders. Neda is a medical student of the LMU Munich and is also involved in refugee activism in Germany. This article reflects their preliminary research on the diaspora Iranian community in Germany.

Part of the memorial for victims of the shooting, in Marienplatz Munich’s city center. The handwritten poster reads, “Love is stronger than hate.”

Part of the memorial for victims of the shooting, in Marienplatz Munich’s city center. The handwritten poster reads, “Love is stronger than hate.”

On July 22nd, 2016, Ali  D. Sonboly, an 18 year-old male, shot nine people and injured approximately thirty-six more in Munich. On the day before, Sonboly had used a fake Facebook profile to announce free food at a popular McDonalds.. At around 5pm, he opened fire on passers-by and later took his own life. The tragedy rocked Munich, and residents were left with deep sorrow and endless questions.

In the aftermath of the fatal shooting, inquiries into Sonboly’s identity and background grew. At a press conference following the day after, the Munich police used the term “German-Iranian” to describe the Sonboly’s background. A video depicting a heated argument between Sonboly and a local resident during the shooting surfaced on the Internet. In the clip, Sonboly declared, “I am German!”  and stated that seven years of bullying had forced him to get a gun and kill.

But was he German or German-Iranian?

The reasons for Sonboly’s violence cannot be traced back to his identity, as such gruesome crimes rarely come with a coherent or understandable logic. He was presumably suffering from a depressive disorder and was obsessed with mass shooters. However, as people of Iranian descent having grown up in Munich ourselves, we took an interest in exploring the term “German-Iranian.”

Sonboly’s case raises the question of whether hyphenated national identities make sense within German society. He saw himself as a German; the general public seems to disagree.

Currently, there are an estimated 120,000 people of Iranian heritage in Germany. This constitutes the third-largest Iranian diaspora community, after the United States and Canada, with its roots dating back to 1962.

One of the interviewees points out a sticker on a street lantern “No color for Nazis!”

Unlike the large-scale movement of Southern European, Turkish, and Yugoslavian “guest-workers” to Germany, Iranian immigration was limited and of a very particular class – mostly consisting of students from middle and upper-class backgrounds, and families associated with the former monarchy. Migration peaked after the Islamic Revolution, with approximately 67,000 Iranians moving to Germany between 1981-1990, the majority of which were professionals, entrepreneurs, and academics.

Although Iranian immigrants were not considered guest-workers, they were undoubtedly affected by underlying ideas around the integration of these immigrants. Grounded in the assumption that guest-workers’ stay was only temporary, German government “did not think it necessary to develop any socio-political or infrastructural concepts to account for longer term residence.”  In fact, integration only became a legal requirement within the German political agenda in 2005 with the implementation of the new immigration law. By this point, 17.9% of the German population had a “migration background,” the highest majority of which belonged to the Turkish diaspora now totaling nearly 3 million people in Germany. Dual citizenship for some countries and the ability to acquire a German passport upon birth had only been introduced as a legal option in  the year 2000.

These changes in citizenship and immigrant are critical for understanding a German-Iranian identity. In this article, we explore this concept through 11 interviews with members of Munich’s Iranian diaspora community. Most of these interviews were conducted with youth between the ages of 11 and 25 who were born to Iranian parents in Germany, although one of the interviewees is 57-years-old and moved to Germany from Iran at the age of three in 1962. The findings of these interviews suggest that so-called German-Iranians do not simply see themselves as a hyphenated identity but rather have various individual concepts thereof.

For the majority of the interviewees, this was their first time hearing the term. “German-Iranian? I don’t like it,” expressed 20-year-old Matin who has an Iranian mother and German father. “It sounds strange, artificial. Like it’s not meant to exist.” Others, such as 23-year-old Sara, born and raised in Germany to Iranian parents, gave a completely different response, “Sure! I use it to describe myself in job applications. So far, it’s only been an advantage.”

Most of the answers, however, fell within a broad spectrum of “I don’t knows,“Hmmms,” and “I guess that could be referring to me?”

Members of Munich’s Iranian diaspora community expressing their support for the Iran Nuclear Deal in central Odeonsplatz square on the 16 th of August 2015.

Members of Munich’s Iranian diaspora community expressing their support for the Iran Nuclear Deal in central Odeonsplatz square on the 16 th of August 2015.

