Islam in crisis: Observations by German religious scholar Michael Blume

The assumption that ‘Islam’ – usually conceived as a monolithic force – is on an expansionary path is widely shared. Islamists herald the onset of an age of Islamic renewal and dominance; anxious Westerners take to the streets against the ‘Islamisation’ of the occident; and colourful videos highlighting that Islam is set to overtake Christianity as the world’s largest religious group in the coming decades regularly go viral in social networks.

Declining levels of orthopraxy

It is in order to go against this conventional wisdom that German religious scholar Michael Blume has written his latest book Islam in Crisis: A World Religion between Radicalization and Silent Retreat. Blume asserts that Islam is not about to conquer the world but rather that it is in existential trouble.

Blume paints a picture of a religion that is rapidly losing in relevance in the lives of those who are commonly seen as ‘Muslim’. Focusing particularly on figures taken from his native Germany, Blume shows how Muslim communities are marked by a pronounced decline in orthopraxy: young Muslims in Germany pray less than their ancestors, fewer girls wear headscarves, and fewer boys go to the mosque.(( ))

Detachment from the religious tradition

Concomitantly, Muslims are increasingly heterodox in their religious outlook: in 2013, 42 per cent of German Muslim respondents asserted that in their spiritual lives they “draw upon the teachings of different religious traditions”.(( ))

At the same time, Blume sees most Muslims as more and more distant from and disenchanted with the traditions of their own faith. Violent groups such as the ‘Islamic State’ only foment this disenchantment, according to Blume: their despicable acts further alienate many Muslims from the religion of their parents.

In fact, the warriors of the ‘Islamic State’ are engaged in a battle against the progressing secularisation of the Islamic world. In this respect, they are a product of the present age and of the crisis of Islamic thought, rather than an organic outgrowth of the religious tradition.

Intellectual and theological stasis

According to Blume, this civilisational crisis goes back to Sultan Bayezid’s fateful decision to ban the printing press from Ottoman lands after its invention in Europe in the 15th century. This decision, according to Blume, led to societal and intellectual stasis in the Arab heartlands of the Islamic world – a state of affairs that was perpetuated by subsequent authoritarian regimes buttressed by oil rent.(( ))

Ever since the 15th century, the Islamic religious establishment has been unable to develop answers that could be meaningful to all those Muslims who seek to live in the modern age, or so Blume argues. Yet inevitably Muslims do lead modern lives – a fact that fosters their increasing disconnect from petrified religious traditions.

Looking beyond jihadism

The refreshing element of Blume’s discussion resides in its unflinching focus away from the flashy band of religious radicals who, in spite of being small in number, have managed to capture the world’s attention by their jihadist violence. Instead, Blume seeks to shed light on the religious dynamics among the majority of the world’s Muslim population.

Equally important is the related observation that these ‘Muslims’ are not a homogeneous mass. The implicit assumption in popular discourses as well as in official statistics (for instance from the German government) is the fact that being born to parents from a Muslim-majority region makes one ‘Muslim’ – irrespective of actual levels of belief and observance.

A long-standing argument made anew

At the same time, the observation that the rise of political Islam and of present-day jihadism has gone hand in hand with – in fact proceeded via – a weakening of the authority of the Islamic tradition and its institutions is scarcely new.

There are, after all, entire bookshelves filled with studies demonstrating how local Islamic traditions have been remodeled by the rise of authoritarian nation-states,((For a concise overview of this phenomenon across the Muslim world, see Part I of Jocelyne Cesari’s book The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). A particularly insightful study of a single case is provided by Brinkley Messick in The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).)) how traditional modes of Islamic reasoning have ossified in this process,((For a monumental work in that category, see Wael Hallaq’s Shari’a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).)) and how Islamist laymen have stepped in to fill the void.((An excellent introduction is provided by the essays in the collection edited by Ali Rahnema, Pioneers of Islamic Revival (London: Zed Books, 1994).))

Differences between Islamic heartlands and the immigrant context

Nor have the processes of change undergone by Muslim communities across the world been completely uniform everywhere: Muslims lives in Germany are, surely, necessarily different from Muslim lives in Indonesia. One is left to wonder whether Blume at times underestimates the resulting diversity.

After all, detachment from traditional religion seems easier and more likely in immigrant settings, where religious networks are less deep, religious expertise less profound, and where Muslims are permanently forced to come to terms with a plurality of lifestyles and with an often hostile perception of Islamic religiosity.

