Learning from Ankara

Islam is just as compatible with democracy as any other religion. But if there is to be a modern Islam in Germany, support must be offered to liberal Muslims. A commentary Lale Akgün

It is true that the Muslim intellectual landscape in Germany is somewhat dry – a sandy desert in which there is little to be found except for the stony outcrops of the Muslim religious associations. Islam in Germany and the rest of the world has a considerable image problem, and not just since the terror attacks in New York.

And it is true: we need more than ever here voices which speak for a open-minded, liberal and contemporary Islam, an Islam which gives answers to the questions provoked by our lives here in Germany. European Islam needs a reformation.

The lack of powerful liberal Muslim voices

But critics of Islam are wrong when they claim that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. It is frustrating that, for some times now, these black-and-white thinkers have been enjoying such a positive reception in the public debate.

They evoke prejudices which we thought dead and gone, and they swim on a wave of fear that Germany will be taken over by foreigners. It is for this reason – but also because of the lack of powerful liberal Muslim voices in this country – that objective arguments have a tough time in the debate on Islam and democracy. So where does Islam stand today? Are Muslim really worse democrats?

Islam can be just as well or badly integrated with a democratic way of life as any other religion. There is a wide variety of Muslim tendencies from Morocco to Indonesia, and from the United States to Germany.

Turkey is democratic and Muslim, Saudi-Arabia is Muslim and undemocratic – generalisations won't do, so I'll restrict myself to Europe and Germany.

And here Islam is not up to date. What we need is an Islam which provides answers to the questions of here and now, an Islam which is independently organised, and which is measured against European and German laws – the same requirements as one would have of any other religion.

The conservative image of Islam in Germany

What we have instead is an Islam whose image in Germany is determined by the Muslim associations and their officials, who present conservative, sometimes fundamentalist positions and are dependent on authorities outside the county.

The largest Muslim association, DITIB, is financially and organisationally closely linked to "Diyanet", the religious authority of the Turkish state. It brings imams to Germany from Turkey. They seldom speak good German and they are rarely adequately aware of the way we live.

So how can these preachers help the Muslims who live here to deal with the problems they face, if they scarcely know anything about Germany? Other associations have close links to Saudi-Arabia or the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Both represent a kind of "stone-age Islam" which has no answers to the questions of Muslims living here. These Muslims are having to deal with both the good sides and the bad sides of a globalised world, and a society which is both German and European. We need strong voices which can provide answers which relate to life as it is lived.

No modern interpretation of the faith

But in Germany and Europe, Islam has not had the opportunity to develop a modern interpretation of the faith. There are still too few chairs of Islamic religious education, there is virtually no qualified teaching of Islam in schools and there are no imams being trained here.

The Muslim world itself can show us what the concept of an enlightened Islam could look like. At the University of Ankara, a young team is researching Muslim theology using historical-critical methods. In their view, the Suras of the Koran can only be understood in their historical context, and cannot be applied literally to the present day.

How the texts are applied to the present is a matter for the individual conscience. If one wants to do it properly, one has to call upon the Hadith, the traditions about the sayings of the Mohammed.

The Hadith contains explanations by the Prophet by which one can understand the ethical content of the Suras of the Koran and apply it to the present.

The "Ankara School"

Everyone is entitled to carry out such interpretation in this way. One requires a teacher only if one is unable to do it oneself. Of course, this approach to the Koran has not made its way into every last Turkish living room in Germany.

But that is exactly why we would be well advised to support those who present liberal views, instead of only ever shaking hands with those who represent the Islam of the past.

But one thing should not be forgotten. It is not enough only to support the liberal intellectual Muslim scene. We have urgently to cease to treat all those "John-Doe-Muslims", the large silent majority, who just want to live and work quietly in Germany, as if they too were all fundamentalists and reactionaries.

The opposite of integration

How should a Muslim feel when he is brushing his teeth in the morning, and hears on the radio that everyone who converts to Islam in future will be checked by the secret services? Anyone who is treated like that feels like an outsider and will escape back into his shell. That is the way to achieve the opposite of integration.

The aggressive criticism of Islam and the oft-repeated but still incorrect claim that democracy and Islam are like fire and water have little to do with the reality lived by real people in German villages and cities.

It is only by living together that it becomes clear that a Turkish doctor has more in common with a German doctor than with a Turkish construction worker.

The gulfs which divide our society run along issues like education, prosperity and the chance to make one's way. And it will only be when all people have the same chances to participate in society and to rise within it, that these gulfs will cease to exist.

A sense of belonging, which is so important in binding a society together, can only be developed on the basis of our common constitutional values. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas once used the term "constitutional patriotism" to describe this loyalty.

According to the constitution, every citizen, whether Muslim, Christian or atheist, has the same political, social and economic rights and duties as everybody else. That requires the acceptance of our secular constitution, according to which religion and state are separated and the state has a monopoly of power.

Within these limits set by the state, and under its protection, religions may do everything they wish to realise their potential to ensure peace and integration.

That is the position in a secular democracy from which religion will be able to grow and flourish and benefit humanity. And that too is the position in a secular democracy from which Islam will be able to grow and flourish and benefit humanity.

Lale Akgün

© Lale Akgün/Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Lale Akgün was born in 1953 and is a member of the German parliament for the Social Democrats (SPD). She is on the parliamentary committee for European affairs and is the SPD parliamentary spokesperson on Islamic issues and deputy spokesperson on European policy.


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