The chimaera of a ‘liberal’ Islam: the fate of the new mosque in Berlin

The opening of a self-styled ‘liberal’ mosque in Berlin – marked by the mixing of genders, the absence of headscarves, and the openness to pluralistic understandings of Islam – by lawyer and activist Seyran Ateş has sparked a media frenzy both in Germany and abroad.

Liberal and conservative media outlets have celebrated the mosque. Liberals see it as much-needed proof that Islam is capable of ‘reform’ and that Islamophobic discourse is not only morally objectionable but also factually mistaken. Conservatives welcome the establishment of the mosque as heralding an Islamicality that is thoroughly ‘integrated’ and ‘assimilated’ to the German context.

Muted reaction at home

The reaction of Islamic institutions from abroad – most notably from Turkey and Egypt – has been similarly loud, although fiercely critical: religious authorities in Ankara and Cairo have castigated the new mosque as a doctrinal abomination.

Yet while many media outlets were quick to pick up on the pugnacious hostility coming from state-controlled Muslim institutions in the Middle East, the arguably more important aspect of the Muslim response to the mosque went almost completely unscrutinised: hardly anyone bothered to take into account the perspective of German Muslims themselves. And in contrast to journalists across the world and state clerics in the Middle East, German Muslims have so far been comparatively unfazed by the mosque.

Isolated high-level endorsements

To be sure, a number of Muslim public figures have given their largely favourable opinions. Sawsan Chebli, high-ranking Social Democratic member of the government of the state of Berlin, took to Twitter to greet the mosque’s establishment. (She was then heckled by both an Islamophobe on the one hand and an infamous former journalist-turned-Salafi-activist deeming the mosque to be a desecration of Islam on the other hand).(( https://twitter.com/SawsanChebli/status/878268593359642625 ))

Beyond these isolated exchanges, however, responses of high-level Muslim actors have been scarce. Most notably, the ‘conservative’ Islamic foundations – i.e. the main targets of the mosque – have kept an icy silence.

Even the chairman of the ZMD association, Aiman Mazyek, the most vocal representative of the established foundations, contented himself with asserting that those who seek to distinguish a ‘liberal’ from a ‘conservative’ Islam unduly politicise the religion. When asked how he felt about Ateş’ mosque, he refused to comment, simply stating: “she should do whatever she wants”.(( http://vorab.bams.de/der-vorsitzende-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-aiman-mazyek-lehnt-eine-unterteilung-des-islam-in-liberal-oder-konservativ-ab/ ))

Lack of popular engagement

Yet the true disappointment for Ateş must be the extremely limited response of ordinary Muslim believers to her mosque. At the first Friday prayers, the congregation was far outnumbered by journalists; and one week later barely any faithful bothered to show up.

According to Ateş herself, this lack of attendees is due to the fact that liberal Muslims must be afraid of recriminations if they display their progressive ideas about religion openly.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article165832629/Die-meisten-liberalen-Muslime-haben-Angst.html )) Of course this possibility cannot be discounted and might very well be true in some cases.

Yet the much larger problem that appears to beset the new mosque is its lack of religious credibility. Most notably, Ateş herself has given very little indication in the past of any will to thoughtfully engage with Islam. Instead, she has chosen the populist route, with for instance her past polemics against headscarf and religious conservatism antagonising virtually all active Muslim politicians from among Greens, Social Democrats, and Christian Democrats.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/reaktion-auf-kommentar-gruene-muslime-greifen-islamkritikerin-seyran-ates-an/1603712.html ))

What is more, although Ateş has stated that she wishes to become an Imam, so far she does not hold any formal qualification to lead prayer. The fact that she also decided to publish a self-referential book on the day of the mosque’s opening – the work is titled Selam Mrs. Imam: How I Founded a Liberal Mosque in Berlin – adds to the perception that the project is too much about her rather than about a genuine attempt at religious reflection.

“Liberal Islam is a chimaera”

In a piece for Qantara.de, journalist Loay Modhoon takes up many of these issues, arguing that “liberal Islam is a chimaera”.(( https://en.qantara.de/content/berlins-new-mosque-liberal-islam-is-a-chimaera )) According to Modhoon, “fervent enthusiasm in the media and political realm cannot […] gloss over two fundamental problems”:

Firstly: so-called “liberal Islam” consists of individuals, public personalities; it has no structure to speak of. In Germany there are now a number of civil society initiatives by liberal Muslims, but their level of organisation is still low, as is their ability to connect with the conservative Muslim mainstream.

Secondly: so far, those who represent liberal Islam are still very vague as far as content is concerned. They usually define themselves by their rejection of conservative Islam. And that’s just too little substance to have a big impact.

Not the first mosque of its kind

Modhoon goes on to note that the Berlin mosque is not the first of its kind, and criticises the vacuity of the supposedly ‘liberal’ Islamic project:

No question about it: the opening of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque is a courageous and remarkable step. But outside Germany liberal mosques like these are not a new phenomenon. Similar mosque projects have already existed for a long time in Britain and the United States.

In addition, the heterogeneous supporters of liberal Islam should have explained – well before the mosque opened – on what Islamic principles their liberal understanding of the religion is based. They should, for example, have held a pertinent debate on the role of Sharia in a secular constitutional state. This would certainly have been helpful in terms of drawing a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable aspects of Sharia.

In other words, just as Turkey’s state authority for religious affairs, Diyanet, cites the “tenets of the Islamic faith” as its reference point, the liberal Muslims should also have justified their efforts with reference to genuine Islamic sources.

State-enforced ‘liberalism’ lacks credibility

In some sense, then, Ateş’ mosque suffers from a set of fairly predictable problems. At the same time, the political environment in which a liberal Islam is being articulated is particularly challenging:

Neither the meagre response to the Muslim peace and anti-terrorism demonstration in Cologne nor the hostile reactions to the opening of the mosque in Berlin can be taken as evidence that Islam is incapable of reform. We are, after all, seeing efforts by Muslim activists all around the world who are striving for reform. The battle over who has the prerogative of interpreting and defining “Islam” is being fought almost everywhere, with a vengeance.

In any case, politicians would be well advised not to privilege particular versions of Islam – neither liberal nor conservative. An Islam protected or even controlled by the state would have no credibility and would be unworthy of a pluralist democracy.

For the ongoing development of Islam in Germany it would therefore be better, in the spirit of our liberal-democratic constitution, to respect the real-life plurality of Muslims and their different understandings of what Islam is – and continue to promote its institutional naturalisation.

‘Freiburg Declaration’ by ‘secular Muslims’ starkly reveals fault-lines among German Muslim associations

A ‘secular’ and ‘European’ Islam

“We are dreaming of an Islamic reform”: this is the opening phrase of the ‘Freiburg Declaration’, a manifesto launched by a group of self-declared ‘secular Muslims’ from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.(( http://saekulare-muslime.org/freiburger-deklaration/ )) The leading initiator of the Declaration is Abdel-Hakim Ourghi,  Head of the Islamic Theology department at Freiburg University of Education.

Over the course of the Declaration’s paragraphs, writers and signatories develop their thoughts on an “enlightened” and “European” Islam that cherishes religious freedom as well as human diversity in all its forms. Their stated ideal is “a Muslim community that conceives of religious faith as a personal affair between God and the individual and that is not afraid of questioning its own religion critically” in view of evolving circumstances and realities.((http://saekulare-muslime.org/freiburger-deklaration/ ))

Subsequently, the text lays out a charter of “values” that include rejection of all forms of discrimination, equality of men and women, and an endorsement of “religious-ideological neutrality” in public service, which, according to the Declaration, necessitates that Muslim women do not wear a headscarf when fulfilling public functions. ((http://saekulare-muslime.org/freiburger-deklaration/ ))

The text closes with a series of “goals” the signatories seek to reach, including a “historical-critical analysis” of the Quran, the “propagation of liberal-Islamic ideas and concepts”, the schooling of female imams, and the extension of “humanistically-oriented Islamic religious education” in public schools. The signatories also seek a reconfiguration of the discussion panels bringing together state and Muslim representatives so that “members of a reformed liberal Islam” are represented next to “members of conservative federations”. ((http://saekulare-muslime.org/freiburger-deklaration/ ))

Liberals vs. conservatives

The last point – the composition of state-convened panels and councils – touches on a particularly raw nerve. Many such fora exist at local, regional, and national level in Germany. Their remit includes debate on a range of issues, including the official recognition of Muslim associations (and the consequent conferral of legal, fiscal, and political privileges), as well as the introduction of Islamic religious education at public schools. The creation of these councils has picked up pace since the founding of the German Islam Conference (DIK) in 2006.

While the signatories of the Freiburg Declaration evidently estimate that “a reformed liberal Islam” has been underrepresented in these contexts, other observers have come to the opposite conclusion, arguing that the state staffed especially the DIK with handpicked – and consequently compliant – ‘liberal’ or ostentatiously ‘critical’ Muslim representatives. ((http://www.islamiq.de/2016/09/18/dik-staatliche-steuerung-durch-kooperation/ )) The Freiburg intervention is thus only the latest salvo in a protracted political battle over who can claim to speak for German Muslims.

Unsurprisingly, the Turkish DITIB federation and the other large established associations have maintained an icy silence after the Declaration’s publication, which they must view as another assault on their legitimacy. By contrast, the text was approvingly reprinted on the website of the Kurdish Community in Germany (KGD), whose chairman Ali Ertan Toprak is one of the main signatories. ((https://kurdische-gemeinde.de/freiburger-deklaration-wir-traeumen-von-einer-reform-des-islam/ ))

That a Kurdish representative should take such a position against the ‘Islamic establishment’ is hardly surprising after the altercations of the past weeks and months, in which DITIB was often castigated for being a pawn in the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and complicit in the post-coup crackdown of the Turkish President. ((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/08/26/amidst-political-controversy-german-ditib-association-vows-greater-emancipation-turkish-state/ )) The politics of religious organisation and institutionalisation in Germany are thus not just a purely domestic political game; rather, they also reflect the geopolitical turn of events elsewhere, especially in Turkey.

Fault-lines among ‘liberals’

However, Ourghi’s initiative also received harsh criticism from the fellow ‘liberal Muslims’ he claims to represent. The Liberal-Islamic Union (LIB) swiftly issued a statement clarifying that it did not support the Freiburg Declaration. In its communiqué, the LIB’s board accuses Ourghi explicitly and personally of “having become the accomplice of racist and Islamophobic discourses”. “A ‘liberal Islam’ stops being liberal where it unreflectingly falls into line with marginalising discourses of mainstream society”, or so the LIB asserted. ((http://lib-ev.jimdo.com/ ))

Indeed, Ourghi has a history of having fall-outs with other liberals: a few years ago, he accused Mouhanad Khorchide, Chair of Islamic Theology at Münster, of having plagiarised one of his books. However, while Ourghi’s claims were published in the large Austrian Der Standard newspaper, he was subsequently unable to substantiate his accusations with evidence. Somewhat paradoxically, Ourghi’s intervention against Khorchide was celebrated by the ‘conservative associations’ that Ourghi regularly criticises: given the fact that these federations have their own axe to grind with Khorchide – whose theses they regard as too freewheeling – they gladly used Ourghi’s attack as ammunition in their own fight with the Münster theologian. ((http://www.zeit.de/studium/hochschule/2014-01/khorchide-muenster-islamische-theologie-kritik ))

More recently, Ourghi has increasingly positioned himself publicly as a ‘critic of Islam’. When controversial writer Hamed Abdel-Samad published his latest popular science book on the life of Prophet Muhammad, Ourghi was one of the very few voices defending Abdel-Samad’s stark theses, which were widely disparaged in the scientific community as overly crude and even Islamophobic. ((http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2015-12/hamed-abdel-samad-islamkritik-buch ))

The publication of the Freiburg Declaration is thus a further episode in the long-standing struggle for power and public recognition between various Muslim factions in Germany. In these struggles, theological differences, personal enmities, and jockeying for political influence intermingle freely. What arguably none of the various actors in this game foster is the much-needed further development of political dialogue and institutional structures that would benefit German Muslims. It almost appears that the further development of such frameworks – including the extension of religious education, or the progressive realisation of social, fiscal, and other privileges that the German constitution grants to all religious communities – need to be obtained not because of but in spite of the public interventions of those who claim to represent German Muslims.

Dispute about Islamic theology

March 6, 2014

 

The public dispute about Islamic theology at German Universities and the Islamic theologist Professor Mouhanad Khorchide at the University of Münster has attracted the attention of the wider public. Since 2010, Islamic theology has been established at different German Universities in Münster/Osnabrück in Frankfurt/Gießen und Erlangen/Nürnberg.

Two conflicts have been arousing the issue of Islamic theology. First, the dispute between the Center for Islamic theology at the University of Münster and Islamic associations began in 2011, when the Center proposed different Islam experts for its science council and advisory board. Many of these candidates were dismissed by the Islamic associations. While some candidates of the Islamic associations were rejected, as the Federal Ministry of Interior assessed them inappropriate. In practice, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution assessed one of the candidates proposed by the Islamic Community – Milli Görüs as extremist.

The second conflict aroused about the person Mouhanad Khorchide. Having approved his engagement, Islamic associations rejected Khorchide´s employment at the Center, criticizing him for his remarks in favor of a liberal Islam. According to Engin Karahan, a representative of the Islam council, there is no trust left between Professor Khorchide and the Islamic associations. Thus, it would not be legitimate to continue his engagement at the University. It would be senseless for the University of Münster to offer Islamic theology without the cooperation with Islamic associations.

The coordination council of Muslims assessed the work of Khorchide as “not scientific enough”. Other theologists such as Professor Bernhard Uhde from the University of Freiburg called criticized the assessment of the coordination council of Muslims as dilettantish and an evidence for the power clash between Turkish associations and other Muslims.

Serda Günes, an Islam scientist from the University of Frankfurt believes the schools of Islamic theology processing a period of maturing. Islamic associations would not be able to respond to normative questions as solid and confident as churches would do. Therefore, they would try to compensate this lack with theological views, reacting irritated when being challenged by antagonizing positions.

 

Spiegel Online: http://www.spiegel.de/unispiegel/studium/islamische-theologie-streit-in-muenster-um-mouhanad-khorchide-a-956587.html#

 

Dispute about Islamic theology

March 6, 2014

 

The public dispute about Islamic theology at German Universities and the Islamic theologist Professor Mouhanad Khorchide at the University of Münster has attracted the attention of the wider public. Since 2010, Islamic theology has been established at different German Universities in Münster/Osnabrück in Frankfurt/Gießen und Erlangen/Nürnberg.

Two conflicts have been arousing the issue of Islamic theology. First, the dispute between the Center for Islamic theology at the University of Münster and Islamic associations began in 2011, when the Center proposed different Islam experts for its science council and advisory board. Many of these candidates were dismissed by the Islamic associations. While some candidates of the Islamic associations were rejected, as the Federal Ministry of Interior assessed them inappropriate. In practice, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution assessed one of the candidates proposed by the Islamic Community – Milli Görüs as extremist.

The second conflict aroused about the person Mouhanad Khorchide. Having approved his engagement, Islamic associations rejected Khorchide´s employment at the Center, criticizing him for his remarks in favor of a liberal Islam. According to Engin Karahan, a representative of the Islam council, there is no trust left between Professor Khorchide and the Islamic associations. Thus, it would not be legitimate to continue his engagement at the University. It would be senseless for the University of Münster to offer Islamic theology without the cooperation with Islamic associations.

The coordination council of Muslims assessed the work of Khorchide as “not scientific enough”. Other theologists such as Professor Bernhard Uhde from the University of Freiburg called criticized the assessment of the coordination council of Muslims as dilettantish and an evidence for the power clash between Turkish associations and other Muslims.

Serda Günes, an Islam scientist from the University of Frankfurt believes the schools of Islamic theology processing a period of maturing. Islamic associations would not be able to respond to normative questions as solid and confident as churches would do. Therefore, they would try to compensate this lack with theological views, reacting irritated when being challenged by antagonizing positions.

