The Challenge of Islam: Are we...

The Challenge of Islam: Are we equipped?


It would almost seem as though many people in Germany have only started taking notice of Islam since the terrorist attacks of September 11 shook the world. “Terrorism” and “The West” were, in the minds of many people, two separate worlds. Terrorism only happened in far – away countries, like Africa, Algeria, or the Middle – East. Since the aircraft attacks of “Nine-eleven”, and succesive terrorist attacks, often prevented in Europe by the security services, but succeeding in other parts of the world, this perception is changing. The awareness of the existence of Muslim extremism, and it’s potential threat, has increased.

Are we, however, better informed now concerning Islam itself? Islamic extremism represents an alarming and spectacular threat, but is only a very small spectrum contained within Islam. It is not enough to be preoccupied with Islamic extremism, even though it certainly deserves urgent attention. It behoves us to acquire an over-view of Islam in it’s entirety, and not simply an imaginary, self – constructed picture. Islam’s own assumptions, it’s theological variety, it’s various goals, the specific goals of the Islamic community here in Germany, and the network of international relationships.


Islam: Are we adaquately informed?

First and foremost we must be correctly and thoroughly informed. This statement sounds so self – evident that one would think it requires no further comment. It does appear, however, that this fundamental requirement for mutual understanding has been neglected for too long. Muslims have not only been living in Europe since the eleventh of September 2001, and did not appear here in Germany unexpectedly and overnight. As far back as 1961, that is, more than forty years ago, the first work-permits were issued for Turkish workers, recruited by the then government. The recruiting of Turkish workers was halted in 1973, but the number of Muslims has increased to aproximately 3.2 million – through the coming together of families, through a proportionally higher birth-rate than the rest of the population, as well as refugees and people applying for assylum. Amongst the Turkish population of about 2 million that form the Islamic landscape in Germany, there belong a large group of Kurds, and other minority Turkish groupings. About 150 000 people have not yet been able to return to Bosnia, several hundred thousand people have come from various Arabian countries, such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, as well as in excess of 100 000 Iranians, who fled from Iran after the outbreak of the Iranian revolution in the 1980’s, and the Iran/Irak war of 1980 – 1988.

From a theological perspective, the main group in Germany are the Sunnites, (also worldwide) with about 2.6 million adherents, followed by the Shiites, with around 600 000 followers. To this latter group belong also the Alevites, with about 400 000 followers, mostly from Turkey and Syria, as well as about 50 000 members of the Ahmadiyya movement, dismissed as a sect by other Muslims, but viewing themselves as strict and faithful Muslims, and very active in the building of mosques in Germany. Around 600 000 Muslims have German citizenship, including about 10 – 12 000 German converts.

Well, so much for statistics. Have we appreciated the variety contained within the Islamic community within our society? What is to be discovered behind such bland labels as “Sunnite”, “Shiite”, or “Alevite”?

All of these theological groupings, which sometimes coincide with ethnic origins, possess their own views of state and democracy, of life in a secular, postmodern society, and are, to varying degrees, bound by obligations to observe Sharia, the complete Islamic law, containing not only regulations concerning crime, punishment and civil law, but also directions concerning moral and religious observance.


Developments and tendencies amongst Muslims in Germany

The first generation of “Gastarbeitern” (Guest – workers) in Germany had the self-declared goal of working in Gemany for a few years, and, having gathered up a modest pile of wealth,  returning back home to Turkey. These plans changed, however, partly because of negative economic developments in Turkey, and also because the second and third generation of children were growing up here in Germany. In the 1980’s, at the very latest, one could see that most of these people now intended to stay. The assumption was, where this development had even been taken notice of, that these people would simply adapt themselves to western secular society, relinquish their religious-ethnic customs, and in time be “assimilated” within the rest of society. Nowadays it has become evident that this has not happened, and that rather, a reverse dynamic has come about.
Two examples:
1. Children brought up in Germany, but with poor German – language skills
It still happens that immigrant children – especially from Turkey and Arabian countries – commence primary school,[1] and are unable to speak German, having grown up so far in an exclusively Turkish or Arabian environment. This often is exacerbated by the tendency for Turkish Muslims living in Germany to marry relatives from Turkey. (Marrying a cousin is seen as particularly advantageous) Muslim immigrants in Germany often hold to strict Islamic rules of etiquette, concerning the strict seperation of the sexes, the women being largely confined to the home, while husbands and fathers deal with all matters requiring contact with the outside world, sometimes even the weekly shopping. This means that married women living in Germany seldom attend German language courses, or establish any kind of contact with German society. Additionally, many immigrants choose to live in city-districts with high proportions of Muslim residents, leading to the formation of “Little Istanbuls”, where all social and business affairs can be catered for by Turkish people, from hairdresser to baker, shopkeeper etc… as well, of course, the local mosque. It becomes possible to live on a daily basis with no contact at all with German society, and such contact as there is is often experienced as unpleasant and unfriendly. The resulting weakness in German-language skills often displayed in second and third generation Muslims has already led to the not-uncommon situation that secondary or special school leavers have little or no academic qualifications, and in considerably higher proportions than their German peers. One has to ask oneself what these young people have for a perspective, or future, with such a difficult employment situation in Germany.
The discussion concerning a compulsory pre-school year for immigrant children to gain language skills is a step in the right direction, and long overdue. In Germany, the debate concerning “Leitkultur” (The “Leading Culture”) sparked off no small controversy, (typically German, one is tempted to comment) but it has long been clear in other countries with a high immigrant population that integration, success in job and career, and a healthy identification with the new homeland, with it’s laws and customs, begins with a thorough founding in the language, and is not possible without it.

