The Frankfurt Book Fair held a heated debate on "Europe and Islam" with bestselling Turkish author Elif Shafak and Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal. The latter is deeply pessimistic.
It's an explosive topic. Islam is often criminalized and confused with extremism and terrorism.
The relation between Europe and Islamic countries was discussed in many ways at the Frankfurt Book Fair. What is the role of Turkey? How should Europe deal with ultra-conservative states such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar? And what is the impact of growing xenophobia, far-right populism and restrictive migration policies?
At the book fair, the "Weltempfang" is a space well known for its panel discussions, talks and readings with international authors, intellectuals and translators. This year, the program is focusing on the topic of Europe.
It opened with the discussion "Europe and Islam" - one of the most important panels of the program, said Frankfurt Book Fair director Jürgen Boos in his introductory speech.
Turkish star author Elif Shafak and Algerian writer Boualem Sansal, who received the German Book Trade Peace Prize in 2011, took part in the discussion.
Both of them "spent years analyzing current phenomena and explaining specific global developments," said Boos.
There is no singular Islam
Together with the head of the Department of Culture and Communication of the German Foreign Office, Andreas Görgen, and politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit as the moderator of the discussion, Shafak and Sansal strived to deal concretely with this endless debate.
One thing everyone could agree on from the start was that there is no homogenous Islam. "We easily forget that there is no such thing as a unique Islam," said Shafak. Throughout history, there has been a surprisingly broad range of interpretations of Islam - and they keep on multiplying to this day. The only way to refer to Islam is in its plurality.
Undemocratic tendencies and increasing religious dogmatism are currently shaping Turkey. When the London-based bestselling author thinks about her home country, she finds the situation very depressing.
Just as disheartening is the fact that irrational populism and tribalism is spreading throughout the world. Shafak was alarmed by slogans on the posters of pro-Brexit campaigners: "The Turks are coming," was one of them. The alleged hordes of Turks that were to invade the country was used a "fear factor," she said.
The author pleaded for diversity: "I come from a country which has never appreciated its cosmopolitan heritage," she said. "We have missed out on a lot through the loss of our diversity."
The rebirth of nationalism, which can be observed in many countries, is not a solution for the 21st century. "Our task is to organize an opposition, to stand by it and to deal with it," said Andreas Görgen of the German Foreign Office. Foreign cultural policy has the mission to establish this message abroad as well. It is therefore essential to pursue international collaborations with the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Goethe-Institut or literary festivals, he said.
Writers and artists contribute to the political and public opinion by allowing different narratives and ideas to meet, explained Görgen. "We feel that experiencing the world views of others and by bringing them back to Germany is the only way to change our country," he added.
Will Islamism take over the world?
Boualem Sansal, who has been harassed in Algeria and faces several charges for his texts, questioned this idealism. In his view, Europeans know too little about the countries they are dealing with.
"In the Maghreb countries, we know France or Germany way better that Germans know, for example, Turkey. We know the culture, we know the religion, whereas they know basically nothing about the world they are facing," he claimed. That is a gap that needs to be closed quickly, he added.
Sansal has been working on awakening Europeans for many years. He considers that Islamism could possibly win over the West, and not just in works of fiction like his pessimistic novel "2084: The End of the World," which was published in 2015.
Terrorism has brought fear to Europe. And it no longer only comes from the outside; radicalized French or Germans are now ready to kill as well. "Islamization is taking place. It is financed by large states and it is supported by very intelligent people. European and Western societies will change," Sansal said.
Regardless of this, the award-winning author also discussed the decline of democratic values in Western societies: "History is slipping away from Europe. It is now happening elsewhere, in the Pacific, in Africa and in Oriental states." Europeans are only the receivers of signals, he added.
"Democratic values are tired, especially in countries that have invented democracy." Western governments undermine their own moral values, said Sansal, by cooperating with problematic states like Saudi Arabia or Qatar - countries that are directly supporting Islamization.
Elif Shafak tried to counter Sansal's pessimism with her humanistic approach. Yet the Peace Prize-winner hardened: "The citizens of the West are disturbed."
In any case, Europe cannot go on without discussing its values. That was the clear conclusion of the discussion.