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Zur Verteidigung der deutschen Islamdebatte


Mein Statement bei der Diskusssion mit Daniel Pipes letzte Woche in Berlin (mit Überschneidungen, aber entscheidenden Verbesserungen (hopefully) zum Vortrag in Delhi):
Things have become tense in Germany lately. Debates about Muslims as a minority, about Islam as a defining factor of our national identity, about the new emerging German “We” are raging.
That is not necessarily a bad thing at all. Sleepwalking into segregation is not an alternative. So it’s good that the general public has woken up to the issues we are debating tonight. I’d rather have a contentious, sometimes even ugly debate than the silence of complacency and avoidance that has been around for much too long. We are moving fast past avoidance, or – to use a more positive word – past tolerance. Tolerance has very often been another word for ignorance. In our pluralistic, increasingly diverse societies, this just doesn’t work anymore: if your neighbor, who came as a guest, has made up his mind to stay for good, you will take another look at him. And he will take another look at you.

This is when conflicts in an immigration society really begin: they are not over, when everybody stops lying to themselves and starts admitting that “this is not temporary” (and by the way, it never was). No, conflicts do not end here, they begin.
What are they about? These days in Germany we tend to debate immigration and integration issues as if we could pick and choose immigrants at will. If we only had more Indian and Chinese, less Arabs and Turks, more Confucians, Hindus and Budhhists, even Jews, if only less Muslims! This is childish and insulting. The fact is, some 4 million are already here, they are staying, they are not becoming more (at least not by immigration) – but they are not going away either.

That is what is it all about: My country is undergoing a dramatic demographic and cultural change, and we are struggling to find a concept for it. A new We is necessary after a period of massive immigration. This period is over. For years we did not have net immigration in Germany. Historically, it’s easy to find precedent: Think of America between the wars, after huge waves of immigration from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia. The doors were shut, the American society began to integrate and assimilate people from backgrounds that were believed to be incompatible with WASP culture and values (Catholic, Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, German). This is where we are in the european nation states at this moment.
Will these newcomers accept our values, our constitution, our civilization – or will they try to put their own in place of it? Headscarves, burqas, minarets, halal slaughter, sharia family law, prayer rooms in schools, speech codes, “culturally sensitive” reporting – you name it. All these topics of debate revolve around the question of a new We.

