To be or not to be Muslim: German case in point

By Elif Kayi

OPINION. “You know, you Muslims, I don’t understand you. You don’t drink alcohol, and all you do is praying.” My friend told him that he was not a Muslim but an atheist, to which the landlord answered: “Yes, I know. You are not like them, you are different.” The conversation went on until the owner asked: “But there is something I want to know. For you, Muslims, is it acceptable if one marries a non-Muslim woman?”

A friend of mine told me a story the other day. The story itself sounds quite trivial; however, it serves well to illustrate a certain climate in contemporary Germany and more extensively in most European countries. My friend was born and raised in Iran. He flew at the age of thirteen to avoid having to fight in the war against Iraq and came to Germany, where his brother was already living. He settled here and eventually studied political science in Berlin. Once he had a chat with his landlord who told him: “You know, you Muslims, I don’t understand you. You don’t drink alcohol, and all you do is praying.” My friend told him that he was not a Muslim but an atheist, to which the landlord answered: “Yes, I know. You are not like them, you are different.” The conversation went on until the owner asked: “But there is something I want to know. For you, Muslims, is it acceptable if one marries a non-Muslim woman?”

The question in itself is not important and even though the prejudices contained in the remarks of the landlord need to be addressed, I will not tackle them in the article. What I nevertheless also find striking, is that the landlord, even though my friend had mentioned that he was not a Muslim, kept on perceiving him as part of “them,” i.e. “the” Muslims. My friend added to me smiling: “You know, Elif, your father is a Muslim, no matter whether he is religious or not. Therefore, you are also one of us!”. My father indeed comes from Turkey, but neither he nor I have ever viewed ourselves primarily as Muslims. Yet even though Turkey is considered a laical state, official Turkish ID cards contain an entry on religion, and for most Turks it will say “Islam.” So my friend’s story brought me once more to the question: What does it mean today to be a Muslim? Since I lived in Germany for a while, I want to use the example of this country to try to show the contradictions around this simple word: Muslim.

An interesting feature of our today’s life in many Western countries is that before trying to find out who the Muslims are, one tries to figure out who speaks for them. Contrary to the Catholic or Evangelical churches, Islam does not rely on hierarchical structures with a higher authority ultimately deciding all questions. Consequently, there is a plenitude of possible opinions on each issue, which makes it difficult, if not to say impossible, to get an answer that could be applied to all Muslims. This of course makes it very complicated for Western governments whishing to have one person or organization speaking in the name of their whole Muslim population.

Like many other European countries with large Muslim populations, Germany has been struggling for some years to find a single interlocutor at the national level. In April 2006, the Committee of Coordination of the Muslims (Koordinierungsrat der Muslime), which aims at taking such a role, has been created. Without direct support from the German government, it was established by the four biggest Islamic organizations. According to these organizations, the Committee represented at its creation 280.000 of the 3.300.000 Muslims living in Germany – figures that may have changed over the past three years. These figures for one show a disparity between the claim of the Committee – i.e., that it speaks in the name of all Muslims living in Germany – and the fact that it represents less than 10% of them, which obviously means that it actually covers only for members of the founding organizations.

Beyond the quantitative problem, however, some Muslims have claimed that the Committee of Coordination of the Muslims was composed of organizations exclusively representing conservative Muslims, and that accordingly the voices of the liberals and seculars were not taken into account. The president of the Turkish Community in Germany, Kenan Kolat, immediately after the creation of the Committee announced his intention to create a theological institute promoting a secular interpretation of the Quran: “The conservative interpretation of the Quran is not shared by the majority of the Turks,” he explained.

The German experience raises an accurate question, which many Western countries have to deal with: Is it possible to have one distinct partner at the national level to deal with the questions of Islam? The German Minister of the Interior at that time, Wolfgang Schäuble, who firstly had welcomed the creation of the Committee of Coordination of the Muslims, finally said that it could not speak in the name of all Muslims living in Germany because it did not represent the majority of them. This was a first step towards the understanding that the Muslim community cannot be interpreted as a single, homogenous one, and that it is therefore probably inappropriate to look for one single partner. Members of the Muslim community come from various areas and countries, have different cultural, linguistic, political and social backgrounds, and it is utopian to think that they can all get along well on issues dealing with religion.

German Minister Schäuble originally had thought of a different approach to tackle the various questions regarding Islam in Germany – which include issues such as wearing a headscarf in public institutions, separate sports and swimming classes, Islam courses in public schools, the recognition of the status as an official religious community for the Muslims, etc. In September 2006, he created the German Conference of Islam, which was intended to serve as a platform of dialogue between representatives of the German State and representatives of the Muslims – representatives of the big Islamic organizations as well as independent personalities from the scientific and artistic field or from civil society. The conference, which is about to take place for the fifth time, did not succeed in providing united answers. The dissensions among the Muslim representatives, especially between the conservative side and the so-called “Islam critical” group and individuals, were too severe to come to compromises. As an example, during the first meeting in 2006, as the president of the Central Committee of the Muslims (one of the four organizations in the Committee of Coordination of the Muslims), Ayyub Axel Köhler, expressed himself in favour of separate sport classes for girls and boys, he was immediately attacked on the issue by the feminist lawyer, Seyran Ateş, who sees this as a withdrawal of liberties. The dissensions went on over the years and further meetings. How is it possible to come to a compromise with such diametrically opposed positions?

