Against the interpretive sovereignty of Islamists

After the execution of the French teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded by an Islamist in a suburb of Paris on October 16, 2020, as well as after the alleged Islamist attack in Nice almost two weeks later with three fatalities, the return of the same arguments could be observed: Rough racists accuse Islam of being an intrinsically violent religion, while defenders of the religion, Muslims and non-Muslims, wearily stress that “the violence has nothing to do with Islam”.

It is a bit like shouting “Catholic bastards” in the face of the dismaying phenomenon of pedophilia in the Catholic clergy. One and the other position lead to one and the same result, to inactive paralysis and thus to nothing. Let us therefore allow ourselves to avoid this meaningless debate: what Islam really says, what is the essence of Islam, these are questions that perhaps hold a certain interest for theologians, for historians of religion and with some certainty for the believers as individuals, but from a secular point of view, which presupposes the separation of state and religion, they are completely irrelevant.

However, from a secular standpoint, it is of decisive interest to find out what is happening within the church – but not to clarify whether one adheres sufficiently to the “pillars of faith”, to the “true meaning”, as it were to the teachings of Christ or Allah but, quite prosaically, to ensure that everything is compatible with the basic principles of civil coexistence. The interest here is therefore not directed to the religious aspect of the various denominations, but to their public role, their social and political effects, their use by those who profess to be their followers or who make themselves their mouthpieces on earth. One thing is certain: no religion is immune to fundamentalism. And religious fundamentalism has a revival pretty much all over the world. In India it is nationalist Hinduism, in Myanmar and Sri Lanka it is radical-chauvinist Buddhism, in Poland fundamentalist Catholicism and in many countries of the Muslim world political Islam.

For secularism in Europe as a whole, however – alongside the Christian right, which we are all too familiar with – Islam is without a doubt one of the greatest challenges, or more precisely, a certain facet of Islam. The reasons for this are related to the steadily increasing number of Muslims as well as to the growing importance that more radical voices have in public and political discourse. “With regard to immigration and the political situation in the Middle East,” writes a French political scientist and renowned Islam expert, “Islam contains a political component of far greater importance”[1] compared to Christian sects and other denominations.

However, it is not entirely clear how this assertion is to be reconciled with the author’s other statement, according to which “French secularity expresses a specific fear of Islam”. He supports his theory with the example of conservative rabbis in France. They also hold misogynist and homophobic positions, and yet this does not cause the same social alarm as in the case of conservative imams. This in turn is understandable when one considers that the social and political weight of conservative rabbis in France compared to that of conservative imams, anobvious Ultra-Orthodox Judaism – without question just as fundamentalist as Islamism, fundamentalist Hinduism and fundamentalist Christianity – is not a relevant political force in Europe today, it concentrates on those social forces that actually matter. That is also the reason why it is not only right but also necessary to finally make Islamism a decisive topic – to discuss, study and criticize.

The relationship between religion and state becomes increasingly complicated the more complex societies become in religious terms. Therefore at least the question arises what the increasing number of believing followers of other religions means for the previous model of secularity. The model of secularity implemented in Europe is closely linked to the juxtaposition of the state and Christian churches, especially the Catholic one. Therefore, one should ask oneself whether the respective “orders” that were found in the various societies of Europe in dealing with the relationship between state and religion still work and whether they are also transferred in their current form to relationships with other denominations, especially on European Islam. The word “European” must be underlined because, as we know from sociology and anthropology of religion, religion always inscribes itself in its concrete social and cultural context, is conditioned by it. It is not possible to abstract from this context. “The different modes of being a Muslim vary depending on the respective cultural context.”[2] Incidentally, this applies to every denomination.

“European Islam” is still comparatively young. It is still fully in its development, following complex, often contradicting paths that are anything but monolithic. One will have to get to know it, this European Islam, in all its various forms. You will find that you can be a Muslim in many different ways in Europe and that some of them are completely compatible with a secular and liberal-democratic society, others less – as with any other religion and any other cultural-ideological system.

“Integration Islam” vs. “Exclusion Islam” vs. “Radical Islamism”

With regard to the various possibilities of being a Muslim in Europe today, science differentiates between “integrative Islam”, “exclusive Islam” and “radical Islamism”.[3]

In the first variant, which is most widespread but is least visible due to the low radicalism, the Islamic religion is not lived out as belonging to a group, but as the construction of a singular identity in the bosom of European society. In contrast, exclusive Islam is a kind of neo-communitarian construction of meaning with reference to something sacred, in which the subject tries to give meaning to its own existence by excluding itself from a society in which it no longer sees any possibility. While integrative Islam seeks recognition in the bosom of the nation, exclusive Islam is characterized by a lack of trust in a society that has denied inclusion to these young people. For a democratic and liberal system, a highly problematic form of Islam. On the one hand, it is ambiguous by its nature and can therefore become a skewed path, which in turn leads to the third form, in which fundamentalist radicalization takes place. However, that is not all, because even if it remains completely non-violent , it helps to divide and reinforce the feeling of being excluded without doing its part for a cohesive society.

