Prof. Dr. Karim Fereidooni (he/him)

Collaboration between science and policy is essential for sustainable change.
Who are you and what do you do?

I am Karim Fereidooni, a professor at the Ruhr University in Bochum, where I train future teachers of politics. My subject expertise is in the didactics of social sciences and my focus is on the critique of racism, diversity sensitivity and political education in a migration society. I am also continuously working on different research projects.

For example, over a period of three years, we as a team studied anti-semitism in schools. We have also completed our work on a report on Muslim hostility and the development of a catalog of measures for the federal government. Another project, for example, is dedicated to the ideas of participation and democracy among students – both refugees and non-refugees.

Here we interviewed different students of the vocational school. This research was inspired by my training for teachers and principals, where I often encountered assumptions that, for example, refugee students could not understand democracy because of their background. Our research clearly refutes this assumption and shows that refugee students even have more positive views on the governance of democracy and the German constitution than their non-refugee peers.

If there was only one thing you could change directly in Germany today, what would it be?

I would definitely abolish the early selection of children after the 4th or 6th grade. The separation of students into secondary schools at this point is the biggest challenge in the German education system. Pedagogical predictions cannot be made in this framework, based on past performance and behavior, but this decision strongly influences whether someone will later become an academic or not. Our early selection is very unusual internationally. It is a fallacy to believe that students who work hard will succeed in advancing despite a recommendation for a Hauptschule. In fact, studies show that when there is a change of school type in the course of an educational biography at secondary school, about 60% of the students change to a lower-prestige school type, while only about 20% move up. For this reason, I believe that reforming our education system is a crucial step toward a more equitable German education system. We do not need more school types, but rather a well-equipped school type for all students.

What was your path to your scientific career?

My interest in politics was awakened in a politically committed parental home. As a child, I dreamed of a career as a member of the Bundestag. Politics was always the topic of conversation, as we fled from Iran to Germany for political reasons. My studies of political science and German language and literature followed and during my Erasmus semester in Sweden I discovered my passion for research. I expanded my state examination thesis on institutional discrimination among children with a migration background into a first book publication, and my doctoral dissertation was dedicated to the experiences of racism among teachers with a migration background in the German school system. With a scholarship from the Foundation of the German Economy, I did my doctorate after my traineeship as a teacher.  After the end of the scholarship, I worked as a salaried teacher for one year; during this time, I finished the dissertation. I was lucky enough to get the junior professorship three months after the disputation. After seven years as a junior professor, I have been a professor of didactics of social science education since July 2023. Luck always plays a role in success, but so do diligence, discipline, good ideas and, above all, appreciation of others. Especially in the area of equal opportunity, it is central to understand that our success is never based solely on individual competence and diligence, but always also on recognition from the outside and on people who encourage us at a given time.

What are the key findings of your research over the past few years?

One main finding is that teachers who previously stated in the questionnaire that they had no experiences of racism suddenly reported multiple experiences of racism at school in interviews. This discrepancy between the statements in the questionnaire and the experiences mentioned in the interviews was particularly revealing to me. It illustrates that although we have partially learned to talk about our experiences with racism, we do not always use the term “racism” to do so. We are familiar with similar patterns of behavior from sexism research, where reasons for inequality are often advanced other than sexism per se.

With respect to anti-Muslim racism, we have examined various sectors such as media, education, politics, and jurisprudence. The results show that Muslim hostility is not limited to certain sectors, but is present throughout society.

In terms of critiques of racism, diversity, and anti-semitism, there is solid academic evidence that has been available for decades.  Thus, there is not a knowledge deficit, but an implementation deficit. The problem lies more in the implementation of solutions. That’s why I’m involved in policy advocacy, to bring scientific findings into social discourse and policy. Collaboration between science and policy is essential for sustainable change. University research and teaching alone do not lead to societal change. In order to shape a diverse and sensitive society, dialogue with decision-makers is therefore essential. Of course, it is also important to take into account the different logics of science and politics.

It currently seems that politicians are also increasingly resorting to polemics and demagogy in order to win votes on the right-wing fringe. Is this impression merely subjective or is there actually a trend to be observed here?

I think that we have to talk about equality first and foremost. Germany today is more critical of racism than ever before in its history. On the one hand, there are people who publicly stand up for the rights of discriminated people from all backgrounds. At the same time, however, there is a small, loud minority that tries to restrict queer rights, agitate against refugees, and make racism hopeful again. Social media helps make this small minority seem bigger to us than it actually is.

That’s why we all have to stand up for our plural democracy every day in order to pass on the values of the Basic Law to every generation. The AfD currently reaches about 30% in Thuringia, which points to various problematic situations. Public squabbles of the governing coalition in economically difficult times contribute to the impression that the government has the control to develop good solutions for problems of our country. Uncertain forecasts for the future, global crises and social decline due to price developments favor parties that seem to offer easy solutions. With regard to AfD voters, however, studies show that racism in particular is the driving and unifying force. Above all, approval of racist statements plays a major role among AfD voters in Thuringia. That is why the AfD will not disappear, because right-wing attitudes are present in society and will remain – as in other European countries.

