Interview with Mouhanad Khorchide: ”God Is Not A Dictator”

The Koran has thus far been subjected to erroneous interpretation, says Mouhanad Khorchide, professor of Islamic Religious Education at the University of Munster. Khorchide is calling for an emancipation of the faith. Interview by Arnfrid Schenk and Martin Spiewak

Professor Khorchide, what was your reaction to the recent controversial Mohammed film on YouTube?

Mouhanad Khorchide: I thought it was tedious and tasteless. I didn’t recognise the Prophet Mohammed as he was portrayed in the film so I didn’t feel it was directed at me as a Muslim.

Many Muslims find it difficult to adopt this attitude, what is your advice to them?

Khorchide: Ignore it, don’t allow yourselves to be provoked. The film is a trap laid specifically to provoke, and Muslims repeatedly fall into this trap.

Why do Muslims react in this way to insults aimed at the Prophet? After all, unlike Jesus he doesn’t have divine status.

Khorchide: The problem lies elsewhere. On such occasions, Muslims vent their pent-up anger. The video itself isn’t the cause of the agitation, just the trigger. The Islamic collective memory is still etched by crusades, the colonial era and what is perceived as an unjust Middle East policy, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You have just written a new book in which you describe the Koran as a love letter from God to humanity. How did you arrive at this interpretation? The Koran would normally be described as a powerful book – and in the West also as a dangerous one.

Khorchide: The question is: which image of God are we talking about? Many Muslims assume that their God wants to be glorified, that he despatches orders and makes sure these orders are obeyed. Those who obey are rewarded, and those who don’t are punished. But this is a perception of God similar to that of a tribal leader who cannot be challenged. This is why many Muslims view the Koran as a rulebook.

And you don’t?

Khorchide: I have a different reading of the Koran. God is not an archaic tribal leader, he’s not a dictator. Of the book’s 114 suras, why do 113 of them begin with the phrase “In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful”? There has to be a reason for this. The Koranic God presents himself as a loving God. That’s why the relationship between God and man is a bond of love similar to the one between a mother and child. I would like Muslims to emancipate themselves from the image of an archaic God that’s being connoted in many mosques, in religious education or during courses of theological instruction.

Are you saying that for centuries, Islamic theology has provided a flawed instruction manual for the Koran?

Khorchide: Contemporary Islamic theology is at least unilateral. It is based on a master-servant relationship. Reformers who interpret the Koran differently, who say Islam is more than just a religion of rules and regulations, have so far not succeeded in asserting themselves.

Why not?

Khorchide: For political reasons, partly. Many rulers of Islamic kingdoms describe themselves as “shadows of God on earth”. This sends out an unequivocal message: anyone contradicting the ruler is also contradicting God. In order to make sure that the populace remains compliant, they construct the image of a God for whom obedience is paramount. To this very day, this plays an important role in a dictatorial state such as Saudi Arabia, where any opposition is not only held up as a secular opposition, but also as a movement against God.

The concept of God’s mercy also existed in Christianity, but a different interpretation of the Bible was nevertheless accepted. Why has this not happened within Islam?

Khorchide: Many theologians have forged alliances with those in power, such as the Salafist scholars in Saudi Arabia, for example. After all, they also benefit from an Islam that serves as a regulatory legal framework. People defer to them when they have questions about what they should and should not do. Repressive structures intermingle as a result. Christianity has succeeded in overcoming this incapacitation of the faithful. That’s not quite been the case in Islam.

Do you see yourself as a source of enlightenment?

Khorchide: I wouldn’t put it like that. If you take terms out of their European context, people suspect that you’re trying to impose something alien upon Islam. Change can only come from within. We don’t need an enlightenment of the kind we know from European history, but perhaps a reform that focuses on the maturity and reason of humankind. The Koran does exactly this, incidentally.

There is much talk of hell in the Koran. How does this fit in with the concept of mercy?

Khorchide: Hell is nothing other than the confrontation with one’s own transgressions. It’s not a punishment that comes from without. As a famous mystic once said: “I’d like to extinguish the hellfire and set paradise alight, so that people don’t act out of fear of hell or hope for paradise.” We humans should strive for something higher, the closeness and companionship of God. However, traditional theology has taken a less metaphorical view of the images of paradise and hell, and instead literally described them as material spaces with material pleasures and punishments. But if you’re only doing something good because you fear punishment or hope for reward, then that’s not enough.

