Islamic studies scholar Armina Omerika: “Muslims need new ways to approach their religious heritage”

The German Evangelical Church′s relationship with Luther shows Muslims that it′s possible to find and develop a way of engaging critically with your own religious tradition, says Islamic studies scholar Armina Omerika in an interview with Canan Topcu.

When did you first hear about Martin Luther?

Armina Omerika: I think I heard his name for the first time as a schoolgirl, in history lessons, but I don′t remember precisely when that was. For me, the figure of Luther is part of my general knowledge.

But many Muslims don′t even know about Luther′s existence, let alone his significance for Christianity – isn′t that true?

Omerika: I can′t say whether, what or how much each individual knows. And it certainly depends on a person′s educational background. The level of awareness of Luther among Muslims certainly also has something to do with the context in which they learn about Christianity.

In some Muslim societies – in the Middle East, for example – other forms of Christianity are more well known: Oriental Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. What people in Germany are often unaware of is that Muslim intellectuals in the Middle East actually studied the Reformation in depth during the 19th century, being sometimes even influenced by contemporary debates within German Protestantism.

Nevertheless, even people with a biographical connection to Christianity aren′t necessarily particularly well informed about Luther as a historical figure or his theological relevance.

From the viewpoint of an Islamic theologian, what stands out about Luther?

Omerika: The fact that Luther questioned the status of clergy keeps being picked up on by Islamic theologians – mainly because this institution doesn′t exist in Islam at all. In terms of the history of ideas, however, what is important to Islamic theologians is Luther′s image of Islam and Muslims and how it developed. It is well worth taking a closer look at the historical reception, the context and the reasoning behind such a negative image of Muslims.

In my view, it functioned as intra-societal criticism and had little to do with Muslims, particularly since Luther had absolutely no contact with Muslims; they weren′t part of his world. The criticism of Muslims was linked to criticism of the Catholic Church.

Is it actually important for Muslims today to study Luther?

Omerika: Yes, absolutely. One of the main arguments for studying Luther is the way he and his legacy are now being handled by Protestant theologians. The Evangelical Church in Germany, as well as colleagues in university theology departments, communicate and discuss Luther′s position on Jews, women, Muslims and social hierarchies quite openly. At the same time Christian theologians remain willing to pick up on other ideas put forward by Luther, building on them and bringing them to fruition.

The Evangelical Church′s relationship with Luther shows Muslims that it is also possible for us to find and develop a critical approach to our own religious tradition.

The current “situation” in the Islamic world is often explained by the fact that there was no Reformation there. So does Islam need its own Reformation?

Omerika: I don′t think calls for reformation contribute much to the theological debate. Luther′s thought and work should be seen as a reaction to a very specific historical context. And that context can′t be mapped onto present-day Muslim societies. The problems that without doubt exist in the Islamic world are entirely different to those that existed in the German principalities of the 15th and 16th centuries; the crises in Muslim societies are the result of many factors such as poverty, the battle for resources, post-colonial problems, an absence of the rule of law and insufficient democratic legitimisation.

As far as Islamic thought is concerned: yes, it needs to reorient itself, the traditional texts need to be re-read and historicised. Traditional modes of thought should be examined to see whether their methodological and epistemological bases still provide a firm foundation today. Not just the content, but the processes by which we engage with the content need to be re-examined. There needs to be some thought given to whether the positions taken in the past still offer adequate solutions for Muslims today. The answer to these problems does not, however, lie in a reformation modelled on historical examples from another age.

Muslims certainly need new ways to approach their religious heritage – with a view to the present and the future – but what they don′t need is the approach favoured by radical factions: drawing on the past, a time when there were entirely different social models. Nor however do they need to draw on the Reformation, which for all its benefits, remains a historical phase that can never be recalled.

Canan Topcu

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Deputy mayor in France sends police to school to protest Arabic language classes

A city council official sent police to a primary school in France to protest the school’s decision to offer its students the option of learning the Arabic language. The deputy mayor of Six-Fours-les-Plages in southeastern France was acting on an inaccurate claim on Facebook that said students were being forced to learn the language.

Jean-Sébastien Vialatte confirmed that police officers were sent to the Reynier primary school twice in November to tell school officials that the deputy mayor opposed the teaching of Arabic there, local media reported Wednesday. The incident came to light when a local lawyer disclosed court documents revealing a failed legal suit by the council to halt these classes. Vialatte added that officials had their doubts about the teacher as well because he wasn’t a state employee.

An image shared in September by a parent of one of the children who attends classes at the school inaccurately said the Arabic language classes were mandatory sparking an outcry among parents in which politicians quickly joined.