The feeling of being excluded also depends on social and economic problems which – for complex and historical reasons – often particularly affect a not inconsiderable part of the Muslim population. However, this undisputed fact must not serve as an alibi for religion.[4] Like any other cultural element of a society, religion can also assume a progressive or reactionary function in any context, i.e. also in a problem situation that depends on historical, economic, social and similar factors. And one cannot invoke structural circumstances every time to acquit oneself. At this point one could object that Muslims in the second category – not to mention the third – are a minority, while the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe belong to the first category and are therefore fully integrated into the free, democratic society. From a social and political point of view, however, it is not just the numerically ascertainable aspect of a phenomenon that counts, but also its ability to determine public discourse. In short, this is also about cultural hegemony.

The so often described silent majority of Muslims unfortunately does exactly that, they are silent and thus enable the fundamentalists to occupy the public space and the collective consciousness.

The fiction of “one Islam”

To reject the essentialist principle also means not to think of “Muslim society” as a monolith – that is exactly what fundamentalists want. Rather, one must endeavor to recognize the thousand facets of European Islam. “Islam” does not exist, there are many “Islam”. There is an Islam with a headscarf and one without, one with a beard and one without, there is an intimistic Islam that keeps away from politics, and there is a political Islam that seeks to Islamize public space. Exactly the same thing is happening in the Christian world, with which we are, however, more familiar: Christian base communities have nothing in common. But while we are sensitized to discerning differences and nuances in the Christian or the Christian-Catholic world, we tend to view Islam as a single thing. This shows that today’s cultural hegemony is determined by the conservatives. They “dictate the agenda”, their narrative has become dominant.

Making uniform – the typical procedure of the fundamentalists

Reduce to the essence, homogenize, make uniform or one-dimensional – this is the typical approach of fundamentalists, and we must not get involved in their game by also contributing to the narrative of a monolithic Islam. It is not uncommon for our critical analytical skills – the ability to spot, separate, and differentiate differences and nuances – to be more sophisticated in the face of well-known phenomena. It is also not uncommon for objects that are culturally and geographically further away from us that the sharpness of the outlines decreases as the distance increases, that we tend to standardize, to homologate and to lump everything together. It is not unusual, it is quite normal, but it is not justified. Least of all against Islam, which is no longer far removed from us, but has become a part of us. That makes it essential to get to know it in its various forms. In order for this to succeed, it is important that the silent majority of non-fundamentalist Muslims finally break their silence and take a clear position.

When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for a constitutional referendum in Turkey in 2017, in which Turkish citizens living abroad could also participate, less than half of those eligible to vote in Germany cast their votes. Among the voters, however, the percentage of supporters of Erdoğan’s reform was alarmingly high.[5] For Can Dündar, the former editor-in-chief of the blatantly Erdoğan-critical newspaper Cumhuriyet, who is now in exile in Germany, this means on the one hand that the majority of the Turks living in Germany are fully integrated and do not feel called upon to take part in the political life of the “mother country”. In such situations, the silent majority must also take on a historical responsibility and must not simply turn away with a shrug.

Social processes are always the result of an interplay between structural conditions and subjective action. It is therefore essential that secular Muslims join in, become visible, take to the streets and start influencing public discourse. The point is not to distance oneself from anything, but to occupy a public and cultural space that would otherwise be seized by more militant representatives, and who are usually conservative and reactionary. It is about cultivating the common good, withdrawing cultural dominance (again) from others, facing the responsibility of being part of a large political community, not just of one’s own family and one’s own clan.

The visibility and political weight Muslims in Western societies are still too low. This means that the clearly conservative Muslim associations bring themselves into play as political interlocutors and then proclaim themselves to be the representatives of all Muslims.

After the London attack on June 3, 2017, in which eight people were murdered and 48 injured, a German sociologist, respected Islam researcher and founding chairwoman of the Liberal-Islamic Association, supported a demonstration against terrorism in Cologne. The motto was “#NichtMitUns – Muslims and friends against violence and terror”. As she explained, it was decidedly not a call to distance from terrorism, but a call to take a stand against terrorism. The demonstration became a real failure.[6] Numerous Muslims justified their absence with the argument: “I don’t want to have to justify myself just because I’m a Muslim.” The difference between taking one’s own stance condemning terrorism and distancing oneself from Islamism was obviously not understood here.

As this argument illustrates, we have not yet reached the necessary level of awareness and maturity to understand the need to publicly express one’s attitude towards problems that affect us directly – even if we are not responsible for them. Failure to do so is primarily a fatal signal for those who take advantage of our silence, in this case Islamic fundamentalists. It was no coincidence that DITIB, the powerful association of Turkish Muslims in Germany, called for a boycott of the demonstration at the time.

