German Muslims celebrate Ramadan, in spite of recurring political debates

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Adherents to the Islamic faith across the world are currently celebrating Ramadan – including millions of Muslims who live in Germany. In many respects, German Muslims’ experience is hardly unique. Ramadan in Germany also comes with its specificities, however – and these are not only due to lengthy daytime hours in northern Europe, forcing believers to fast for longer hours.

Official statements

Spokespeople of Germany’s largest Islamic associations have expressed their good wishes for the holy month in official statements and interviews. They also took particular care to call upon Muslims to use the opportunity of Ramadan to engage with non-Muslim co-citizens, to invite them to their homes and to their Iftars, and to showcase the peaceful and caring nature of Islam – in particular in the wake of violent attacks on mosques, churches, and synagogues in Christchurch, Sri Lanka, and California.1) https://www1.wdr.de/nachrichten/ramadan-beginnt-102.html, http://islam.de/31224

Germany’s large Christian congregations have reciprocated the sentiment, with many of the country’s Church organisations seeking to intensify the ‘dialogue’ with Muslim representatives during Ramadan.2) https://www.rbb24.de/panorama/beitrag/2019/05/ramadan-fastenbrechen-muslime-brandenburg.html

In recent years, more and more German politicians have also taken to hosting at least one Iftar dinner during the Muslim holy month. Such occasions are to send a signal of unity, to bring together political decision-makers and Muslim figures – and to encourage Muslims to ‘integrate’ into German society.

Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of Germany’s most populous Land,
hosting an Iftar at his office.

Europe’s largest Ramadan festival

There are also festivities on a larger scale driven by Muslim civil society: the German city of Dortmund is, for instance, home to Europe’s largest Ramadan festival. The Festi Ramazan, held in its eighth year in 2019, attracts around 200,000 visitors during its month-long run.

The festival organisers received the official permit for their event only three days before the beginning of Ramadan. The authorisation process was overshadowed by quarrels which, though ostentatiously concerned with logistical issues, were in the last instance of a political nature. Notably, nearby residents sought to block the festival, pointing to the potentially adverse impact of noise and traffic congestion. (It is worth noting that the festival is taking place on enormous parking lots servicing Germany’s biggest football stadium, as well as Dortmund’s international trade fair – an area designed for mega events.)

After the city administration finally granted a permit for the festival, disturbances continued: prior to the beginning of Ramadan, the festival infrastructure was intentionally damaged over night and several large water tanks were destroyed; tents were smeared with faeces and swastikas.3) https://www1.wdr.de/nachrichten/ruhrgebiet/festi-ramaz-an-dortmund-hakenkreuze-100.html Since the festival has gotten underway, however, it has proceeded smoothly, with no complaints from residents.4) https://www1.wdr.de/nachrichten/ruhrgebiet/festiramazan-dortmund-zwischenbilanz-100.html

Vloggers’ and comedians’ take on Ramadan

Compared to the challenges involved in organising a massive fair against local resistance, there are fewer barriers to Ramadan-oriented activities online. German Muslim lifestyle vloggers are, for instance, racking up large viewership numbers with videos chronicling their daily lives during Ramadan on YouTube.5) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PA0bIF6z5xc

YouTube has also provided a platform for a new raft of stand-up comedians and other performance artists. Many of them explicitly address the Muslim experience in Germany. For Ramadan, they are providing a playful take on the challenges and rewards involved in a month of fasting.

For instance, the Datteltäter group’s comedic videos aim to provide a counterweight to politically charged public debates and to enhance the visibility of a self-confident (as well as self-consciously Muslim) generation. During Ramadan, their videos make for a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the idealised expectations of a month of spiritual reflection and self-improvement – and the imperfect reality of four weeks occasionally marked by crankiness and the failure to reach one’s self-set goals.

The Datteltäter parse apart expectation vs. reality in Ramadan.

Political debates on Muslim children fasting

This does not mean that political debates have gone away, however. Somewhat predictably, the focus has been on the impact of fasting on children’s health, on whether Muslim parents are forcing their offspring to abstain from food and drink, and on how the German state ought to intervene to protect youngsters from their parents’ religious fanaticism.

