Europe, Features, Politics

Welcome to the West, But Please Don’t Integrate…

In the late 1980s, when my family arrived in Germany, I assumed that we had left behind forever the ideologies that had ruined Afghanistan. The country was plunged into a vicious civil war where the hard-right Islamists fought the hard-left Marxist–Leninists, who were then in power. The West’s own ideological wars had thus moved geographically and were now surfacing in the rest of the world. In Afghanistan, their impact was felt in the 1980s with the Marxist–Leninist military coup that started the war—the same war still being waged today. Prior to this, there was indoctrination of young Afghan intellectuals, poets, journalists, and teachers in totalitarian ideologies of right-wing Islam via Egypt and hard-left communism via India and the Soviet Union.

On my very first day of school in Germany as a teenager, I encountered sympathy for the Soviet Union. Nothing had prepared me for what I experienced that day nor for what was to come in the following years. Looking back, I realize that the reason for my failure to spot the ideology was that in the context of Western democracies, the hard-left looked deceptively tolerant, chaotic, and relaxed. In other words, it was very much unlike the stern and dictatorial iconic images we know of it from the Soviet Union.

Below is an account of what I saw and why I failed to recognize it for what it was.

The Art of Omission and Spreading Fog

On my first day, I had a private conversation with my teacher before class. He was a kind man with a grave look of concern in his eyes. He listened to me as I gave him a detailed description of the Red Army’s invasion, the jihadist reaction, and the consequences thereof for my family and millions of other Afghans.

However, when he later introduced me to the class, he said that I was a refugee from ‘the war in Afghanistan’. The Soviets were taken out and rendered invisible. When I interrupted my teacher to remind him of the Red Army, he simply ignored me.

Just like that, my teacher turned a distinct and, as it turned out, globally crucial event in history into a run-of-the-mill tragedy. It was as if the actual historical event that had made me a refugee had nothing to do with actual human beings but was instead something akin to a natural disaster, something that befell us and was tragic but could not have been prevented.

It was in this manner that my teacher spread fog around the crimes of the Soviet Union and transformed me into a generic victim of a faceless war. He did not do this through an outright lie but rather through deploying the art of omission. The Soviet Union was omitted in the phrase, and in its stead, there spread the generic fog of war.

Too Kind to Resist

I felt the pangs of disappointment, but with my next breath, I already forgave him. He was clearly a kind man and he had specifically asked my classmates to welcome me and treat me well. There was something else too: the fact that I came from the land of tyranny, where the kindness of strangers had been killed in the first years of the invasion. When I encountered this kindness in my teacher in Germany, it instantly disarmed me. It was in this manner that I traded the truth for gratitude, not realizing that it is often our best emotions that make us party to deceptions about ourselves.

Be that as it may, there remained the mystery of his sympathy for the Soviet Union, a fact that I noticed but could not account for. When we lived in Afghanistan, we were taught the usual hard-left demonology that masqueraded as education. The greatest demon of all in that canon was the capitalist West, which was presented as a generic mass of evil enemies and allies of the mujahedin. In my education in Afghanistan, there was no mention of comrades and allies in the heart of the capitalist West. This hole in my education was another reason why I had failed to even think about the possibility that even in Western democracies, one had to expect encounters with the hard left.

Anarchy, Not Tyranny

There was something else that didn’t add up when I considered the surreal possibility that, after having illegally crossed nearly seven thousand kilometers with my family, I was once again at a school that had radical leftist teachers. What didn’t make sense was the laissez-faire attitude that my teacher exhibited in our classroom in Germany. The hard left in Afghanistan were nothing like that. For example, when the first spontaneous anti-communist rebellion erupted in the city of Herat, the regime in Kabul begged the Soviets to bomb the place. The comrades in Afghanistan had exactly zero tolerance for the spontaneous outbreak of human free will. My German teacher, by contrast, not only tolerated rebellion but smiled and sat back, watching it unfold. There was no way he would order planes to bomb the rebels. Far from it, he was enjoying the rebellion.

It crossed my mind that maybe my teacher was some kind of a hippie. But then again, if he was a hippie, how could he stand the Soviet Union, where the only love allowed was reserved for the holy trinity of Marx, Engels, and Lenin? After all, none of those men was the kind one would associate with flowers, although with power…that was another story.

