Mahmoud Jaraba has a doctorate in political science. He critically examines issues around Islamic normativity, Salafism and radicalisation, as well as “parallel justice” and “clan criminality”.
The overwhelming majority of news articles about Arab extended families echo the same warning: “Arab clans” dominate our city and pose a serious threat to its population. Labels like “clan”, “clan crime”, “parallel justice” and “parallel societies” reinforce stereotypes and discredit entire communities. Population groups are ethnicised and culturalised, and then ascribed a tendency towards criminality and violence. Media coverage of criminals from “Arab clans”, who are usually portrayed as ruthless, contributes to the stereotype that all people from a particular clan are violent lawbreakers. Many people with “clan” names, such as Remmo, Al Zein, Miri, Omeirat, are unjustly stigmatised and discriminated against because of these false stereotypes, even though they are not involved in criminal activities. Innocent people bearing these “clan names” are thus often subjected to discrimination, prejudice and stigmatisation. Some even go so far as to change their name to free themselves from this stigma.
Not a homogeneous group
“Arab clans” are often described as strictly hierarchically structured groups with a uniform identity and way of life. However, this is only partially correct. The groups referred to as “Arab clans” in Germany are not clans in the traditional sense, but loosely organised groups of individuals with a common cultural and linguistic background. Therefore, the term clan is often used as a simplification that can lead to misunderstandings about the social structures within German-Arab communities. Since clans are decentralised, their relationships to each other can always change, depending on factors such as personal resources, a conflict-ridden past, shared or separate identities and family interests. As a result, there are no clearly defined alliances and the clan system is not strictly hierarchical. Inter-clan relationships, on the other hand, develop over time and are based on a complex web of historical, cultural and economic factors as well as personal contacts between clan members. For outsiders, it is difficult to fully outline the dynamics of clan interactions.
When we examine the inside of a clan, we find that it is divided into several lineages and sub-clans, which in turn are divided into even smaller family groups (in Arabic: bayts). Depending on the family’s interests and background, each bayt has its own surname, genealogy and economic and social networks. Each bayt makes its own decisions, independent of the overall clan. This means that the individual households have great autonomy and independence within the larger social structure of the clan, which allows for a wide range of opinions and actions among the members.
Moreover, clans are dominated by rivalries and internal conflicts over loyalty and cooperation. The inability of Arab clans to work together effectively to address common problems and challenges has resulted in a divided and weak community. This often leads to instability and lack of cohesion within the community, which hinders progress. In recent years, many internal conflicts have arisen due to differences of opinion and values or family issues, leading to further division and hindering progress towards common goals or cooperation.
Clans are often described as hierarchical groups led by clan elders or family heads who are responsible for organising and controlling the criminal activities of clans as well as their internal operations. However, this is only part of the understanding of clans, as they have complicated social structures, cultural traditions and economic systems, all reflecting their history and values. There is no centralised leadership or other authoritative body that guides the Arab clans in Germany.
There is, however, a loose, decentralised network of community actors whose members voluntarily take responsibility for conflict resolution within their own clans. The role of these family elders is largely symbolic, and their success depends heavily on the willingness of the conflict parties to abide by the decisions they make. This symbolic authority may carry some weight and command respect, but it does not automatically translate into practical power over clans. Therefore, the effectiveness of their role is limited to the extent that they can convince others to follow their decisions and keep the peace. Ultimately, the power lies with the individuals and their close family members to follow the decisions of the family elders.
Not all clan members are criminals
In practice, the media often do not distinguish between criminal and non-criminal “clan members”, as they are all seen as part of a common family set of values and norms. Clan members are accused of being directly or indirectly involved in crimes by remaining silent and refusing to cooperate with the police. Again, this is a sweeping generalisation that ignores the fact that the vast majority of clan members are not criminals. They are associated with the clan merely because they share a historical background or ethnic identity. Or simply because they were born into the clan and therefore have a “clan name”. This ignores the diversity within the clans and the fact that many clan members abide by the law and do not engage in criminal activities, either directly or indirectly.
It is important to judge people on their own merits and not make assumptions about them based on their membership of a particular clan or group. Just because someone is a member of a certain clan does not make them a criminal.
During my research, I met several people who told me that they were discriminated against and prejudged because of their “clan membership”, even though they were not involved in any criminal activities. Some told me that they were looking for housing but were rejected by landlords because of their “clan background”. Others told me that they were treated unfairly at work or that they were refused a job because of their “clan affiliation”. In addition, many families believe that their children are discriminated against at school because of their surname.
Media coverage of “clan crime” has the effect of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, criminal groups have benefited from the sensationalism and extra attention that media coverage provides. They use the free publicity to project an image of power and authority and intimidate their rivals and potential opponents. Such an image gives the criminal groups a psychological advantage in their criminal activities and enables them to better control and exploit their criminal markets. Moreover, they can attract new members and potential collaborators to their criminal organisations, which further strengthens their power and influence. No longer isolated groups, criminal groups have adapted to the digital age and now use social media platforms to expand their reach and carry out their activities. Media coverage helps them maintain their reputation and instil fear in their rivals and the public. The extensive media coverage of their activities and the tracking of all their movements and activities have led to them becoming role models for a new generation that often has no prospects or good role models in their communities.
On the other hand, media coverage has a negative impact on non-criminal “clan members”. They face prejudice and stigmatisation because of their family name. As some family members told me, they feel that their family name has been discredited because of the actions of one or a few members who have committed crimes or made mistakes. Some family members have already decided to legally change their name, while others want to distance themselves from criminal persons and their actions.
Women in particular suffer from this dilemma, as they only bear their family name with feelings of shame or guilt. On the one hand, it is difficult to leave the family and start a new life. On the other hand, remaining in an abusive or toxic family environment can have serious consequences for their physical and mental health and hinder their personal development and success.
In addition, media coverage has a growing influence on the younger generation. Third and fourth generation “clan members” in Germany are now seeking their own path and identity outside the traditional clan structure. During my fieldwork, I met many young people who were dissatisfied with being associated with negative stereotypes and cultural practices with which they could not identify. These young people no longer speak Arabic or only at a very basic level. The conflict between their traditional cultural values and the influence of alternative lifestyles leads to an identity crisis in which they feel disconnected from their roots and cannot find their place in society.
As a result of rampant racism and “guilt by association”, they have developed a strong sense of being unwanted in Germany. This feeling of being excluded and unwanted has led to increased social isolation and psychological stress among clan members.
There is no doubt that several individuals or criminal groups within clans are engaged in criminal activities in Germany, and law enforcement agencies should deal with them intensively to ensure security in society. In addition, the media must inform the public about these criminal activities and the potential risks associated with being associated with these criminal groups in order to discourage people from joining or supporting them. This can help promote transparency and awareness-raising, as well as the development of better policies and practices to deal with criminal activities. To avoid harming innocent people and jeopardising ongoing investigations, media coverage should be based on facts and evidence, not sensationalism and speculation. When reporting on criminal activities, the media must act carefully and responsibly to avoid inadvertently aiding criminals or fuelling unnecessary panic.
To address these concerns, the media must take steps to ensure fair, accurate and balanced reporting. This includes, on the one hand, providing contextual and background information to enable readers to better understand the “clan dynamics” and, on the other hand, emphasising the different points of view of those involved in an unbiased manner.
This text was written in cooperation with the project Get The Trolls Out. The article was originally published in German.