But this literal interpretation appears to be widespread, particularly among young Muslims in Germany.

Khorchide: Not just in Germany, and not just among youngsters, unfortunately. This is a highly simplified faith that presents God as nothing more than a bookkeeper or a judge, who calculates how often I’ve prayed. I can understand those who want to keep a kind of religious to-do list. But it’s a pity. This kind of approach doesn’t allow faith to move on from a highly elementary stage. It’s more difficult to say: I would like to do something good for the sake of goodness; or I strive for internal perfection that finds its expression in good character traits and actions.

But this obedient take on Islam, as preached by radical Salafists, really seems to resonate with young people in Germany right now. Why?

Khorchide: These youngsters feel rootless, sidelined. They are searching for an identity and, above all, for something that will distinguish them. Many young people aren’t hearing a “you belong”, but rather a “we Germans – you Muslims”. The Salafists provide them with the validation they seek. An identity that flies in the face of mainstream society. They pick out elements of Islam that accentuate the differences, such as a beard or clothing that’s exactly the same length as the Prophet’s. But this is an external identity without a core.

You train Islamic religious teachers. How do German Muslims react to your views?

Khorchide: The young ones say: that all sounds very nice, why did no one tell us about this before? I can identify more with this merciful God, they say. And even though there are also some reservations, my views have also met with appreciation from associations perceived as conservative – although they are actually quite heterogeneous. I try to provide theological explanations for everything, using Islam as my basis. I sustain my arguments with the Koran. The 220 pages of my book contain references to 400 passages of the Koran in order to show that this is not just my personal view.

And what about reactions to your work in the Arab world, is there some understanding there too?

Khorchide: In the summer, I went to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most important Sunni authority in Islam. After my lecture, the older scholars were reticent and didn’t say anything. But the undergraduates and doctorate students came up to me and asked if they could study in Munster or write their doctorates there. The young ones are looking for something new.

Will your book also be translated into Arabic?

Khorchide: Yes, but I’ll tailor it slightly to the Arab mentality.

Take the sting out of it a little?

Khorchide: I suppose you could put it like that. But the main message will be the same: that God is a God of mercy, that Islam is a religion of mercy. Any other interpretation of Islam is not Islam.

Why is it that most Muslims have a completely different understanding of Islam? They’re reading the same Koran, after all.

Khorchide: The Koran was written in the classical Arabic of the seventh century. It’s therefore very difficult for non-Arabs to understand. When Arabs read it, they perhaps understand 40 per cent as far as the language is concerned. But even greater difficulties arise in the theological reading of the verses. Most Muslims don’t concern themselves with the true essence of the Koran. That’s why we Muslims often base our faith on what we are told. We are harking back to statements made by theologians in the ninth and tenth centuries.

In your book you write that when viewed as a legal system, Sharia is a contradiction of Islam. Why?

Khorchide: For the very reason that it reduces Islam to a legal system. Some Muslims even go as far as to say that if you’re not in favour of physical punishment, then you’re not a Muslim. All the discussion surrounding Sharia means that it’s only about whether or not you follow rules.

Your parents are Palestinian, but you went to school in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia and studied in Austria; what impact has this had on your religious socialisation?

Khorchide: Saudi scholars claim that their nation is pure, true Islam’s only home. But this Salafist mindset has reduced the faith to nothing more than a façade. A man is a sinner if he shaves off his beard; a woman is a sinner if she doesn’t wear a headscarf. In mosques, I saw how only those with the longest beards were allowed to serve as imams and lead the prayers. What’s the point of that? As a Palestinian in Saudi Arabia, I wasn’t allowed to study or get any medical insurance, but in Austria, a non-Islamic nation, none of this was a problem. I started asking questions, I wanted to get to the core of this religion.

You also criticise those who are described as liberal Muslims. Why? Are you not singing from the same song sheet?