Frédéric Boccaletti, a local politician and member of the far-right National Front, shared the image on his Facebook page blaming “friends” of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Moroccan-born minister of education, as the people behind these mandatory classes. He also condemned Vialatte for allowing the classes to continue.

French Muslim activist Yasser Louati said the incident was representative of the “normalization of state-sponsored racism.”
“Sending the police to make sure an Arabic class isn’t held shows how much hate government institutions can express for Arabs. In 2015, we had cases of primary school children being humiliated, assaulted, and even taken to the police by their teachers,” Louati reportedly said. “Then we had school girls being barred from school for wearing a long skirt or the prohibition of substitute meals for Muslims and Jews.”

“The only solution for French Muslims and any citizen who loves justice and equality is to band together and engage in a power struggle with decision makers. The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are an opportunity … nobody benefits from a society built on hate,” he added.

Closure of the controversial King-Fahd-Academy in Bonn: Shifting Saudi religious politics in Germany

Past controversies

Saudi diplomats in Germany have confirmed that the King-Fahd-Academy, a Saudi-financed educational institution in Bonn, will be closed by the end of the school year 2016/2017. The construction of a second academy in Berlin will reportedly also be abandoned.(( http://www.dw.com/en/controversial-saudi-school-in-bonn-to-close/a-19511109 ))

The King-Fahd Academy, opened in 1994, had long been criticised as a hotbed of Islamist radicalism. In the early 2000s, the school came under suspicion for alleged ties to Al-Qaeda. In a Friday sermon at the school mosque, a former teacher encouraged pupils to wage holy war and die in the name of God. At the same time, the Wahhabi-inspired curriculum sought to impart to students a strongly anti-Jewish and anti-Western outlook.(( http://daserste.ndr.de/panorama/media/islamistenschule100.html ))

After attempts to have the school closed did not come to fruition, local authorities used their administrative prerogatives and no longer granted children with German citizenship the permission to attend the school. As a consequence, the King-Fahd-Academy, an vast building complex, today only provides schooling to about 150 pupils.(( http://www.general-anzeiger-bonn.de/bonn/bad-godesberg/Godesberger-Schule-schlie%C3%9Ft-zum-Schuljahresende-article3344239.html ))

A shift in the Saudi approach?

Over the past decade, the King-Fahd Academy had striven to dissociate itself from the extremist image of the early 2000s. German language classes became obligatory, curricula were altered, and the school sought to open itself to the outside academically (by adopting the standards of the International Baccalaureate programme) as well as socially (by hosting open houses and a range of cultural activities).(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/umstrittene-saudische-fahd-akademie-in-bonn-schliesst-14411622-p3.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_3 ))

Yet the school never quite managed to leave its past behind. Henner Fürtig of the German Institute for Global Area Studies (GIGA) thus sees the closure of the school as indicative of a Saudi attempt to ameliorate the Kingdom’s image in Europe: closing the King-Fahd-Academy could enable the Saudi rulers to leave behind one of the most painful controversies of the past few years.(( http://www.dw.com/de/saudi-arabien-strebt-imagewechsel-an/a-19511727 ))

Saudi sources describe the abandonment of the old educational agenda as a consequence of a shifting political approach in Riyadh. Allegedly, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman himself decreed the closure of the King-Fahd-Academy.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/islam-in-deutschland-saudi-arabien-gibt-koenig-fahd-akademien-auf/14464982.html )) The ambitious crown prince recently promulgated his ‘Vision 2030’, seeking to modernise Saudi society, infrastructure, industry, and education. According to Saudi diplomats, instead of remaining in a Saudi bubble, Saudi students ought to be taught in German schools in order to benefit from “one of the world’s best educational systems”.(( https://beta.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article157887884/Der-saudische-Rueckzug-sollte-Schule-machen.html?wtrid=crossdevice.welt.desktop.vwo.google-referrer.home-spliturl&betaredirect=true ))

Reactions of relief

German politicians have generally reacted with relief to these announcements. While complimenting the school’s opening since the early 2000s, Bonn’s mayor Ashok Sridharan nevertheless welcomed the Academy’s closure. (( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/umstrittene-saudische-fahd-akademie-in-bonn-schliesst-14411622-p3.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_3 ))

The Saudi decision to shut down this one-time signature educational institution, does indeed come at a particular political moment. Over the past few months there had been renewed criticism of Saudi practices of religious financing abroad, with for instance Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) accusing Saudi Arabia openly of financing Islamic extremism in the West.(( http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/01/14/german-vice-chancellor-accuses-saudi-arabia-of-funding-islamic-extremism-in-the-west/ ))

More generally, as Euro-Islam reported, winning over the ‘hearts and minds’ of Germany’s growing Muslim minority has been a persistent theme in recent political debates.(( http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/08/26/amidst-political-controversy-german-ditib-association-vows-greater-emancipation-turkish-state/ )) The role of Turkey and of Saudi Arabia has come under particular scrutiny in this regard. Politicians of all parties have voiced fears of foreign financing and control that could turn German Muslims into a Trojan horse destabilising the country from within. The closure of the King-Fahd-Academy will be welcome news to them.

