x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Germany's left-wingers attack immigrants for flying German flag

Activists have tried to set fire to it, ripped it and stolen it twice in protest at what they regard as excessive nationalist fervour by German Arabs during the World Cup.

BERLIN // Arab immigrants in Berlin have incurred the wrath of local people by hanging a gigantic German national flag from their apartment building in a show of support for the national team in the World Cup. Measuring 20 by five metres, the flag reaches down from the fifth floor almost to the ground. A family from Beirut and some neighbours raised ?500 (Dh2,300)to have it specially made. It ripples a little incongruously among the kebab shops, Turkish grocery stores and Arab cafes in this immigrant district of the city.

German left-wing activists have tried to set fire to it, ripped it and stolen it twice in protest at what they regard as excessive nationalist fervour. But Beirut-born Ibrahim Bassal, who runs a shop selling second-hand mobile phones, said he will keep replacing it because he loves the nation that has been his home for most of his life. "We are German Arabs. We live here. We raise our children here. We love this country," said Mr Bassal, 38, wearing a Germany team shirt as well as a hat and a flowery garland in the national colours of black, red and gold.

"We had the idea to put up the biggest flag in the country as part of our street celebrations whenever Germany play, and we succeeded, but our happiness is being spoiled," said Mr Bassal, whose family moved to Berlin from Beirut in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. "We have been confronted by people who say we are awakening Nazi tendencies. But all we're doing is showing solidarity with our team!"

Most Germans would agree with Mr Bassal. There has been an outpouring of pride at the team's success so far in the tournament, and the flag has been ubiquitous, fluttering from every other car and draped in shop windows. Millions of fans have been thronging public viewing areas wearing wigs and facepaint in the German colours. The trend began in 2006, when Germany hosted the World Cup, but it would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. For over half a century, overt expressions of patriotism were taboo here because of the guilt and shame of the Nazi past.

Unfortunately for Mr Bassal and his relatives, the eastern Berlin district of Neukölln where they live has a high percentage of radical left-wingers who are waging a campaign against all signs of patriotic sentiment. A local group of activists claims in an internet blog to have removed 1,657 "black, red and gold rags" from the streets in protest at "World Cup activated patriotism" that ignores German history.

"They go around at night cutting flags off cars," said Khaled Hussein, a cousin of Mr Bassal, who runs the Snack Al Hara restaurant next door. "A few days ago some guys came and said they were angry, they said, 'You're Arab, why did you put up this flag?'" The case is attracting growing media attention and local politicians have begun to take an interest. "Burning and tearing up our flag is disgraceful enough. But using it to accuse immigrants of having integrated themselves is downright perfidious," said Burkard Dregger, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party.

Germany has some four million Muslim immigrants, the majority of them Turks who started coming over in the 1950s when the West German government invited foreign workers to make up for a shortage of manpower after the Second World War. Many Germans still struggle to accept immigrants as fellow citizens, and communities still live parallel lives. But the national team itself reflects how Germany is changing. Half the players have an immigrant background, including some of the best ones such as Mesut Özil, the Turkish-born striker.

Mr Bassal said he and his neighbours are keeping guard to stop the flag being stolen a third time. "We will defend our flag," he said, banging his fist on his shop counter. @Email:dcrossland@thenational.ae