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Tobias Specker

Has Islam a Place in Europe?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 1/2010, P. 57-66
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The German public's view of Islam is affected inter alia by the publications of prominent authors such as Ralph Giordano and Reza Aslan. TOBIAS SPECKER, staff member at the Heinrich-Pesch-Haus in Ludwigshafen and representative of the Diocese of Speyer for Islam, tries to answer the question of what place can Islam in Europe assume and criticizes the Islam presentations of the two authors.


The question of Islam in Europe has become an integral part of the political debate about integration. Seldom is it then only about a description of today's multifaceted Muslim life. Usually also - at least implicitly - the question is asked whether Islam is at all a part of Europe, whether it could or should be it. Does Islam have a place in Europe, yes or no? In this form the issue runs the risk of creating a decision situation, in which hesitancy is regarded as weakness and differentiation as indecision. However, this situation has a prerequisite: a clear 'yes' or a clear 'no' can only be said if one has first clarified what "the Islam" is that was a part of Europe (or not).

The question of what Islam is is fraught with problems. And this - so my thesis - regardless of whether the answer is friendly innocent "Islam is peace" or unfriendly ostracizing "Islam is a totalitarian, violent ideology." After all, both positions tend to reduce Islam to a supposedly unchanging, timeless, intrinsic core, and from there to answer the question of its belonging to Europe {1}. But if Islam is once reduced to a timeless core, the possibility of a dispute about it is excluded, for it either cannot or should not change. There remains only the possibility of exclusion or uncritical acceptance. In contrast, it is necessary to avoid the decision situation of an absolute 'yes' or 'no' and to formulate the question of the place of Islam differently: not 'yes' or 'no' is the question but "under what circumstances." "Under what circumstances can Islam be a true part of Europe and increasingly become? In order to clarify this question, this contribution firstly exemplarily presents two positions that are diametrically opposed regarding the contentual evaluation. Both, however, make in a typical way the aforementioned reduction - although each differently differentiating. Thereafter the circumstances shall be described under which Islam can really be a part of Europe.


"The Islam is the Problem" - Ralph Giordano

In a first step, Ralph Giordano's position in the dispute over the construction the Cologne mosque has to be considered and its way of proceeding, and the consequences have to be examined.



Giordano programmatically announces his thesis already in the title: Not the mosque, Islam is the problem." {2} The publicist therefore wants to identify the many societal problems - forced marriages, honour killings, patriarchal structures, pathological sexuality, transparency of the social background, and juvenile delinquency - with Islam. This is the aim of his argumentation. The individual typical steps by which he achieves the goal can therefore be found not only in the dispute over the construction of mosques but also in other contexts critical of Islam. That's why the examination of Giordano's views especially pays off.

Giordano's argumentation begins by singling out a specific situation in the Islamic religion and by characterizing it as a deficit. In this example he refers to the tradition of the Islamic textual interpretation and brings it into view under the heading "Lack of the historical-critical method": "Behind all this, however, one of the great 'black holes' of Islam and its history is hidden, which is intrinsic to its culture - the absence of any approach to the 'critical method'" (45). Thus, the argumentation is on the one hand based on the fact that he connects a description with a valuation and notes a deficit. On the other hand, already the description uses the strategy to reduce a historical diversity and differentiated lines of development to one aspect, and to interpret it as a timeless feature that is valid for the entire tradition. This is the first reduction.

In a second step the established deficit of Islam is then globally interpreted as a symptom of the current situation of Islam:

"The most inconvenient, indeed, the most threatening question of all the uncomfortable and dangerous questions reads: Can Islam be reformed, is it reformable? ... Surprisingly, the greatest doubters are the Muslims themselves" (46).

After the historical the geographical reduction follows. The argumentation condenses the geographical diversity into one aspect: the question of reformability. The message behind the rhetorical question is clear: Whenever and wherever Islam occurs, the historical and critical awareness is lacking, and so the reformability is at least questioned.

In a third step the historically and geographically reduced Islam is then essentialized into one aspect by Giordano: the deficit was not only typical of the history and situation of the whole Islamic world but belonged to the nature of Islam. Islam cannot but manifest itself in this deficient way; otherwise it would not be Islamic:

"What are Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' compared with this analysis, which relentlessly shows that theory and practice of the Muslim faith are the source of Islam's enormous difficulty in his attempts to adapt to modernity" (47)?



With these three steps the foundation is laid for the consequence. From the analysis of the deficits a fundamental and essential otherness of Islam in comparison with the Western world is inferred:

"Who does dare it to contradict my confidence that this minority, as one can presume, is full of likeable and charming people? Nevertheless, they are - no suicide bombers, no fundamentalists, and no extremists - because of their mass a great socio-cultural problem. And this because of their origin from an orbit that so disturbingly differs from the Judeo-Christian of our European past and present."

Giordano has thus reached the goal of his argumentation: Islam is the Other par excellence. It is now implicitly assumed that the so constructed otherness is also the source for the aforementioned widespread social problems - an assertion the direct proof of which is missing. Rather, this identification is of an emotional nature and works via the similarity in the otherness: The same feeling of threat, both in view of the real societal problems and in view of an Islam that is seen and depicted as alien, allows their unexpressed equation.

But the argumentation is thus not fully traced back: the final step in the process of reasoning, this too typical of some arguments critical of Islam, serves to protect oneself by discrediting the dissenters: those who from Muslim side tell other things are liars. And - the second essentialization - they have to do it because every Muslim is advised to use dissimulation, the "taqqiya":

"And how honest can confessions to the principles of secular democracy be, when there is the 'Taqqiya', i.e. the by the Koran expressly sanctioned permission for fraud and deception in dealing with 'infidels'" (45 cf 50).

Now, the problematic consequences of this kind of argument are easily understandable: With it Giordano is deliberately causing a dilemma for Muslims. If they faithfully profess their religion, they cannot but be deficient members of society - or to put it more precisely, deficient non-members of society {3}. They also have no possibility to change this status within their religion. If they do not want to regard themselves as deficient, then they are not allowed to be devout Muslims. Consistently, Giordano refers in the chapter headed "At the side of peaceful Muslims" to publicists who explicitly dissociate themselves from Islam as a religion: Necla Kelek and Hirsi Ali.


"Islam is Reform" - Reza Aslan

A similar problem, albeit he is arguing in a much more differentiated way, is reflected in Reza Aslan's book "No God But God" {4} - only with just reverse assessment:



The Islamic scholar at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy and Middle East analyst for CBS News concerns himself on principle with differentiating an incomprehensible, individual, and spiritual core of the Islamic faith, which was manifested in the Koran and in Prophet Muhammad, from the institutionalized, politicized and secularized obstruction by the tradition of law schools and their finding of justice. This methodological distinction "essentializes" Islam the other way round by reducing "the Islam" to a "real" core that contains already all the achievements of the modern age.

A first example: Aslan interprets the early years of Muhammad's activity in Mecca by taking his starting-point from the socio-reformist dimension of the Qur'anic message {5}. The dispute with the "Quraisch" was no discussion about monotheism but a social conflict. The Koran criticized a society where on the one hand the particular but egalitarian tribal traditions were degenerated, and in which, on the other hand, all connection that went beyond the tribes obeyed only an ethically insubstantial, religiously dressed up economic logic. With respect to this reduction of the early stages of Muhammad's appearance in Mecca to a committed social criticism is critically to remark: First, this purely socio-reformist interpretation takes away from the Islamic monotheism its iconoclastic, Polytheism-critical, and demanding sting, which is given with the principle of faith ("`aqida") of God's unity and uniqueness ("tauhid"). Second, Muhammad's socio-reformist criticism is in Aslan's thought amazingly similar to a recent criticism of globalization. What is criticized is the destruction of local identities (which themselves are constantly in danger to slip down into warlike ethnicity) in favour of a global world the universality of which is not ethically but purely economically established.

This skipping over the historical gap becomes even more obvious in describing the role of women. Aslan follows the basic thesis:

"Muhammad's struggle for economic redistribution and social equality is perhaps nowhere so evident as with the rights and privileges that he granted the women of his community" (80).

In the elaboration of this thesis, however, Aslan imputes exclusively every patriarchal element to the tradition, and equates the time of Muhammad quite directly with the concerns of the present emancipation movement {6}. This is more than well-intended rhetorical exuberance, namely a methodological transgression: Aslan does not - in the sense of Fazlur Rahman - develop an ethical principle out of the Koranic text that is spoken into a particular historical situation, a principle that has to be translated into the present times according to the intention [Sinnrichtung] of this text, but simply equates the situation in Mecca and Medina of the 8th century with the concerns of the 21st century.



This bringing the religious message in line with modern concerns holds a real danger. If the historical gap is skipped over so quickly, together with the historical distance disappears also the opportunity for a productive debate about past and present ways of life. Moreover, only the respect for the historical differences can show to what extent the then certainly reformist impulse needs a new form in order to be preserved for the present, and to what extent a mere repetition therefore would be a betrayal of the origin.

After all, the problem of this tendency, i.e. simply to equate the pure Quranic message with the modern age, becomes particularly evident in the question of the truth claim of other religions and of religious freedom. According to Aslan, "Muhammad understood the original text (which was the basis of all the Holy Scriptures) not only in the way that Jews, Christians and Muslims shared a sole common Holy Scripture; they also formed the one divine umma" (120). Consistently, "Muhammad's criticism was not directed against the religion of Judaism and Christianity, which for him were almost identical with Islam" (123). As always with Aslan, only the tradition, i.e. theology or Islamic law are to blame for the differences between the religions. He concludes thus:

"It is a tragedy that it was not possible, even after fourteen hundred years, to reach this simple compromise, namely to reconcile the sometimes petty, but often binding religious differences between the three Abrahamic religions" (125).

About which "petty religious differences" is Aslan speaking here? His argument says this very clearly: It is e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity. It is one of the "not tolerable theological differences" (122). At this point it is clear that the basis of plurality, which at first was so widely conceived, are the guidelines of an Islamic understanding of other religions that suddenly is no longer that broad. The acceptance and the postulated unity of religions refer to an Islamized Christianity on the basis of the Koran, which has left the doctrine of the Trinity and of Jesus' Divine Sonship behind. It is therefore not a "monotheist pluralism" that takes into account the self-understanding of other religious", as Aslan suggests. Do not misunderstand me: that a Muslim theologian sees other religions on the basis of his Holy Scripture is a matter of course. But it also belongs to the theological argument in an interreligious context that you make known this, and that you show where other religions understand themselves differently - and, that you do not smuggle in [untermogeln] a consensus where none is.

The problem of a presupposed consensus is exacerbated where this model of society, which results from a pluralism seen in Islamic terms, is without any transition recommended as an ideal for today:



The on the basis of the Qur'an respected pluralism was historically realized in the "millet" system, i.e. in the legal system that developed primarily in the Ottoman Empire, and in which an own jurisdiction and administration was conceded to Christians and other religious groups in the subordinate role as protégées. Historically, this model was certainly a step forward, but in two main points it diverges from freedom of religion in an ideologically neutral state of today: Firstly, it gives quite extensive religious autonomy to the religions of the Book only in a framework of Islamic rule, and does not understand the other religions as partners but as protégées. Secondly, it does not grant freedom of religion as an individual right but as group right in an own judicial area. Now it is significant that Aslan does not mention these differences but interprets the millet system as the true Medinan ideal of the Islamic state (281).

However, the related phrase: "Pluralism means religious tolerance but not unlimited religious freedom" (286) sounds then severely limiting against the background of what has been said. By this idealization of the origins one can by no means cope with more complex problems, as e.g. the interpretation of conversion as apostasy.

As different as the reasoning and the level of representation of the "real" Islam are in Giordano and Aslan, both authors nevertheless tacitly agree in two respects: Firstly, both think that one can reduce "the Islam" to a stable, timeless core. Secondly, both agree - although for opposite reasons - that there is no productive difference between the modern age and the time of Muhammad: In Giordano there is sufficient difference - but no productivity. In Aslan, there is sufficient concern for a productive shaping of the present - but ultimately no difference. But without source of friction the fire of the religious tradition remains extinct.


A part of Europe under what Circumstances?

By analyzing the arguments of Ralph Giordano and Reza Aslan the problem, i.e. to confine "the Islam" to a timeless essential core, has been illustrated. The clear alternative of a 'yes' or 'no' to the question of whether Islam is a part of Europe has thus been circumvented.

If one now reversely assumes that Islam cannot simply be reduced to an essential core but represents a very diverse and quite flexible system of religion {7}, then the question of whether Islam belongs to Europe can be put differently: The mere alternative of 'yes' or 'no' can be resolved by a different form of the question: Under what circumstances can and will Islam really be a part of Europe?



A "real part" is Islam where it - beyond its de facto presence -, behaves in the sense of a player that participates in and arranges society; and where it does not see itself as an island of defensive or triumphant orthodoxy or devotes itself only to the maintenance of folk traditions of the countries of origin.

This active and creative participation of Islam in the European society is necessarily accompanied by a controversy over questions about the understanding of religion. Thus, the 'circumstances' under which Islam can be an active and formative part of European society can be outlined, by enumerating the topics of an inevitable debate. This is to be done in a final step. For this purpose four slogans are to be examined with which the journalistic debate about Islam is conducted. They are always in danger to become mere clichés in the clash of civilizations, if they only see cultural wealth on the one side and cultural deficit on the other side. They degenerate then into mere means of a self-affirmation free of irritations. At the same time, however, they also hold the opportunity for addressing the real issues for a productive debate. The final considerations are to show that opportunity.


Slogan 1: Islam Needs Enlightenment

As an expression of pure protection of vested rights, this argument tends to self-righteousness and a poorly differentiated historical awareness {8}. Its content, worthy to be discussed, can be formulated as follows: What significance has the referring to revelation in an environment where the interlocutors neither all belong to the same religion, nor (at all) all belong to a religion? The mere reference to revelation is not sufficient for legitimating knowledge and behavioural patterns. It is necessary that revelation can be conveyed by argument and critically questioned, and that we, by reflecting on it, can be responsible for it.

In a religion that faces this question of the Enlightenment, there has therefore to be a distance, which has to be conceived also within the revealed religion, between God's will and word on the one hand and its historical forms of communication on the other hand. Differentiations made by modern Islamic theologians show that this is in principle possible in Islam: e.g. Ömer Özsoy's understanding of revelation as speech act. He looks behind the literarily fixed text of the Koran and wants to show the dynamic situation of the early community, where Muhammad, the first Muslims and God situatively respond to each other in an interplay of question and answer {9}. One could also think of Muhammad Shahrur's distinction between prophecy and message. He wants to rediscover a variety of meanings in the Quranic text by differentiating supposedly tantamount words.



He aims thus ultimately at a distinction between the divine laws of nature (prophecy) and only temporary and subjectively applicable regulations (message) {10}.


Slogan 2: Islam has to adopt the historical-critical method

As a Christian theologian one can with some amusement take note of the great commitment with which the historical-critical method is chosen to be a panacea to societal problems. The fact that its scope and exclusive sovereignty of interpretation has in recent decades been criticized also by Christian theologians is then completely ignored. But this slogan, too, can be changed into a quite serious matter: It is indeed true that Islam does not need a prescribed entmythologization programme à la Bultmann, and it is not necessary that it simply adopts the Christian form of verification of sources. Nevertheless, there is necessary a further hermeneutical reflection about the fact that the Qur'an has been spoken into a historical context - and what this fact means for the claims to general validity. The contributions of Stefan Schreiner, Abdullah Takim and Enes Kari during the Theological Forum "Interpretation of the Scriptures in Islam and Christianity" in Stuttgart (2008) show that this is possible on the Islamic side. Here the old high regard for "Israiliyat" was taken up again in order to emphasize that the Koran, in Muslim words, during the time of its being handed down [Herabsendung] naturally presupposed in its listeners a Christian and Jewish moulded preconception. It should only be added that the efforts critically to revise the Hadith tradition belong also in this context {11}.


Slogan 3: Islam has to accept other believers

About this point in Christian-Muslim discussions is often achieved too soon a consensus, which then in turn causes undifferentiated protests. In most cases, it is pointed out that in many parts the Koran quite favourably assesses Jews and Christians as the 'People of the Book'. Vice versa, on the part of those who criticize Islam verses are used from the late Medinan time in order to illustrate Islam's fundamental desire to annihilate other religions. Both misses the crucial point: The point is that the Muslim tradition, notwithstanding its in history often realized tolerance, would only then have been able theologically to accept Judaism and Christianity as revealed religions, if the two had confined themselves to the representation of their religion in the Koran. This would mean on the part of Christianity: no Divine Sonship of Jesus, no Trinity, and no Crucifixion - in the sense that God is really affected by this event.



That is, Christianity and Judaism are accepted on the part of the Koran - but what they are is defined by Islam. Here a structural asymmetry is created, which needs further theological reflection and which crystallizes in the view that the now available writings of Judaism and Christianity had distorted the original message. What is important here is precisely to define the points for discussion: Islam cannot be obligated to a theological pluralism of religions, which is also criticized for good reasons on the part of the Christian theology. But one has certainly to be aware of the conception of other religions of themselves and to consider its theological significance for the Islamic religion.


Slogan 4: The Sharia has to be replaced by the Basic Law

Muslims can not at all unequivocally live in Europe, because they believe in the Sharia - reads the opinion often expressed in diverse discussions. But here two items are juxtaposed that can neither be compared nor should they, with regard to faith, be balanced against each other: on the one hand, nobody believes in the Basic Law but shows his/her conformity to the Constitution by continuous loyalty to the law. On the other hand, in the Islamic faith the Sharia has also a spiritual dimension and serves the internal arrangement and shaping of the religious life of individuals and communities. If one simply equates it with specific regulations of Islamic law, one reproduces (in-) voluntarily the fundamentalist interpretation.

Nevertheless, the Sharia has also a public, social and legal side. The discussion about this side is usually conducted about the question to which extent in Germany legal regulations are realizable or not {12}. As important as this question is, it alone is not sufficient. Beyond the aggressive insistence of this party on the fact that certain legal regulations are not compatible with the German legal system and the other party's defensive assertion that it would not pursue this objective, it would be worthwhile to discuss the more far-reaching questions: How can the basic principles of a democratic constitutional state not only be tolerated by the Islamic theologians, but also justified within their religion [innerreligiös]? In concrete terms: how can it - also from an Islamic religious attitude - not only be tolerated but offensively justified that revelation cannot legitimize the normativity of state action? How can it religiously be justified that the state structures are legitimized by the sovereignty of the people and not by God's sovereignty?

This general issue crystallizes in two specific cases of conflict: the problem of blasphemy and apostasy / conversion. Especially the theme conversion is rightly made the acid test of discussion, for here one can ask:



Does the refraining from any societal and state interference with this decision not exactly correspond to the essence of religion? And even further: Is there a religiously justified respect for the dignity of the decision of the individual person, even if this - according to the conviction of the religious community - can only be an delusion?" {13}

Thus, is Islam a part of Europe? It is, and it is it "possibly" even as an active, formative and participatory player. By transforming four current slogans into four topics of discussion, these possibilities have been shown. When these questions are formulated by a Christian theologian in a Christian magazine, it is finally to be pointed out that Christian theologians should not act as inspectors of the admission ticket to European culture. For all inquiries apply also to Christian theology. In the "Declaration on Religious Freedom" and the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" of the Second Vatican Council much has already been said in this direction. But the theology of the Council is - as well as the philosophy of the Enlightenment - no possession but a task.



{1} Stefan Weidner describes this position in his book: Manual für den Kampf der Kulturen. Warum der Islam eine Herausforderung ist (Frankfurt 2008, 97 f.) by using metaphors very impressively.

{2} R. Giordano, Nicht die Moschee, der Islam ist das Problem, in: Der Moscheestreit. Eine exemplarische Debatte über Einwanderung u. Integration, edited by F. Sommerfeld (Köln 2008) 37-51.

{3} With Claus Leggewie one can describe this strategy as changing a separable into an inseparable conflict; see. B. Beinhauer-Köhler and the same, Moscheen in Deutschland. Religiöse Heimat u. gesellschaftliche Herausforderung (München 2009) 120-124.

{4} R. Aslan, Es gibt keinen Gott außer Gott. Der Glaube der Muslime von Muhammad bis zur Gegenwart (München 2006).

{5} As „revolutionary experiment of social egalitarianism" (in the same place 95).

{6} See in the same place 80-95. — This, by the way, with an anti-biblical polemic that totally ignores the first biblical creation story (see 80).

{7} See Weidner (note 1) 152: „I have to confess that I regard this as a convincing reason for switching to the camp of the indeterminists: I prefer to know that I know too little to the illusion that I knew something that I actually cannot know according to a healthy modern scepticism." See in the same place 98-100, 117-127.

{8} About the connection between European enlightenment and Islam (-image) see in the same place 127-152.

{9} See F. Körner, Alter Text — Neuer Kontext. Koranhermeneutik in der Türkei heute (Freiburg 2006).

{10} [does not work]

{11} See H. Rainer, Der kritisch edierte Prophet, in:, 11.3. 2008.

{12} See Mathias Rohe's matter-of-fact view, Scharia in Deutschland?

{13} This also shows once again freedom of religion as right of the individual and not as a group right.


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