A Plea for Cultural Pluralism

The writer and Islamic scholar Navid Kermani has written a refreshingly calm affirmation of the notion of a multicultural society. Ulrich von Schwerin has read the book

Navid Kermani (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Navid Kermani: "I don't claim that there are no cultural conflicts, but the greatest divide within a society and between different societies remains an economic one"

​​The scenario outlined by Navid Kermani in his book "Who Are We? Germany and Its Muslims" ("Wer sind wir? Deutschland und seine Muslime") is doubtlessly representative of the understanding of and relationship to Islam in Germany. For example, during a roundtable discussion on a charter proposed by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany that was meant to serve as an avowal to the basic principles of the German constitution, two German experts on Islam reproached the Muslim representatives.

They claimed the impossibility of such an avowal Islam is fundamentally irreconcilable with the constitution. According to their arguments, Islam does under no circumstances recognize the separation of politics and religion and, in addition, promotes the use of force to spread the faith. The Muslim position, they hold, is therefore contradictory.

Two competing interpretations of the religion

This scene depicts the collision of two ways of interpreting Islam. On the one side is the orthodox, conservative interpretation that believes in the literal truth of the holy text and represents a reactionary and almost archaic conception of Islam (on this point, Islamic fundamentalists and Western critics of the faith tend to be quite close in their understanding of Islam).

Turkish women and children in an Islamic school in Berlin, Germany (photo: AP)
Muslims are often reduced to their Islamic identities. This, however, contradicts the reality found in his family as in most other Muslim families in Europe and the Middle East, says Kermani

​​On the other side is the viewpoint held by the wide majority of Muslims and their representatives. They advocate a much more complex understanding of Islam – one that also embraces theological contradictions. This interpretation of the religion is similarly based on the Koran, but does not rely on the text as a one-dimensional yardstick in order to lead a proper religious life.

Many experts on Islam (some of them self-proclaimed) actually concur with the Islamists, writes Kermani, that Muslims can simply be reduced to their Islamic identities. This, however, contradicts the reality found in his family as in most other Muslim families in Europe and the Middle East. After all, Muslims, just like everyone else, possess a variety of identities, whereby, depending on the context, the social, cultural, or economic identity takes a more prominent position than the religious one.

It's social – not religious – differences

The book is part essayistic, part autobiographical, and developed out of a series of articles and talks. Kermani, born in Siegen, Germany in 1967, begins by describing his childhood in Sauerland. He writes that he never felt like an outsider on account of his Iranian origins or Islamic faith. It was when he first joined the soccer team that he became aware of being different, but only, however, because the other players spoke differently than he was accustomed to, as they didn't share his middle-class background.

Similarly, when in Iran to visit his cousins, who shared a similar lifestyle, the author observed the cultural fault lines were not between himself and his cousins, but instead between his cousins and ordinary workmen. "I don't claim," Kermani writes, "that there are no cultural conflicts, but the greatest divide within a society and between different societies remains an economic one, even when social conflicts are increasingly expressed in terms of culture or religion."

One-dimensional identity as an illusion

​​Kermani stresses that his double identity as a German and Iranian has not been the cause of any problems. But, it would be a problem if he were forced to strictly choose just one identity, as German politicians continue to demand. According to Kermani, integration does not mean that all Muslims must act like Germans. Aside from the fact that "the" German is just as much of a chimera as "the" Islam, he is convinced that this would entail a cultural loss for the country.

The author does not join in the widespread call for an end to multiculturalism. He instead makes the case that this social model is not only correct, but is the only practical one, even though it must be better and more actively implemented. And this is not such a difficult task, he believes.

The Islamic Conference association, of which Kermani is a member, has frequently argued about the causes and extent of the problem. There is, however, broad unity among all parties as to the measures necessary to solve the problems.

"God knows better"

Kermani's book stands out in the current debate on Islam through its refreshingly relaxed and composed style. It is also occasionally quite humorous. The epilogue is particularly recommended reading. Alternating between his role as author and scholar, the Cologne-based Kermani manages to unite stylistic solidity with a clear knowledge of the subject matter.

He rejects the otherwise frequently discussed issue of the compatibility of Islam with democracy as a red herring, because, he writes, there is not one single Islam. Finally, he holds that the Koran can be interpreted in various ways. All of the traditional Koran commentaries possess more than one interpretation and always end with the cliché "and God knows better," which means that every interpretation is merely human, and therefore fallible.

Kermani here concurs with the Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Sorush, who distinguishes between religion as such and human understanding of religion. In contrast to religion in itself, our understanding of religion changes with the times. Kermani is convinced that as Islam, in end effect, is what its believers make of it, Islam is in principle compatible with democracy and modernity. What Kermani wants to drive home, however, is that whether German Muslims integrate or not remains an open question and largely depends on political decisions.

Ulrich von Schwerin

© Qantara.de 2009

Navid Kermani: Wer ist Wir? Deutschland und seine Muslime (Who are We? Germany and its Muslims). Verlag C.H. Beck München. 173 pages.


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