The mystery of my teacher stayed with me until fairly recently, when I discovered that anarchy and tyranny were indeed the two faces of the same hard-left coin. In Afghanistan, the Marxist comrades were in power, which made them tyrannical. In the West, by contrast, the comrades were in opposition to the prevailing democratic order. That made them friends of anarchy.

It was for this reason that, when rebellion broke out in our classroom, my teacher welcomed it. In his eyes, the Turkish Teutonic tantrums and the throwing of chairs were not desperate cries of the youth for adults to draw boundaries. Instead, they were spontaneous manifestations of the disaffected youths’ frustration that the democratic system had let them down. Little wonder, then, that he enjoyed the tantrums. Here it was, unfolding before his very eyes—the beginnings of revolutionary fervor. After all, the logical step after smashing chairs was to smash the damn system altogether.

Alliance with Poor World Liberation and Nationalist Causes

My teacher had another quirky habit that I didn’t understand at the time and only recently realized its true meaning. When he talked about one of my classmates, one who had been born and raised in Germany but who was not ethnically German, he sort of started daydreaming and would say things out loud like, “When she grows up, she will become a teacher to serve her people.” By her people, he meant the Kurds because the girl he was speaking of happened to come from a Kurdish family.

The poor girl always nodded in agreement. What else could she do? I knew, however, that her mind was elsewhere. To be exact, her thoughts were at the nightclub where she had taken drugs for the first time with her secret boyfriend. She had told me so herself, adding the detail that she had been wearing white pants that night while she danced under the fluorescent lights. That’s who she was—a typical Western teenage girl.

In my teacher’s head, there was also a struggle going on—a battle against reality. It was for this reason that when his eyes fell on my classmate, what he saw was not a typical Western teenage girl in thrall of youth culture. What he saw was a young Kurdish nationalist in exile.

He did the same to a troublesome teenager who was born and raised in Germany but whose parents were from Turkey. Where the rest of us saw a pupil with little interest in the life of the mind, my teacher saw in him a Turkish nationalist and a doctor in the making. This boy was also to serve his people. Needless to say, the people in question were not German but Turks in Turkey.

Thus, in our classroom, we had our own miniature version of a poor world liberation movement going on. The absurd part, of course, was that the movement was top down, led by my German teacher and taking place in a Western democracy.

Looking back, I can see that my teacher’s quirky habit was actually in tune with a recent chapter in the history of the hard left in the West. This chapter had begun in the 1960s with a secular version of the Christian fall from grace. The fallen were the native working class who had shown independence of mind by opting for the peaceful path of negotiation rather than revolution. This sin made them fall from the grace of the hard-left intellectual gods, who promptly dropped their historical imaginary friendship with the working class. In their place, a new imaginary friendship was forged with the nationalist liberation movements of the poor world.

The absurd idea making the rounds today that Islam needs liberation from so-called Islamophobia is the latest example of this same story.

If a host of young people from immigrant and refugee backgrounds today see themselves primarily as self-proclaimed representatives of nationalist and religious nationalist causes elsewhere, rather than as new citizens of Western democracies, it is, I suspect, because they had gone through a similar experience as I did.

I suspect that they also thought they were integrating through getting an education. But as it turns out, the West no longer has a center, and what looks like integration is in fact the act of joining a particular political tribe. Thus, the mystery is solved—it is only after one integrates into the West that one begins to feel alienated and then finds oneself in opposition.


Born and raised in Afghanistan, Nushin Arbabzadah came to Europe as a teenage refugee. She has post-graduate degrees from Hamburg University in Germany and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Her latest book, Afghan Rumour Bazaar: Secret Sub-Cultures, Hidden Worlds and the Everyday Life of the Absurd, was published by Hurst.


  1. Markus says

    Dear Ms. Arbabzahdah,

    I can understand our expectations, but these are based on the notion that Germany had a history of immigration at the time. It had not. The thought of raising refugees so that they can later bring back their gifts to their respective people was widespread in Germany, and still is. I think I would only very partially agree to this, but still I would refused to see this as extremist left or right school of thought that is also shared by many perfectly integrated immigrants. For instance, an (academic) colleague of mine with syrian roots would love to go back to research and teach in Damaskus to bring back education to the country – if it was possible under future circumstances.

    I would also like to suggest that introducing you to your classmates as a refugee from the war in Afghanistan rather than a victim of soviet agression is a rather objective stance. A friend of mine had to flee Afghanistan some years after you. As a communist, his life became unsafe when the communist power waned and he fled to Germany. His view on Afghanistan would certainly be much different from yours. Therefore, I would not expect that every other (teacher, colleague, fired…) sees the world through your looking glass.

