Alex Shams: On Munich and Whiteness

Alex Shams is an Iranian-American journalist and a PhD student of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.

He is an editor-in-chief of Ajam Media Collective (, a platform focused on culture and society throughout Iran as well as Central and South Asia, and he also regularly blogs on his Facebook page.

Why did the Munich killer beg us to see him as German?

Around and around we go.

Yesterday, an 18-year old man named David Ali Sonboly, born and raised in Germany with an Iranian immigrant background, carried out a shooting in Munich during which he yelled “I Am German!”, complained about being bullied for years, reportedly made disparaging remarks about Turks, and ended up killing 10 people including himself.

The killer was obsessed with mass shootings, and his room was full of documents exploring school shootings. Police also said there was an “obvious link between the gunman and Norway’s mass killer Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 people in July 2011,” who was a white supremacist hoping to target “multiculturalism” in his killings.

Sonboly appeared to have been attracted to his right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric, a fact that manifested in the fact that of the nine people he killed, at least three were reported to be Turks, three were Kosovans, and one was Greek. He had also apparently previously converted from Shia Islam to Christianity sometime before.

And yet, suddenly, the fact that this boy was of Iranian heritage is a major story in the US media, and the usual suspects even called for Muslim leaders and Islam to be put on trial for his actions.

Disturbingly, during the rampage itself, an onlooker even yelled “fucking foreigners” at the shooter, as if throwing a slur his way would help calm the situation.

Instead of having a conversation about violence in the West, about masculinity and gun culture, about bullying in schools particularly against children of immigrants, they want to talk about Islam. Why not ask:

Why would a young man feel so bullied and targeted that he would feel the need to claim his Germanness while killing people?

What pushes victims of bullying to engage in acts of horrifying violence themselves?

What effect does a climate of racist intolerance, in which the anti-immigrant rightwing is gaining unprecedented power across Europe and the US, have on second-generation immigrant children in the West?

Why are 98% of mass killings carried out by men?

Instead of a real conversation about any of these issues, the main focus becomes whether or not he had ISIS links.

It is much easier to look to Iraq and Syria to blame, it seems, than to investigate what factors in our societies causes such incidents. Make no mistake about it: this violence is a product of our own society.

Beside these questions, another central problem is emerging, one that points to the complexities of identity for children of immigrants, particularly from Iran.

It appears that the killer was influenced by the writings of right-wing, Islamophobic European extremists and was distinctly full of hate toward immigrants in general and Turks in particular.

Many are now asking how a child of Iranian immigrants could have become infatuated with right-wing White nationalism. While nothing is certain, it is possible to speculate on the reasons for the emergence of such an ideology, or at least such a sympathy.

Some Iranians – particularly in the Diaspora – subscribe to the “Aryan” racial theory promoted by European thinkers in the earlier 20th century. This combines with their dislike for their own government – which too often translates into rabid Islamophobia, as they are unable to distinguish between the actions of the Iranian government and Islam as a whole – to emerge into a disgusting mix of pseudo-scientific racial ideology that sees “Iranians” as “Aryan brothers.”

Adopting this weird ideology is fundamentally an attempt by Iranians in the Diaspora assimilate, to distinguish themselves from other immigrants by claiming to be as close to Europe and Whiteness as possible.

It is all-too-common in late-night chatboards frequented by young, male Iranian teenagers in Diaspora, i.e. people like David Sonboly. I know this because as an Iranian-American myself, I have come face to face with these theories time after time, and tried my utmost to debunk them.

Although it was largely abandoned in Europe after being put to use by Hitler in the Holocaust, in Iran (and India) the idea that Indians, Iranians, and Europeans shared a genetic Aryan lineage and that this lineage distinguished them from “mongrel” Turks, Arabs, and “Muslims” as a category more broadly still holds certain sway.

Right-wing European extremism intersects perfectly with this Aryanist theory in its flagrant and violent Islamophobia, where hatred for Islam, for Arabs, for Turks, and for all others who don’t fit into the “Aryan theory” all come together in a disgustingly racist maelstrom.

