Germany: 'Muslims have a right to be different'

Islam expert Dietrich Reetz of Berlin's Center for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO) speaks to SPIEGEL about Muslims in Germany, social tensions and the prospects for dialogue between the communities.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Reetz, recently the debate about the propensity to violence, among young Muslim men in particular, has heated up in Germany. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung co-editor Frank Schirrmacher wrote that, "the mixture of youth criminality and Muslim fundamentalism" is "the closest thing today to the deadly ideologies of the 20th century." He is drawing an analogy to fascism and Stalinism. Is that excessive dramatization or is there a real threat?

Dietrich Reetz: The incidents have been exaggerated. The negative images that are projected on Islam have little to do with religion, but instead are largely a result of the political problems and social situation of the people in question. Before immigrants' beliefs came to the forefront, the same problems were treated mainly under terms such as immigration, integration, and multicultural society.

SPIEGEL: But why is the discussion now concentrating on Muslims?

Reetz: The climate has become more charged, which of course has to do with the 9/11 attacks as well. The polarization happens on both sides -- there are Islamist politicians looking to profit from it, and Western politicians who use anti-immigrant resentment to drum up support for their own parties, as happened early this year during the state elections in Hesse. "Islam" and "Muslims" have become provocative catchwords.

SPIEGEL: Muslims are often perceived as aggressive, demanding, and intolerant.

Reetz: First we need to take note of the fact that the vast majority of Muslims in Germany behave peacefully. Furthermore, not everyone who comes from a Muslim-influenced cultural group is religious or Muslim. So we can't ascribe the problems that occur in socially troubled areas to religion or Islam.

SPIEGEL: Muslims in Germany mostly live in urban areas with social problems: unemployment, political discrimination, societal stigmatization. In this context, what is the significance of young Muslim men's identification with Islam?

Reetz: Recourse to religion offers young immigrants a cultural foothold when they feel excluded from society or sense that their chances of advancement are slight. The youth who increasingly turn to religion belong to a generation that was born and grew up in Germany, but asserts its right to live its own culture and religion self-confidently and without restrictions.

SPIEGEL: Is publicly and demonstratively declaring oneself a Muslim intended as a rejection of European values?

Reetz: Islam has contributed to European identity since the early Middle Ages and was present in Spain for centuries. Moreover, Islam grew from the same historical and cultural roots in the eastern Mediterranean as Christianity and Judaism. In this respect it too belongs to the heritage of the European West. However, after being separate so long, Islam seems alien to many Europeans. The new generation wants to be considered European Muslims.

SPIEGEL: How many of the Muslims living in Germany are deeply rooted in their religion -- and how can that be measured? Whether they go to a mosque? Or whether they observe Ramadan?

Reetz: According to different studies, which vary greatly depending on the questions asked, 50 to 70 percent place a value on religious symbolism. This proportion may have grown in recent years, but there is no comparative research that could be used to prove that. Certainly many people have a desire to observe certain religious rituals in their daily lives, although these also have a cultural aspect. Ramadan, for example, is a family tradition, not just a matter of belief.

SPIEGEL: The Islam scholar Stefan Weidner recently pointed out that the majority of Muslims living in Germany already inwardly belong "to us," meaning that they have converted to Western values and view religion only as something external. As evidence he cites that many no longer care at all about Ramadan.

Reetz: In practice this is quite varied, something that doesn't differ that much from these families' countries of origin -- there are also "secularization processes" in Turkey, Pakistan or Egypt. A conservative segment of the population places great importance on religion, while for others religious ritual still plays a role only in that it reminds them of their homeland. But Muslims also have a right to be different, as long as they don't violate laws or the constitution. How far they have distanced themselves from their religion can not be the standard by which they are measured in order to be seen as good citizens. No one judges whether Christians or Jews are good or bad citizens based on the degree of their religious belief.

SPIEGEL: Preserving an identity as a Muslim is one thing. It's another thing whether someone accepts the basic values and rights here, for example the equality of women or sexual self-determination.

Reetz: So far as I know, all the large Muslim associations recognize Germany's legal system and constitution. I don't believe that the conservative Muslim outlooks on topics such as sexuality differ greatly from those of devout Catholics, for example. The German pope's views on these issues do not differ greatly from those of certain Muslims. In rural Catholic areas, rituals and a belief in miracles still belong to daily life, and previous generations still practiced exorcism, which might seem very alienating to outsiders. Pluralistic European society can and has withstood that.

SPIEGEL: The analogy with exorcism is rather weak, since such practices are only rare exceptions in Western Europe today. In contrast, forced marriages are still very widespread in Muslim societies, and for many Muslim women it is very difficult to lead independent lives.

Reetz: Certainly, a direct comparison can't be made with exorcism. I only meant to point out that controversial religious practices were also common in Europe not so long ago. Really though, it's a matter of everyday religious practice in public spaces. And when Muslim women are prevented from exercising their rights, they are entitled to take that up as an issue. And by the way, arranged marriages are common in a wide spectrum of cultures and are not necessarily the same as forced marriages. When that is the case, women should certainly have the opportunity to protect themselves. But within Islam there are various conceptions of how women's role can be strengthened. There are more than a few young, religious women in mosque communities who consciously choose to observe the dress codes and emphasize religion when appearing in public. That too is a form of modernity, and we shouldn't pit it against the secular form. Most religious Muslims also value involvement in greater society -- that is to say, to be secular in a broader sense.

