Fortress Europe

by Katrin Trüstedt

Political debates in Europe these days seem to have only one subject. At one point or another they all turn to the issue of migration, Islam, and a danger to “the West”, which are presented as essentially synonymous. Germany’s political future seems currently to hang in the balance over the so-called “migration master plan” by German secretary of the interior Horst Seehofer. The polemical campaign of the CSU to win back voters from right wing parties threatens to blow up the German government and thereby endangers the future of Europe. In a time when it is increasingly difficult to deny the immense scale of suffering both in the places from which a majority of the refugees escape to Europe, and in the border areas they find themselves in, the construct of a “Fortress Europe” is being strengthened not only by physical and political, but also by rhetorical barriers. Returning to stereotypes of foreign invasions overrunning a weakened West, mainstream debates are drawing on old images already used in anti-Semitic propaganda of the early 20thcentury.

Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, which recently re-entered the German discourse in form of a movie adaptation, seems to offer the apt allegory for the current phantasma. Perhaps its biggest accomplishment lies in foregrounding the strong but mostly implicit connection of this type of xenophobia with issues of gender and sexuality. The weakened West is depicted here in terms of the decline of the male, bored, and sexually frustrated protagonist who shows uncanny features of an Incel, and to whom the Islamic Other taking over France seems to offer a model for a renewed masculinity putatively under attack in post-feminism Europe. Ultimately, the only solution for the protagonist is a submission to the spreading Islam in order to restore patriarchy and repair his unsettled and offended masculinity with the vision of underage virgins. In all its absurdity, the novel points to an implicit thread of the new right wing discourses presently targeting Islam as the privileged enemy: that of a threatened masculinity. Informed by images of young Islamic men overrunning a decadent West unable to protect itself, the European discourse on refugees is deeply gendered and sexualized.

The recent film adaption of Submission aired prominently and highly curated on German television. Much advertised and covered in newspapers, it was framed by related talk shows supposedly discussing the depicted problems. Both the film and the respective talk shows, however, failed spectacularly in addressing the actual issues, concerning, for instance, the danger of its images, while claiming to give voice to the “worries of concerned citizens”: Islam taking over Europe. If there is a merit to Houellebecq’s novel, it probably lies the ambivalence of the protagonist, threatened and simultaneously attracted by his own phantasma of an Islamic masculinity. The eponymous submission to Islam, that the German audience identifying with the protagonist seem to fear the most, is presented as a danger to such a degree that it apparently becomes irresistible. Both the film and the talk shows, however, freed the novel of any satirical ambivalence and instead naturalized the fabricated conflict of “Islam vs us” in line with much of the recent political debate.

The public broadcasters ARD and ZDF, apparently obsessed with the issue of refugees and Islam, are thereby ironically helping the right wing party AfD that deems them to be the paradigm of the mainstream media fake news conspiracy against the German Volk. Featuring questions like “To what extent is it possible to integrate young men who have fled from war and archaic societies? How unsafe is Germany as a result of them?” (ARD’s main talk show Hart Aber Fair); “Are we too tolerant towards Islam?” (the title of Maischberger’s talk show as advertised in TV listings; the program’s title was then changed to: “The Islam debate: where does our tolerance end?”); “Refugees and criminality”, and “Beethoven or Burka?”, these shows assume two separate, stable, and mutually exclusive opposites. Implicit in these discourses is the phantasmatic projection of a feared and envied manliness onto “Islam”, reinforcing the xenophobia they claim to just “represent” and discuss.

Dracula-1931-crop-1The image of the Other as a threatening masculinity is already part of the anti-Semitic propaganda of the late 19thand early 20thcentury. The body of the newly established nation was often depicted as a female body, and mostly Jewish migrants were depicted as male potential perpetrators. One paradigmatic personification was that of Dracula as a foreigner invading from the East to penetrate both the nation and the innocent sleeping girls representing it, ultimately infiltrating and ruining not only the purity of the body but also that of the soul, as the girls become promiscuous as a result of the vampire bite. Such a topos was heavily used in infamous Nazi propaganda, as in the Nazi movie “Jud Süß“, where the pristine German girl, raped by “the Jew”, had to drown herself for the men to bond together over this sacrifice and rise up to a newly found manliness, kicking out the foreigners penetrating and infecting the body of the German Volk.

Against this background it seems hard to fathom how such a stereotype could be invoked in a new guise on German prime time and taxpayer funded national TV. In the latest debate on refugees that could bring the current administration to an end, the secretary of the interior Seehofer obviously attempts to adopt the pose of masculinity by appearing extra tough “at Germany’s borders”, opposed to the putatively “soft” and corrupted Merkel. “The Merkelwhore let’s everybody in,” wrote an AfD politician who is now the head of the budgetary parliamentary committee in an infamous e-mail.

Accepting the increasingly dominant Islam after a life of frustration among woman who can actually reject him, Houellebecq’s anti-hero ends with the vision of veiled and compliant girls, not threatening his masculinity, but rather looking up to their obviously pathetic husband. The irony of the book seems lost on the movie and on the public debate. Instead, it reproduces the image linking xenophobia to an Islamic masculinity threatening a Europe already weakened by the dissolution of patriarchy. As dangerous as the present coalition crisis in Germany is on its own, the underlying phantasmatic rhetoric at the heart of German public discourse could in the long run prove to be even more fateful.