The failure of the Islam Conference creates the impression that there are mainly two opposed camps which fight against each other: the conservative and the critical. This is actually what stays in mind, especially through reports of the mass media. The voice of liberal or secular Muslims may sound too moderate to find a real interest. What also remains is the initial question: “But who are they, these Muslims, if they cannot agree upon matters?” Many Muslims living in Germany do not feel represented by either of the Islamic organizations, nor by the individuals speaking about Islam. On the most basic level, a Muslim can be understood as a religious, pious person, believing in the faith of Islam. But over the past years, the meaning has started to get more general, and it now also embraces persons coming from countries where Islam is the dominant religion or who have been raised in families coming from such countries. Through this current trend in Western countries, the expression “culture Muslims,” which was already in use in some Muslim countries like Turkey, has experienced a renewal. According to the “Western” definition, a “culture Muslim” should describe someone who either does not identify him or herself primarily through religion – Islam – or who has been raised either in a Muslim country or in a family coming such a country, even if he or she does not have any link to religion or does not consider him or herself religious at all.

For some persons, Muslims have to re-appropriate the word “Muslim.” So thinks Clémence Delmas, a 32-year old French political scientist, who has lived in Berlin for about ten years. Together with her friend Betül Yilmaz, a 23-year old student of Islamic sciences, she decided four years ago to create an internet forum called “Muslim Voices”  ( “After the assassination of Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands, there was a very emotional debate in Germany about the Muslims,” explains Clémence. “But the persons we were told about – the Muslims – just could not make themselves heard.” The situation was a flash point for the creation of the website. The two authors invite Muslims to send in their contributions and then put them online without censorship. “We do not give a topic to the people,” underlines Clémence. “They are free to choose what they want to write about. But usually Muslims tend to write only about integration and identity, because they are used to it. We want to encourage them to write on other issues as well, such as health, culture, or politics in general.” For Clémence and Betül, “Muslim” is not just a religious qualification, it also has a cultural understanding. “We appeal to people who are perceived as Muslims – because of their name or origin – and to persons who define themselves as such.” The two young ladies want to show that there are many “Muslim voices” belonging to non-organized Muslims –which for them represent the majority of the Muslims living in Germany.

To be perceived as Muslims because of their name or origin. This is exactly what some persons refuse to let on. One example is Mina Ahadi. She was born in Iran and was 23 when the mullahs took the power in Teheran in 1979. Medicine student at that time, she refused to come to the university wearing a headscarf and was expelled. Shortly after this incident, her husband was arrested instead of her and executed. She was condemned to death and escaped over many countries until she arrived in Germany where she has now been living for more than ten years. She said that she rejected Islam at the age of 15 and refuses to be considered a Muslim in Germany only because she comes from Iran. In January 2007 she decided to create the Central Committee of the ex-Muslims, together with forty other persons, most of them with an Iranian background. The name is deliberately provocative since it refers to the Central Committee of the Muslims, which is one of the four biggest Islamic organizations in Germany. The difference is that in the logo, next to the croissant stands the small word “ex.” “We reject the discourse of Islamic organizations and of German politics who speak of 3.300.000 Muslims in Germany, regardless of their real religious convictions,” explains Mina Ahadi. The name of their campaign “We Have Abjured” is aimed at raising the public attention to the fact that there are other voices within the communities coming from Muslim countries. Voices that do not want to be called “Muslim voices”?

Starting with the question “Who are the Muslims?” or “What is a Muslim?”, a look at the current situation in Germany led me to conclude that the word “Muslim” can no longer be defined easily. My primary understanding of the term – a term strictly denoting the religious appurtenance – does not seem to fit reality any longer. It seems that it has been overwhelmed by other dimensions and notions, i.e. culture, identity, etc., which fit to the context of the migrant population in Western countries. It may be a step in the search for a common migrant identity to redefine this simple word, making a more or less broad identity concept out of it. The danger that lies therein, however, may be to neglect other aspects of the cultural and political heritage of migrants and to limit the idea of identity to one religious root. Another danger may be to fall in some kind of communautarism or even segregation. Maybe the solution indeed is to keep the word open and essentially undefined, to leave the decision about the label “Muslim” up to those willing to adhere to it and to those rejecting it. But it seems that those rejecting it are already in the minority.

In the future, the word might perhaps really embrace all persons having a migrant background or merely some vague connection to a predominantly Muslim country. I smile, thinking that my Iranian friend should maybe present himself as an atheist Muslim.


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Filed under Culture, Migration, Opinion

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