Recently, the German president Joachim Gauck gave an interview to the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit,” in which he voiced understanding for those who ask critically: “How has Islam influenced today’s Europe? Has it experienced its own enlightenment, or maybe even a period of reformation?” Gauck said that he is “highly curious about theological discussions within European Islam.”
Thus, we are again engulfed by the discussion of whether “Islam belongs to Germany” (a phrase coined by Germany’s last president Christian Wulff in 2011, and a statement for which he was widely praised and criticized).
Enter Cem Özdemir, a Green Party politician who is a non-practicing Muslim, and who has responded to Gauck’s recent statement by criticizing the German president with the words, “I cannot really understand the difference that is drawn between Islam and observant Muslims.” Özdemir received subsequent rhetorical and political support from Kenan Kolat, head of the German Turkish Community, who recommended to the German president “a look into the history books: Islam is part of European and German history.”
But it is exactly the ability to differentiate between past and present that gives credibility to arguments about the relationship between Islam and Europe. The steadfast belief that “Islam belongs to Germany” has an undeniable historical component: It implies the question of how, and how much, the Islamic faith has contributed to the development of Germany and Europe. It also implies that those contributions have been generally positive. This is what Gauck hints at when he mentions two central aspects of European history, the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Both movements have contributed significantly to the development of the Old World.
We may ask: Has Islam had a comparable positive influence? No. The history of European and Muslim civilization is a history of wars that were waged at the periphery of Europe and that included the looting of Rome and Santiago de Compostela. The relationship between Islam and Christianity, between Orient and Occident, is a history that was often founded on war and aggression from both sides.
Without the support of the Polish army, the St. Stephan Cathedral in Vienna would be a mosque today. This is neither meant polemically, nor does it justify Islamophobia. It is simply a statement of historical facts that sheds no light on contemporary descriptive or normative accounts of the presence of Islam in Europe. Kenan Kolat’s return to historical narratives is thus counter-productive. A look at the historical record reveals that Europe has had to defend itself against Islam for many centuries, from the battles at Tours and Poitiers to the siege of Vienna.
The Islam of the history books is not a part of Europe. But that doesn’t matter, because it is a thing of the past. Today, our ability to differentiate between Islam and Muslims is precisely the right approach to a policy of integration – and not wrong, as Mr. Özdemir wants us to believe.
The historical construct of Islam is decidedly different from the collection of people who identify with the Islamic faith today, in different regions of the world, with different customs and traditions. That collection includes people like Mr. Özdemir himself, who identifies as a cultural Muslim but has long ceased to practice his faith. In denying the distinction, Özdemir inadvertently plays into the hands of those who seek to limit Islam to religious practices. As we all know, a turn away from religious lifestyles (or, worse still, a turn towards a different religion) is something that is often shunned in Muslim immigrant communities.
But secularism and the freedom of religion are part of European modernity. Muslims who live here and who want to be seen as Europeans must be willing to embrace those beliefs. The interplay and discussion of Muslim traditions and European ideals is the big challenge today, in the realm of politics and also in theology. It is a challenge that President Gauck is rightly curious about, and that should provide sufficient excitement for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Let’s forget Tours and Poitiers and Vienna. What counts is the present and the future.
German Muslims, don’t listen to Cem Özdemir and Kenan Kolat. You belong here. Anyone who argues otherwise is simply fishing for votes, or wants to prevent your integration into German society by restricting you to Turkish-controlled mosques. Be free, be a part of Germany, and be a part of Europe!
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