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Muslims in contemporary European Society - reciprocal Expectations

Thomas Lemmen, Lic.theol. (email)

I have called my contribution to this conference "Muslims in contemporary European society: Reciprocal expectations" in order to point to some issues Muslims have a right to expect from the non-Muslim society and vice versa. When I emphasize in my statement very much on the Muslim side I do this on purpose. The question is what they can contribute to the construction of Europe. My aim is not to criticize or even to hurt anyone but to put forward some questions and to provoke further discussion and reflection on crucial issues.

Any consideration on how far contemporary European society may benefit from its large Muslim minorities is obliged to realize the fact that Europe in the past has benefitted tremendously from Muslim presence. Without dwelling too much upon the vanished glory of Al-Andalus, Europe today has to thankfully acknowledge the various fruits which it reaped from the then flourishing tree of Arab science, Arab culture, and last not least Arab savoir vivre. Yet what made Al-Andalus the myth it is still today is not so easily defined. Our fascination with Moorish history sheds light not so much on history itself as on our desire to relate to some "golden age" of Arab-European encounter.

Wether it really was the paradise we want it to have been may never be found out but to a certain extend this long gone-by reality is of little importance. Islamic Spain gives us a vision of how we would like to create multiconfessional co-existence in our own days. It helps us to imagine, believe in, and work for such a co-existence today. Apart from that, remembering or re-inventing Spain under Islamic rule hardly serves the purpose of answering today's questions. The presence of Muslims in Europe has no equivalent in history. History, as it is so often the case, teaches us nothing. At least not in a sense that it could tell us decidedly what to do next.

The specific question in what way Europe could profit from its Muslim inhabitants aims at the very heart of Europe's own understanding of what it wants its societies to look like. It also invites Muslims to reflect upon what gifts they might wish to contribute to the wellbeing of those European countries they can more and more claim to be their home. Both sides - if one should still speak of sides - should take the effort of discussing their views, and what seems even more important to me, their expectations.

It should be clear by now that this discussion can by no means follow the one-way-street it seemed to have taken in Islamic Spain when Europe, as Montgomery Watt puts it, "was still in a comparatively barbarous condition." (Footnote 1) Watt dares to add some question-marks to the overwhelming influence of Muslim culture on Spain. He asks: "Was there any genuine spiritual vitality, or was the Islamic religion merely the framework of a largely secular way of life? Was there any attempt to adept the general forms of Islamic culture to the special situation of the Spanish Muslims?

Did the traditional culture of the non-Arab Muslims, wether Iberian or Berber, have any influence on the forms of Islamic culture?" (Footnote 2) It was not Watt's task to answer these questions and it has to be pointed out that putting them forward does in no way intend to diminish Muslim achievements. The reason why we have repeated them here is their striking resemblance to our own situation, more than 900 years after the town Toledo came under Christian rule again (1085 A.D.).

Today non-Muslims, and I shall in the following focus on the situation in Germany, wonder what role religion plays in the lives of Muslim immigrants and meanwhile their children and grandchildren as well as those Germans who converted to Islam. Far from constructing a homo islamicus there is a kind of uncertainty to be felt as to what degree Muslims in Germany find their being Muslim constitutive for their identity. Scholars like Jamal Malik are going so far as to speak of "Muslim identities" in the plural.

This would be of less importance if we could speak of a vivid creative Islamic scene. Unfortunately this is not yet the case. Muslims in Germany reflect in their diverse ethnic backgrounds the entire spectrum of the Islamic world. They have formed councils and networks but though exact ciphers are hard to obtain, no more than 15percent of Germany's Muslim population (of about three million persons) has taken the effort of joining one or the other organisation.

Wether organized or not, ties to the countries of origin, mainly Turkey, are still rather strong. In some cases these ties have a decidedly political dimension apart from personal emotional relations, the care for cultural heritage or economic affairs. Islamic theology looks so exclusively to the diverse centres of the Islamic world that a genuine European Islamic theology and necessarily independent authority is virtually non-existent.

Some Muslims seem to fall victim to the diaspora-effect, that leads to a kind of over-identification with a set of mostly conservative patterns mainly of religious and social behaviour. In this context dress-codes as well as restrictive gender-roles are used to constitute a visible minority. Certain attributes make it unmistakably clear that its wearer wishes to be recognized as belonging to one or other school of thought.

The main expectation one might have towards Muslims today is that in the near future some debate on their attitude towards Western values should take place. To illustrate this we point to the crucial issue of religious freedom. Religious freedom in Germany is granted without respect of person: regardless of confession, gender or race. As belonging to the catalogue of human rights its limits are marked only by other rights. Slaughtering according to Muslim rites for example may touch the sphere of the protection of animals.