“Because I don’t look German”

If German-Iranian does not describe your identity, what does?

Answers varied. “I just say that my parents are from Iran, but I was born and raised in Germany. It’s up to them what they think of it,” answers 22-year-old Reza. “I never say I am German, I say I am originally from Iran,” says Sara, also born and raised in Germany. “How can I be German if my parents aren’t German?” asks 13-year-old Ramin, also a German passport-holder. “I never say I am German,” said several others, including 11-year-old Leyla and 18-year-old Dariush. This phrase was often followed by a short and explanatory “because I don’t look German.”

In every interview, the topic of “looking German” took shape in one form or another. Even those who did self-identify as German admitted that they frequently received follow-up questions about their appearance and origins.

The interviewees described facing discrimination based on their physical appearance.  “Looking anything darker than European, your skin, your hair, that’s what sets you apart,” Dariush stated. “You can tell you don’t look German by the way the old people stare at you in the subway, the way they tilt their heads,” says 15-year-old Nojan. “Sometimes they even get up and go sit somewhere else,” Reza mentions.

At the same time, most interviewees embraced their perceived “otherness.” “Lately, I am starting to feel more Iranian than German,” expresses Saum, an 11-year-old with a cheeky smile, laughing and shrugging. Most expressed pride in their Iranian identity, and values.

57-year-old Reyhaneh identified the privilege some diaspora Iranians enjoy based on their education. “When I encounter racism in Germany, like a cashier assuming I don’t speak the language and speaking to me in broken German, I am privileged enough to have my education to fall back on. I respond in perfect German and embarrass them for their attempts to discriminate against me. My Turkish-German friend Aylin, on the other hand, does not have this opportunity, she was never taught to speak German correctly. When people insult her based on her ethnicity, she is forced to stay silent.”

Although the language barrier tends to be less of an issue for second generation immigrants, encounters between the German and Iranian diaspora communities are frequent. Sara expressed solidarity with other Ausländer (translation: “foreigner”), literally “out-of-country:”

“On my first day of university in Munich, the only people who approached me were other Ausländers, like myself. I think because we see each other as the same.”

Others demonstrated almost the opposite feeling. “Once, in a fight, I was called a stupid Turk. I was offended. I am not Turkish!” complained Matin, who later ironically mentioned his frustration with the Iranian diaspora community’s discrimination against Afghans and Pakistanis. Another interviewee complained, “some immigrant groups, like Turks, do not try to integrate. They make it more difficult for migrants like me who are open to integrating.”

Such statements sound like a combination of Iranian diaspora classism and right-wing German racism, two separate communities that, despite their different perspectives, manage to find common ground in scapegoating and exclusion.

Three young men of Iranian heritage chatting whilst enjoying a stroll through the streets of Munich.

Three young men of Iranian heritage chatting whilst enjoying a stroll through the streets of Munich.

That being said, most of those interviewed remained optimistic about the future of multiculturalism in Germany. “I wish people would stop generalizing and labelling,” concludes 18-year-old Taraneh.

“Everyone should try to spread as much love and friendship as possible. This is humanity’s most potent weapon,” says 19-year-old Kaveh. “Society shouldn’t polarize itself like it did when the refugee crisis began, it’s scary to realize how fast that hatred spread.”

Reyhaneh, reminisces about the stark racism that dominated German society fifty years ago when she entered elementary school when some parents would not allow their children to play with her and her sister because of their foreign heritage. Experiences she believes her own children growing up in Germany did not have, due to the way society has progressed over these years. “I want young people of Iranian heritage growing up in Germany to understand how much better it has gotten.”

“I’ve grown up in a very understanding community, it didn’t make a difference where I came from. All my friends are from different places. I’ve gotten to know different cultures. I hope it stays this way and that people’s attitudes don’t change just because a few individuals have decided to commit crimes and bring tragedy to the world,” Reza, 22. Kaveh elaborates, “change happens through empathy and the heart. As long as there is love and a little opportunity in each individual’s life, hate and terror don’t stand a chance.”

From these interviews, we learn that identities caught between diaspora and citizenship remain complicated in Germany. Simple hyphenated labels shroud the nuances that come with Germany’s history of migration and discrimination. Even though these issues are challenging for German society, our interviewees were noticeably optimistic toward their much desired goals of multiculturalism.

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