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.

From the Lone Wolf to the Management of Savagery Amidst violence worldwide, it is time to take religion seriously

In the early phases of the war in Syria, ISIS did not appear as a major threat to the West. Jihadists made their way to Syria to fight the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad with little interest to carry out attacks in their respective countries. The November 13 attacks in Paris reveal a shift of strategy, but also, a change in actors of the global jihad.

Until this point, global attacks were the defining feature of Al Qaeda, especially in the West. Ironically, a few days before the Paris attacks, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri sent a message to the Muslim youth to intensify their fight in the West.

Many observers have noted that the November 13 coordinated attacks endorsed by ISIS illustrate not only a change of players but also of the rules of the game. Yet they fail see that this strategy is not driven only by the material, institutional, and geopolitical features of the Islamic State. It expresses a binary vision where the merciless and relentless “fighters of God” aim to destroy the “forces of Evil.” We should not underestimate the influence of such a vision, which provides an ideology of resistance to the disenchanted youth, and therefore will require mobilization of religious and cultural narratives that could offer credible alternatives to this “cosmologic” vision.

The November attacks in Paris and Beirut follow a war strategy inspired by Abu Bakr Naji (a pen name), author of the tract called the Management of Savagery, which was released online in 2004 and used by the Iraq branch of Al Qaeda in 2005-07. In this pamphlet, he advocates for restless violence and massacre in order to scare and exhaust the enemy. In his own words:

“The tyrants plan and plot together for the continued humiliation and pillage of the Ummah, the suppression of the jihad, and the buying off of the youth and the (Islamic) movements. Therefore, we must drag everyone into the battle in order to give life to those who deserve to live and destroy those who deserve to be destroyed … Thus, we must burn the earth under the feet of the tyrants so that it will not be suitable for them to live in …” (p.176)

The means to achieve this goal are not only military, but also psychological. It entails attacking everywhere and at anytime in order to destabilize populations across countries. It is what Naji calls “waves operations”–which never end and maintain high levels of fear among masses. The fight is also about capturing the hearts and minds of youth in the lands of savagery by raising their belief and turning their energy and enthusiasm into lethal weapons against the “armies of Evil.” The November massacres in Paris and Beirut, and the downing of the Russian jetliner in the Sinai, are signals that the whole world will be the target of successive waves, which will be more intense and restless than those of Al Qaeda ones.

A military response to destroy ISIS’s infrastructure in Iraq–and to dismantle its material resources beyond oil–is with no doubt an important component of any attempt to defeat them. But will it diminish their global appeal? Probably not.

First, because only a military response cannot defeat such an apocalyptic vision. Beyond the combat zones in Syria and Iraq, ISIS provides a narrative–or “ideology of resistance”–not only against the pitfalls of domestic and international politics, but also against the personal disenchantment and anxiety of the youth. What is needed is an alternative global narrative that is appealing across nations and cultures. Attempts of counter-narratives are doomed to fail from the start if initiated by western political actors.

Second, such a narrative has to include some religious references, because interventions based only on secular motivations run the risk of actually increasing the solidarity and empathy of Muslims with ISIS, especially if those interventions are pitching the West against Islam, as some American politicians have already done.

Like an efficient military strategy, the search for an alternative narrative is actually a global issue and requires involvement of all Muslim countries, and most importantly, non-state Muslim actors.

In these conditions, it is imperative that political leaders take religions seriously both domestically and internationally and include it in any response to ISIS. However, it is easier said than done because of the secular culture that prevents or inhibits governmental and international agencies to take into account the religious dimension of peace building, conflict resolution, and any form of positive development.

The main reason for this inhibition is related to the dominant but false perception that religious groups and actors are not as rational, nor inclined to compromise, as non- religious ones. It also neglects the crucial influence of political and cultural contexts that fashion and shape the readings and interpretations of religious texts.

In other words, the understanding of the context in which religious actors are operating is key to identifying the ones that could support international initiatives in favor of peace or rapprochement.

It also means that such international policies inclusive of religion will require specific information and understanding that cannot be gathered in the high peak of crisis or conflict, but rather through a prior understanding of religion across nations and regions.

It is also important for Muslims and non Muslims alike to stop repeating that Islam needs a reform. ISIS are the heirs of the eighteenth-century reform in the Arabic peninsula, known as Salafism, which is based on the imitation of the Prophet Mohammad at Medina. This interpretation undermines the principles of plurality and flexibility of opinions that are central to the Islamic tradition.

The exportation of this “reform” from Saudi Arabia to the whole world since the 1970s, benefited also of the discredit of traditional clerics seen as tools of the authoritarian nation-states. It has therefore gained influence across Muslim countries while presenting itself as “the true” Islam. The challenge is for Muslims to regain ownership of their tradition in all its diversity. For this purpose, centers for education and transmission of Islam outside authoritarian Muslim countries are deeply needed.

To avoid isolating Islam as the “problem,” it would also be critical to create a global network of religious groups and actors of all denominations and traditions who work locally in favor of peace, economic development, and social justice. The key word here is “local.”

Too often, the action of religion at the international level consists of high profile religious figures signing a document enunciating the broad principles of peace and tolerance. In most of the cases, these documents do not have any impact on the ground.

For example, the “Amman Message,” initiated by the King of Jordan in 2004, is a remarkable document bringing prominent Muslim figures to assert–or re-assert–the tolerance of the Islamic message. Regretfully, this document is not known or referenced by religious actors in different localities. In contrast, a more positive action would provide greater visibility to groups and actors who are not automatically religious scholars and authorities, but who act positively in the name of religion.

Introducing religious actors and organizations into policymaking is not angelic or naïve; it is sorely needed to overcome the one-sided perception of religion that is dominant, not only within political agencies, but also among religious radical actors as well.

New book on Dutch Islam: Islam in transformation

A new book in Dutch was published recently on Islam in the Netherlands called: “Islam in transformation: Piety and pleasure amongst Muslims within and outside of the Netherlands,” edited by the prominent Dutch scholars on Islam Joas Wagemakers and Martijn de Koning (Radboud University).New Book

This is a translation of the pamphlet of the book:

The Islamic State, headscarves, questions regarding integration, and opinions in Dutch politics: Islam is continuously in the headlines. Is Islam inextricably connected to violence as the IS wants to assert? Or does Islam stand for peace, as many Muslims in the Netherlands tend to stress?

Often the impression arises that “the” Islam is dominated by ages old texts that determine the behavior of Muslims today. Based on personal research, specialists show that Islam is dynamic and that Muslims experience and apply their faith in various ways. Thus there are large differences in the experience of celebrations, cultural expressions, interpretations of the Qur’an, and multifarious approaches to relationships with  people of different persuasion.

Part 2 in the Series Islam in Transformation treads a broad band of subjects and makes accessible complex themes for those who wish to contribute to the public debate. An earlier publication in this series was “Salafism: Utopian ideals in an unruly reality” (see the item on Euro-Islam: http://www.euro-islam.info/2014/11/18/book-review-salafisme/)

Read the first chapter here (in Dutch):

http://www.uitgeverijparthenon.nl/inkijkexemplaar_islam_in_verandering.pdf

Cruz Rejects Call to Drop Anti-Shariah Activist in Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign is rejecting a call to drop an anti-Shariah activist as his state chairman for Tennessee.
Kevin Kookogey, a former chairman of the Williamson County GOP, once criticized Republican Gov. Bill Haslam over the role of a Muslim staffer and a council that has advised two state departments on Islamic affairs.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations urged Kookogey’s removal as Cruz’s Tennessee chairman, saying that keeping him in place would serve as what the group called “an endorsement of anti-Muslim hate.”

Legislators pass bill that had been nixed over Islamic law

BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Legislature approved federally mandated child support rules Monday, undoing a rejection that had jeopardized U.S. involvement in an international treaty and threatened to collapse the state’s payment system.

Idaho’s rejection last month — by one vote on the last day of the legislative session over fears it could subject the U.S. courts to rulings made elsewhere under Islamic law — threatened an international effort intended to make it easier for parents to receive funds.

Sharia and English Law: A Secularist Success (The Economist)

The Law Society (a prestigious professional body for solicitors) reversed a guidance note to its members designed to help them formulate an Islamic will. The note recalled, for example, that in many circumstances a male relative can expect to receive twice as much as a female, and that non-Muslims cannot inherit at all.

In France, “Islamic Finance” Remains Infrequently Taught

Paris-Dauphine offers a Master’s degree in Islamic Finance, providing the legal framework to do business within Islam. Farid Abderrezak, who teaches at Paris-Dauphine, is a banking specialist with BNP Paribas Nahman in Bahrain and says he is able to continue his work despite such “constraints.” “Look, profitability remains the primary criterion for investors, which does not always go along with the religious argument, except in Saudi Arabia. It is necessary to use Islamic finance wisely.” To circumvent the interest as practiced in conventional finance, there is, for example the “mourabaha” technique: the bank purchases the commodity, then resells it to its client in increments, integrating the retail price into the cost of financing.