Firm condemnation of the heinous massacre in Orlando: Statement by the Great Mosque of Paris

Source: http://www.mosqueedeparis.net/condamnation-du-massacre-dorlando-aux-etats-unis/

Statement by the Great Mosque of Paris

June 13, 2016

During this sacred month of Ramadan tolerance, friendship, and fraternity among human beings are the fundamental values that the Qur’an requires of all faithful followers throughout the world to carry out with dignity as the fourth pillar of Islam. It’s the month of forgiveness, of abstention from violence and of respect for others.

Sadly, an abominable crime committed this weekend in the United States in Orlando (Florida), causing more than one hundred victims, has ended this period of peace and contemplation.

The Great Mosque of Paris firmly denounces and condemns this intolerable affront to human life and asks all Muslims to formally condemn this criminal act committed and carried out in the name of Islam. The horror of these unspeakable acts can seriously harm the image of Muslims and Islam.

Paris, Monday 13 June 2016 Rector Dalil Boubakeur

“The Name Means Everything”: On the Birth of the Black Muslim

Malcolm X here dates the birth of the term “Black Muslim” to 1961, when C. Eric Lincoln published his seminal study, The Black Muslims in America. The book arrived at an important moment for the Nation—“at just about the time we were starting to put on our first big mass rallies.” Malcolm describes a process that is no doubt still familiar to Muslims in the United States. The media got out ahead of the Nation’s attempt to define itself in the eyes of the wider American public, creating a narrative that the NOI leadership neither desired nor controlled. “The press snatched at that name,” Malcolm tells, forcing him and Elijah Muhammad into a mode of perpetual damage control. Just as the television documentary, The Hate That Hate Produced, had “projected the ‘hate teaching’ image of us” in 1959, so too did the press brand a “Black Muslim” figure that seemed scarcely recognizable to the Muslims it supposedly represented.

CNN: “City of Paris to sue Fox News”

“Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is planning to sue Fox News for its inaccurate reports on Muslim “no
go zones,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday.
“When we’re insulted, and when we’ve had an image, then I think we’ll have to sue, I think we’ll have to go to court, in order to have these words removed,” Hidalgo told Amanpour in an interview. “The image of Paris has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced.”

When asked to clarify which network she planned “to take to court and sue,” Hidalgo replied: “Fox News, that’s the name.”

Muslims in German parties

April 29

 

Muslims in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) have begun to initiate working groups about the opinion of Muslims about German politics. The goal is to juxtapose the overwhelming prejudice in German public about Muslims being unable to participate in democratic societies. Also, Muslims in the SPD aim at improving the image of Muslims proving their compatibility with democracy. On February 14th 2014, SPD head Siegmar Gabriel and Minister of Integration Aydan Özoguz organized a session for the new initiated “working group for Muslim social democrats”. The working group is expected to be an important step towards the recognition of Muslims and their engagement in German society.

 

A further positive step was the designation of Yasmin Fahimi this January as the General Secretary of the SPD. Fahimi (46) is a German Chemist of Iranian descent.

Nick Clegg will not drop Lib Dem candidate Maajid Nawaz who tweeted a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed and Jesus

January 30, 2014

 

Nick Clegg (Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the liberal Democrats) has said he will not drop a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate who sparked widespread protests among some Muslims by tweeting a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed. Maajid Nawaz says he has received death threats since posting the image earlier this month, while a petition calling for him to be ditched as Lib Dem candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn in next year’s general election has gathered more than 20,000 signatures, and a rival petition in his defence has more than 7,000.

Mr Clegg told LBC 97.3 radio that he would not personally have tweeted the controversial cartoon of a stick figure of Jesus saying “Hi” to a stick figure called Mo, who replies “How you doin’?”But it is important to show respect to people of all faiths, beliefs and religious persuasions when discussing religious matters. But the Lib Dem leader said: “He is not going to be dropped as a Liberal Democrat candidate. He has the right – as any Muslim, non-Muslim or anyone of any faith or none in this country has – to say things even if that causes offence to other people.

Mr Nawaz, the co-founder of counter-extremism think-tank the Quilliam Foundation, posted the image after appearing in a BBC television debate about religious tolerance which featured two students wearing it on T-shirts. He said that he was sending out the “bland” cartoon to show that, as a Muslim, he did not feel it was a threat to his faith and to demonstrate that “Muslims are able to see things we don’t like, yet remain calm and pluralist. My intention was not to speak for any Muslim but myself – rather, it was to defend my religion from those who have hijacked it just because they shout the loudest”.