Khorchide: They also reduce Islam in a similar way to the fundamentalists. The fundamentalists hollow it out, by focussing on the façade, on outward features. The liberals provide a radical response by dispensing with almost all outward features and rituals and limiting it to the shahada, the declaration of belief. That’s not enough. The shahada must find its expression in life.

So what needs to happen for your understanding of Islam is to find wider acceptance?

Khorchide: There must be a discourse, and a discourse needs institutions, it must be taught, students must perpetuate its message. I think Islamic theology here in Germany represents a good opportunity because we have much greater freedom of movement. But it will take one or two generations.

Arnfrid Schenk und Martin Spiewak

© DIE ZEIT 2012

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan

Mouhanad Khorchide has been Professor of Islamic Religious Education at the University of Munster since July 2010. His new book Islam ist Barmherzigkeit – Grundzüge einer modernen Religion (Islam is Mercy – Essential Traits of a Modern Religion) was published by Herder in October.

ISPU report: A First Amendment Analysis of Anti-Sharia Initiatives

Executive Summary

Ten years after September 11, 2001, the American Muslim community continues to be surrounded by a fear created and promoted mostly by a small group of anti-Muslim organizations and individuals. Collectively, these groups have spread their message in twenty-three states through books, reports, websites, and blogs. Other anti-Islam grassroots organizations have utilized this propaganda to “educate” their constituency. The Center for American Progress defines Islamophobia as an “exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civic life.” This Islamophobia movement’s ability to influence politicians’ talking has made mainstream that which was once considered marginal, extremist rhetoric.

The impact of the Islamophobia campaign upon the American public’s perception of Islam and Muslims has been very negative. Approximately half of all Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam. To date, dozens of bills have been introduced in more than half of the states to ban Sharia and/or international law. Some of these bills are overly broad, and some in essence would outlaw any organization that adhered to any Islamic jurisprudential school. The Muslim community pushed back, specifically because the regulations on common activities such as how to wash before prayer or how much money to give to the poor emanate from these same schools of thought and would cause great restrictions on their ability to practice their faith.

This report describes the broader climate of anti-Muslim sentiment, as promoted by anti-Islam grassroots organizations, and examines the various manifestations of this hate in light of the First Amendment. More specifically, this report analyzes the anti-Sharia bills and ballot measures proposed by numerous states and determines the extent to which they comply with free exercise and establishment principles and jurisprudence.

Key Findings

 

The American legal system has built-in safeguards

The crucial feature of any kind of arbitration is that an arbitrator, whether religious or not, has no ability to enforce the arbitral decision; only state or federal courts have that power. Moreover, there is an array of carefully crafted safeguards in place to protect individuals.  For example, arbitral decisions are annulled when there is evidence that the arbitrator completely disregarded the law or when the arbitrator refused to consider material evidence. Courts also review the arbitral decision to ensure that arbitrators are neutral, that the resulting arbitral decisions are neither grossly unfair nor undermine public policy, and that the parties agreed to take part in the arbitration of their own free will.

The anti-Sharia laws violate constitutional principles

The First Amendment to the American Constitution includes two Religion Clauses, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Together, these Clauses provide guidelines for the relationship between the government and religion.

For one, the government may not officially choose among religions, or between religion and non-religion, in creating law. A significant purpose of the Religion Clauses is to protect religious groups from the overreaching of the state. They protect minority religions from state interference, which could arise where a religious (or secular) majority uses the democratic process to punish a minority, and they protect all religions, popular or unpopular, from state encroachment into purely religious matters.  Moreover, the government may not generally prevent a person from believing and advocating a religious message; nor may the government prevent behavior simply because it is religious in nature.

Oklahoma’s “Save Our State Amendment,” the only anti-Sharia initiative to be challenged in court thus far, is a good example of how these laws violate the above-mentioned constitutional principles.  The legislative history and the actual text of the Amendment make clear that its purpose is to treat Muslims differently than members of other faiths—it seeks to outlaw use of Sharia principles but does not mention principles of any other faith. It also places numerous burdens on Muslims’ religious exercise.  For example, if the Amendment were to become law, it would be impossible to enforce a will that is based on Sharia principles or to engage in Sharia-based arbitration.  This unequal treatment of Muslims and burdens on their free exercise contradict core Religion Clause principles.

