crossXwords

April 6, 2008

“Ethno-nonsense”? Language and citizenship

Filed under: Multilingualism / Territories / Migration — Eurozine @ 17:47

By CARL HENRIK FREDRIKSSON

In a refreshingly vivacious interview (“You’ve got to swing your hips!”), German author Feridun Zaimoglu, pioneer of the “Kanak” school of fiction, talks about language as the key to political participation (the interview is available in Eurozine in English and German):

Ali Fathollah-Nejad: But politics is only possible through participation. Yet in our society there aren’t that many people with a non-German background who take part in public discourse.
Feridun Zaimoglu: That’s changing.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad: But it can only be changed through education?
Feridun Zaimoglu: It can be changed above all by means of the German language. For the sake of the children’s future we shouldn’t moan about German being compulsory. That’s yet another piece of ethno-nonsense. And then all these Turkish spokesmen come along, and these lefty liberals, all these jokers, and they tell us “Oh, but we can’t ask that of the children.” You twits! How much do you earn in a month? You’ve got it made. What is participation? Involvement starts from early childhood. When my parents couldn’t go through my homework with me at primary school, what are we supposed to say about that? That’s a built-in disadvantage right from the off. Yeah, so what? Did I cry? Did I hell! I fell for Petra at school and wanted to impress her. I wanted to stand out a bit by using classy German. You can’t say “Oi, mate!” to a woman! So what sources of motivation do people have? Politics is all well and good, but when the political class ignores the human situation, it gets detached and loses touch with reality. You’ve always got to look at what’s going on at the bottom!”

The language issue seems to me to be absolutely crucial in the debate about citizenship and integration. Attempts at defining specific “cultural identities” that function as benchmarks of or criteria for national citizenship (a trend which in Boris Buden’s article is exemplified by the policy of Hessen but which is by no means exclusive to Germany) often go hand in hand with demands of a certain mastery of the language of particular national public spheres. While it is easy to dismiss the former as absurd instances of identitarian politics, the latter remain a real problem.

Notwithstanding that the realpolitik often fail to recognize the heterogeneous backgrounds of people applying for citizenship (how can one, for example, expect an old woman from rural Anatolia, who can neither read nor write Turkish, Kurdish or any other language, to learn German by attending an obligatory three-month course?) focusing on language skills can be part of a policy that aims at empowering citizens rather than discriminating between them.

Obviously, if one subscribes to a Habermasian view of the public sphere — a space for communicative generation of public opinion and a vehicle for citizen empowerment — as being a fundamental element of any democratic political community one has to recognize language mastery as a key element of citizenship. Habermas’ classical (“bourgeois”) theory of the public sphere presupposes (or presupposed) not only a national territory and citizenry but also a national language. The problem is that later attempts at developing a “post-bourgeois” (and in some cases also a post-national) theory of the public sphere have failed to give a sufficiently realistic account of language as the basis for participation in public life. Nancy Fraser, for example, has presented a highly interesting critique of Habermas, showing how problematic the presupposition of a monolingual public sphere is, but as she develops her alternative theory the language problem remains unsolved.

In short: Is Brecht’s Italian restaurant keeper, mentioned in Boris Buden’s article, really a citizen?

2 Comments

  1. […] »a refreshingly vivacious interview« (Carl H. Frederiksson) German author Feridun Zaimoglu, pioneer of the “Kanak” school of fiction (the migrant underworld described in the vernacular of its young male protagonists), has begun narrating from the Muslim woman’s perspective. In his latest novel Leyla, a Turkish woman tells about her life in Germany; while in a new work for theatre entitled Schwarze Jungfrauen (Black Virgins), young Muslim women talk openly about sex. In March 2007, Zaimoglu ruffled feathers when he gave up his place at an official conference on Muslims in Germany in protest at the non-attendance of young ordinary Muslims and criticized feminist former-Muslims for demonizing young Muslim women. With characteristic verve, he explained to Ali Fathollah-Nejad why the discourse in Germany operates double values when it comes to the questions of multiculturalism and integration. […]

    Pingback by “You’ve got to swing your hips!” – A conversation with Feridun Zaimoğlu. | Ali Fathollah-Nejad — November 14, 2009 @ 00:15

  2. […] »a refreshingly vivacious interview« (Carl H. Frederiksson) German author Feridun Zaimoglu, pioneer of the “Kanak” school of fiction (the migrant underworld described in the vernacular of its young male protagonists), has begun narrating from the Muslim woman’s perspective. In his latest novel Leyla, a Turkish woman tells about her life in Germany; while in a new work for theatre entitled Schwarze Jungfrauen (Black Virgins), young Muslim women talk openly about sex. In March 2007, Zaimoglu ruffled feathers when he gave up his place at an official conference on Muslims in Germany in protest at the non-attendance of young ordinary Muslims and criticized feminist former-Muslims for demonizing young Muslim women. With characteristic verve, he explained to Ali Fathollah-Nejad why the discourse in Germany operates double values when it comes to the questions of multiculturalism and integration. […]

    Pingback by “You’ve got to swing your hips!” – A conversation with Feridun Zaimoğlu. | Ali Fathollah-Nejad | Official Website — August 27, 2012 @ 02:38

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress