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Crisis in Berlin and Paris

Dr Christina Fuhr reflects on the recent event “Crisis in Berlin and Paris: Diversity, Culture, and the Good Life”.

Europe has been hit by various crises in recent years: (1) the financial crisis followed by a time of austerity, (2) the terrorism and national security crisis reflected in the targeted murders of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and shoppers at a kosher superstore in January 2015 as well as in the mass shootings in November 2015 in Paris and the aftermath, and, (3) the refugee crisis – particularly visible in Germany.

Je suis Charlie

Place de la Republique, Paris (Olivier Ortelpa)

Dr Samuel Everett and Dr Jan-Jonathan Bock shone a light on the responses to those crises at the Woolf Institute’s Research Group Seminar held on Thursday 18th February 2016.

Both are research fellows at the Woolf Institute and work on a comparative European study on community-based responses to the current uncertainties in Europe in Berlin, London, Paris, and Rome known as the “Trust Project”.

For this project, Dr Samuel Everett is located in Paris to research the social arms of organizations in Jewish and Muslim communities and how they speak with the French state and local church structures. By looking at faith-based community organizations, Dr Everett found that there are two different directions in which French civil society has been moving since the financial crisis and the terror attacks.

In his presentation, he argued that, on the one hand, discursive tensions among Jews and Muslims have increasedly fuelled, in part by broader and often politically-inflected perceptions of minority-majority power imbalances and preferences, state budgetary austerity, the reinforcement of security due to terrorism, and a curtailment of religious freedoms. On the other hand, emanating from a feeling of solidarity and concern, there has been an injection of civil goodwill, public and private money, and a widespread positive national projection into the idea of vivre ensemble (togetherness). Community organizations can provide a secure space where difficult questions about power differentials and civil responsibility are openly discussed and tensions can be diffused; an important mechanism to prevent societal retreat.

The hope is that charitable organizations, in particular faith-based ones, will sustain their positive response to the French crisis by helping to uphold freedom of expression and show their social solidarity at a cross-community level. Dr Everett concluded that this is necessary in order to create thinking and movement that will shape understanding and an inclusive and dynamic society.

The second presentation focused on another crisis: the so-called refugee crisis in Germany. Dr Jan-Jonathan Bock, who is spending a year in Berlin to research trust in community life and state institutions, asked the following question in his paper: What impact does this perception of crisis have on German citizens and on ideas of grassroots involvement? Dr Bock found that the influx of refugees has produced new but polarised forms of political engagement: Pro-European Germans on the left-side of the political spectrum who have long been disappointed with Angela Merkel’s cautious and risk-averse centrist politics – with the Chancellor failing to take a stand on issues they consider important, such as global injustice, Middle East suffering, or the humiliation of European partners – have found a new way to engage politically. The unprecedented arrival of refugees, with which state institutions have struggled to cope, afforded them an opportunity to experiment with new forms of political engagement such as by welcoming refugees and facilitating their integration into Germany society. This new form of activism has also provided them with a mechanism to shape future Germany according to their beliefs and outlook, creating a more diverse and humane civil society.

Refugee picnic (Jan Jonathan-Bock)

Refugee picnic in Germany (Jan-Jonathan Bock)

On the other side are the conservatives who have become frustrated with the Chancellor’s purportedly liberal politics particularly her pro-refugee stance fuelled by a fear of a financial upheaval in a time of austerity and of a cultural catastrophe, and exacerbated by longstanding discontentment with liberal family models and lenience towards Southern Europe. They found an outlet for expressing opposition in the new right-wing movements PEGIDA ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident’ and AFG ‘Alternative for Germany’. As some protesters said during an AFG rally:

The CDU [centre-right party] isn’t organizing this protest, only the Alternative for Germany, so we need to come here.

In his conclusion, Dr Bock addressed the challenges Germany is facing in the future. He suggested that a particular, pressing question emerges in the current political climate: how will Germans negotiate the ability to live a good life in a much more culturally diverse society?’

In summary, both of the papers highlighted the powerful role community groups can play in responding to crisis and in creating new meanings of a good life. In democratic European nations where political participation remains most active during elections, the papers have shown that community groups can provide a continuous mechanism for citizens to engage politically, shape their societies and with it the future of Europe – for better or worse.

This article is written by Dr Christina Fuhr who is a Junior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute. Christina is also working on the Trust Project which examines trust and interfaith cooperation in Berlin, Paris, Rome and London. Christina completed her doctorate on Jewish identity construction and perpetuation in contemporary Britain at the University of Oxford.

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