"Islam is taking root in Europe"

Sociologist Nilufer Gole talked to Muslims throughout Europe who would otherwise never get to have their say. The results of her remarkable study have now been published in German translation. Interview by Karen Kruger

By Karen Krüger

Ms. Gole, you surveyed people in Germany, France, England and other countries over the course of four years, asking those you refer to as "ordinary Muslims" what distinguishes Islam as practised in Europe. What do you mean by "ordinary Muslims"?

Gole: These are Muslims who are integrated into society, members of the middle class. They feel like completely ordinary citizens and yet they are not ordinary. Those who are really ordinary disappear into the majority society. But these Muslims stand out, because they want to live out their faith in their daily lives. As a result, Europe needs to come to terms with the symbols of this Islamic faith – such as mosques or headscarves – appearing in public life. Muslims share the public space with long-established citizens, many of whom are almost anti-religious as a consequence of secularisation. This leads to a certain proximity, but not really to any close links, let alone mutual appreciation.

The visibility of Islam seems to be a big problem for many. Conflicts are often sparked by mosque-building projects or the headscarf.

Gole: Not only the religious aspect is viewed with apprehension, but also the fact that with the migrants a whole new world has arrived in the middle of European society. A large section of the European public expects nothing less of the Muslims than complete cultural assimilation.

So the conflict is about culture?

Gole: There is widespread rejection of strangers and Islam is right at the top of the list. Islam is criticised not only by right-wing populists but also by leftist intellectuals, feminists and some sections of the homosexual movement. Having fought long and hard against the power of the Church in order to attain sexual freedom and gender equality, many people now feel threatened by the return of religion to the public sphere. They are less than willing to develop new standards together with Muslims.

Service of mourning at the Church of Saint Michel in Paris. As Islamists brutally murdered a Catholic priest in France in August 2016, Christians and Muslims came together across the country to pray and offer each other mutual support (photo: DW)
Mutual recognition rather than rejection: sociologist Nilufer Gole criticises that many people in Germany and France often barely know their next-door neighbours and frequently fail to notice ″normal″ Muslims. Moreover they either associate Islam with a range of social problems or regard it as a religion in need of reform

Is there a lack of openness? Islam is after all debated frequently enough.

Gole: Yes, but the debate is not evolving in a way that brings us closer together. When it comes to questions of halal food, for example, the discussion quickly turns to animal rights. Religion is then side-lined.

So the majority society is still constrained too much by its age-old cultural boundaries?

Gole: Yes – and the debate then misses the point – which is the reality faced by Muslims today. Yet even they no longer practise their religion in their everyday lives like their parents and grandparents once did. And nor do they want to, because they see themselves as part of the European cultural landscape.

For most of them, there is no question that they therefore have to act in accordance with secular laws, while also trying to abide by Islamic codes of behaviour. As Muslims are in the minority, it is not a given that they can practise their religion here to the fullest. For example, anyone wishing to pray five times during the typical European workday needs a strategy. That′s why young Muslims are very considered when it comes to practising their faith.

By bringing their religion out into the public space, they are casting Europe in a completely new light. The same can be said of the European converts. Islam is taking root here.

So we are witnessing the birth of a specifically European Islam?

Gole: We are witnessing a new iteration of Islam. Not dictated by politics, but taking shape at the everyday level, at the grass roots.Like Hannah Arendt, you see the public space as a space of appearance. You have pointed out that, according to Arendt, citizens are the ones who have the courage to leave their sheltered private realm, to show themselves in public and to present what makes them unique – by taking action and adopting a public stance, one becomes a citizen.

Gole: Arendt′s thoughts were helpful for understanding what it means for Muslims to be visible and how practices of seeing and being seen influence our lives together in the majority society.

Public perceptions of features of the Islamic faith often differ markedly from the subjective meaning attributed to them by Muslims themselves. If a person follows the Islamic dietary rules, this is just normal everyday life for that person. But it is quickly perceived as provocation or even aggression.

Muslim woman wears a burkini on a beach in southern France (photo: Reuters)
The stuff of conflict: the wearing of burkinis was a hot topic of discussion in France last summer. "The word doesn′t even exist in Arabic; it′s a cultural portmanteau composed of bikini and burka, just as the European Muslims are a cultural composition made up of different influences," argues Nilufer Gole

How might we deal with this?

Gole: We should consider more carefully what we call things. In France, people spoke first of headscarves and then of the Islamic veil. At some point, only the hijab was the subject of debate, followed by the burka. Why was this term chosen? It is not even commonly used in Afghanistan. It is revealing to see which words are bandied about in the European debate

The latest discussion was about the burkini.

Gole: That word is quite ironic. It doesn′t even exist in Arabic; it′s a cultural portmanteau composed of bikini and burka, just as the European Muslims are a cultural composition made up of different influences. The burkini challenges orthodox Islam and its rules and regulations and provides a way for Muslim women to take part in Western leisure activities. So the burkini is not meant to be aggressive and yet it still provokes so much resentment. Our Western standards call for women to show plenty of skin at the beach. Some foreign habits are accepted in Europe as merely exotic, others rejected as threatening. The latter is true for Islam, which cannot be culturally cannibalised quite as easily as other practices.