This mechanism – “It’s not my fault, I don’t have to justify myself” – is a typical attitude that is also encountered in other contexts. In Sicily it was used for years to justify the silence regarding the Mafia, where most of the Sicilians wrapped themselves in. They are not mafiosi themselves, but with their silence they created exactly the right conditions for the flourishing of the Cosa Nostra. Only after the assassinations of 1992, the murder of the declared opponents of the Mafia, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, was it recognized that it was necessary to take to the streets and literally demonstrate one’s own attitude, to show it off less to the rest of the world than to the Mafiosi: “We are not like you, and we will not tolerate you. We are not your accomplices, nor is our silence.” A mafioso does not require everyone to subscribe to the Cosa Nostra, it is completely sufficient for outsiders to look the other way and just let him do it. Those who keep their eyes open, who “spit”, who make themselves into an “‘nfami”, a dishonor according to Mafia standards, who does not hide but reveals themselves, throw sand into the gears of the mafia-like machinery and disturb the balance in where the mafia thrives.

Another example is violence against women. It is horrible to have to keep repeating that of course not all men are violent, but that all men are just as obviously responsible if they allow a climate in which prejudices can exist unquestionably and from which violence develops. So men are required to become aware that there is a gender problem, a problem that affects their gender, and that they will become accomplices if they are not on the front lines to actively change that culture. The complicity starts with making a sexist joke or laughing at it. In this case, too, the request is not to distance oneself from the violent men – which would be far too easy – but to question one’s own role, to become visible, to speak up in order to isolate the violent men. Because responsibility or even guilt can arise from action, but also from omission – and the renunciation of criticism.

The Islamophobia accusation as an instrument of strategic silence

But while the criticism of the Catholic Church and Christianity in general, strengthened by centuries of disputes under the sign of secularism, is now recognized as legitimate, criticism of Islam is often silenced by the generic and instrumentalized accusation of “Islamophobia” This is the religion of a minority in Europe that is often exposed to racial discrimination, but to be able to criticize sharply, not only of the political use of religion, but also of the religion itself or of religion in general , is a human right and should not simply be equated with a call to intolerance towards its followers.

A simple experiment is sufficient to grasp the instrumental character of the word “Islamophobia”. Let’s replace the word “Islam” with “Christianity” and wait and see what happens. At prides and demonstrations one sees aggressively anti-religious and blasphemous signs and slogans, what the (Christian) Church certainly does not please. You can find these slogans inappropriate, tasteless and much more, but so far no one who has presented them has been accused of “Christianophobia”, of hatred of Christians, just because they are Christians.

It is different in the case of Islam. If, however, the CEMB, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, accuses the East London Mosque – and admittedly vehemently, but not without reason – of approving the persecution of homosexuals, then it is certainly not out of “Islamophobia”, that is, because of one almost paranoid and unjustified obsession with persons of Muslim faith, but because the mosque has repeatedly invited preachers who have called for hatred against homosexuals in their services. The mosque could have responded to the well-founded allegations of the CEMB with a charge of defamation instead of the discussion to move to another level with the Islamophobia accusation and thus effectively prevent it.

The Islamophobia accusation is used in this way as a “weapon of mass distraction”, often in combination with “but also”: Sure, there are homophobes among Muslims, “but also” we non-Muslims have a major homophobia problem.

What exactly is the purpose of such an argument? Perhaps that is to say that “we”, because “we” have the same problem, have no right to criticize “the other”? Such an argument reveals an unconscious racism that distinguishes between “us” and “the others”.

However, as soon as “the others” live here, among and with “us”, they are no longer “the others”, but are part of the collective “we” that make up the political community – the political, not the identitary, not the religious, not the ethnic community – the political community based on a pact of coexistence. If the allegation of Islamophobia is brought up blindly and indiscriminately, one also loses sight of the true Islamophobes who actually exist, namely all who hate Muslims for being Muslim.

With the word “Islamophobia” one turns Islam into a subject that is in itself worthy of protection. But legal subjects can only be persons, not religions or ideas. The paradox is this: If one shifts the focus from persons to religion, the If they belong to, these persons are worthy of protection because of their religion, i.e. their role as Muslims, Christians, etc., and not because they are persons.

To put them all in the category of Islamophobes – on the one hand, the racists and xenophobes who target Muslims because they are Muslims, and on the other hand, the advocates of criticism of all religions in the name of the universal principles of democracy, equality and human rights – to lump them together is a deeply unjust, intellectually insincere move, that is, above all, extremely dangerous and primarily plays into the hands of the racists. Where it is still understandable that such a tactic is used by fundamentalists who can only benefit from reducing everything to a question of racism, it is far less understandable when certain intellectuals let themselves be harnessed to these carts that make themselves refer to as progressive and left. In the end, that only benefits the Islamists – when the existence of xenophobic, racist and anti-Islamic movements becomes an alibi to criticize any radicalization of religion.

[1] Olivier Roy, La laïcité face à l’islam, Paris 2005

[2] Jocelyne Cesari, French Islam – Areligious minority in construction, Bari 2002, p. 146.

[3] ibid., pp. 163-185

[4] Gilles Kepel, Das Schwarzbuch des Jihad. Aufstieg und Niedergang des Islamismus.

[5] “Dieses Votum sagt nicht, was alle Deutschtürken denken”; Die Zeit, 17.4.2017.

[6] Schadenfreude ist das Letzte, was wir jetzt brauchen, in: Die Zeit, 20.6.2017.

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