 

The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nick-clegg-will-not-drop-lib-dem-candidate-maajid-nawaz-who-tweeted-a-cartoon-of-the-prophet-mohammed-and-jesusclegg-will-not-drop-lib-dem-candidate-9095691.html

The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/28/speaking-islam-loudmouths-hijacked

Veil, Women and Islam: who decides appropriate public dress?

January 21, 2014

 

Veil, Women and Islam: who decides appropriate public dress?
Veil, Women and Islam: who decides appropriate public dress?

“What dress is most appropriate for a Muslim woman in public?”

Researchers at the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan asked the same question to both men and women of various age groups and different religious faiths in seven countries with a Muslim majority. The real focus of the research was post- revolution Tunisia, but scholars also decided to investigate responses in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan. Each respondent was shown images of women. The left most image showed a women who was totally covered (burqa ), decreasing the pieces of cloth covering the woman from image to image until the last drawing, which depicted the subject as completely uncovered.

The findings concluded that on average the hijab (veil that covers the hair, forehead, ears and neck) was considered the most appropriate. You could say this is a compromise between the two extreme images. Another important aspect that the research shows is the partial open-ness to different styles of dress in Saudi Arabia as opposed to a greater closure in “post-spring” Egypt.

The research also included a question that went beyond mere aesthetics. Respondents were also asked: “Should the woman decide what to wear?

And this confirms the above trend:  in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey, and Tunisia, 50% of respondents where in favor of the free choice of women, as opposed to 22% and 14% in Pakistan and Egypt, respectively.

I must say that by scrolling through the research data, I returned several times to the word used in the original question: appropriate.

What do the researchers mean by this term? Appropriate for whom? For others or for the woman? Who can decide when attire is appropriate or not?

Beyond the specific object of this analysis, veil or no veil, I am always convinced that there is only one parameter to decide how a woman should dress: personal choice. Do not take me for naive, I am aware of the incendiary debates that surround these issues, especially in our cities. In my opinion, the most appropriate clothing is what makes a woman feel free and proud to express herself regardless of expectations or fashions of the moment.

The external influences on not only clothing but also on the image of a woman’s own body, is not unique to Muslim women, but rather something that applies to all women in the world. Let me give you another example. Last year a global campaign was launched called “Dark is beautiful” with the aim to emphasize the beauty of dark skin in societies like the West where fair skin is favored. The pressures of fair skin often prompt many black women to resort to toxic products that promise to lighten skin. We must reverse this situation.

Corriere della sera: http://lacittanuova.milano.corriere.it/2014/01/21/velo-donne-islam-qual-e-labbigliamento-giusto-in-pubblico-e-chi-lo-decide/

Original report: http://mevs.org/files/tmp/Tunisia_FinalReport.pdf

 

Calif. Arab sparks debate over ethnic mascots

December 2, 2013

 

LOS ANGELES — On game days in Thermal, where date farms and desert surroundings evoke the Middle East and nearby communities have names like Mecca and Oasis, fans cheer a high school team known as the Arabs. A belly dancer jiggles on center court. And a black-haired, mustached mascot wearing a head scarf rallies the crowd.

At least that’s the way it was done for decades in the community 120 miles southeast of Los Angeles until Arab-Americans recently objected to a hook-nosed, snarling image used to represent Coachella Valley High School.

The school has agreed to give the mascot a makeover, but not to drop the nickname.

“We’re still going to stick with the Arab,” said school board president Lowell Kemper after scores of residents defended the tradition dating back generations. “It’s just a matter of whether we have a change in the caricature of the mascot.”

But the Arab debate spurs the same set of questions: Is it possible to craft a mascot in the image of an ethnic group that doesn’t offend, or are schools better off scrapping the idea altogether?

The debate comes as the more familiar Indian controversy has gained increased heat.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee complained last month that the Coachella Valley mascot perpetuates negative stereotypes of Arabs and Arab-Americans after one of its members raised questions about the image.

The move prompted a community-wide debate and the school district formed a committee to redesign the mascot in a more flattering light.

Coachella Valley isn’t alone in invoking images of Arabs or Muslims. In the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra, the high school football team, known as the Moors, features a caricature of a scowling, dark-skinned man with two swords on its Facebook page.

Yasmin Nouh, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in greater Los Angeles, said her group was going to speak with the school.

At Coachella Valley, the Arab’s image has evolved. He was once depicted riding on horseback while carrying a spear, later changed to the surly caricature plastered on the school gym’s wall.

 

Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/calif-arab-sparks-debate-over-ethnic-mascots/2013/12/02/266539d0-5b89-11e3-801f-1f90bf692c9b_story.html