Germany used to be comparatively reasonable in these matters – compared to our european neighbours. No right wing anti-immigrant party bashing minorities, moderate press coverage about inter-community violence and other conflicts of a pluralistic society. The German muslim council – the “Zentralrat” – has been defending free speech even when it hurt, during the cartoon affair. Muslims, especially from repressive countries, know the value of the basic freedoms: this is what the chairman of the Zentralrat said in early 2006. Yet they condemned the cartoons! And why not, they don’t have to like them. It’s even more important to see Muslims support freedom of speech when they are the target. This is obviously a special situation that cannot be compared to the UK or France. Sometimes I think it is not cherished enough in this country.
Germany has a unique experiment. The “islam conference”, a regular meeting between government officials, muslim groups, and civil society actors with a background in Islam. Conservative functionaries of lobby groups were in the same room with fierce critics of Islam like Necla Kelek and Seyran Ates (our Hirsi Alis). An Egyptian born Ex-muslim, Hamed Abdel-Samad, who recently published a book about the decline of Islam is part of the next round of talks. I think this is great. This is one arena where the new We is being negotiated. Critics of Islam in Germany are not shouting at the top of their lungs from the margins: they are a legtitimate part of Islamic life in Germany, and they cannot be excluded from the debate on religious grounds. At the same time, a woman wearing the headscarf is not excluded either, as long as she subscribes to the constitution. This is the way to go, even though success is not guaranteed.
Accomodating Islam without tampering with the constitution and the secular nature of the German state – this is the goal. This is why I think two recent measures are sides of the same coin: educating Imams in German universities and making forced marriages a crime punishable by up to 5 years in prison. These two measures have been passed in the last weeks.
And this is also why I think it is dangerous to base the debate about Islam in Germany on the assumption that Islam and Islamism are the same. This is unfortunately the thinking in circles who consider themselves to be critics of Islam (“Islamkritiker”): It is naïve to even try distinguishing between the two. Islam by itself is the problem. There is no place for it in our societies. As a leading writer of this movement says: Islam cannot be integrated, only muslims can be integrated. In other words: Only muslims without Islam can be accomodated. This is a senseless proposition. This kind of radical anti-islamic reformist thinking – of the Kemalist type, also tried without much success in the Shah’s Iran – has never worked without causing severe backlash. Plus: It is not compatible with our constitution and the freedom of religion in the first place. I think it’s very important to distinguish between Islam and Islamism. But how? The best criteria I could find have been written down by Daniel Pipes.
Let me read some to you:
“Violence: Do you condone or condemn the Palestinians, Chechens, and Kashmiris who give up their lives to kill enemy civilians? Will you condemn by name as terrorist groups such organizations as Abu Sayyaf, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Groupe Islamique Armée, Hamas, Harakat ul-Mujahidin, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, and al-Qaida?
Modernity: Should Muslim women have equal rights with men (for example, in inheritance shares or court testimony)? Is jihad, meaning a form of warfare, acceptable in today’s world? Do you accept the validity of other religions? Do Muslims have anything to learn from the West?
Secularism: Should non-Muslims enjoy completely equal civil rights with Muslims? May Muslims convert to other religions? May Muslim women marry non-Muslim men? Do you accept the laws of a majority non-Muslim government and unreservedly pledge allegiance to that government? Should the state impose religious observance, such as banning food service during Ramadan? When Islamic customs conflict with secular laws (e.g., covering the face for drivers‘ license pictures), which should give way?
Islamic pluralism: Are Sufis and Shi’ites fully legitimate Muslims? Do you see Muslims who disagree with you as having fallen into unbelief? Is takfir (condemning fellow Muslims with whom one has disagreements as unbelievers) an acceptable practice?
Self-criticism: Do you accept the legitimacy of scholarly inquiry into the origins of Islam? Who was responsible for the 9/11 suicide hijackings?
Defense against militant Islam: Do you accept enhanced security measures to fight militant Islam, even if this means extra scrutiny of yourself (for example, at airline security)? Do you agree that institutions accused of funding terrorism should be shut down, or do you see this a symptom of bias?
Goals in the West: Do you accept that Western countries are majority-Christian and secular or do you seek to transform them into majority-Muslim countries ruled by Islamic law?”

These questions are legitimate. They have to be accepted and answered. BUT: Isn’t it useless to even put them to Muslims if I have already established that their answer can only be honestly YES if they are no longer Muslims. Otherwise, so the suspicion goes, it must be Taqqiya. Because Muslims are programmed by their religion to conquer and take over (by war, by immigrationm, by demographics…).
This is where I cannot accept what poses for “Islamkritik” in wide parts of the internet debate. This is where Geert Wilders is unacceptable for me. This is where, by the way, I cannot understand how Daniel Pipes can support the same Geert Wilders who doesn’t even feel the need to ask these questions because he already knows that the Quran is Mein Kampf in Arabic.
The German debate is changing, as I said in the beginning. It is not necessarily a bad thing to have some more controversy in this country so obsessed with consensus. But it can deteriorate, and some signals show it does.

Two months ago a book came out by a prominent social democratic politician who served on the federal bank. Its title: Germany does away with itself. The book claims that Germany is falling back because of muslim immigration – mainly from Turkey. Germany, Mr. Sarrazin says, is threatened in its identity by the demographic change that will continue to create muslim majorities in many inner cities. He proposes changes to immigration laws and to social policies to stop this trend.
No other nonfiction book has created such a heated debate in the last decades. Until three weeks ago, 1.1 million copies have been sold – and counting. The author, Thilo Sarrazin, has been heavily criticized by the political establishment of all parties, including his own, who threatens to kick him out. He was relieved of his post at the Federal Bank. But this makes him all the more a hero in the eyes of his growing fan base. It seems that a levee has been broken. The politicians who criticized him and said his book was “not helpful” (the chancellor) or even “racist” now begin to copy his wording when speaking of the Muslim minority: nobody wants to be seen as “weak” or “soft” in an election season. A leading Christian Democrat came out saying we need no  more immigration from “foreign cultures”. He thought he was emulating the successful Mr. Sarrazin. Yet he obviously had not read the book. Sarrazin says immigrants with enough skills and education should be welcome from wherever they come. He just thinks Muslims are generally culturally and genetically inclined to be less educated. My Iranian relatives – none of them without a university degree – beg to differ.

