Debate on European Islam: A Mined Terrain

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November 28, 2011

The concept of European Islam has proved to be a constant source of controversy. For some it embodies the deliverance of Islam from everything that is perceived as backward looking and pre-modern. Others fear that a European Islam is a watered-down religion, a kind of government-controlled “state Islam”, prepared to fully accommodate to the wishes of the authorities. By Claudia Mende

Initial debate on European Islam was ill-fated. The German political scientist Bassam Tibi introduced the concept in the early 1990s. He linked the concept with a severe criticism of traditional Islam, which, in Tibi’s view, has experienced nothing akin to the Enlightenment. He thereby launched a head-on clash with many Muslims. Bassam Tibi proposed European Islam as an alternative model to the Islam practiced in the Arab world and to everything that appears deplorable there.

According to Tibi, Muslims should adopt the dominant European culture as their own, and many considered this to be nothing less than a call to assimilation. Since this inauspicious start, discussions on a European variety of Islam have been sharply polarized.

Varied lives of European Muslims

Of course, living in Europe influences the outlooks and beliefs of Muslims here. Yet, is it possible to reasonably speak of a European Islam? This question was the theme of an international conference recently hosted by the Catholic Academy in Stuttgart, Germany.

Some 15 million Muslims currently live in Europe. Their ways of life and identities are highly varied.

While the Muslim community in Western Europe consists mainly of immigrants who have arrived since the 1950s as well as their descendants into the fourth generation, Islam in the Balkans has a totally different face. In Bosnia, Muslims can look back upon a centuries-old history and they have long since regarded themselves as Europeans.

Even in Poland, in addition to recent immigrants, there exists a small minority of Muslim Tatars, who settled in the country 600 years ago. Islam in France has strong roots in North and West Africa, while in Britain, the vast majority of Muslims have immigrant backgrounds from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The German Islam Conference has also asserted its desire to make a contribution to European Islam, thereby giving it the air of a project imposed from above. Does the state intend to embrace the representatives of Islam for as long as it takes until some sort of secularized “Islam light” emerges? Would this be a “tamed” Islam, as its disturbing aspects will have been shed? And by disturbing, we mean here those aspects that sound “unenlightened” to European ears, such as the Sharia or the lack of a separation between church and state.

Some critics of the German Islam Conference, which was initiated by former Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, view such moves as an attempt by outsiders to interfere in an internal Islamic debate.

Parallels with Christianity

The German-Turkish sociologist Levent Tezcan from Tilburg University in the Netherlands sees Christianity as the reference point in the discussion about a European Islam. He says that European Islam may develop just like Christianity did. It would mean that Islam, as Christianity before it, eventually could overcome its conflict with modernity and reconcile itself with the modern world.

This is precisely where the critics view the danger and sense with foreboding a watering down of their religion. They see the empty pews in churches and express the fear of abandoned prayer rooms in the recently built mosques. The fear is that the forces binding the faithful to their own traditions will eventually wane. Just as Christian churches are struggling with declining membership, Muslims also dread the day when they lose their young people to a secular Europe. The prospect of such a decline arouses fear in many Muslims. As Tezcan puts it, the “landmines” are ready to explode in the debate on European Islam.

The situation is equally tense for those Muslims questioning for themselves what a European Islam really means. This question is especially pertinent for younger Muslims, those in the third and fourth generation, as they no longer feel closely bound to their “homeland.” This is particularly the case in Germany, where Turkey has traditionally claimed the right to influence the Turkish-Muslim community and its development. Ditib, the Turkish-Islamic Union, is an umbrella organization representing almost 900 mosque communities in Germany. It is closely tied to Diyanet, the Turkish religious authority in Ankara. Kerem Öktem from St. Anthony’s College at Oxford University has described Diyanet, with its close to 100,000 employees, as a kind of “Islamic mini Vatican.”

Close religious ties abroad

Through the religious authorities, the Turkish state exerts structural influence on Ditib, and thereby also on Turkish Muslims in Germany. The Turkish state pays the salaries of the hodjas, i.e. Muslim scholars, in the Ditib mosques, and the president of Ditib in Germany also serves as the embassy counsellor for religious affairs at the Turkish embassy in Berlin. Even Prime Minister Erdogan has frequently intervened in the debate on immigration in Germany and has warned his fellow countrymen against assimilation.

Such close ties to a foreign country are unimaginable for Muslims from Bosnia. They have a completely different perspective on this issue from the Islamic associations in Germany. Already back in 1882, Bosnia withdrew from the authority of Sheikh ul-Islam in Istanbul. “It was painful, but it was the right decision in the long run,” asserts Senad Kusur from the Bosnian Educational, Cultural, and Sports Association in Vienna. He asks provocatively, “Will Western European Muslims have their 1882, too?”

At the moment, this would be unthinkable for the representatives of Ditib and Milli Görüs, the Turkish diaspora organization in Europe. The question provokes fear in their hearts. In light of a growing Islamophobia in Europe, they are not at all certain whether their children will be able to enjoy equal rights as Muslims in Germany.

For many association representatives Turkey remains a lifeline, symbolically, at the very least. Mustafa Yeneroglu, Secretary General of Milli Görüs, says that the members of the association still live with one foot in Turkey. “If things don’t work out in Germany, then there is always the option of returning to Turkey,” he says. But do the subsequent generations see things the same way?

The structures of the religious organizations indicate another story. According to the sociologist Levent Tezcan, the sort of mosque associations that exist in Germany are not to be found in Turkey. The manner in which the mosque associations are organised is typically European, he claims. The more Islamic structures are created in Germany, the more an association such as Ditib would organize things in a manner specific to Germany, thereby loosening the ties to Diyanet. While the younger generation of Muslims is pushing for greater integration into German society, older Muslims fear the loss of connection to their homeland. They fear the day will come when their children no longer understand Turkish.

Critical voices sidelined

At present, significant structures for Islam in Germany are being created through the establishment of programmes in Islamic theology at German universities and the introduction of courses in Islam at schools in most German states. Rabeya Müller from the Centre for Islamic Women’s Research (ZIF) in Cologne cautions, however, that dialogue within the Muslim community leaves much to be desired and critical voices are sidelined.

Is the much-heralded European Islam merely a construct that has little to do with the daily reality of Muslims, as Taner Yüksel, head of the education department at Ditib, believes? In case of doubt, real life is one step ahead of the intellectual debates. A European Islam is already far more than what the Islamic functionaries are willing to acknowledge.

Qantara.de – http://en.qantara.de/content/debate-on-european-islam-a-mined-terrain

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