Islam at the centre of major arts festival in Germany

The Ruhr area, a former industrial region and this year’s European Culture Capital, will place Islam at the center of its arts festival the Ruhr-Triennale. Leaving headscarf and minaret debates aside, producer Decker seeks to explore religiosity and its link to movement and journey, which plays a particularly large role in Islam, and eventually to art. After focusing on Judaism last time, the forthcoming productions will explore Islamic myths and mysticism in theater, dance, music and prose performances. The festival will take place from August to October, and the 37 productions and 130 performances will be opened by the premiere of “Leila and Majun”, a Persian “Romeo and Juliet”.

A Muslim vote for the Liberal Democrats

This article advocates the best possible option for Muslims when voting in the General Election, which the author claims to be the Liberal Democrats, for reasons of fairness. “I believe the Liberal Democrats are the only party that will truly make Britain fair, not just for Muslims, but for everyone in Britain today.” The author Farid Ahmed is a Muslim and a Liberal candidate himself for Walthamstow, London.

The author further summarizes how Labour has failed in the past 13 years to make Britain more just, and how the Conservatives are not to be trusted to move the country in any such direction. Also Britain’s policies towards the Middle East play a large role in the author’s preference for the Liberal Democrat Party.

A jihadist cell discovered at the Universtiy of Perugia: Two Moroccan students expelled

Roberto Maroni, the Italian interior minister, has ordered the immediate repatriation for security reasons of two Moroccan students at the University of Perugia. According to the investigations, the two foreigners were declared highly dangerous since they were ready to commit acts of terrorism in the country. Although the students were not in contact with the international terrorist net but were “self-trained” via the Internet, they were nonetheless deemed a serious threat for our country and therefore expelled.

Birmingham could see Britain’s first female Muslim MP

Next week’s election promises a swathe of new faces in the House of Commons. Not only are we witnessing the largest number of MPs to retire in 60 years but, with a record number of Asian women also standing, Britain could have its first female Muslim MP.

This breakthrough moment in politics has already happened for Muslim men with Mohammad Sarwar voted in Glasgow Central in 1997. Khalid Mahmood was the first in England when he won the Birmingham Perry Barr seat in 2001 and the race to be among the first female Muslim MPs could also be played out in the second city.

Salma Yaqoob, according to one newspaper the most prominent Muslim woman in British politics, is the Respect Party prospective parliamentary candidate for the Birmingham Hall Green constituency. Labour’s Shabana Mahmood is fighting Clare Short’s seat in Ladywood along with Nusrat Ghani, who is standing for the Conservatives.

Sparkbrook – within the Hall Green constituency – and Small Heath now broken up between different wards – has the largest percentage of Muslim voters of any UK constituency at 48.8%, according to the 2001 census.

Muslim MPs to more than double

At least 80 Muslim candidates of various political persuasions are involved in a spectrum of intriguing contests for parliamentary seats around the country. The chances are that up to 15 could be elected, although more realistically it is likely to double up from four in 2005.

The outcome in the elections, which are going to be the closest for decades and includes so many uncertain factors, is likely to see both the first Muslim women MPs that could help more than double Labour numbers and the first Muslim Tory members in the House of Commons. In the frame with outside chances are also a couple of Liberal Democrats and different Respect candidates among many others who are in un-winnable seats.

Labour has no less than seven Muslims, including three women, defending seats, the Conservatives one and another selected to capture the Party’s number one target seat in Gillingham and Rainham. Respect also has chosen a Muslim candidate in Bethnal Green and Bow to stand instead of George Galloway, who is seeking re-election in the newly created Poplar and Limehouse next door. But Abjol Miah faces the unique challenge of Muslim rivals selected by all three main parties in the most populous Muslim constituency.

The girl who was expelled for wearing the hijab registers at another school

Najwa Malhat, a 16 years old Muslim girl, who was expelled from her school for wearing a headscarf last week, has been allowed to register at another public school. The first school that Nawja was assigned to has suddenly changed its Internal Regulation in order to forbid the wearing of head coverings inside the center, including the hijab. Finally, Najwa has been admitted to another school and is currently attending normal classes.

UK’s Islam Channel TV chief insists: “We are not extremists”

The Islam Channel, which is watched regularly by three in every five British Muslims despite allegations that it panders to extremism, is aiming to expand its services to other countries where it feels there is a need to counter negative coverage by western media.

In the cases of three countries with large Muslim populations – Malaysia, Nigeria and Kenya – the channel plans to begin by providing programs already available to viewers in the UK, according to the channel’s chief executive, Mohammed Ali Harrath.

Mr Harrath said “extensive negotiations” were also in progress to launch transmissions in North America – he did not specify whether the United States or Canada, or both – with immediate use of locally produced content.

After accusation of a Quilliam Foundation report that Islam Channel showed extremist programs, Harrath replied: “We do not promote extremism at all. What they qualify as extremism may be something else. If someone is opposed to abortion, are you going to say that is extremism? If a trade union argues for better conditions for workers, do you accuse it of promoting Karl Marx, and Lenin, or communist ideology?”