The degree attracts mainly Frenchmen but also foreigners who come from North Africa, Mauritania, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Lebanon.

Islamic finance is a niche that several students study to help them in their other areas of study. “Conventional finance or Islamic [finance], the markets are cyclic, one needs to adapt,” said Paul Evin, a student at Paris-Dauphine.

Augustin Olivier, another student, said, “There is a demand in Europe and there’s no reason for only those from Luxembourg and the British to arrogate the market.” This comes after a report written in 2007 at the request of Christine Lagarde who counted on attracting some 100 billion dollars in investment in France due to the development of Islamic finance—that the idea of the master’s degree was born. “Islamic finance has certainly not had the expected development and growth in France, but it is progressing little by little with new products that are ‘sharia compatible,’” said Michel Storck, professor of finance law. “Our students easily find work, especially in neighboring Luxembourg. We hope to encourage research in this domain and already have three PhD students whose research is funded by their home countries.”

Muslim associations condemn “Shariah Police”

Ayman Mazyek, chair of the central council of Muslims in Germany condemned the self-announced “Shariah Police” of Wuppertal. The strange actions of the Salafi activists would harm Islam being incompatible with Islamic values.

The “Shariah Police” was created by the preacher and convert Sven Lau from Mönchengladbach. The “Shariah Police” has included Salafi activists, patrolling in the city of Wuppertal advising young people how to behave conform to religious rules and norms. The Social Democratic Minister of Interior of North-Rhine Westphalia Jäger has called the police authorities to collect the uniforms of the “Shariah Police”. The Christian Democratic Federal Minister of Interior de Maiziere (CDU) declared a “zero tolerance policy” towards the “Shariah Police.”

Terry Jones, Quran-Burning Pastor, Plans ‘Dearborn Freedom Rally’ In Front Of Mosque

June 3, 2014

Terry Jones, the Florida pastor known for burning Qurans, is planning a rally in Dearborn, Michigan, outside one of America’s largest mosques. The event is schedule to take place on Flag Day, June 14, outside of the Islamic Center of America (ICA).

Jones, author of Islam Is of the Devil, explained on his website, Stand Up America Now, that “the purpose of the event is to rally against Islamic Sharia Law which threatens freedom of speech in the United States.” It’s being billed as the Dearborn Freedom Rally and it will be hosted by the American Patriotic Bikers.

Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly Jr. called his cause “un-American,” but noted that Jones has the right to free speech, according to the Detroit Free Press. Dearborn has a large Muslim population, and about 40% of the town is of Arab descent.

This isn’t the first time that Jone has planned Islamophobic events in Dearborn. In 2012, the city asked Jones and his Stand Up America Now co-founder, Wayne Sapp, to sign an indemnity agreement before speaking. A federal court later ruled that Jones’ freedom of speech had been violated, which led the city to change its special events ordinance.

State of Oklahoma owes $303,333 in plaintiffs’ legal fees over Sharia law case

May 19, 2014

Oklahoma will have to pay $303,333 in legal fees to plaintiffs’ attorneys who brought lawsuit against Sharia law ballot measure

The bill has come due for the state’s effort to keep international law and Sharia law out of Oklahoma courts.

It wasn’t cheap.

Oklahoma must pay $303,333 for attorneys’ fees of the plaintiffs who challenged a measure approved overwhelmingly by voters on Nov. 2, 2010, U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange ruled May 14.

The Oklahoma Legislature put the measure on the ballot.

Miles-LaGrange found it an unconstitutional infringement on individual rights.

Plaintiff Muneer Awad, an Oklahoma City Muslim man, said in the lawsuit that the measure would stigmatize him and others of his faith, limit the results they can receive in court and prevent his will from being probated in Oklahoma because his will references Sharia law, the Islamic law system.

On May 14, Miles-LaGrange approved a plaintiffs’ motion for attorney fees, costs and nontaxable expenses.

Micheal Salem, of Norman, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said there has never been any indication that Sharia law was being applied in Oklahoma courts in the first place.

“It created a solution where there was no problem that existed,” Salem said. He also said there are adequate constitutional protections that would prohibit court decisions grounded in religious theory.