Berlin, Germany – An activist who had hoped to become Germany’s first Syrian refugee MP has stepped aside after receiving racist abuse and death threats, a move that has prompted calls to protect ethnic minority politicians.
Tarek Alaows, who planned to run for the Green party in September’s election, said this week that he could no longer continue due to the level of threats made against him and his allies.
“The withdrawal of Tarek Alaows needs to be a wake-up call,” said Niema Movassat, a Left party MP with Iranian heritage who represents the Oberhausen, where Aalows lives.
“I was not surprised, because I experience it again and again. This happens very often if you have a migration background yourself, that you experience racism and threats.”
A former law student in Damascus, where he attended anti-government demonstrations, Alaows fled Syria in 2015.
After his arrival in Germany, he campaigned for the rights of refugees and co-founded Seebrücke, which promotes rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
He became Oberhausen’s Green candidate in February and was competing for a place on the party’s state list to run in September, by which time he hoped to have become a German citizen.
“My candidacy has shown that we need strong structures in all parties, politics and society that counter structural racism and help those affected,” he said in a statement released by his local party branch, which added that he would remain out of the public eye for some time.
A number of senior political figures publicly expressed their solidarity and frustration. Heiko Maas, the foreign minister, called the racist abuse “pathetic for our democracy”.
Rising hate speech
Germany’s interior ministry and police authorities have noted rising levels of hate speech and verbal abuse towards politicians, health officials and journalists in the last year.
“Ninety percent of these insults are anonymous,” Movassat told Al Jazeera. “That means, they cannot be attributed – false email addresses, Facebook accounts with a false name … Even where they have a name, nothing usually happens if you file a complaint.”
Movassat wants police and prosecutors to use their powers to investigate these cases and identify the abusers.
Meanwhile, the case of Walter Lübcke stands as a chilling reminder that online threats can precede real violence.
In January, a Frankfurt court handed down a life sentence to a neo-Nazi for the 2019 assassination of Lübcke, a local politician in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. He was targeted for his outspokenly pro-refugee views, and was inundated by death threats before he was shot outside his home.
Movassat said if such abuse goes unchecked, aspiring politicians of colour will have second thoughts before considering a career in politics.
“I think that it also leads, to a certain extent, to people trying to withdraw from public attention when they are in politics. So maybe not to stand out quite so much, not to be so polarising,” he said.
Ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in German politics.
Eight percent of the representatives in its federal parliament are immigrants or have immigrant parents, compared with 22 percent of the population as a whole, according to online platform Media Service Integration.
“I would like the Bundestag to reflect our society, but it doesn’t yet,” said Karim Fereidooni, a professor of social sciences at the University of Bochum. “In my opinion, the parties should think about racism within their own ranks.”
Racism is not a phenomenon limited to the far right, Fereidooni added.
“Even people who wear ties instead of combat boots express themselves in a racist manner,” he said.
This week, German media reported the CDU was postponing drafting a new law to increase state funding to civil society groups fighting “extremism”, out of concerns it would end up benefitting organisations that are “too left”.
To Movassat, it is yet another sign of the government’s inaction.
“It is not only politicians, after all. There are also many people with a migration history who experience racism. And they need help.”