Turbulent times at Münster: high expectations for the chair of Islamic religious education

The University of Münster, being the first to offer teacher training for Islamic religious education, does not come to rest. While the university has selected a most suitable candidate for the chair, the Lebanese Austrian Mouhanad Khorchide, the decision has to be approved by the Islamic associations. Some therefore claim that the associations have too much influence over this position at a state university, after they have already urged professor Sven Muhammad Kalisch at the same department to step down, after he had doubted the existence of Prophet Mohammed.

Meanwhile, Khorchide has taken up teaching on a temporary position. One of his main goals is to bring Islamic theology in harmony with a modern life and to show that there are no contradictions. School children should not have to make a decision whether to be Muslim or European, but should feel that they are both.

Conservative politician criticised for heavily anti-Islamic statements

A CDU party politician and member of the Hesse regional parliament, Hans-Jürgen Irmer, has revealed his deep-rooted anti-Islamic attitude. In an interview, he had claimed that Islam seeks to rule the world and that anyone who supports Turkey’s entry to the EU, as does the CDU’s new Turkish-German minister Aygül Özkan, contributed to the Islamisation of Germany. He furthermore said that Germany needed not more Muslims, but less.

Members of all parties have expressed their shock about the politician’s statements. Irmer finally apologized, saying that he had not wanted to discredit one religion on the whole. The SPD, Greens and Left Party do not believe his apology came voluntarily and find it incredible, as Irmer’s statements had shown a rather clear and strong supremacist attitude.

“Full Equality before the Law for All Religions”

French political scientist Olivier Roy is one of the foremost European experts on Islam. His new book, “Holy Ignorance. When Religion and Culture Diverge”, will soon be published in English. Eren Güvercin spoke with Roy about the current Islam debate in Europe

In Switzerland, a majority votes for a ban on minarets; in France and in Belgium, Islamic headscarves are heavily debated; in Italy, crucifixes are under fire. And also here in Germany, the debate about the Muslims is often very hysterical. Why do Europeans fear religious symbols or “foreign” religions so much?

Olivier Roy: The debate in Europe has shifted in some 25 years from immigration to the visible symbols of Islam. Which means a paradoxical thing: even people who opposed immigration acknowledge now that the second and third generations of migrants are here to stay and that Islam has rooted itself in Europe. So now the debate is about the status of Islam. And here we have a strange phenomenon: while anti-immigration feelings were mainly associated with the conservative right, anti-Islam feelings are to be found both on the left and on the right, but on two very different grounds.

For the right, Europe is Christian and Islam should be treated as a tolerated but inferior religion. There is – unfortunately – no way to ban it, because of the principle of “freedom of religion”, inscribed in our constitutions, international treaties and UN chart, but there are means to limit its visibility without necessarily going against the principle of freedom of religion – for instance the European court of human rights did not condemn the banning of the scarf in French schools.

For the left, the issue is more generally secularism, women’s rights and fundamentalism: it opposes the veil not so much because it is Islamic but because it seems to contradict women’s rights. Hence the debate on Islam hides a far more complicated issue: What does a European identity mean, and what is the role of religion in Europe; and of course on these two issues the left and the right have very different positions. But we see the rise of a new populist movement – like Geert Wilders in Holland – mixing both approaches, basically siding with the right but using leftist arguments.
In your book you say that fundamentalists like Al Qaida have nothing to do with the tradition of Islam. But for the people in Europe they appear very traditional … Are Al Qaida and similar organizations and movements a modern phenomenon?

Olivier Roy: The kind of terrorism perpetrated by Al Qaida is unknown in Muslim history as well as in Christian history. So in any case it is a recent phenomenon. If we consider some of its main characteristics – suicide attacks, execution of hostages, targeting civilians – they all have been put into practice recently, before Al Qaida, by other organizations: the Tamil Tigers for suicide attacks, the Italian extreme right in Bologna bombing in August 1980, and the Italian Red Brigades. If you look at the video of the execution of foreign hostages by Al Qaida in Iraq, it follows exactly the “staging” of the execution of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades: banner and logo of the organization, hostage hand-cuffed and blindfolded, a group of “militants” staging a mock trial, the reading of a “sentence” and execution.

By its modus operandi, its form of organization, its target: US imperialism, and recruitment: young Western-educated Muslims or converts to Islam, it is obvious that Al Qaida is not the expression of a traditional or even fundamentalist Islam, but of a recast of Islam under the cloak of Western revolutionary ideology.

Are there similar Christian organizations? Can we find similar developments in Christianity?

Olivier Roy: It depends what you call “Christian”, and that is the same issue for Islam, too. Is violence motivated by faith or by a political ideology? I argue that in both cases the motivation is driven far more by ideology, even claiming a religious legitimacy, than by faith. There has certainly been a “white” Western terrorism, for instance at the Oklahoma bombing in 1995. But in fact there is no real symmetry: the present struggle looks more like asymmetrical warfare; Islamic radicals have no air force or air carrier. A radical Christian crusader who wants to fight Muslims does not need to enter a terrorist organization: he can just enlist in the US Air Force and become the pilot of a fighter-bomber. The US media have closely documented the fact that the US Air Force Academy of Colorado Springs is a hotbed of Christian evangelicalism, at the expense, by the way, of Jewish or atheist cadets.