The opening salvo in this discussion was provided by the Minister of Justice from the state of Hesse: Eva Kühne-Hörmann of the conservative CDU party called for a legal ban on children fasting. Parents ‘forcing’ children to fast should be prosecuted under criminal law, she asserted in an interview with Bild, the country’s largest tabloid.6) https://www.bild.de/bild-plus/politik/inland/politik-inland/ramadan-fasten-von-kindern-soll-verboten-werden-ministerin-will-gesetzes-aenderu-61771798,view=conversionToLogin.bild.html   To maximise populist impact and to emphasise the law-and-order dimension of the topic, the article featured a photo of the Minister posing in front of a police car and a prison complex.

Reducing Muslim parents’ influence on their children

The Federal Minister for family affairs Franziska Giffey – whose Social Democrats have pinned considerable hopes on her ability to renew the ailing party – stressed that “children don’t have to fast. Kids’ well-being, health, and education in school take priority.” During her time as mayor of Berlin’s Neukölln district, Giffey had worked together with schools, mosques, and religious associations to devise recommendations on how religious and educational obligations could be reconciled during the month of Ramadan.7) https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article192855973/Franziska-Giffey-SPD-wendet-sich-gegen-strenge-Ramadan-Regeln-fuer-Schulkinder.html

The call for a legal ban on children’s fasting mirrors recent debates on whether the German state should forbid Muslim girls to wear a hijab. Implicit in these debates is the assumption that the state must intervene in the education of Muslim children. In this view, Muslim parents cannot be trusted to take care of their offspring on their own: if left to their own devices, they will grievously harm the child’s well-being and produce backward, fanatical, and potentially violent young adults.

The scrutiny of Muslim parents’ educational methods – and subsequent proposals of policy measures to these parents’ influence on their children’s lives – are part and parcel of the relentless inspection and politicisation of all aspects of Muslim life in Europe. The logical end-point to these developments can be seen in Denmark: there, the so-called ‘Ghetto Law’ mandates that children living in strongly Muslim areas must be separated from their parents for at least 25 hours a week for mandatory instruction in Danish values.8) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/01/world/europe/denmark-immigrant-ghettos.html

Ritualised controversies

Constitutional lawyers and theorists have roundly rejected the idea that similar legal changes would withstand scrutiny by the German Constitutional Court: the German Basic Law accords strong protections to parents’ rights to transmit religious traditions to their children.9) https://alhambra-gesellschaft.de/2019/05/unbehagen-in-der-mehrheitsgesellschaft-kann-ein-verbot-nicht-rechtfertigen/

Lamya Kaddor, a Muslim educator and activist, pointedly asked how such a ‘ban’ would be enforced – whether police would be sent to every Muslim household –; and how it would be determined whether parents were actually ‘forcing’ their children to refrain from eating or drinking.

Kaddor humorously added that the yearly public outcry over fasting customs meant that “even if you are not a very practicing Muslim in Germany, you don’t run the risk of missing the beginning of Ramadan”. Yet she went on to express her frustration at the continuous repetition of the same stereotyped arguments year in, year out:

“Throughout the flow of the year there is a continuously recurring, ritualised agenda: In Ramadan we discuss the dangers of fasting, towards the end of Ramadan we discuss whether the public offering of good wishes is acceptable or not. Towards the end of the year, the issue will be Saint Martin’s parades and Christmas markets, which are allegedly no longer allowed to be called that way because of Muslims. And the time in between is studded with recurring debates on the circumcision of boys, ritual slaughtering, and the hijab.”10) https://www.t-online.de/nachrichten/deutschland/id_85729646/islam-die-ewigen-ramadan-diskussionen-nerven-.html

The Datteltäter could not agree more: already last year, they published a video titled “Things Muslims are tired of hearing during Ramadan”. The fact that they could have shot the same video one year later is above all testimony to the stagnation of societal debates in Germany and beyond.

“Ramadan unhealthy?!” – the Datteltäter spoofed this debate already a year ago.

 

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