Dangerous Ignorance

Far too little research has been done on the attitudes of Muslims toward the social and political system in Germany. This ignorance fuels conspiracy theories on "the Muslims" and terror. A commentary by Eberhard Seidel

Far too little research has been done on the attitudes of Muslims toward the social and political system in Germany. This ignorance fuels conspiracy theories on "the Muslims" and terror, says Eberhard Seidel

Mosque in Berlin-Neukölln (photo: Larissa Bender)
European societies need to acquire more and specific knowledge about their Muslim communities, Eberhard Seidel argues

​​Every attack by Islamist terrorists in a major Western city further burdens the relationship between Muslims and mainstream society, and Tony Blair's statement that the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims in Britain are decent law abiding people did nothing to ease this situation.

Klaus Jansen, Chairman of the Federation of German Law Enforcement Officials, bitterly complained last weekend that since September 11th, 2001 Muslim communities have done far too little about the extremists that move within their social circles, a problem that he says overshadows that fact that Islamic organizations in Germany are more closely observed than before and, with international assistance, a number of former Afghanistan fighters have been identified.

Demands on Muslims

And in an editorial published by the German weekly Die Welt: "With every attack, it becomes increasingly urgent for the Muslims living here to make a clear commitment to tolerance, democracy and Western values. This has clearly not been understood by many Muslims who foster parallel Islamic worlds in their own neighborhoods. They know exactly in which mosques and in which apartments hatred is preached, and thus they could do more for our safety than any law enforcement concept."

Such demands are appropriate, yet highly problematic. They are appropriate because terrorism cannot be combated solely by relying on military and police methods. Combating militant Islamic fundamentalism can only succeed in Europe if Muslim organizations seek to confront this movement and set the record straight: there is no justification for terror.

Within hours of the attacks in London, all major Muslim organizations in Germany, from Milli Görüs to the Central Council of Muslims to the Islamic Council, unequivocally condemned the bombings – a message that was echoed by countless Muslim secular interest groups across Germany.

Demands directed at "all Muslims" are problematic because they insinuate that believers in Islam have inside knowledge and exclusive access to clandestine Islamic terror groups merely because they are of the same religious faith. Such thinking is just one step short of conspiracy theories like the all-too familiar anti-Semitic stereotype that world Judaism is capable of committing virtually any wicked deed to achieve its ends.

The need to be specific

To avoid this dead end, critics need to be far more precise in their demands. They need to know exactly which Muslim organizations they accuse of having connections with international terrorism. They need to know exactly which mosques they intend to hold responsible for offering a soapbox for specific propagandists of terror or preachers of hatred and anti-German prejudices. And they need to be unambiguous about which particular Muslims they feel have a distinct lack of democratic values.

There have been instances where connections between certain Islamic activists and a number of mosques have been successfully documented. Many of these cases have been researched by Turkish and Arab journalists with an Islamic background. Such dedicated reporters work for years at their own risk and expense, motivated by a deep commitment to preserve the hard-fought freedoms in our society.

This should serve as a warning to all those who are quick to point a finger at Arabs and Turks as likely extremists, yet have little idea where they gained their knowledge of the Islamic fundamentalist scene in the first place.

Dedicated Muslims journalists

Without the investigative journalism of these dedicated Muslim journalists, German Interior Minister Otto Schily and his colleagues would barely have had sufficient evidence to ban the anti-Semitic smearsheet Vakit or the radical Islamic political party Hizb-ut Tahrir.

Demands that mosque religious communities, and Muslims in general, should provide us with more comprehensive information on the extremists in their midst get us absolutely nowhere.

First, mosque religious communities represent only a minority of Muslims, and second, their knowledge is generally limited. To draw an analogy, how many cases can we remember since 1949 of churches informing the authorities of the appalling behavior of violent racists who are members of their congregations?

The lack of expert knowledge in the media

Since Islamic fundamentalism is a problem that we all face, some very different questions need to be asked: Why have the media, in contrast with the news services, done so little to develop the necessary linguistic and expert knowledge required to adequately inform their audiences about Islamic fundamentalism?

And why have representatives of the communities who have warned of this development for years received so little attention in the media, and been largely denounced by Germans as being anti-Islamic hardliners? The only possible answer is that, up until now, most Germans have had very little interest in Islamic fundamentalism.

In short, the general public is not very interested in knowing about their fellow Muslim citizens and is perfectly content to hold on to its beloved prejudices.

With the debates of the past few months on honor killings, the failure of the multicultural society, forced marriages, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, growing anti-Semitism and the formation of parallel worlds, which are a potential powder keg ready to explode, a familiar stereotype has taken shape.

We all know him. He is young, Mediterranean-Muslim, violence prone, and he questions the very foundations of Western values, including equality for men and women, the separation of church and state, the right to sexual self-determination, and the renouncement of violence to achieve political objectives.

No one would deny that there are bona fide examples of this stereotype in existence today. Everyone has seen a few – in the working class Berlin district of Neukölln or on TV. But we have virtually no idea how many of these fanatics live in Germany. Are there hundreds of thousands, fifty thousand, or just a few hundred?

What do we really know about Muslims in Germany?

Aside from knee-jerk reactions of outrage, we only have relatively scant and sketchy information to answer all these questions. Yes, there are honor killings. Yes, there are Muslims who believe that these are justified. But how many are there? Yes, there are anti-Semitic smearsheets. Yes, there are preachers of hatred in mosques. But what does that tell us about the Muslims living in Germany? Nothing. We simply have no reliable information on the predominant sociopolitical attitudes among Muslims living in Germany.

We do not know how many Muslims advocate terror attacks or have anti-Semitic prejudices. We do not know how many Muslims recognize tolerance, democracy and Western values. Are there more in eastern Germany than in western Germany? Are there significant differences between the views of society held by Muslims from lower income backgrounds and their German Christian counterparts?

Are there major differences between Muslim and non-Muslim members of the middle and upper classes? Do these groups share comparably extremist ambitions, attitudes and views? And what of their willingness to tolerate extremists in their own ranks? In view of the many questions and issues that need to be answered, social scientists definitely have their work cut out for them.

Eberhard Seidel

© Eberhard Seidel

This article was previously published in Germany's daily TAZ.

Translation from German: Paul Cohen


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