How do you explain the success of such radical movements or ideologies? Are poverty and exclusion really the reasons?

Olivier Roy: No. All studies show that there is no correlation between poverty and radicalization: there are far more Saudis than Bangladeshis (in fact almost no Bangladeshis) among radicals. I think that the present struggle is a continuation of the old fault-line of anti-imperialist, third-worldist movements against the West and specifically the USA. Bin Laden says little about religion, but mentions Che Guevara, colonialism, climate change etc. It is also clearly a generational movement: Al Qaida is a “youth” movement of young people who split with their families and their social milieus and are not interested even in the home country of their family.

Also, there is an astonishing number of converts among Al Qaida, which is now acknowledged but not taken into account. The converts are rebels without a cause who would have joined the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades thirty years ago but now go to the most successful movement on the anti-imperialist market. We are still in the midst of a mostly Western revolutionary millennialism that has turned away from the concept of establishing a new and just society. The new movements are profoundly sceptical about building a good society, hence their suicidal dimension.

Today some Europeans maintain that European culture is essentially a Christian culture, and hence that everything Islamic is problematic and alien for Europe. What do you think of this position?

Olivier Roy: They say that at the same time that Pope Benedict, following John Paul II, is saying that Europe is rejecting and ignoring its Christian roots. The debate on sexual freedom, abortion, gay rights is not one of Europeans versus Muslims, but rather of secularists on the one hand – and there are Muslim secularists – and conservative believers on the other, who could be Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox Jews. In fact, Europe is highly divided about its own culture, between secularists who consider the Enlightenment with human rights, freedom, democracy as the real birth certificate of Europe, and the “Christian culturalists” who believe that the Enlightenment also led to Communism, atheism and even Nazism.

Is there a real risk of Islamophobia in Europe?

Olivier Roy: The problem is how we define Islamophobia: Is it just another term for racism, and specifically racism against people with a Muslim name, whatever their real degree of belonging to a faith community, or is it the rejection of a religion? There are anti-racist militants who cannot stand the veil – that is the case among feminists. There are racist people who do not oppose the veil – because they think that anyway these people are too different from us. The issue is complex because we do not try to disentangle two issues: ethnicity and religion.

Of course in Europe most Muslims have a foreign ethnic background, but the disconnect between ethnicity and religion is increasing: there are converts both ways; there are atheist “Arabs” and “Turks”; and more and more Muslims want to be acknowledged as believers belonging to a faith community, but not necessarily as members of a different cultural community. We need to distinguish between “ethnic communities” and “faith communities”, because both suppose a different approach, and because “ethnicity” is less and less meaningful in terms of culture, but is more and more linked with skin colour.

In an interview you say that for example the biggest campaign against Darwin in Europe is being conducted by a Turkish Muslim, on the basis of translations of books written by evangelical Americans, and that there is then a convergence of values and norms, but also of the manner in which those religions translate their convictions into political action and intervention. How can the political world find a way to deal with this “drifting, deculturalized and globalized religion”?

Olivier Roy: I think that the “successful” religions are the global and deculturated religions like evangelicalism, Salafism, cults etc., not the traditional churches like the Catholic Church. This trend is dominant now. It does not make sense to fight against it, particularly in countries where constitutions prevent the State from interfering with beliefs. On the contrary, I think we should accentuate the separation of Church and State by implementing full equality between religions, but not on a basis of “multi-culturalism”; we should consider religions as “mere religions”, whatever they say about themselves.

The issue is not ‘what does Islam say’, ‘what does the Pope say’, but under which conditions a faith community can freely exercise its rights. Government should contribute to the unlinking of religion and culture, but rejecting the multi-culturalist approach to religion in favour of a neutral and strict freedom of religion within the framework of existing laws.

In the media we often have a dialectic of “liberal” vs. “radical” Islam. Is there a “liberal” or “radical” Islam? When we look at the five pillars, is it possible to do the prayer “liberally” or “radically”? Is this terminology actually applicable on this matter?

Olivier Roy: No. I think the mistake is to consider that to be a good citizen in society, a believer has to choose a “liberal” theology. The debate on the “reformation” of Islam is irrelevant. People who advocate a Muslim Luther never read Luther: he was not a liberal, and quite anti-Semitic by the way. The “formatting” of Muslims into a Western environment has nothing to do with theology. It is done by the individual practices and endeavours of the Muslims themselves. They try to reconcile their practices with the Western environment, and they find in this environment tools to do that, rethinking norms in terms of values for instance. In the long run these changes will certainly translate into a theological rethinking, but anyway it does not make sense to associate modernity with theological liberalism: to think like that means either distorting history or relying on wishful thinking.

Interview: Eren Güvercin

© 2010

Editor: Lewis Gropp/