This is a wake up call for the Iranian diaspora: enough with these pseudo-scientific racialist theories, enough with this Islamophobia disguised as critique of the Iranian government, enough with these attempts to assimilate by aiming to prove our Whiteness by all means possible.

But it is also, as I mentioned before, a wake up call for all of us – about how we think about violence, about how we think about masculinity, and about we think about identity.

What circumstances drive a young man to cling to a theory of racial superiority and beg onlookers to a massacre he is perpetrating to recognize him as German, and not as a foreigner?

This article is an expanded version published on MuslimGirl.Net original written as a series of Facebook posts on the author’s page.

13 thoughts on “Alex Shams: On Munich and Whiteness

  1. “What effect does a climate of racist intolerance, in which the anti-immigrant rightwing is gaining unprecedented power across Europe and the US, have on second-generation immigrant children in the West?”

    You’ve completely missed out the fact he was not bullied by white Germans for being foreign, he was bullied by Turks and Arabs at school, which is why he hated them and targeted Turkish teenagers to kill in McDonalds. You also arrogantly dismiss Iranian concerns about Islam when Iranians mostly live in the west because of Islam’s influence in Iran. Why shouldn’t Iranians be worried about Islam? With that said, Ali Sonboly never referenced Islam in his killings, so to jump to the conclusion about so called ‘Islamophobia’ is wrong.

    Many Iranians live in European countries because of the negative influence Islam has on Iranian society, they move into neighbourhoods with high Muslim populations, and then their kids come face to face with conservative Turkish and Arab Muslims that bully and harass them either for being ‘Shia’, ‘acting white’, being ‘secular’, etc. It’s an all too common theme for Iranian kids growing up in Germany, Sweden and other European countries. That has nothing to do with Aryan racial theories, which are hardly even popular among the Iranian diaspora.

  2. He didn’t say: “I’m Aryan like you”.

    He just said “I’m German. I was born here”, like any German-born Turk would have done in the same situation.

    Also, ethnic riots in Germany arise mainly between different groups of immigrants. The real Germans only look on in angst.

    Particularly young male Muslims show little respect for German values and police.

    With the guy complaining to have been bullied by Turks, how can you put the blame on Western society?

  3. Sorry, but your transcript of the video is wrong, so are your conclusions.

    I lived for 16 years in Munich. Ali was mobbed in school for 7 years by a Turkish/Arab gang in his neighborhood. He intended to hit his tormentors — not randomly kill.

  4. To have to address the violence embedded in ‘whiteness’,the distorted masculinities of the west, the bullying that turns normal human beings into cornered beasts, the outsourcing of demons to the face of the ‘other’ would mean a declaration that the hegemony is broken, the white emperor naked, and the illusions of self glory are crumbling. Now why would anyone wish to admit publicly that they have been full o the kind of fsh*t that destroys lives?

  5. This article is pure BS! David Ali had a Turkish flag on his Facebook profile. How did he come to be an Iranian Shii’te if he was obviously supporting Turkey and Sunni islam instead? Who told you that he converted to Christianity? Actually he was not a Shii’te, he must have been a Sunni Muslim, and he did not pleged to Breivik “anti-Muslim” speech. He just studied his methods for mass killing, as well as he also studied the Afghan boy axe attack in the Munich train station and many other mass killings just to get the best method to kill people. You’re obviously a liar and pro-Islam manipulator of the truth. Shame on you!

  6. The kid just had mental issues. He wasn’t an aryanist for God sake. Most Iranians don’t even consider europeans to be Aryans anyways, at all.

  7. There’s some truth to the Aryan racial theory, DNA analysis proves R1a spread from Iran: ‘Based on spatial distributions and diversity patterns within the R1a-M420 clade, particularly rare basal branches detected primarily within Iran and eastern Turkey, we conclude that the initial episodes of haplogroup R1a diversification likely occurred in the vicinity of present-day Iran.’

  8. many Albanians are also attracted by the Aryan race theory, why the second generation of Muslim families, that are also white people and easier to camouflage themselfs as “germans”, are not infatuated with right-wing White nationalism, why the “Islamophobia” cause opposite effects in them, because are white or becasuse are sunni?!

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