Expectations are reciprocal. Muslims have every right to expect equal treatment with other religious communities. Yet if we wonder why this is not already the case, why for example no Islamic organisation so far has gained the status of a public corporation, why female teachers at state schools are expected not to confront their pupils with headscarfs, why the public call to ritual prayers can be sufficient to send a neighbourhood into a state close to civil war, we cannot simply ascribe this to arbitrary acts of German authorities, to ignorance or to xenophobia.

Reducing for example the Azân-debate to its legal basis shows us nothing more than the necessity of weighing up religious freedom and noise reduction. Leaving these controversies to courts is certainly not the ideal solution. In the interest of all parties concerned we should take a closer look upon German expectations and upon Christian expectations as well: One might have the idea that the wide range of religious freedom seems to find scarce acceptance with Muslims. They refer to religious freedom as a means of putting into practice their own legitimate interests. Problems arise when the "negative" side of religious freedom is touched.

Religious freedom ensures the individual's right, to believe or not to believe or to change his or her belief. It seems that those who claim the positive side loudest keep almost quiet about the negative side. But one is not to have had without the other, being founded on the right to chose and if necessary to rechose again according to one's conscience only. We would love to be taught otherwise but according to our standard of information a debate on these issues is not taking place.

Leaving Islam behind for another religion or even atheism is still no legitimate choice. At first sight this is very comprehensible. Even as a member of the world's largest religious community I cannot but regret it when I find somebody turning his or her back on the faith he or she shared with me. In the Middle Ages I might have called for the Inquisition. My namesake Thomas de Torquemada (1420-1498), by trade Grand Inquisitor here in Toledo, would have made short work of any heretic or apostate.

The idea of drawing one's last breath in the smoke of a stake has taught many a disloyal member of the church to confess the ugly sin of heresy and subsequently to recant. If you think of this procedure as cruel and injust, inhuman and unchristian, you are perfectly right. For the same reasons we have abandoned it. The way a religious community treats its ex-members can be reveiling.

At the very point of conversion or apostasy questions arise which seem to find somewhat different answers among Muslims and Christians: What is the basis of our mutual respect - our belonging to the faithful, our belief in the same God, the idea that everybody deserves our respect and even our care regardless of his or her religious or non-religious orientation?

What is it that keeps us together? How do we respond to the idea that some people find our belief too unconvincing to identify with it any longer? Do we try to understand his or her motives? Are we afraid of them or do we make use of them to keep our own faith up to date? Answers to these and more questions are hard to give and may vary from case to case. But we must see as Muslims as well as from a Christian point of view that society has a right to know what we are doing as religious communities.

We do not have to find excuses for our religious practices. Nobody has the right to interfere with our theologies. Nevertheless in the interest of a not only peaceful but also stimulating coexistence we should explain our ideas and actions to those who are in one or other way concerned rather than giving way to hostility and confrontation. Sometimes Muslims seem to swim against the tide and thus leave the impression that they take little notice of society as a whole.

The question of burials according to Muslim rites may serve to illustrate this. Cemeteries in Germany are no longer the churchyards where the deceased of one confession came to their final rest and where sinners and unbaptized children lay a little apart. Most graveyards today are municipal institutions and the churches see no difficulty in burying their dead side by side with others. Now if Muslims wish to have graveyards of their own they have the right to claim these graveyards.

But they should not overlook the fact that for many people this claim is hard to understand: If we are living together, one might wonder, why do we have to be separated in death? Unless a convincing answer to that question is found, the process of integration risks severe damage because from such a standpoint one may conclude that we are not living together but merely side by side. Another point that leads to almost endless debates is the relation between man and woman. What seems problematic to me is not so much the different attitude of Muslims and non-Muslims to this point.

What troubles me is that the Western concept is treated as somehow "out of the question". Earlier this year we have seen the opening of a Dominican convent in Leipzig where brothers and sisters of the Order of Preachers live together under one roof. This may show that the Western model has many facets and in my eyes deserves recognition. Religious communities should take interest in the world which surrounds them, and that is here and now rather than far away or long ago. They should provide information about themselves and their actions and thus create a certain transparency. What Muslims have to say in contemporary Europe will only be heard if all concerned treat each other as equal partners.

The problems and uncertainties I have named are numerous. Nevertheless we are called to solve them. Let me conclude with a short episode of the life of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). When St. Teresa of Avila, the great reformer of 16th. century Catholic spirituality, had only three ducats to begin her convent buildings here in Toledo she stated in the face of adversity: "Teresa and three ducats are nothing; but God, Teresa and three ducats are sufficient to make a success of everything." (Footnote 3)

Footnote 1: W.M. Watt, Islamic Philosophy and Theology, Edinburgh 1979, p.133.

Footnote 2: op.cit., p.133

Footnote 3: Omer Englebert, The Lives of The Saints, New York 1995, p.70 f.

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