Freeing Islam from the clutches of the fanatics

For the first time, Germany′s most important cultural prize has gone to a child of Muslim immigrants, the German-Iranian writer and Islamic studies expert Navid Kermani, born in 1967. According to Stefan Weidner, his combative speech may well go down in history

By Stefan Weidner

On Sunday 18 October 2015, visitors who gathered in Frankfurt′s Paulskirche to see the German Book Trade′s Peace Prize awarded to Navid Kermani witnessed a truly historic moment. Not because it was the first time a German Muslim had been awarded the most important cultural honour that currently exists in Germany. And not because the award ceremony in this former church, which in 1848 became the meeting place for Germany′s first freely elected parliament, ended with a prayer – involving religious and non-religious people – prompted by the winner, who presided over it with inexpressible dignity.

Nor was it because there were probably more audience members with tears in their eyes than ever before in this historic place. And not because (as an elderly audience member who had heard many other peace prize speeches said later) it was the saddest speech anyone had ever heard there. It was because, in a collective act made up of a moving speech, rapt attention, strong emotions, not to mention the presence of important politicians and social representatives – in this celebratory act – Islam, Muslims and ultimately all those involved with Muslims were freed from the captivity which has bound them for more than a century and a half, engendered initially by Western colonialism, then by the response to it in the form of religious fundamentalism.

A story of suffering from Syria

During his acceptance speech, Kermani told the story of the Jesuit priest Jacques Mourad from the small Syrian town of Qaryatain, who was kidnapped by the criminal militia of "Islamic State" (IS). Father Jacques was no missionary, but a man who lived among Muslims, for Muslims and in friendship with them (as they did with him). He did a lot of good in his town, as Kermani saw for himself when he visited Syria in 2012. But even so he was kidnapped, held captive and humiliated by IS.

Kermani tells this story and poses the valid question of how it has become possible for people to carry out and justify this and other "Schweinetaten" (literally, acts of pigs) in the name of a religion – in the name of Islam. The explanation lies partly in history, as Kermani points out: in the shock of the Islamic world′s encounter with a modernity imported from Europe and often imposed by force; and partly in the present day, where all genuine connections to traditions that have developed over centuries have been replaced by a call to return to a purported "first beginning". This is a present day where the West does excellent business with Saudi Arabia, a country whose ideology – wahhabism – is almost identical to that of Islamic State; a country that destroys all genuine tradition within its own borders, even in Mecca and Medina. "Where until a few years ago the house still stood in which Muhammad once lived with his wife Khadija, there is now a public toilet."

A battle, but for peace

Yes, Navid Kermani′s speech was a battle cry. Thank God. After all the idea that Muslims and non-Muslims will have to fight this battle together one day, the battle to stop "religious fascism" (Kermani′s words) taking religion hostage, as we see in Saudi Arabia and Islamic State, but also in Iran, is not a new one.

Never before, however, had it been expressed with such clarity, in such a highly symbolic place, to such a select audience, in front of TV cameras, and with such urgency, moral credibility and rhetorical power. Yes, others have already thought and written about the concept, but it had never been presented with such power, so that every last person there understood and believed it; so that they all bought into what the speaker was saying. Kermani, a practising Muslim, would never dream of misusing valid criticism of the negative spin-offs of religion to express resentment, xenophobia or feelings of cheap moral superiority. "The love of what is yours – your culture, your country and your own person – is proven in self-criticism", was one of the most important sentences in the speech.

The Jesuit priest Jacque Mourad (photo: personal)
Kidnapped by the criminal militia of "Islamic State": Father Jacques was no missionary, but a man who lived among Muslims, for Muslims and in friendship with them (as they did with him). He did a lot of good in his town, as Kermani was able to see for himself when he visited Syria in 2012

"Is there hope?"

Navid Kermani′s appeal was successful because he succeeded, as a writer should, in finding the right words at the right time and in the right place. On 18 October 2015 in the Paulskirche Islam was freed from the captivity of religious fascism by a means that all listeners could experience in the most sensory way: a parable.

In this case the parable, the lesson, was the story of Jacques Mourad. Islam has been captured by IS, just as he was. "Is there hope?" asked Navid Kermani several times. "Yes, until we all breathe our last, there is hope" was the answer he gave. And in fact, Father Mourad was freed – freed by Muslims from the clutches of IS. And in the same way, with the help of his largely non-Muslim audience, who shared that suffering as they might have in a Greek tragedy, Navid Kermani freed Islam from the fanatics controlling the discourse about it in East and West.

In the Paulskirche, which today is more like an amphitheatre than a church, Navid Kermani bestowed on us – and on everyone whose hearts are open to it – catharsis. Hearts were washed and purified, and it was only in the historic moment when we received this catharsis that we recognised what a terribly long time we had been denying it of ourselves.

Stefan Weidner

© 2015

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin