Muslim Martin Luthers: The Theologians Working Towards a Euro-Islam

04/22/2008 05:33 MUSLIM MARTIN LUTHERS
The Theologians Working Towards a Euro-Islam
By Dieter Bednarz and Daniel Steinvorth

Leading Muslim scholars are laying the theological foundations for a “Euro-Islam” which would reconcile their religion with the challenges of modernity. But just how compatible is Islam with secular Western values?

The air in the conference room is stale, and the dour mood among those present is not much better. The room smells of sweat, cigarette smoke, cold coffee — and plenty of problems. That comes with the territory at a meeting of some 100 social workers who work in flashpoints like the London boroughs of Hounslow, Eastleigh and Ealing.

In their districts they often have to deal with angry youth gangs, unemployment and failed integration policies. Today, on this particular Thursday, they have gathered here in the large hall of the Holborn Bars conference center to learn that multiculturalism also has positive aspects and, most importantly, that no one needs to be afraid of Muslims.

Up on the stage, Lucy de Groot, the organizer of the one-day seminar “Cultural Diversity and Social Cohesion,” presents “with great pleasure” a speaker whose appearance alone is enough to add a touch of brilliance to this gloomy conference room. Smiling here and nodding there, the “esteemed guest” strides up to the podium with the confidence of an entertainer who has grown accustomed to success. Tariq Ramadan knows how to win people over.

Many of the veteran social workers have an almost enraptured expression on their faces as they look up at the tall, thin man. With his striking features and dark well-trimmed beard, his sand-colored suit with its elegant casualness, the unbuttoned collar of his bright yellow shirt and his slightly dark complexion, Ramadan resembles a Latino singer. “It’s wonderful to be in London,” he says warmly into the microphone. “Thank you very much for inviting me.” Ramadan places the fingertips of his well-manicured hands together and gazes confidently at the audience. His fan club is guaranteed to be even bigger after this afternoon.

Officially, Ramadan, 45, is a professor of Islamic studies in Geneva. But now he has just come from Oxford, where he teaches at St. Antony’s College as a visiting fellow. In effect, Ramadan is something of a modern-day itinerant preacher. His mission is to boost the self-confidence of Europe’s Muslims and to explain his vision of a “European Islam” to Europe’s Christian elite. The new brand of faith which, according to Ramadan, “is currently taking shape among European Muslims with Islamic-European culture” aims to reconcile Western values with the teachings of Islam. This “Euro-Islam” has allowed Ramadan to win friends among immigrant children and proponents of interreligious dialogue — and make enemies among right-wing nationalists and hardline Islamists.

Ramadan has given thousands of presentations over the past few years, speaking to a wide range of audiences, including Muslims and Christians, atheists and Jews, church representatives and politicians, industrialists, students and anti-globalization activists. Over the weekend, he made four appearances in France where he spoke to over 2,500 people, mostly young Muslims. Tonight he will speak in Birmingham at a police convention, tomorrow morning his schedule takes him to Blackpool; he can’t remember off the top of his head who he’s talking to there.

The highly popular speaker can devote little more than half an hour to Lucy de Groot’s seminar. But that’s enough time for a brilliant presenter like Ramadan to talk about his religion, Muslim minorities, integration and exclusion — and to alleviate the fears of his audience of an impending “clash of civilizations,” as prophesized by Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington.

“We start to run into problems when we construct new dividing lines, when we cease to see society as a whole,” says Ramadan to the worn-out-looking men and women sitting at large round tables. “Instead of perceiving Muslims as ‘the other’ or foreigners, try to see them as fellow Englishmen and women.”

All the listeners can do is nod in approval. After all, this man is one of the most prominent Muslims in Europe — even if he is also one of the most controversial.

A scholar and a blusterer, a reformer and an Islamist, a rationalist and a demagogue — surely no other Muslim has been given such varied labels as Ramadan.

Some, like the British government, see him as a Muslim visionary who provides a modern interpretation of the Koran and breaks with outmoded traditions. “We need trust and dialogue and a more flexible faith,” says Ramadan. This kind of language prompted former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to appoint him to what was essentially a Muslim task force to combat extremism. On the other side of the Atlantic, Time magazine placed him on its list of the 100 people who comprise “tomorrow’s most influential individuals.”

Others see him as an Islamist in disguise, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a master of deception. And, as a matter of fact, Ramadan has made a number of statements that don’t sound remotely liberal or tolerant.

An Islamic Superstar

For instance, when he appeared on a French talk show, Ramadan justified the sharia, the Islamic body of social and religious law, which, when strictly interpreted, calls for draconian punishments that constitute a violation of human rights. And he refused to issue a blanket condemnation of the particularly cruel practice of stoning to death. Instead he proposed a moratorium on this form of capital punishment. His opponents warn that when he appears before young Muslims and no cameras are present, it’s possible that Ramadan strikes a very different tone.

US authorities have even officially classified him as a terrorist sympathizer. After Ramadan donated money to dubious Palestinian groups, the Americans decided to revoke his visa.

Ramadan’s family does indeed have a reputation for radicalism. His Egyptian grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Islamic fundamentalist organization that is active throughout the Middle East and even in Europe. His father Said, also a religious zealot, fled to Europe to escape his persecutors in the Egyptian regime. Tariq was born in Geneva.

Radical offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood produced the men who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Farag Foda, a reformist intellectual who said “We need a Martin Luther” — and was shot down in the streets of Cairo in 1992.

Although many people view Ramadan with suspicion, there are in fact a number of parallels between him and the German reformer. Like Luther, who challenged the Catholic clergy, Ramadan campaigns against the “traditionalists who advocate a literal interpretation of the Koran.” Like the monk from Wittenberg, the professor from Switzerland seeks to break up the monopoly held by religious scholars on interpreting the holy book.

Instead of slavishly adhering to ancient revelations, Ramadan says it is necessary to examine the “historical context” in which God’s revelations were received by the Prophet Muhammad. “Islam,” says Ramadan, “cannot place itself outside of history.”

What he means by that is reflected in the ongoing debate between radicals and reformers over the issue of apostasy — the renunciation or abandonment of one’s religious faith. Sura 16:106 says: “He who, after accepting faith in Allah, freely opens his heart to unbelief, shall feel the wrath of Allah and shall receive a dreadful punishment.” Over the centuries, conservatives have interpreted this to mean that heretics should receive the death penalty.

Ramadan, however, does not see apostasy as a crime. He points out that circumstances have “totally changed.” At the time of the Prophet, he says, the Muslims were at war with neighboring tribes. Changing faith was tantamount to treason or desertion — and was punishable by death. That was then. Today, according to Ramadan, faith “is a personal matter for each individual.”

“Renew your understanding of the text, even though the text itself does not change. Read it in a new way,” says Ramadan, as he calls on his Muslim brothers to reinterpret the Koran.

This places him in good company with other authorities on the Koran like the Egyptian Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid and the Iranian Abdolkarim Sorush, who have written a number of books on the topic and are highly regarded among theologians. They are also proponents of using hermeneutics — the science of interpreting texts — to understand the Koran.

However, it is Ramadan’s grass-roots popularity that allows him to reach a much wider audience.

“Yesterday, we relied on the solutions that came from our countries of origin, because we only knew one way to remain a Muslim: to remain the Muslims that we were,” he preaches. “But then children were born, new generations, and they are German and British and French. This is our community now; we cannot rely on solutions that come from our countries of origin. We need local solutions.”

His solution is a form of faith in which Western norms and Islam are not mutually exclusive. Democracy, freedom of speech, human rights and religious freedom — these are all things that the faithful can embrace as long as they respect the “inalienable core” of Islam: profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting. “Practically everything else,” says Ramadan, “can be interpreted and adjusted in space and time.”

Nevertheless, Ramadan’s vision of Euro-Islam does not entail the secularism, in the sense of a separation of religion and state, that many Westerners would like him to advocate. Ramadan’s faith makes no distinction between political and private realms, between religious and worldly matters. He does not question the holistic nature of Islam. Thus this widely celebrated visionary — who always carries a small copy of the Koran, drinks no alcohol, and advocates separating the sexes in swimming pools — is not a genuine reformer, say his critics.

However, with his interpretation of Islam, Ramadan builds bridges that allow apprehensive Muslims to open up to their new homelands. He doesn’t alarm them with heretical slogans, yet tries to pull them out of the so-called “ghetto Islam” of the fundamentalists. A strategy paper written by the British government therefore clearly sees him as the spearhead of an “Islamic Reformation” on the old continent.

Among second and third-generation Muslims in particular, Ramadan enjoys the “aura of an Islamic superstar,” as the New York Times Magazine recently wrote. The young faithful see him as the ultimate über-Muslim: a professor in Oxford and the offspring of a family that is renowned for its religious fervor — extremely devout, yet socially acceptable. Piousness and urbanity, Islam and the modern age — Ramadan is a living example for his supporters that all these things are compatible.

Ramadan gives young Muslims what they yearn for: pride and dignity — and the reassuring feeling that they can hit the discos at night and still remain faithful servants of God. A Euro-Islam like this, says Freiburg-based Islamic scholar Ludwig Ammann, “reaches out to the majority of Muslims right where they are” — in the conservative camp with its blind faith in authority.