Put differently, in a context where there are hardly any mosques and few well-educated Imams; where headscarf-wearing women are often seen with suspicion; and where halal meat is difficult to come by, it is not surprising to observe declining levels of orthopraxy.

Reaffirmations of orthopraxy

Yet even in the European or German context, from whence Blume draws most of his hard figures apparently demonstrating the decline of Islamic orthopraxy, we also observe countervailing dynamics.

Well-educated daughters of secularist Turkish parents are choosing to don a headscarf, in a statement of ostentatious orthopraxy serving to reaffirm their Muslim identity. Salafis carry this identitarian reemphasis of (allegedly) traditional behaviour to its extremes. Yet while Salafis use orthopraxy to withdraw from a mainstream society seen as ‘infidel’, the young woman wearing the hijab may have very different reasons.

A recent study observed that urban, well-educated Muslim women covered up more often in order to reconcile their Muslim faith with the demands of being out of their homes and with employment in gender-mixed environments.(( )) Here, ‘modernisation’ – understood as female participation in the labour market – actually reinforced rather than undermined religious orthopraxy.

Modernisation = secularisation?

One is thus left to wonder whether the “silent retreat” and the “radicalisation” observed by Blume are really a convincing (let alone an exhaustive) portrayal of the possibilities of Islamic religiosity in the modern world. For Blume, these are the twin reactions in the face of the secularisation processes undergone by the Islamic world and by Muslim communities.

Yet at the heart of this argument lies the supposition that ‘modernisation’ always goes hand in hand with ‘secularisation’ – a teleological claim that social science has long abandoned for being overly simplistic.

Religious Practices of French Muslims on the Rise

Le Monde, November 5 2012

According to a survey conducted by sociologist Lagrange, the practice of young French Muslims is on the rise.
Muslims between 18 and 35 years old tend to be more observants than the first or second generation of immigrant Muslims
They are also more assertive of their Muslim identity.
Such results are at odds with the dominant trend of decline of religiosity observed among other faith groups in France.
The reasons for such a rise are open to debate.

University of Toronto gets Muslim chaplain who hopes to fight stereotypes

News Agencies – September 28, 2012


The University of Toronto hired its first full-time Muslim chaplain and the man taking up the post hopes to combat stereotypes surrounding the faith. Amjad Tarsin is a 28-year-old of Libyan descent who hails from Ann Arbour, Mich. He began to devote himself to the religion when he was in university, dropping out of law school to get a degree in Muslim chaplaincy.

Tarsin sees himself as a different kind of Muslim chaplain, one who has travelled the world and identifies himself as a movie buff — especially when it comes to Japanese samurai films and the Lord of the Rings series. Tarsin’s goal is to have an open dialogue with students and create a strong Canadian Muslim identity on a campus with close to 5,000 Muslim students. To fill the position, the Muslim Students Association raised $70,000 with an online campaign that began in June. Funding came from around the world, with contributions pouring in from as far away as Denmark.

Petition denounces manipulation of Islam in France

Illume – February 2, 2011

The French magazine, Respect Mag, initiated a rally in Place du Trocadéro, in Paris, to stand up against extremists who kill innocent people in the name of religion. About a 100 people, both Muslims and non-Muslims attended the demonstration. The rally follows the Appeal, “Islam flouted by terrorists” launched by Respect Mag on Jan. 12. The Appeal condemns violence committed ”in the name of Islam” and labels it as “the theft of the Muslim identity”.
The signatories include 70 French-Muslim personalities, as well as their co-religionist counterparts. This is the first initiative of its kind in France.

The Appeal was signed, among others, by representatives of associations, religious leaders, politicians, artists and intellectuals. Many of them attended the rally last Saturday, including the French rapper, Abdel Malik.
So far about 3,000 people have signed the text online. Respect Mag hopes that the Appeal will make people aware of the issue beyond the French borders. ”There are lot signatures from the Maghreb, Senegal, the United States and other European countries now. We are noticing that this Appeal echoes because the issue raised is universal. Today, people want to give life to their Muslim citizenship because people have been devastated by terrorism for so many years.” said Marc Cheb Sun, the chief editor of Respect Mag.

Muslim protests against muslim free school in Oslo

A planned Muslim free school in Oslo meets with protests amongst Muslims. Tina Shagufta Kornmo from LIM (Equality, Integration and Multitude) says a Muslim free school will increase religious as well as ethnic segregation. Others believe a Muslim school will strengthen students’ Muslim identity and self confidence.