SPIEGEL: The number of immigrants naturalized in Germany has declined in recent years. Does this indicate a rejection on the part of Muslims -- mostly Turks -- who live in Germany, and that they would rather withdraw into their own "parallel society" than become part of the majority society?

Reetz: The decrease can be attributed to bureaucratic hurdles as well as cultural and political problems. When Turkish nationals stand to lose more than they gain through the naturalization process, they are unlikely to apply.

SPIEGEL: In what sense do they lose more?

Reetz: As long as Turkey is not part of the EU, it will be difficult for Turkish Germans, after renouncing their Turkish citizenship, to retain certain rights and opportunities in Turkey. Yet it is in Germany's interest to quickly integrate immigrants and their families, simply for demographic reasons. Why not turn things around, and guide and support immigration to the point where it becomes one of Germany's advantages? Living together is certainly not always easy and there is no patented formula -- so we should make people an offer that is attractive to them.

SPIEGEL: Such a project requires contact people on the other side. Are Muslim umbrella organizations more religious communities, cultural associations or political organizations?

Reetz: In this case as well we have to think beyond the legal categories. Most observers agree that Islam is structurally at a disadvantage as compared to Christian churches in Germany and most other European countries, in terms of government neutrality on religious matters or the separation of church and state.

SPIEGEL: Would integration succeed better if Muslims were given the status of a public body, such as Christian churches and Jewish communities have?

Reetz: Such a regulation would probably simplify things. Compared to other European countries we have some catching up to do on institutional regulations, but we also have the chance to avoid problems that have occurred elsewhere. Yet it seems doubtful whether it would make sense to force the various Islamic groups toward an artificial unity. Islam is not a church, it is composed differently. We shouldn't hinder or destroy the plurality of the religion, because that belongs to the culture as well. Within Islam there are also oppositional communities and groups presenting a kind of counterculture or protest culture, in their native countries as well as in Germany. If a centralized structure were forcibly introduced, it would give some groups the opportunity to dictate one certain interpretation of Islam for everyone and to do away with the plurality. That can't be in our interest.

SPIEGEL: Why do German authorities find it so difficult, despite the relative national homogeneity of Islam -- over 70 percent of Muslims living in Germany have Turkish origins -- to find reliable, legitimate partners in this dialogue?

Reetz: Turkish ancestry alone doesn't make for homogeneity among Muslims. Even just within Turkey the Muslim community is very diverse, ranging from Islamist groups to Sufi orders, reform branches and secularized elements. Nor is Turkey ethnically or socially homogeneous -- compare rural Anatolia and urban Istanbul. All this as well as varying degrees of adjustment to a new culture play out here in Germany. And then there are the many currents coming from other origins, such as Arab or Indo-Pakistani regions.

SPIEGEL: Is the concept of multiculturalism defunct, as we so often hear?

Reetz: The question is what you take that to mean. If multiculturalism means living together as opposed to just next to each other, then it probably has a chance. People of different cultures and religions living together shouldn't cause exclusion or delineation between groups. Today more than in the past there is a recognition that living together means common consciousness and mutual respect. Cooperation and communication are important. And the right to be different is just as legitimate as the right to belong.

SPIEGEL: Is there a secular "Euro-Islam"?

Reetz: There is definitely an adaptation process on the part of individual Muslims as well as whole communities. But that doesn't preclude diversity. While some think more in terms of preserving their traditions, others want to better adapt to life on German terms by practicing their religion in German. So the term "Euro-Islam" is just a catchword that actually describes several very different processes. Some take it to mean that religious Muslims should concentrate their activities on Europe, rather than on outside authorities. Others want it to mean tendencies toward secularization. Religious Muslims often resist this term, because they are afraid it will be used to separate them from their religion.

SPIEGEL: Muslim critics such as Salman Rushdie themselves warn against Islamist tendencies. Are these warnings off the mark?

Reetz: In this case it has to do more with political than religious problems. It certainly is necessary to deal with tendencies toward Islamist radicalization. But in my opinion these don't represent the essence of Islam -- just as we can't reduce Islam to the extreme positions of certain Islamic theologians. To appoint ourselves judges of the differences within Islam won't help. These religious debates belong within a living tradition such as Islam, just as they belong in Christianity. It is a historical process that should be carried out by these groups themselves. The debate isn't a new one -- it only becomes problematic for us when someone tries to capitalize on it politically. When some groups become militant, it is mostly not because of religion, but political reasons: they want to bring certain political issues to the forefront, or certain leaders want to keep control over their followers.

SPIEGEL: You're counting on a resolution from within Islam?

Reetz: Islam is easier to deal with, the less you interfere. Attempts to reform from the outside only lead to strange developments, make things more complicated and get things even more mixed up with political problems. What is important is that everyone complies with the legal system, whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims, immigrants or have German ancestry. For me the keyword is mutual trust. Muslims must feel at home here -- and we must be willing to give them that feeling.

SPIEGEL: The population's fears are certainly very understandable in the face of real and existing Islamist terrorism.

Reetz: It is warranted and certainly also necessary to take on these fears and anxieties. But they should contribute to clarity and understanding, rather than to a further polarization when it comes to the topic of Islam and Muslims. That won't lead to a solution of the problem of a lack of integration, but only aggravate it.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Reetz, thank you for speaking with us.

Source: Spiegel (English)

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