2. Withdrawal into Mosque and family. It is clear that Islam, as a religion, has become more, rather than less attractive. The frequently propogated idea that religion would become “watered down”  in the second and third generation is no longer mentioned.  There are, of course, “secularised” Muslims, who go in for the same kinds of leisure activities as their German peers, but all in all, Islam has remained very much alive as a religion among immigrants, perhaps not every small point of Islamic law being minutely observed in every family, but sufficiently so for Islam to offer a foundation and identity. Religion and custom are currently more strictly observed here, than in the country where the immigrants come from, and young people who form the second and third immigrant generation, whose parents live a fairly relaxed and “enlightened” form of Islam, are returning to a lifestyle of much stricter religious observance (examples being headscarves and fasting). In many surveys, Muslim youths often emphasise that the majority of them feel not only unaccepted, but clearly marginalised and discriminated against. Research amongst young people, such as the well-known “Shell Youth Study” demonstrate that Muslims and Non-Muslims in Germany keep themselves very much to themselves, and cross-cultural friendships are still more the exception than the rule. Thus, broad German society and culture remains opaque to Islamic sub-culture, and many Muslims remain ignorant concerning German society. They no longer live in Turkey, but have not really “arrived” in Germany, in terms of language, emotional identification, and active participation in German society. When difficulties and academic failure at school combine with experiences of rejection, and increased attatchment to the local Mosque (which often will preach distance and withdrawal from German society, propogating Turkish nationalism and Islam as an identity) then it seems often that openness for broad German society and chances of succsesful integration are lost forever.

Only a more thorough knowledge of Islam, and the current developments among Muslims in Germany, including the special cultural facets of Islam, such as family values, will put us into the position where we can possibly have any kind of firm basis for thinking of ways to influence this development. This is also the only way we can avoid the situation where we only start to notice certain negative developments when the threat to German society has already formed, (for example, recent events concerning the “King Fahd Academy”[2] or the long drawn out legal proceedings concerning the “Caliph from Cologne”[3]) It will not be sufficient merely to become familiar with the mind – set of a few violent extremists, but to get to know the thinking, faith and life of the Muslim minority as a whole. As long as this lack of knowledge concerning Muslim cultural values (such as the concept of “Honour and Shame” or the role of women) persists, then we will continue to have situations such as desperate women schoolteachers, who cannot understand why one of her male pupils refuses to acknowledge her authority in any way, and why his elder brother has him considerably more under control than she does, or why one of the girls in her class, whom she considered fairly modern and open-minded, suddenly, and without any warning, is bundled off to Turkey, for an arranged marriage, shortly after having participated in a school field – trip.

Western societies will only be able to define religious and social freedoms and boundaries for themselves, as well as for religious minorities – some of whom also have a political agenda – through a deeper and more thorough understanding of Islam.


Barriers to Religious Freedom?

