Fear of an Islamic Fatherland

The current debate about Islam’s place in German society is often skewed by a perverse interpretation of the religion that most average Muslim citizens do not recognize, writes Thomas Seibert from Der Tagesspiegel.

Fear of an Islamic Fatherland
Photo: DPA

President Christian Wulff recently riled his fellow conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) by declaring that Islam was part of Germany just like Christianity and Judaism.

He won praise for his comments from Germany’s large Turkish community, but the uproar over the Wulff’s speech must seem rather hypocritical back in Ankara and Istanbul.

Turkey constantly faces European criticism – justifiably – for its treatment of religious minorities, but is now being told by the CDU’s Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) that religious freedom is not the same as religious equality. Had a Turkish politician made a similar remark, the CSU would have no doubt warned against allowing Turkey into the European Union.

In the heated debate surrounding Islam in Germany, the perverse interpretation created by the Osama bin Ladens of the world is often presented as the “true” core of the religion. But average Muslims in both Turkey and Germany do not recognize this distortion of their faith.

A frequent argument heard is that a literal interpretation of the Koran cannot be squared with western democratic values – as if a literal interpretation of the Bible could. Another common criticism is that the Muslim world has yet to go though any sort of Enlightenment, the period that curbed the role of religion in western society.

But who said that the history of Europe was the standard for all things, and that such a radical break with religion is necessary? Perhaps in other religions certain things developed in different ways than they did for the European Christians.

Plenty of Islamic scholars around the world devote their energies to asking what modern Islam should be like. The Turkish Ministry of Religion, for example, has branded forced marriage, ‘honour’ killings and the disenfranchisement of women as un-Islamic.

The late Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, who as head of the al-Azhar University in Cairo was one of the world’s leading Islamic scholars, dismissed women’s veils as pure tradition without religious foundation in Islam.

But such voices and developments barely register in the West, where Islam is presented as a violent, reactionary block hopelessly resistant to reform. Such crude generalizations about Islam and the criticism of Wulff are mainly born of fear and the desire for excluding something seen as foreign.

Wulff’s statement that Islam belongs to Germany provokes the Germans because it touches anxieties of an alien force invading and taking over the country. Thilo Sarrazin’s theories have been so successful because they seem to prove to his readers that such fears are justified.

Of course, the problems with Germany’s integration policies need to be discussed. But in this very emotional debate, Islamic extremists need to be described as what they are – marginal figures.

No-one demands of average Christian Europeans that they distance themselves from the war criminals of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, who kill, maim and terrorize their victims and recruit child soldiers in the name of their Christian God. Muslims in Europe see themselves as being put under a general suspicion of being Osama bin Laden’s remotely controlled jihadists waiting for the moment to draw their scimitars.

The failure to make this distinction is not just bad for the integration of millions of Muslims in Germany and Europe. It also makes it more difficult to deal with the real threat of extremists like al-Qaida. If you equate Islam with terror, injustice and the Dark Ages, then you can no longer tell the difference between friend and enemy.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

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‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.