Broader Implications

When religious freedom is limited for one group, it necessarily affects religious freedom for all groups. Although anti-Sharia measures name Sharia specifically, if allowed to stand, they can limit the freedoms of Christians, Jews, and other faith groups in the United States who turn to religious arbitration as the preferred method of dispute resolution.

Recommendations

1.      Clarify the meaning of Sharia: The American Muslim community should engage the broader public on Sharia’s meaning and role. It should articulate what this word means generally and what it means to them specifically—that is, the articulation of the concept should not be merely theoretical but explained in concrete terms.

2.      Differentiate Sharia from laws in Muslim-majority countries: Even more to the point, the American Muslim community should differentiate the ways Sharia is applied in differing cultural contexts. It is important to emphasize that the way it is applied in some Muslim-majority countries is very different than what is possible, or even preferable, in the American context. How does the American legal and social framework shape the application of Sharia law?

3.      Disseminate information on religious arbitration and the First Amendment: Legal think tanks should organize lay-accessible information sessions on the First Amendment and religious arbitration. Many Americans are unaware that religious law is incorporated into the American legal system. How does this work in the case of Sharia? In the case of other religious laws? Americans need answers to these questions.

Kansas governor signs law barring use of Islamic or other foreign codes for legal decisions

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has signed a law aimed at keeping the state’s courts or government agencies from basing decisions on Islamic or other foreign legal codes, and a national Muslim group’s spokesman said Friday that a court challenge is likely.

The new law, taking effect July 1, doesn’t specifically mention Shariah law, which broadly refers to codes within the Islamic legal system. Instead, it says courts, administrative agencies or state tribunals can’t base rulings on any foreign law or legal system that would not grant the parties the same rights guaranteed by state and U.S. constitutions.

“This bill should provide protection for Kansas citizens from the application of foreign laws,” said Stephen Gele, spokesman for the American Public Policy Alliance, a Michigan group promoting model legislation similar to the new Kansas law. “The bill does not read, in any way, to be discriminatory against any religion.”

But supporters have worried specifically about Shariah law being applied in Kansas court cases, and the alliance says on its website that it wants to protect Americans’ freedoms from “infiltration” by foreign laws and legal doctrines, “especially Islamic Shariah Law.”

Legislature approves bill to bar use of Islamic law, other foreign codes, in Kansas courts

TOPEKA, Kan. — A bill designed to prevent Kansas courts or government agencies from making decisions based on Islamic or other foreign legal codes has cleared the state Legislature after a contentious debate about whether the measure upholds American values or appeals to prejudice against Muslims.

The Senate approved the bill Friday on a 33-3 vote. The House had approved it, 120-0, earlier in the week. The measure goes next to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who hasn’t said whether he’ll sign or veto the measure.

The measure doesn’t specifically mention Shariah law, which broadly refers to codes within the Islamic legal system. Instead, it says that courts, administrative agencies or state tribunals can’t base rulings on any foreign law or legal system that would not grant the parties the same rights guaranteed by state and U.S. constitutions.

But several supporters specifically cited the potential use of Shariah law in Kansas as their concern. Though there are no known cases in which a Kansas judge has based a ruling on Islamic law, supporters of the bill cited a pending case in Sedgwick County in which a man seeking to divorce his wife has asked for property to be divided under a marriage contract in line with Shariah law.

Shari’a Must Not Break Dutch Law

The government will crack down on attempts to practice aspects of sharia (Islamic) law in the Netherlands which involve compulsion, pressure and a misuse of power, justice minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin told parliament on Tuesday. The minister said that some differences may be settled in a manner which does not conflict with public order, so long as they were entered into voluntarily. Nonetheless the cabinet’s job, according to Ballin, is to prevent the establishment of a parallel system in which “people take the law into their own hands or maintain their own legal system which operates outside the framework of our own legal system”.