By contrast, Bassam Tibi, a leading German Islamic reformer who teaches at Göttingen University, sees Ramadan’s vision of Islam as “an attempt to give Islam a European face-lift instead of harmonizing the religion with Europe’s cultural, social and political identity.”

Secular Islam, Turkish Style

But is such a Europeanization even possible? Could it be that the notion of a pluralistic democracy based on a secular constitution and the all-embracing nature of Islam — which makes no distinction between religious and secular matters — are mutually exclusive? Are Islam and Europe — sharia and human rights — like fire and water?

“No,” says Tibi, who was born in Syria, and coined the term “Euro-Islam” in the early 1990s as a counterpoint to the “ghetto Islam” of many immigrants who cut themselves off from their European surroundings and seek their salvation in religious fervor. He says that the Koran can be interpreted in many different ways, giving it the “advantage of adaptability.” To back up his assertion, Tibi points to the forms of “Islam in West Africa and in Indonesia, which are very different from the Arab or Persian versions, although all Muslims believe in the one God and his Prophet Muhammad.”

The extent of the compatibility of Islam and secularism has in fact been demonstrated by Turkey, the largest and certainly most conclusive experiment conducted to date on the flexibility of the faith — and one which is located directly on Europe’s doorstep. Over the years, this EU candidate and NATO member has served as one of the best examples in the world of the stark contrasts that exist between East and West — the faith of the Prophet and the values of the West. No other Islamic country has forced Islam to accept as much secularity as the Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk (“father of the Turks”).

Building on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, this staunch European imposed a revolution from above that aimed to transform Anatolia into a modern, democratic nation-state, including forced secularization to free it from the shackles of religion. Atatürk abolished the Caliphate, in which the sultan had authority over the realm and its religious affairs. To symbolize the country’s new orientation toward the West, Atatürk prohibited men from wearing the fez, a red woolen hat with a tassel, and women were not allowed to wear headscarves. He ordered the abolition of the sharia courts and banished religion to the private sphere.

To keep the mosques free of regressive ideology, Atatürk established the Presidency of Religious Affairs (DIB). This state agency, which now has over 100,000 employees, supervises the training of imams and muezzins — the criers who lead the call to prayer from a minaret of a mosque — and it also decides what will be preached. The president of this organization is the highest ranking representative of Islam in Turkey — an office currently held by Ali Bardakoglu, an avowed reform theologian. The head of the DIB calls on “the Islamic world to further develop objective thinking and reason.”

Bardakoglu was appointed five years ago by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist who many once feared would shake the foundations of the Kemalist establishment. Today, however, this deeply religious government leader is widely acclaimed as a modernizer who is whipping the country into shape for entry into the EU and whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) serves as an Islamic counterpart to Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Any fears that Turkey would reinstate the Caliphate and return to sharia have vanished, also thanks to Bardakoglu.

In contrast to his predecessors, who saw their position as a Kemalist bulwark, the current head of the DIB aims to promote religious discourse, push for reforms and give Islam a new look — in a very literal sense. He demonstratively refused to wear the heavy black robe worn by his predecessors. It was too authoritarian for Bardakoglu’s taste. Now the country’s top Muslim wears spiritual white, like the pope.

The man from Ankara maintains a dialogue with the head of the Catholic Church, despite heated disputes over the pope’s now infamous Regensburg speech. In the papal address held last September at the University of Regensburg in Germany, Benedict XVI quoted the little known Byzantine emperor Manuel II: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

An angry Bardakoglu described the pope’s statement as reflecting a “crusader mentality.” He only assumed a more conciliatory tone following a personal meeting with Benedict XVI during his visit to Turkey. Now historians and theologians are working on a paper that will allow the DIB to refute the emperor’s statement.

In his reform campaigns, Bardakoglu has pushed primarily for a reinterpretation of Islamic scripture. “Every age,” he preaches to his imams, “must rely on its own spirit, its strengths, its intellectual experience to understand the Koran.” The ammunition for debates with the fundamentalists comes from a nearby institution in the capital — the University of Ankara.

Founded in 1948, the university’s department of theology has a reputation as the nucleus of all religious reform initiatives in Turkey. Today, there are an additional 23 theological departments throughout the country, and their deans are almost all graduates of the original department in the capital.

‘We Muslims Have Been Left Behind’

Yasar Nuri Öztürk, who lives in Istanbul, is the most well known and certainly the most influential representative of Turkish reformist theology. Whether he’s walking along the banks of the Bosporus or through the bazaar, many Turks immediately recognize this small, rather unassuming, nearly bald man from his numerous TV appearances, from his columns in the daily newspaper Hürriyet and from his over 30 books, which have sold more than a million copies in Turkey alone. Many of them have been translated into Arabic, Farsi, English and German. Given Öztürk’s high profile, people tend to overlook the fact that he also happens to be the dean of the theological department of the University of Istanbul.