In Hannah Arendt′s opinion, wearing a burkini might then be a way for Muslim women to assert themselves as citizens? Then it would be anything but the expression of a parallel society.

Gole: Exactly. Some people think that Muslims should have their own beaches. But that would then promote the very thing that Muslims are repeatedly accused of – the formation of closed communities. Now that a headscarf ban has been imposed in public schools in France, many Muslim girls are attending private schools. They are isolated from the others.

What role do you think the media plays in the public debate?

Gole: The debate is dominated by voices that try to turn Islam into something exclusively Oriental and scandalous. The strategy involves polarisation and exaggerating differences, as if the public constantly needed a further escalation to get excited about.

The media often gives the impression that Muslim reality consists exclusively of radicalisation, jihad and the suffering of the refugees. But the reality is far more complex and knows far fewer extremes than people seem to think. This is a problem, because this viewpoint makes it practically impossible to perceive the majority of Muslims who are well-integrated into their communities in all European countries. We talk about them, but we don′t know them. We include them too rarely in the debate.

What are the reasons for all the exaggeration?

Gole: The more radical something is, the more we are fascinated by it. At the same time, it is easier to reject it. We can more easily reassure ourselves that this alien Other has nothing to do with us.Most Muslims in Germany are of Turkish descent. You yourself are Turkish and have done a great deal of research on Turkish society. Is Turkey now in the process of turning away from Europe?

Gole: With its call for a strong leader and the growing intolerance of cosmopolitanism, Turkey is apparently looking increasingly toward Eastern Europe for orientation. We see no one but Erdogan these days. We don′t see his team. Even Erdogan′s friends who founded the AKP with him are no longer around.

Erdogan likes to speak of how he has launched a "New Turkey". What is this new nation supposed to look like? When the AKP came to power in 2002, many said that Erdogan had a hidden agenda and wanted to turn the country into an Islamic state.

Gole: I have never believed that there is a hidden agenda. I was one of those who had faith in the process of democratisation initiated by Erdogan′s AKP. I believed that we would be able to explain our religious and secular sensibilities to one another so that society could become more open to plurality. It worked for about ten years. But then a retrograde trend began for reasons that still need to be analysed.

Cover of Nilufer Gole′s book ″Europaischer Islam: Muslime im Alltag″ (published by Wagenbach)
Muslims are already part of European society: although international terrorism is currently hardening the front between Islam and Europe, appearances can be deceptive. As Nilufer Gole demonstrates in her book, Islam is already an integral part of our – common – daily life. New identities are taking shape, new forms of co-existence emerging. Yet with them there also comes the potential for new conflict – as in the case of the Muhammad caricatures – for which creative solutions need to be found. Europe is in the process of reinventing itself, something no fundamentalist will be able to stop

The Turkish opposition thinks that Europe is partly to blame for the reversal.

Gole: There is certainly some truth to that theory, although Turkey also bears some responsibility. When the negotiations began with the EU, Europe marginalised Turkey in a very emotional manner. Many hearts were broken in Turkey. They thought they had already belonged to Europe for a long time.

The Turkish negotiators failed to convey that feeling to Europe. On the contrary, the debates were very counterproductive. All the while, a great deal of disinformation was being spread by Europe. Take for example the abolishment of the death penalty in 2002. Little attention was paid to that in Europe. But it was a huge step for Turkey. European observers commented that it was merely window-dressing. I felt very bad when I heard that, because it did not reflect the facts.

And now that Ankara is proposing to reintroduce the death penalty, Europe is outraged. I don′t know what the answer is anymore.

Ankara is currently focusing on political purges. What role will Islam play once the opposition has been quashed?

Gole: We have to remember that there are different interpretations of the Muslim faith. The Fethullah Gulen movement is a religious interpretation. It managed to infiltrate the government, for a long time under the regime′s benevolent gaze. But then the tide turned, and now there are efforts to rid institutions and society of this ideology again.

What interpretation of religion will then gain ground? Erdogan is after all deeply religious.

Gole: Perhaps more emphasis will be placed on religion in order to hold together society. And there will certainly be an attempt to redefine Islam in a certain way. I hope that Islam′s transformation in a democratic direction will be supported. But at the moment I do not see the element of religion as being in the foreground in Turkey but rather nationalism and in particular nativism.

What can Europe do?

Gole: Europe unfortunately missed its chance. There was a right moment, but no one realised just how crucial it was.

When were you in Turkey last?

Gole: I was in Istanbul during the coup attempt. Nobody wanted a coup, and I saw how people stood up to the tanks. We thought it could be the beginning of a new democratic era. But the signs are now pointing in a very different direction. I hope this is only temporary and not structural.

Erdogan called the coup a "gift from God".

Gole: Yes, he actually said that. Unbelievable!

Interview conducted by Karen Kruger

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) 2017

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Nilufer Gole was born in Ankara, lives in France and teaches sociology at the Parisian Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.