Interview with Dr. Anna-Esther Younes

German-Palestinian academic discusses her personal pursuit of justice against state surveillance and blacklisting of public figures.


Dr Younes, you are an expert in Islamophobia and in 2019 you were invited to speak at a Die Linke Berlin conference to discuss strategies for combating racism and far-right extremism. But then you didn’t appear at the conference after all. What happened?

Well, I was invited to present the Islamophobia Report in particular and my work on far right networks and anti-muslim racism therein, too. I was disinvited the day before the event at around 6pm in the evening – the event was supposed to take place the next morning. When some people asked Linke party chair Katina Schubert why I wasn’t there, Schubert said some horrible things about me in public when I wasn’t there and couldn’t defend myself. Schubert stated that there should be no debate about the Middle East and that I am probably close to BDS. Schubert then put me in the context of terrible things: Referring to the incident in Halle, which took place about a month before on Yom Kippur. That’s when a white, right-wing terrorist attacked a synagogue and then drove to a Döner store and continued his shooting spree there. Two people were killed that day by white supremacist terror! Schubert spoke about this anti-Semitic terror that had happened one month prior, and how that relates to Right Wing extremism and a “boycott against Jews”, about a clear position of the Left regarding BDS, and then also towards me. The events in Halle, as well as BDS were used to explain their choice of disinviting me. Since, according to her, BDS does not belong in the Left there can be no cooperation because of the terror against Jews that happened in the near and far past. 

Later on, in a personal meeting, it was stated that they also couldn’t invite me anymore, because it would have caused a public scandal to invite me and the party just couldn’t afford it. Which stands in opposition to planning this event with me for almost two months, for instance. Let’s not forget that the file was sent the afternoon before the event was supposed to take place. However, I seemingly became a “threat” one day before through this file. 

You later learned that Die Linke had been sent a secret dossier about you compiled by RIAS Berlin and the MBR (the so-called Antisemitism Research and Information Centre, and the Mobile Advice Against Right-Wing Extremism, respectively). How did you find out about this?

The reason for my disinvite is that MBR/RIAS seemingly sent a “file” to Katina Schubert, which shows my ostensible support for anti-Semitism as well as my Islamist worldviews as – allegedly – expressed in a peer-reviewed academic article about Hamas’ women’s movement that I published more than 10 years ago. The file states that I support Hamas and justify sexism. Other people are mentioned in this file, too. Following the circulation of this secret file about me, several activists also feared to be observed and monitored. That is why there are more people now joining this campaign and demanding their data from RIAS/MBR as well. 

The file was leaked to me eventually from someone inside Die Linke, after it had already circulated and several people had already told me about a “file about me circulating”. I mean being disinvited isn’t new to many of us, but after hearing about a file I was getting worried. Eventually, someone leaked it to me just a few days apart from my mother having had another of her Stasi-file viewings. So that gave it another “the-personal-is-political-is-public” twist. Another reason to get active.

What was the response of RIAS when you asked to see the contents of the dossier?

According to the EU Data Protection Law (article 15 of the GDPR), I used my right to ask RIAS to give me the access to the data they had collected on me and shared with others. RIAS refused to comply with my request, claiming I had no right to information under data protection law. Instead, they invoked an exemption that is provided by the GDPR (article 85) and that would allow them to process my data for “journalistic purposes” and “scientific research”. Nevertheless, producing the dossier and transmitting it to third parties without my consent, which led to my exclusion from the event, is in my opinion not compatible with the “journalistic” and “scientific research” exemption.

That is why, among other reasons, we challenged RIAS’s argument in front of the Berlin Data Protection Authority. Unfortunately, the Data Protection Authority didn’t become active in our case for almost two years. This is why we decided to sue the DPA as well, for “inactivity”. Right now, both cases are pending. The case concerning my “secret file” is before the 1st Chamber of the Administrative Court of Berlin – this chamber of the court deals with data protection law, statistical surveys, and disputes under the Stasi Records Act. The latter law gives the right to access the data contained in the files that the secret police from East Germany used to collect on its residents.

With the support of the European Legal Support Center (ELSC), you are now suing the umbrella organisation of which RIAS Berlin and MBR are a part. What is the legal basis for your complaint and what do you hope to achieve through this lawsuit?

I personally hope to draw attention to the overall issue of a climate of fear, silencing and the destruction of people, their careers, and their reputation in society. This is not just about me or what is being written and sent around behind my back only. This is also about all the other people that are regularly disinvited or misrepresented in public. I had the choice of either keeping quiet and not drawing more attention and violence toward me, or else we could use this file to draw attention to the fact that many of us are actually disinvited regularly, with disinformation campaigns following our tracks, and so on. This public campaign and the court cases would have not been possible without the ELSC and I am incredibly indebted to their legal and advocacy work. Everyone there is working non-stop, yet there are too many cases by now all over the place, not just in Germany. In short, the ELSC and me “met” when I just learned about my file and they just started operating – we met at the right time, so to say. Overall, this whole case was made possible, because people there worked tirelessly to defend the rights of people unjustly accused of the heinous deed of anti-Jewish racism or Islamism. 

The ELSC has also launched an open letter and a campaign in your support, signed by prominent figures including Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky. Can you give us an overview of who has been supporting you and why you think it has resonated with so many people?

Well, this is not just about me. And I think we made that clear in our public statements and calls for support. Obviously, because it is a lawsuit, there has to be one person suing and it was – by coincidence I believe – my file that was leaked given the particular circumstances. Yet, I think why so many people supported it, is because it has reached an extent in Germany now, where it becomes more obvious for people from the outside that something is deeply wrong. But there are also more people now who try to wrap their heads around what’s happening here and try to prevent more damage. That gives us more public legitimacy, too. 

It might also be driven by the fact that court cases are actual material claims: we are making a legal appeal to maintain democratic structures for everyone in Germany and I think this drew the interest of people, as well. Court cases are concrete and give people the possibility to fight for their rights, with public legitimacy.

Another equally important issue is the personal investment: Achille Mbembe, for instance, answered immediately. I think a lot of people were driven by this sentiment – Judith Butler has been attacked several times in this country for allegedly supporting anti-Semitism based on her support for Palestinian Human Rights. There has been a lot of support from the outside of Germany immediately.

What can readers do to support your campaign?

We really need financial donations for our lawsuits against the Berlin Data Protection Authority, which didn’t process our case for almost two years now, as well as the court case against MBR/RIAS and they are the most important thing now. Even if just enough people donate 10 or 20 Euros, it would already be great.

I would like to emphasize here once again that it is not just “my” campaign. There are numerous other people affected by this “kind of surveillance” who could experience similar unfair treatment as I experienced. Intellectuals and activists from Palestinian and Jewish peace protest and solidarity and human rights movements are equally affected, as are artists and scholars who strive for a critical approach or decolonial and anti-racist expression. It resembles what we witness in France and the “Islamogauchisme” accusations. In order to unite our voices against this form of “silent caesura,” some have already announced that they will join my lawsuits. 

We also hope that people spread the message and share the content of the ELSC website, where this case and others are explained and where the legal advocacy work for people unjustly accused of anti-Jewish racism or Islamism can find a platform. There is also a special file explaining the violations against data rights in this particular case. The reason why I am mentioning that one, is because I believe this issue might become more important and virulent in our societies.

Read more about Anna’s case on the ELSC Website.