Islam and the West

Why it is so Important to Acquire Your Own Understanding of the Cultures

It was the 3rd of October 2010. Germany’s collected media attention was directed toward Bremen, where the German President at that time, Christian Wulff (CDU), led the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of German reunification. He spoke of unity, justice and freedom, of a united people and values. He spoke of changes of the late recognition of being a country of immigration and the problems associated with it. And then he said that one sentence, for which he will probably be remembered in the history books: “But, Islam, in the meantime, also belongs to Germany.” 1

The ensuing debate on talk shows, the arts section of papers and especially the comments areas of online media couldn’t have been more vehement. Ultimately the sentiment, due to the publication of Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab [Germany is doing away with itself], did not calm down until the summer of the same year.

But why did Wulff’s statement spark such an outrage and discussion? Whether Islam belongs to Germany and is thus a part of our culture is obviously not a question that politicians can answer – not even if they are our Heads of State. On the occasion of this turmoil, it is definitely worth getting to the bottom of the relationship between the West and Islam.

Initially, it appears necessary to agree on what we mean by culture and identity so that we can even speak productively about Germany and Islam.

Culture can be viewed in its broadest sense as the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. This includes not only the arts and literature, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs.” 2

That is how UNESCO roughly defines the term “culture,” which has been and will be greatly disputed. If we conceive of culture as a conglomerate, then we can speak of a European culture, of an Arab, Asian, etc. 3 Finer subdivisions are also conceivable, which play no major role for our discussion since the similarities between German and Dutch culture should far outweigh the respective differences.

Cultures differ in various ways, especially with respect to their values and concept of humanity. If we now want to examine what happens when Western and Islamic cultures clash, we must first work out their central properties. This can only freely happen here, however fragmentary, to convey the respective important developments.

The West: a Culture of Freedom and Equality

The roots of European culture can be traced back to the great philosophers of ancient Greece. Markedly simplified, one could say that already at that time humanistic and rational thinking was developing. Thus, worldly power could no longer be religiously legitimized, whereby questioning it became possible. But above all, the sovereign was now subject to the same laws as ordinary citizens. From today’s perspective, we call this the rule of law, a necessary condition for democracy. 4

These developments of ancient Greece had a strong influence on the Roman Empire. There this body of thought mingled with the ideas of Judaism and nascent Christianity. Expressed briefly, primarily the idea of charity, the foundation of our modern welfare state, and the god-like concept of humanity were added. The latter in turn enabled two things: on the one hand, it was the basis of universal human rights that apply to everyone regardless of gender or ethnicity; on the other, it gave people the opportunity to act in the spirit of God or against him. Thereby, with the interaction between the humanistic thought of ancient Greece, the essential cornerstone for free will and personal responsibility of the individual was laid. 5

Parallel to the rapid increase of technological developments, the Age of Enlightenment began in 18th century and reinforced these intellectual developments. Humans freed themselves from their increasingly “self-inflicted immaturity” (Immanuel Kant).

As a result of these processes, we can describe our Western culture in Europe today as largely individualistic one, in which the maximum development of the individual is paramount. In our laws and standards, this right to self-development is expressed especially through the abstract notion of “human dignity.” 6 And this in turn consists of freedom and equality before the law. 7 All other normative aspects can be derived from this.

The European concept of humanity is therefore primarily one of a free individual who is responsible for his/her actions. This freedom is actually only limited by the same freedom of others, as all are to be treated equally before the law.

Islam: A Culture of Submission

But what about the culture of Islam? In order to clarify this, initially a justification is needed for why Islam is to be considered a culture; and here, Arab culture, Turkish culture, etc. will not be addressed.

To some extent, we can understand all religions as culture, as they are usually required to regulate the lives of the faithful, also concerning ritual precepts and theological content. With Islam, this is especially true because it stipulates strict and specific standards for its followers for almost every area of life, of religious practice, on all matters of law up to and including politics and sexual morals. A subdivision of the spheres of religion, politics, economy, private life, etc., is completely foreign to Islam.

As an additional argument, we can note that countries that belong to the Islamic cultural sphere are often more than 90 percent Muslim. In Europe, however, there is a wide variety of creeds and lifestyles, which is for example why one could hardly speak of a purely Christian culture of the West.

Finally, several studies have shown that, on the one hand, Muslim immigrants in the West tend to place being Muslim above the nationality of their country of origin, and on the other hand, they also see both as directly related. In other words: because I am a Turk, I am also a Muslim, but above all I am the latter.

Now let’s consider the core values of Islamic culture. The term “Islam” itself means in its literal translation “submission” or “surrender to God.” This principle of submission applies to all types of authorities, such as the father, the tribal or clan leaders and ultimately Allah.

Submission means to comply with the decisions of another person or – in its transcendental form – a principle, God or even a party, without questioning them. A person who completely submits to another or to a principle, or is subjugated by the same, thus lacks the freedom to determine his/her own life. For the one to whom the person submits himself/herself, he/she is anything but equal. Theologically, this subjugation in Islam goes so far that God arbitrarily decides whether the person will go to hell or paradise. So there is no guarantee for the believer that she/he will be rewarded in the afterlife for a particular behavior. Through this absolute predestination by Allah, all free will of the human being is negated.