A discerning knowledge of Middle-East culture will enable us to form a well-grounded and sober assesement of our own Western culture. This assessement will make it possible to differentiate between the demands made by religious groups which can be readily accepted, and fall into the category of “Religious Freedom”, and those demands which call into question the basis for western society – values only relatively recently won, after hard struggles, and seen as great triumphs. (for example, sexual equality) This brings to light a distinguishing feature of Islam, namely, that it sees itself not just as a religion, but as a forming-influence in society, and, according to the views of Islamic authorities, a would – be political system. Islamists will therefore ever be attempting to re-order existing orders in society, to make Islamic law (Sharia) become more and more binding. This is also the perspective from which to view the various court – orders which have had to be reached, concerning ritual animal-slaughter, the wearing of headscarves, or calls to prayer over loudspeakers. Also to be sorted into this context, is the striving to build ever larger Mosque complexes, with minarettes built as high as possible, some metres higher, in some cities, than the planning permission allowed, but until now always having been allowed to remain standing. Not a few people in this country are concerned that Islam is working toward their own conversion. Of course, a non-Muslim converting to Islam would be seen as a cause for rejoicing, but is by no means the main strategic direction from the Islamic camp.

Same expressions, same definitions?

Knowledge concerning Islam, and it’s understanding of theological, legal, and cultural matters, is still at a very primitive stage, which can be seen through discussions in which both sides argue about certain expressions, or terms, but both sides, in their differing religious-cultural contexts, have widely differing understandings of what these terms and expressions actually mean.


Human Rights

Take, for example, the question of Human Rights, which has, in this context at least, faded somewhat into the background. Muslim organisations have often emphasised that Islam not only respects human rights, but has formulated even more comprehensive catalogues of human rights than the west, and actually is the source of all human rights. At second glance, however, at human-rights declarations in a western and Islamic setting, it becomes clear in the preamble to Islamic human-rights declarations, that Sharia is placed over all human-rights declarations. This means, to show a practical example, that an Apostate Muslim cannot expect any kind of treatment which would resemble anything connected with human-rights, because – according to Sharia – he has committed a sin worthy of death, and cannot therefore appeal to decrees concerning religious freedom, or human rights. The vast majority of Muslim theologians support the view that the right to religious freedom and human rights, ends when someone falls away from, or otherwise leaves Islam. This is a reality which must looked in the face. Herein lies the actual point of discussion concerning western and Islamic understandings of human rights, and not the current disussions about whether or not Islam recognises human rights or not. Only a deeper and more thorough knowledge and understanding of the religion, culture, and legal system of Islam can such broadly stated and public discussions be led.


The Question of Tolerance

Another example is the question of tolerance, and it’s definition. Muslim apologetics often argue that Islam accepts Christianity, but that Christianity reject Islam. It is often pointed out, that Muslim conquerors, in contrast to the Christian Church and the crusaders, never confronted Christians with the choice of converting to Islam or being excecuted. It is also stated that Muslims recognise Jesus as a revered prophet, and accept the old and new testament as true God-sent revelation, whereas Christians refuse to accept the validity of the Koran. Also here – without a well founded knowledge of Islam – the discussion concerning the expression “tolerance” often goes off in the wrong direction. How is the term “tolerance” understood in Islamic circles? Certainly not an equal status with other religions. The Koran makes it clear, that Muhammed attempted to gain the recognition and support of Christians (and Jews) from 610 AD onwards, but began to view Christianity increasingly as blasphemous, and the Christian scriptures as counterfeit, as Christians continued to refuse to follow him. It is true, that in territories conquered by Islam, Christians were permitted to keep their faith, but were, however, made into second-class citizens. (Arabic: Dhimmis, i.e. protectees) who had to pay special taxes for their “ unbelief “ and suffered many legal disadvantages, discrimination, even persecution and death. Yes, the Koran testifies that the old and new testament is divine revelation, and Jesus is a revered prophet in Islam, but is only, however, a “proclaimer of Islam” as a forerunner of Muhammed, only a man, and not able to bring about salvation for anybody. The Islamic position is that Christians mistakenly honour Jesus as the son of God, and thus completely confuse his “original” Islamic message. The Christian revelations, as “falsified writings” receive very little attention in Islam, and Jesus, as revealed in old and new testament, just as little.

Another cause for concern is the fact that some Muslim organisations insist that it be forbidden to publish anything “negative” about Islam, as this would constitute discrimination – or, in other words, everything about Islam should be forbidden, that was not written from an Islamic perspective. (This development is more advanced in Great Britain, through a very powerful Islamic lobby) This way of thinking results from the “Dhimma”, or “Protectee” status that Islam allots Christians, having to submit to Islam, and Islamic law. A lot will depend on how alert western society is to this process, and to what extent it is prepared to defend the hard – won freedoms of opinion and press.

Women’s questions

Further food for thought is found in the matter of the role of women. Here also, a much more thorough, and well founded knowledge of Islam would be helpful in the discussion, and would lead to more honesty, concerning the really controversial points. Muslim apologetics often emphasise that women enjoy equal status before God in Islam, and that Islam lends women true dignity, freedom, protection and respect. From a western perspective, a woman who covers herself with long coat and headscarf, is “oppressed”. Where lies the truth? It is true that the Koran speaks about men and women having been created equally by God, and contains no hints that women are at all inferior in status or value. At the same time, however, the Koran speaks clearly (and the Islamic traditions even more so) about very different roles for men and women, from which differing rights are derived, which means that women are effectively disadvantaged, as their general rights go. She is disadvantaged in inheritance laws, (She inherits only half) and as a witness in court, (Her testimony is worth only half that of a man) and also in laws concerning marriage. (For a woman, the road to divorce is made difficult, in some countries impossible, and her husband is allowed, in most Islamic countries, to have more than one wife.) A virtually universally recognised principle in Islamic marriage laws is the duty of the wife to obey her husband, and the right of the man to “train” her in right and wrong, which makes it forbidden for her to make her own independent descisions, should he raise objections to her plans, or to her leaving the house, maintaining contact with people of whom he disapproves etc… If she does not fulfill her duty of obedience, he is permitted, according to the vast majority of Muslim theologians, to chastise her. (Sure 4, 34) The whole basis of Islamic marriage laws (polygamy, submission of wife to husband, chastisement, inheritance laws) is interpreted almost exclusively in a conservative sense in the Islamic world. (With the exception of Turkey, perhaps) and is the real cause of clashes with the German legal understanding, as opposed to the simple question of headscarves. These controversial “women’s affairs” have, however, not been sufficiently dealt with, in the public discussions concerning Islam.

The same terms, used by different people, do not always carry the same meanings. The way in which cultural-religious themes are understood, has a lot to do with the cultural-religious background in which they were formed. Expressions such as “tolerance” or “equality” cannot, when cut off from their Christian roots, be simply applied to other cultures and religions, and mean the same things.

Through a deeper understanding of Islam it would be possible to have a more realistic assessement of our own situation, and would enable us to see from what perspective Islam views our society – including the Church. The rather superficial discussions concerning the “Abrahamic Religions” could, with better grounded knowledge concerning the other religion, reach the point where one was able to speak about really sensitive themes, such as the perception of who God is, and what he is like, spiritual revelation, the way the Koran came to be written, why Islam claims to have existed before Christianity, and why Adam is seen as a proclaimer of Islam.

Muslims expect answers

Islam has become an enourmous challenge for the state, society and the Church. Muslims, Muslim leaders and organisations expect well thought through answers from German society. They do not expect to be marginalised on a human level, nor discriminated against from our society. Our society has not experienced a “Muslim invasion”, but Muslims live among us as people who were invited by German society to come and live and work here. Muslims also expect theological answers, so that they can see in Christianity a group that can be taken seriously, and engaged with in serious dialogue. Answers cannot be reached without a much deeper knowledge of Islam, and by simply assuming that both religions have the same content, or by refusing to face the differences which surface from the respective text traditions, Muslims themselves certainly do not believe that Islam and Chrisianity are the same, or stand for the same things. Clear Christian standpoints and values, lived-out by Christians in Church and society, would be taken for granted by Muslims, would require no justification, and would, furthermore, receive admiration and respect. Muslims respect this kind of clarity amongst themselves, and theological vagueness, trying at all costs to maintain a false kind of “chumminess” is recognised for what it is by many Muslims, and despised. The majority of apolitical Muslims who live in Germany are very concerned about the rights which Islamic groups are gaining, step by step. It is the job of the state – from the position of a deeper knowledge of Islam - to find sensible ways of drawing clear boundaries for political groups and influences. There must not be double standards, for example, in the question of the woman’s place in society, or acceptance of polygamy, for a state can only survive permanently, if there is common acceptance of the same laws and values. It is well worth the effort of standing up for these common values, in a fair and friendly manner, and to defend the basis of Society, Church and State         


[1] The Translator notes: Primary school children in Germany generally commence schooling when they are seven years old.

[2] The Translator notes: Reference to recent controversy concerning an Islamic school in Bonn, Germany, which allegedly teaches it’s pupils Islamic extremism, including advocating violence to propogate Islam.

[3] The Translator notes: Reference to legal proceedings on the part of the German government to ban an extreme Islamic organisation, whose leader has earned the nickname “Caliph from Cologne” The organisation is now banned, and further proceedings are underway, to possibly have the aforementioned Caliph deported to his home country.


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