 

Spiegel Online: http://www.spiegel.de/unispiegel/studium/islamische-theologie-streit-in-muenster-um-mouhanad-khorchide-a-956587.html#

 

Rediscovery of the first truly European Muslim Muhammad Asad

Murad Hofmann, a German Muslim scholar and former ambassador, fosters the rediscovery of Muhammad Asad, one of the first European Muslim thinkers. Muhammad Asad, born 1900 in Austria as Jewish Leopold Weiss, converted to Islam during his trips to the Arabian Peninsula as a journalist. He soon distanced himself from traditional Islam and sought to reconcile it with human rights and democracy.

Asad provided a new translation of the Qur’an into English, a very modern one (too modern for some), with some notions deliberately left ambiguous, fluctuating and West-compatible. He also demanded of Muslims to question the interpretations of established scholars and rejected the punishment of stoning and beating women. Murad Hofmann has now republished Asad’s Qur’an interpretation in German. He claims that Asad’s reformist Islam is essential for European Islam today and hopes that more people will be open to this view that during Asad’s lifetime.

Liberal Muslims support Danish cartoonist

The Liberal Muslim network LIM (Equality, Integration, Diversity) supports the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and challenges the Norwegian Islamic Council (Islamisk Råd) and the Muslim Student Organization (Muslimsk Studentersamfunn) to join them in a manifestation against religious violence and in support of the freedom of speech.

LIM representatives say conservative Muslims and organizations, such as the Islamic Council and MSO dominates Norwegian media and help create an image of Islam in Norway as traditionalist and lacking respect for democratic values.

Shakil Rehman from LIM is also critical of the Vice President of the Norwegian Parliament, Akhtar Choudhry, for calling the publication of Westergaards cartoons wrong. It’s not wrong, Rehman says, it’s just a manifestation of an opinion. Muslim leaders opposing the publications live in another time and age, he continues, Muhammad opposed portraits of him because he didn’t want his followers to idolize him, but to paint his portrait to depict his humanity is in compliance with his teachings.

Oxford imam Hargey challenges barred Dutch politician Wilders to a debate

A prominent Oxford Muslim has challenged controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders to meet him for a public debate over Islam. Dr. Taj Hargey, Imam of the Summertown Islamic congregation, and leader of the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford, has invited Wilders — barred from Britain in February because of his anti-Muslim views — to meet at a neutral venue, saying his ideas need to be challenged publicly rather than boycotted.

Dr. Hargey has himself courted controversy in the Muslim community. He invited a woman to lead a congregation of men and women for Friday prayers, and offered financial support to a Buckinghamshire school after it refused to allow a female Muslim pupil to wear a full-face veil. Dr. Hargey said he was totally opposed to Wilders’ views on Islam, but insisted that made it all the more important for them to be questioned in a public way. “By banning him, Wilders became a bigger hero to the anti-Muslim brigade”, he said.

Dr. Hargey added: “If he does not accept the invitation, his criticism of Islam has no foundation.” Meanwhile Dr. Hargey received a call from Wilders’s office saying they had received the invitation for a public discourse but that the MP was currently travelling and would not be able to respond until next week.

Liberal Oxford imam counters the “Muslim McCarthyists”

Dr. Taj Hargey, “a clean-shaven imam from Oxford”, who describes himself as a “thorn in the side of the Muslim hierarchy”, has won a libel claim against a conservative Muslim newspaper. The Muslim News published an article that claimed he belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect which many in his faith believe is heretical.

Dr. Hargey has made many enemies because of his liberal brand of Islam, which he preaches from a small assembly hall. Unlike most British imams who insist on segregation during Friday prayers, Dr. Hargey allows men and women to pray in the same room. He believes Muslims should not feel compelled to grow beards or wear a veil and last November his mosque became the first in Britain to allow female Islamic scholar Amina Wadud to lead Friday prayers.

After winning the lawsuit Dr. Hargey said: “This is a watershed moment in the struggle between liberal Muslims in the UK and the extremist views … [of] a foreign-educated clergy. Progressives like me are described as heretics in order to ruin our credibility. It’s a form of Muslim McCarthyism that is used to root out anyone who dares question these unenlightened, tribal and foreign forms of Islam.”