Muslim MP calls for religious equality law

A minister has called for the Government to introduce a new religious discrimination law which would require public bodies to have a legal duty to promote equality between faiths, to reassure Britain’s Muslims that they are not second-class citizens. Sadiq Khan, a government whip, wants a forthcoming Single Equality Bill aimed at stamping out discrimination on grounds of sex, race, gender and disability to include religion. He also calls for “Islamophobia in the workplace” to be tackled. Under his proposal, public bodies would have to be proactive in tackling religious discrimination. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, chaired by Trevor Phillips, would issue guidance and codes of practice. “This would not apply exclusively to British Muslims, but it would make a significant difference to the experience of members of this community who, because of socio-economic status, are particularly reliant on public services,” Mr Khan says. The Tooting MP, one of four Muslim Labour MPs, makes his controversial call in a Fabian Society pamphlet, Fairness not Favours, published today. He says a proactive approach to prevent religious discrimination would balance “harder edged” measures such as “clampdowns” on immigration and security and undercut attempts by Muslim extremists to exploit social disadvantage.

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Terror lawyer bribe probe dropped

Police have dropped a bribery probe into one of the leading UK lawyers who represents terrorism suspects. Mudassar Arani was accused of sending cash to a defendant whom she did not represent in the 21 July London trial. The solicitor, who had represented three of the failed bombers, now jailed, denied pressuring another defendant to change his story. In a statement, the Metropolitan Police said there was insufficient evidence to continue investigating the claim. The force said it had been asked in August 2007 to look into allegations made during the trial of the six men accused of organising and perpetrating the botched London suicide bombings of 21 July 2005. “The Specialist Crime Directorate has scoped the allegations and reviewed the material that came out of the trial,” said the statement. “As a result the Metropolitan Police Service has decided that there is insufficient evidence to launch a criminal investigation and therefore will be taking no further action in connection with this matter.”

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Dutch minister wants to link crime and ethnicity

Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst has proposed that police and judicial authorities be allowed to register the ethnic background of criminals. At the moment, only the nationality or birthplace of suspects are registered in the Netherlands. Ter Horst said that she believes that this would not create or propagate stigmas of certain ethnic groups, but would point to important and realistic trends. “If you want to solve a problem you have to know who is causing it. And if in Amsterdam it’s mostly Moroccans, then you have to give it a name. Otherwise you lose information. Moreover, you can also get the Moroccan community involved” said ter Horst. The Social and Cultural Planning Office is currently studying the need for ethnic backgrounds in registrations; in December, it will report to the Integration Minister on the idea.

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Suspected 9/11 Terrorist Challenges Canadian Detention

A suspected Syrian terrorist who has spent seven years in custody in Canada is claiming that his indefinite detention without charge or trial amounts to cruelty. Hassan Almrei has argued in Canadian Federal court that this lengthy incarceration violates his constitutional rights. Almrei has arrested after September 11, 2001 and is one of five Muslim foreigners held under a national security certificate, which allows the Canadian government to detain suspects indefinitely, with secret evidence, as a threat to public safety.

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U.K. Prosecutors to Retry 7 Men for Airline Bomb Plot (Update2)

U.K. prosecutors will retry seven British Muslims who they claim conspired to blow up several passenger planes bound for North America from London after a jury days ago failed to reach a verdict.

The men will be retried for conspiring to kill passengers by detonating homemade liquid-based bombs on trans-Atlantic flights, Ken Macdonald, the U.K.’s head prosecutor said today in an e- mailed statement. The arrests in 2006 caused airport chaos with about 2,400 flights canceled in London alone. The investigation led to airport restrictions on more than small amounts of fluids in hand luggage that remain in effect around the world. The London jury on Sept. 8, after a five-month trial, was unable to decide whether the men were guilty of plotting to blow up aircraft. The panel convicted Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain on charges of conspiracy to murder not specifically related to the plot to bomb jets bound for the U.S. and Canada. The three men convicted, along with Ibrahim Savant, Arafat Waheed Khan, Waheed Zaman and Umar Islam, will again face charges of trying to bomb flights. Savant, Khan, Zaman and Islam will also be retried on the same general conspiracy to the murder charges of which Ali, Sarwar and Hussain were found guilty. The panel cleared an eighth defendant in the case of all charges. Defense lawyers at Tuckers and Arani & Co, who have been acting on the case, didn’t return messages seeking comment. James Lumley reports.

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