09 February 2021
by Carolin Müller
Migrants have been important actors in grassroots mobilizations that address migrant concerns in Europe (Rosenberger, Stern, and Merhaut 2018). In the case of Germany, for example, migrants and refugees have found different ways of organizing themselves socially and politically (Scharenberg and Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung 2020). Migrants joined left-wing activist groups (AK Wantok 2014) or formed migrant-led advocacy associations in response to growing xenophobia, lack of political representation, discrimination, and racialized violence (Kahveci 2017).
During recent anti-refugee protests in Germany (K. J. Bade 2018), migrant-led networks and organizations became prominent actors for building coalitions with other activist networks (Apraku et al. 2019). Such coalitions mobilized against growing support for right-wing conservative political groups such as the AFD (Alternative for Germany) (Schulz 2018) and the increasing number of violent attacks committed by right-wing extremist groups (Spreter, dpa, and AFP 2020).
Germany has had a complicated relationship accepting its identity as a country of immigration (K.-J. Bade and Oltmer 2005). At the same time, migrants have established themselves as prominent actors in leading activist associations or have formed their own associations and social movements (Goeke 2020). However, the number of migrant-led associations in the Western German States is much larger than in the Eastern German States, a phenomenon of historical contingence caused by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) suppressing community structures among migrant groups and ignoring the growth of right-wing extremist networks in the region. The latter of which continues to be an issue today.
In spite of that, the migrant activist as a figure of social change has grown in significance to contemporary movements for refugee concerns (della Porta 2018), and in research in migration studies (Scharenberg and Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung 2020). There is a need to interrogate prevalent understandings of migrant activists’ positionality in contemporary protest movements in Germany to evaluate the way in which migrants’ engagement in social movements in the country influences migrants’ sense of belonging and opportunities to social and political participation.
The 2015 protests against right-wing movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) in the city of Dresden provide an interesting example. Non-migrant organizations sought out collaborations to organize street protests and community projects, thus refueling social and political interest in underserved networks (Marg et al. 2016; Jakobi 2017; Apraku et al. 2019). Particularly, artists and cultural workers engaged and developed participatory street protests through music (Mueller 2019) and carnivalesque performances. Activist coalitions strove to symbolize alliances between migrant groups and non-migrants that promoted ideas about social inclusion and integration (Dogramaci 2017).
However, scholars of Germany’s migration history point out that the backdrop against which such coalitions and projects arise is often a specific political agenda. Artistic projects that reproduce the language of the state’s political concept of inclusion and integration replicate imperialist concepts that reinstate permanent conditionalities for migrants to belong to and participate in German society.
Post-migratory theory scholar Naika Foroutan argues that when migration and mobility biographies are set center stage in political debates in post-migratory societies like Germany, such debates suppress that there are often other complex power struggles for structural, social, cultural, and identificational recognition at play (Foroutan 2019, 19). In the context of activism that involves migrant activists in Germany, coalitions and allyship do not only produce liberating concepts of social inclusion. The process of coalition formation also engages an orchestration of solidarity that seeks to compensate for past violence and serves the construction of a new collective identity. A coalition between migrant and non-migrant activists is, thus, a performative act that produces a temporary alliance between two groups of people with unequal power relations for the purpose of overcoming a larger issue. However, as my dissertation research on musical activism in Germany suggests, activist spaces are highly contested spaces whose politicization often do not make them into spaces of empowerment for marginalized people, in that they can cause much needed structural change. Activist spaces can also engender migrant activists as caricatures.
Migration studies on migrant activism needs to reflect on the positionality of migrant activists through an intersectional lens (Crenshaw 1989) to identify the conditions under which coalitions between migrant and non-migrant activists form, and to interrogate the singular axes of empowerment through activism. I argue that it is time to throw into crisis the presumption that migrant activists experience empowerment through coalitions with non-migrant activists if such coalitions follow a politicized orchestration of social inclusion in which equality remains conditional. If activists wish to challenge and subvert systemic inequality, and if scholars of migrant activism wish to do their part in this matter, the figure and function of migrant activists needs to be rearticulated. We need to acknowledge the power imbalances in activism and empowerment settings and reveal the limiting conditions under which migrant activists can appear (Arendt 1998) and speak (Spivak 2010) among other activists to form a social alliance against right-wing extremism. We further need to critically evaluate the language of empowerment in scholarship in this field to be able to point out when migrant activists serve the empowerment of non-migrant activists, and to reflect on the conclusions that we may draw from such observations about activism as a space of empowerment for migrants.
 Sociologist Y. Michal Bodemann uses the term “Gedächtnistheater” (Bodemann 1996) to describe such a performative attempt at reconciliation in the context of German-Jewish reconciliation in the post-Holocaust era.
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Carolin Müller is affiliated to the Media Center at the Technical University Dresden, coordinating the international PhD program “Education & Technology”. She was selected as a fellow to the Martin Buber Society of Fellows in 2021. She holds a PhD and a M.A. in German Studies from The Ohio State University and an M.Ed. in English and Art Studies from the Technical University Dresden. Her research is informed by critical theory in citizenship and migration studies, critical race theory and performance studies. She looks at creative acts of citizenship through music, film, and the arts. She also works on recent activist movements, the politics of migrancy as well as representations of oppression and flight in Germany. Her work has been published by on_culture, textpraxis, Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture, Activist History Review, and Border Criminologies.