The concept of humanity of such a collectivist culture is rather that of a link in a functional chain: one is born into a certain position and has to arrange himself with the resultant tasks. A deviation from the planned route is not only difficult for the individual but also has consequences for everyone connected with him/her, especially relatives. Among other things, this explains why it is so vitally important for Muslims to protect the female family members’ “honor,” however they understand that term. This is because the “stained honor” of a family member also has an impact on the reputation of all the others.

Foreseeable conflicts

But what happens now, when Islam enters the West with via immigrants from Islamic countries? Then, as the information above has made clear, two completely different cultures meet that differ not only in their core values and their concept of humanity but are also contradictory in almost every aspect. Thus, if Islamic culture is to be preserved by immigrants, it must necessarily lead to conflicts.

And in fact, the situation in Europe has developed such that the integration of the ever-growing Muslim populations has gotten worse. The more they see themselves as Muslims, the greater is their distance from the host societies and the more probable conflicts become. As early as 2007, a study in the Netherlands on the Turkish immigrants living there indicated that the more they identified with their Turkish and concurrently Muslim culture, the less they identified with the Netherlands and the more they rejected the Netherlands (which makes quite a difference). This rejection was even clearer among the respondents who practiced Islam daily and were strong supporters of Islamic organizations. 8

Also, a study published in the summer of 2012 on Turks in Germany showed that 62 percent of the respondents prefer only to be together with Turks, which is one and a half times as much as two years ago. Furthermore, almost half of the Turks want a Muslim majority in Germany, and 55 percent want more mosques. While nearly three-quarters of respondents believe Islam is the only true religion, they particularly view atheists, Jews and homosexuals as inferior human beings. 9

Additionally, there is the marked over-representation of Muslims involved in violent crime. In the meantime, several surveys of young people have pointed out a positive correlation between high religiosity among Muslims and frequent violent crime with concurrent poorer integration, while exactly the opposite was found among adolescents of the Christian faith. 10 Beyond that, especially the study of the interior ministry (Bundesinnenministerium) entitled Muslims in Germany indicated numerous fundamentalist believers in this country, which should not be underestimated. 11

At the same time, on the side of organized Islam, we have seen the attempt to “take the institutional route” for years. In this way, the Islamic associations in Germany, and also international lobbyists such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), attempt to brand any criticism of Islam as racism. They make it easier for Muslims living here to exempt their children from sports, swimming and sex education and instead to provide them with an orthodox education in matters of the Koran. Simultaneously on the political level, they constantly present themselves as victims of discrimination, as economically disadvantaged and the like.

In contrast, if one asks Germans what they think about Islam, almost every survey of the last decade has shown most notably that the ideology is rejected, not Muslims as believers. Concerning substantive issues, a somewhat similar Islam-critical attitude is present among approximately 80 percent of the respondents, primarily with regard to the degradation of women, homosexuals and other non-believers by Islam. This Islam-critical attitude of the German population is by the way completely independent of prejudice toward other groups of people, e.g. what is conceived as “Islamophobia” or also xenophobia and anti-Semitism. 12

Does Islam, in the meantime, also belong to Germany?

When we consider all of these preconditions and developments together, of which only a small portion could be examined here, not only does it seem impossible to bring the cultures of Islam and the West together – or the values of submission and freedom/equality into harmony – but it also seems more than questionable if the integration of Muslims into our value system can even be successful at all.

We cannot stipulate that Muslims love freedom because that would not only contradict the principle of freedom itself but also any value. One does not get values from the outside, neither from a president nor from a host society. One learns, acquires and develops them by oneself.

However, what we can require of living Muslims is that they adhere to the most basic of our rules: everyone is equal before the law. It does not matter if the person is a man or woman, a believer or unbeliever. Whoever cannot accept this has no future here.

A few years ago, the Danish psychologist Nicolai Sennels aptly stated: we should help “the Muslims who do not want to integrate themselves to lead to a new life in a society that they understand and in which they can be understood. In other words, we should help them to start a new life in a Muslim country.” 13

So what to do?

The most important task is to ensure that people understand what Islam means. […] Until we have truly understood this, we will have no idea how we can help Muslim immigrants to integrate and assimilate themselves even in the countries that have taken them in.”

That is what Lars Hedegaard, Chairman of the International Free Press Society (IFPS), once said in a Citizen Times interview. 14 Here it is not important how someone views Islam and which suggested solutions he would like to impose on it. It is important that that we begin to think for ourselves. It is important that we get a clear picture for ourselves – both of Islam and also of the West.

This essay is a translation (by Carter Communication) of the introduction of the recently published book: Felix Strüning (ed.) (2012): Islam and the West. Berlin Berlin/Jena: Stresemann Foundation, 140 pages, 9.90 euros. With contributions from Daniel Pipes, Sabatina James, Ali Sina, Paul Scheffer, Nicolai Sennels and many others.

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