Here, however, we should be aware of the theory of the uncertain middle, because it is about a minority: it says that 20% of our society is already very sensitive and committed against discrimination and misanthropy. Another 20% is beyond the reach of workshops, lectures, books, and podcasts. This group rejects diversity sensitization and criticism of racism and also expresses anti-semitic views. We therefore need to reach out to the remaining 60% who are unsure. We can reach this group, but not with right-wing slogans, otherwise they could drift to the right-wing fringe. We can win them over with measures critical of racism and diversity-sensitive policies. That should be the goal of all democratic parties.

What do you understand by diversity?

For me, understanding diversity means first and foremost applying an intersectional perspective in which different realities of life are reconciled. For example, it’s not just about my own experiences of racism as a man of color. For example, when I talk about my difficulties in finding housing, I have to mention at the same time that I am a professor because this changes the situation. I recognize that my job title, but also just my name, has an impact on my opportunities, whether it is in finding housing or a job. An intersectional perspective requires consciously addressing privilege and inequality in different areas of life and power-sharing. I, as a straight cis man, recognize that I have not experienced sexism or queer hostility. This intersectional view influences the way I live my life and take political action to create a better society. For me, diversity sensitivity means not just focusing on one particular form of discrimination, but being broadly informed and actively fighting discrimination in all its facets. In this way, I can actively advocate for the installation of gender-neutral restrooms at our universities as well, even if it does not directly affect me. Solidarity between unequal groups is crucial, and I would like to see, for example, activists who work against anti-Muslim racism also work against queer hostility. This is true solidarity, focused on the well-being of others and not based on self-interest. Only in this way can we ultimately achieve an inclusive society.

What does more diversity, equity, and inclusion bring to our daily lives?

Equity and inclusion open up access to education, health care and other areas for all. A diverse society that is livable for all automatically increases our economic productivity by including diverse perspectives. It’s not about regulations, but about expanding our perceptions and expertise. By addressing discrimination, we change our positioning in the world and take a stand against all forms of disadvantage. In doing so, we move closer to the ideal of Article 1(1) of the Basic Law and the protection against discrimination.

We are a country of immigration and already live in diversity. Why do we sometimes find it difficult as a society to deal with this in everyday life?

Many think that their position results solely from outstanding performance. The heated debate about quotas for women arises because privileged white men from the middle and upper classes, for example, fear losing out. Many have achieved a great deal in society – and that, of course, also with hard work – no one wants to deny that. But high positions are also reached because others favor you. White German men still strongly believe in the meritocratic principle (“Those who achieve a lot get ahead quickly, those who achieve less don’t”), but performance loses importance after a certain career level. Habitus, external characteristics and commonalities play a decisive role in prestigious positions. Many feel disadvantaged, but ignore their years of protection from well-meaning people in relatively homogeneous systems. Reconciling life realities can help here, and raising awareness of inequalities can make society more diversity-sensitive. But I also believe in tangible legislative action. The civil service shows how quotas for women bring progress. Private companies should be similarly obligated to initiate change.

What has to happen so that we can live together successfully in diversity in Germany?

First of all, we need to develop a positive common image for the future. We should talk about what added value a diverse and inclusive society offers all citizens.

A contemporary immigration law that takes people’s skills and competencies into account is indispensable for this. A central focus is on creating inclusive access for all to enable full participation. NGOs also advocate for people without German citizenship or passports to be able to vote in federal and state elections. This raises awareness that place of residence, inclusion and tax payments matter.

I also hope that politicians from the democratic spectrum will recognize that a migration background should not be a stigma in the political landscape or in education: politicians, educational institutions or teachers often use the migration background as an explanation to avoid the real challenges in the German school system. School in itself remains the only place where different strata meet at times, and this can also be a great opportunity. It is time for politicians to admit that education has been neglected in recent decades; in this area, I would like to see more investment.

The cuts in financial support for the Federal Agency for Civic Education and, in particular, the reduction in funding for organizations such as HateAid, which are actively involved in combating right-wing radicalism, are also developments that urgently need to be corrected in light of current developments.

Are you basically optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

I am optimistic by nature and believe in my own and other people’s willingness to change. We have already achieved a lot, have become more sensitive and have fought hard to make our society livable for as many people as possible. To those who claim that it’s not worth getting involved politically, I say: look back 40 or 50 years in German history. Same-sex marriages were not just allowed, it was a hard struggle. So was gender equality. We are not yet fully equal, but we have made significant progress.

I think it’s better to show and explain our struggle for equality to newcomers in our society, rather than confronting them with coercion and saying, “This is how it is with us.” We should tell them how we got to the point where we are today. What political struggles and confrontations have taken place. That might be a more educational way to engage these people. We need to recognize the diversity of our society and our vision should be that everyone belongs who abides by our basic law without having to repeatedly prove their belonging. We have to fight racism and offer equal opportunities for all and especially politics should lead by example and bring these ideals to life.

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