    • Markus says

      “…school of thought. Indeed it is also shared…” and “friend” rather than “fired”. Sorry for the sloppy writing.

  2. It isn’t just introducing her that way, but refusing to acknowledge the Russian role even after she pointed it out which is indicative of an ideology at work.

  3. Sarka says

    This is a fascinating piece with acute observations about the Western Left. But I’m not completely convinced by the conclusion – i.e. that the “identity militancy” of – especially Muslim – migrants/refugees and their children and grandchildren today was something somehow produced by the way leftist educators treated them. Where that was a factor it didn’t help, and it is now a most important exacerbating factor, but I can’t help seeing the “Islamist turn” in the attitudes of Muslims in the West (in the UK roughly dateable from the Rushdie Affair, but everywhere gathering strength in the late eighties and nineties) as part of larger ideological dynamics in most of the Muslim majority world(s) – i.e. religious revivalism – with Islamism as its political edge – in the face of the relative failure of communism, secular nationalism, hybrids of the two…
    In the west, the condition for the rapid development of the militancy in Muslim minorities was not primarily the supportive attitude of authorities and schools but simply the mass dimension of Muslim migration which allowed “parallel societies” to develop. It is well known that for any incoming minority, integration happens most easily where migrants and their children are dependent on the majority socially and practically (most children at school are majority, most colleagues are majority, frequent contact with majority institutions, very little access to separate media for own culture etc.). It is also a sad truth that while many migrants (especially if they are refugees/exiles) are trying to escape the social and political conditions of their original country, with mass migration of their compatriots they tend to find that social and political conditions get reproduced in the parallel society of the new environment.
    That said, it is of course ghastly how the hard left – having indeed abandoned its love affair with the “native” working class, is willing to turn a blind eye to reactionary religious politics when these are indulged in by its new sentimental favourites…

  4. Jochen Becker says

    I think it is necessary to put one point into a historic perspective, why one can not equate the “hard-left” of Soviet or Afghan provenance to the “hard-left” in Germany. Germany and Russia had century long strong relations and cultural connections. Then the Soviet Red Army ended the Third Reich and Marx and Engels were philosophically and intellectually established among the German intelligentsia, as well as in the labor movement. Germany had experiences with immigration from the early 1960ties. But only with European (mostly catholic) job seekers who integrated easier than the muslim asylum seekers. The left and the social democrats indeed abandoned the working class and turned to identity politics, beginning with the third wave of feminism. Therefore I doubt that the teacher of the author was a “hard-left”, neither in the Soviet nor the German sense. He most probably was one of these ‘Gutmenschen’ (good humans). This special German kind of social justice worriers might be different from American or British. An essential part of their motivation is based on the awareness of guilt in German history. From there they feel an obligation for strict tolerance. They might be atheists but wouldn’t dare criticizing religion or ‘race’ or culture of others. Thus I can’t see the teachers behavior as a friend of anarchy or hard left but more as conformity or opportunism. Today there exists no hard left in Germany, what is left over can be called pseudo-left or regressive left that indoctrinate the population with political correctness rules. Nevertheless this attitude will not help immigrants to assimilate but promotes parallel communities.

  5. Michigan Silverback says

    The Germans tried a war against the Soviet Union, too. That one didn’t end well for them.

    Add to that they tried a war against the Jewish People. That one didn’t end well for anybody.

    If you were not aware of these truths then, you should be now.

    • Designer says

      And that is a comment on what? Or did you get lost in the web?

    • JackbeThimble says

      Looking back on it with 70+ years of hindsight I’d say it ended much better for Germany than it did for the Soviet Union.

  6. Dietrich Klusmann says

    Bravo! Accurate description, I have encountered this type too, it surely is extreme, but this world view lives on in the hearts of many 68th leftists, encapsulated and guarded from the light of truth mostly by the mechanisms you described, omission and obfuscation, the latter having developed into high intellectual art.

  7. Pingback: Please Don’t Integrate… — Freedom Today Journal

  8. Rod McLaughlin says

    Surely a German teacher who is unable to listen to criticism of the Red Army is suffering from an extreme case of German guilt, imposed on Germans by the Allies after World War Two and internalised. It’s so deep-rooted, attempts to discuss it with Germans usually result in extreme denial, then getting banned from whatever forum one is trying to discuss it on.

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