Children of Dutch immigrants less religious than their parents

A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Utrecht reveals that children of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants to the Netherlands practice their religion less rigorously than their parents. The overwhelming majority still see themselves as Muslim. The results stem from a survey of 2000 members of the Turkish-Dutch and Moroccan-Dutch communities and published in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, measuring how “vibrant” religious feelings and practices were between the two generations. The younger generation scored lower on both counts.

Other results from the report include the observation that highly-educated Turks and Moroccans describing themselves as Muslims practice their faith more than the lower-educated, which is exactly the opposite among the first generation. Finally, the research suggests that the assimilation of immigrant groups in the Netherlands will take “several generations.”

Canadian Irshad Manji comments on Fort Hood

In this article Irshad Manji points to how Americans are posing questions about the Fort Hood shootings, demonstrating that they are far from rushing to judgment. If an alleged criminal merely happens to be a Muslim, then religion may well be immaterial. But if his crime is committed in the name of Islam, then religion serves to motivate. In that case, the suspect’s Muslim identity absolutely matters. Words, gestures and images should be analyzed – fully, openly and honestly, says Manji. She compares this instance to the arrests of the Toronto 18 on terrorism charges in 2006, and how police refused to use to use the words “Muslim” in their press releases, even though the group can coined their organization, “Operation Badr.” She claims that while journalists must not reduce the story to Islam, they should not to erase Islam altogether. Understanding, she concludes, is served by analyzing, not sanitizing.

Article analyzes coverage of Fort Hood killings

Reporting tactics may either deliberately overstate or understate the Muslim identity of the man who opened fire at Fort Hood on November 5. This article compares American and Arabic coverage of the incident, stating that American coverage identifies him with Muslims and Islam, while Arabic coverage places it within the context of violent crime in America.

Reflections on the Revolution in Europe

Caldwell frames the issue of Muslim immigration to Europe as a question of whether you can have the same Europe with different people. The author, a columnist for the Financial Times and a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, answers this question unequivocally in the negative. He offers a brief demographic analysis of the potential impact of Muslim immigration—estimating that between 20% and 32% of the populations of most European countries will be foreign-born by the middle of the century—and traces the origins of this mass immigration to a postwar labor crisis. He considers the social, political and cultural implications of this sea change, from the banlieue riots and the ban on the veil in French public schools to terrorism across Europe and the question of Turkey’s accession to the E.U. Caldwell sees immigration as a particular problem for Europe because he believes Muslim immigrants retain a Muslim identity, which he defines monolithically and unsympathetically, rather than assimilating to their new homelands. This thorough, big-thinking book, which tackles its controversial subject with a conviction that is alternately powerful and narrow-minded, will likely challenge some readers while alienating others. (July) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review by the National Post

Review by The Guardian

Review by Financial Times

German Muslim Youth and Puzzling Identities

The profile of the German Muslim youth has been changed visibly. Their expectations towards their local communities, their parents and also towards their society have been changed likewise. But dangers increase on the other hand. If you neglected those young people, there might be a possibility of ending up in drugs, violence and crime. We are not able to address all the masses, but we rather have to deal with the youth personally, individually and locally, Mesut G_lbahar, chairman of Islamische Gemeinschaft Milli G_r_s (IGMG)’s youth section, commented on the situation of Muslim youth in Germany. “My parents wanted to educate me in a certain direction, but I don’t think they succeeded in their attempt because they missed something important: They could not give me a Muslim identity that is compatible with Germany,” Hischam Abul Ola, a German Muslim youth, summarized his point of view. Torn between different identities and affected by real problems (such as unemployment, poverty, educational deficiencies, and assumedly crime), young Muslims in Germany are trying to find their way, not only in their daily lives but also in their religious practice. Seen with a sober eye, Germany seems to be missing a lot when it comes to the traditional role model of the “Futuwwa” that shaped, for more than thousand of years, the attributes of Muslim youth. The young Muslims are not to be blamed for this statue, but rather the current circumstances and the failing of the previous generations to create the proper condition for the appearance of this life transaction are to be blamed. There are currently around 1.5 million Muslim children and youth living in Germany. Mostly, their parents and mosque societies are caring for their religious education. So far, there is no Islamic teaching in state-run schools, an issue discussed for years. Sulaiman Wilms reports.