Islam, the political misuse and liberal values

Photo Credits: Dominique Faget / AFP / Getty Images

In the cultural-relativistic tradition of western progressive thinking, the connection between violence, murder and religion is often ignored or simply denied. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on the events in Iran in the Bundestag at the end of September the following: “When the Iranian regime beats women in the name of religion, it has absolutely nothing to do with religion! It is an expression of a power system based on humiliation and violence.”

She was referring to protesting women in the Mullah regime, who removed their veils after Mahsa Amini was beaten to death by police a few days earlier for improperly wearing her headscarf. The protests have now resulted in hundreds of dead Iranians.

One can claim that the correct wearing of a headscarf has nothing to do with Islam. However, the burden of proof for this assertion then lies with the person who denies this connection, contrary to the generally accepted interpretation of this correlation.

However, the German foreign minister is right about one thing: It is actually a power system based on humiliation and violence. But its laws and their execution are rooted in religion, Iran is known to be a constitutional theocracy. Islam also forms the basis of a state religion in more than 20 other countries, leading to an ideological congruence of politics and religion.

In Islam, a “hukm” denotes a judgment, God’s will, in any case it is more binding than the fatwa, which is known in general terms and is only valid as legal information. The order given by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 to kill Salman Rushdie was probably a hukm. Whether it was mere legal advice or a specific instruction that led to the crime may be of theological relevance, but for enlightened societies it is irrelevant. From one perspective, the fact that crimes have their roots in religious ideologies poses two questions for free, democratic states: Are these crimes directly related to religion? And if so, why are these religions, their institutions and followers granted exceptions to otherwise generally applicable laws in open societies, i.e. a privileged position in the state? Conversely, if there is no connection to Islam with this crime, there is obviously a problem for non-Muslims – but probably also for Muslims themselves – to clearly and precisely define which attitudes, statements and actions are Islamic and which are not. Is this circumstance enough to hold Islamic entities accountable and to establish an obligation to deliver?

The interchangeability of secular and religious laws in Islamic states with their state religions does not mean that fatwas are a phenomenon that is limited to the Islamic world. Islam is also part of European societies and, in its organized form, is naturally interested in spreading its teachings, legal opinions and regulations, at least among its followers – like any other religion. In some countries, attempts are made to control Islam through theological faculties in state universities, but education is not limited to these institutions.

Many Islamic associations, institutions and Muslims living in enlightened democracies condemn atrocities committed in the name of Allah. What cannot succeed is presenting the above examples of Mahsa Amini and Salman Rushdie as something that has nothing to do with religion. In view of the subsequent crimes, these are not isolated cases.

The order to assassinate the British writer is undoubtedly an Islamic issue that is supported, accepted or at least condoned by significant parts of the Islamic world and Muslims. The fact that the majority of Muslims cannot gain anything from the fatwa and that conflicting fatwas are also possible is not sufficient as a demarcation and explanation.

Often, an arguments used that one should not perceive Islam as monolithic. But that’s a classic straw man argument: Even someone who doesn’t deal with Islam doesn’t perceive this religion as a homogeneous bloc. Many of us know Muslims who follow the core values of liberal societies and – at least from media reports – those who prefer to join and fight for the Islamic State. Distinguishing these does not represent a cognitive hurdle for anyone. The appeal to differentiate is in vain. We can assume that the average, attentive media consumer has also heard of Sunnis, Shiites, Salafists, Wahhabis, Taliban, etc. and is not assuming synonyms for Muslims here.

It is precisely the naturalness with which these distinctions are made that should give those Muslims food for thought who distance themselves from the substantive foundations of their own religion. Despite all the ability to differentiate, it is hardly possible for non-Muslims to attribute crimes committed on behalf of Allah to non-religious Islam or to a variety that is not tolerated within Islam.

Of course, no one has to explain things that they didn’t do and that their own ideological community doesn’t have to answer for either – but that requires giving up the claim of a large world religion with many followers and introducing understandable terminologies and practices of an emancipation of individual currents. The problem of understanding also lies in the fact that organized Islam wants to be perceived simultaneously as a unity and differentiated. And the political approach taken by many European states in an attempt to reshape Islam only exacerbates this perception.

Austria plays an exceptional role here because the country inherited an Islamic law that dates from the time of the Habsburg monarchy before the First World War and was enacted in 1912. The annexation of the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina required the legal recognition of an autochthonous Islamic population in the state. The law survived two world wars and was replaced in 2015 – when I was a member of parliament myself – by a new Islam law that structurally follows the Israelite law.

In some respects, Muslims are significantly disadvantaged: In contrast to other religious communities, the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGÖ) does not receive any subsidies, Islamic organizations are subject to a ban on financing from abroad and must explicitly commit themselves to the fundamental values of the republic. It is remarkable in itself that one religion is treated worse than another – but the state design process goes so far that with the IGGÖ a contact person has been established that can be controlled by the state and serves as a reservoir for the most diverse Islamic currents.

In contrast to Christianity, for which the Austrian legislature also recognizes different denominations separately, Islam is seen with the Islam Act of 2015 as the monolithic block that should not exist if it does not fit. This unity is wanted by both sides. In its 2009 constitution, the IGGÖ formulated a claim to sole representation for Muslims, which was no longer found in later versions. Article 1 (5) of the IGGÖ stated at the time:

“All Muslims (regardless of gender, ethnic origin, school of law and nationality) who have their main residence in the Republic of Austria belong to the Islamic Religious Community in Austria.”

The law goes so far that Islamic associations that do not want to submit to the IGGÖ regime are officially dissolved. This is not compatible with either individual or corporatist freedom of religion and illustrates the legislature’s opportunistic lack of principles in matters of religion. In fact, all major religions fall into many sects and many more currents up to personal interpretations of belief and attitude to the community. A state like Austria, which operates a cooperative state religion model, also imposes on itself the duty not to undermine this distinguishability.

In practice, the collection of everything Islamic in a virtual faith community means that the IGGÖ also represents and is responsible for the radical fringes of Islam. Why an organization with elements that are hostile to an open society should enjoy special rights is neither logically understandable nor ethically justifiable.

Islam also has problem areas that cannot be denied, and it is up to the Muslims to work on them and to establish a teaching that leaves no room for deadly fatwas anywhere in the world. If demarcations are to be seen here, then they must be made very clear. A modern Islam that actually wants to fit into liberal societies as a religion should be more recognizable and also have a name that prevents confusion.

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