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 (AjamMC.com), 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?