Mr. Seehofer of course was not talking about them or the Chinese or Indian software engineers that his native Bavaria is actually desperately seeking. “No more immigration from foreign cultures” is actually code for: no more Muslims. Or: No more Turks. We actually don’t have net immigration from Turkey. More people have been leaving Germany for Turkey in the last year than have come to this country. So it seems to me this is a way of saying: We should not have let in Muslims in the first place. It was a mistake to let Muslims come to Germany.
This politician was heavily criticized by the media. But still: anti-immigrant Slogans are making it to the center of the political sphere. This is worrying.
Especially because at the same time German politicians have begun to rediscover the “christian-jewish” heritage of this country. This concept should give anybody versed in German history the creeps. Centuries of denial and exclusion, forced and deliberate assimilation have not prevented the Shoah. But now, vis-a-vis the new foreigners, the Jew is presented as the long lost relative that has always been the co-creator of German christian civilization! This is outright disgusting, and I am glad German Jews are not letting it pass. They have not forgotten that once they were the irredeemable Other that helped to shape German identity as the total contrast to everything Christian Germans stood for. (No, Islamophobia is not the same as Antisemitism. And yes, Muslim Antisemitism is a serious problem.)

This is shocking. It is also shocking that we are discussing policies to discourage the fertility of muslim immigrants, eerily reminding of eugenic policies of earlier times.

It is very popular at the moment to bash Muslims – even in the educated, liberal circles of our readership. How do you deal with this? It is one of those moments as a journalist and as an intellectual, as a concerned citizen and observer of your society, in which you have to realize that free and fair reporting is not a given. It is something you have to fight for, against a rising tide of bigotry.
Another event to illustrate the change: On our national holiday two weeks ago, the annual celebration of German reunification, things took an unexpected turn. The newly elected president gave a much anticipated adress at the occasion of 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down. He chose to speak about this glorious past of reunification between East- and Westgermans. But then he turned away from the obvious and focused on the future, and on another form of unification that has still to be won: that between the new Germans and the old inhabitants of our country, between immigrants and their children and the majority, between muslims and other faiths. He said one sentence that at first seemed unremarkable: Islam belongs to Germany. If you consider the 4.3 million Muslims living in the country, making up for about 5 % of the population – that seems evident. YET – a fierce debate broke loose about the normative character of this sentence: Did he mean to say that Islam should be considered a contribution to our national identity, to our values, to our customs – just as we consider Christianity, Judaism, Roman law, Hellenistic philosophy our heritage? Well, the president did not elaborate on this, but he forced a discussion. Obviously, Islam has not have as much of an impact on German history as in other places (in Europe: the Balkans, Spain, Greece). That is not what the president said. But he was right to focus our discussion on an important shift: Islam has been considered an immigrant religion, and many hoped it would disappear with the guest workers who brought it to Germany, once they went home again. But they are not going home, they are becoming Germans in large numbers, and so their religion will become a part of the makeup of our society. The media have succumbed to the temptation of exploiting the excitement. Germany’s BILD, the most widely read popular newspaper came out with the headline: “Mr President, why are you courting Islam?” The next day’s headline continued this trend: “How much Islam can Germany take?” I am not saying that the answers the paper gave were as biased as the questions suggest. But simply by posing the questions like this, a new type of anti-muslim discourse has become mainstream. This is very worrying.