Öztürk’s thinking is mainly aimed at the fundamentalist elite in regimes of the Islamic world that oppress their people in the name of God. He says, however, that the Muslims only have themselves to blame for this state of affairs because they understand “almost nothing” about the “real Islam” as it stands in the Koran. Did not Allah himself declare that the system of monarchist rule was unacceptable? This, at least, is how Öztürk interprets verse 34 of the 27th Sura: “Surely the kings, when they enter a town or a country, lay it to waste and make the noblest of its people into the lowest. That is their way.”

And Öztürk, with reference to the holy book, clearly rejects the position of bigoted mullahs and zealots who still dream of reinstating the Caliphate. “The Koran proclaims that the prophethood is over,” he says. “And one of the fundamental demands that arises from that, is that the age is over when people are led by individuals claiming to derive their authority from God.”

While the Bible and the Torah promise the rule of God on Earth, Öztürk sees the Koran as “the only book that proclaims that theocracy should have no role in the lives of people.” This “key truth” of the Koran is, however, “kept secret and concealed in Islamic societies.”

Öztürk preaches this vision of Islam and politics with his own mixture of theological authority and populism. His understanding of a secular state, however, is not the traditional division of religion and worldly matters. Öztürk’s version of secularism is based more on a kind of “democracy imperative” which is based on the Koran and which should force rulers to base their authority “not on God or divine right, but on the will of the people.”

The so-called Ankara School of reform-minded theologians has even spread beyond Turkey’s borders to Germany. Ömer Özsoy, 44, one of the reform movement’s most renowned scholars, has become the first Muslim professor of theology at a German university. At his inaugural lecture, held last November at Frankfurt University, he addressed “modern interpretations of the Koran.”

What this graceful man with fine features and a high forehead says tends to strike many Muslims — who see the Koran as the eternal word of God — as simply unbelievable. Özsoy asserts that the holy book of the Muslims is not a timeless message.

The professor of theology sees the Koran as a “speech by God” directed toward a specific group of people at a specific time and under specific circumstances. According to Özsoy, this is shown by the fact that the revelations to the Prophet occurred over a period of approximately 23 years, first in Mecca, then in Medina. Every statement by God relates to a special situation that Muhammad and his followers faced, as fighters, believers, refugees or conquerors. He says that we can only understand the message behind God’s word if we know the circumstances under which the Prophet received the revelation.

Özsoy is convinced that only a fraction of what the revelation intends to convey to mankind is actually contained in the Koran. The majority of the actual messages can only be elucidated by studying historical events as they transpired 1,400 years ago — and then reinterpreting them for the present. Since this “transfer” — this adapting of the Koran to the current situation — was held in disdain for so long, Muslims now lack “the answers to the questions posed by modernity.” This has had disastrous consequences, he feels: “We Muslims have been left behind.”

In order to make the jump to the present, at least on a theoretical level, the Turkish religious agency is funding the professorial chair for Muslim theology in Frankfurt, which is part of the university’s Department of Protestant Theology. In addition to the Germans who attend his lectures, Özsoy’s students reflect the entire multicultural spectrum of the city, from Muslim Macedonians and Christian Egyptians to Turkish-German women in traditional headscarves.

Up until now, only a minority of Muslims in Germany have embraced such reformist approaches. The Islamic researcher Bassam Tibi estimates that perhaps two-thirds of the over 3 million Muslims in Germany would claim to profess a Euro-Islam version of their faith, but he thinks that no more than 10 percent of the Muslim population “genuinely follows” this liberal form of Islam. “Sipping a glass of wine does not necessarily constitute acceptance of European values,” says Tibi.

Tibi attributes little practical importance to the initiatives launched by Ankara, at least for the time being. He says that while the critical thinking of Özsoy and his colleagues is commendable, the vast majority of Turkish Muslims are not open to this line of thinking. In his opinion, “the organized religion is Islamist or orthodox.”

Although Tibi promotes Euro-Islam in his lectures and among his academic colleagues, he has his own doubts over whether the concepts embodied by Euro-Islam hold the key to the future of over a billion Muslims around the world or whether the traditionalists will maintain the upper hand.

However, Tibi is certain that there is no alternative to an Islam that recognizes the “cultural, social and political realities” of modernity. Based on that conviction, the professor from Göttingen will continue to fight for the vision of an Islam without sharia — and not just in Europe.



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