What should we do, how should we deal with the debate?
Some years ago I was on a panel in Frankfurt at the invitation of a German Muslim group. I was asked what I as a media person could contribute to a more peaceful, more consensual, more constructive atmosphere between religious groups in Germany.
I have to say, I did not like the underlying idea: that media were somehow responsible for social peace. We are not. We have to expose whatever is out there, whether it pleases a specific group or furthers their interest – or not. As reporters or editors, we are not priests, and we should not confuse ourselves with community leaders. Independent journalism should not be seen in terms of community relations. This destroys the common public sphere that democracies rely on.

Still – I fully understood what the question was aiming at. At the moment Germany is witnessing a wave of distrust, mutual mistrust, when it comes to relations between minority and majority, Turks and Germans, Muslims and Non-Muslims. How is that?

As I told you in the beginning: it is only after big waves of immigration that conflicts about national identity take place. This is where we are now, and this is what links our German discussion with those of almost all our European neighbors. Just think of the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria. Germany does not – yet – have a single-issue anti-Muslim populist rightwing party like all our neighbors do. But in public discourse, we are getting there.
There is another danger: the temptation of the sanitized language of political correctness. Another politician proposed something lately that might lead into that direction. In the state of Lower Saxony the first German Minister of turkish origin was greeted with universal acclaim: German Turks were happy about the success of Aygul Özkan, and the majority congratulated itself on the openness of German society. She came to this office on a conservative ticket, mind you. One of the first things she proposed was a list of recommendations for the media – how to adress contentious issues in a “culturally sensitive” manner. Media were supposed to subscribe to a speech code of acceptable and inacceptable phrases and expressions.
This was a big mistake in my eyes: we need an open debate, especially in a more diverse environment, and maybe Muslims need it more than others, because most of them come from outrageously repressive countries. It is very bad for Muslims if they are always attached with infringements on the freedom of speech, not with its defense. This is why I opposed the minister’s initiative. All sides in our public debates will have to grow a thicker skin and learn to live with more questions, attacks and insults.
We must not leave serious and rational questions like the following to the rightwing fringe:
– how does sharia law relate to the German constitution
– is it possible to develop a genuinely european form of islam, complete with european educated imams and teachers for islamic religious education in schools
– will Muslims be permanently ready to live as a religious group among others in a pluralistic society dominated by customs and values that have developed before their arrival?
There were instances in German schools where students of turkish or arabic background have viciously attacked other students and teachers, insulting them as “pigeaters” or “potatoes”. That is as inacceptable as any other kind of racism, and it has to be exposed in the media. This is why I wrote a piece about it for DIE ZEIT.

One more thing: We have to stop creating more and more muslims every day by islamicizing the discourse about everything from terrorism to education. Stop lumping everybody together – from secular to pious, from Sunni to Shia to Sufi and Alevi.
There is also danger in stereotyping European Muslims as victims, even in the good intention of defending them: Muslim migration to Europe is not a victim’s story; there is a lot of heroism, self-reliance, toughness in this story that is rarely told.

Last remark, on a skeptical note: What we are witnessing in Europe since at least the last decade is undoubtedly part of a closing process. All over Europe pressure is mounting to curb immigration and at the same time to enforce more integration, sometimes even assimilation. This can be dangerous, it can lead to an illusionary nationalism – to an futile idea of homogeneity.
But closure can also help with a realistic reevaluation of the new nature of our societies: much more diverse, much more pluralistic than we thought possible – after a historic wave of immigration since the second World War and the end of colonialism. Maybe it is understandable that our societies need some time to divulge and adjust. Germany had a handful of mosques in 1925. Now it has around 2600 mosques and prayer rooms.
Every individual mosque project must be a possible subject of tough questions about transparency, financing, the compatibility with the creed of the group with the Constitution.
But banning minarets in general is unconstitutional in my eyes – and it doesn’t help single out the radicals. German terrorists – from the 9/11 perpetrators to the “Sauerland” group – tend to stem from small scale prayer rooms in the backyard of industrial buildings in places like Hamburg or Ulm. No minarets involved.
A new We is being shaped in the conflicts of these days. Questions are being asked, finally. Fine!
But we have to be watchful if this new We turns out to be inclusive and open enough for all those who want to participate.