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German Islam

Susanne Schröter / ct
May 23, 2016

Islam has an enlightened side and a totalitarian side. The academic Susanne Schröter writes that only a liberal, self-critical and reflective type of Islam could have a future in Germany.

Friday prayers at a Berlin mosque
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Schwarz

When the theologian Mouhanad Khorchide, who teaches at the University of Münster, published "Islam Is Compassion" in 2012, he received a variety of diverse reactions. Many non-Muslims celebrated the work for its description of a humanistic Islam. This feeling arose in part because the author created a picture of God that is not "interested in the labels of Muslim or Christian or Jewish, believer or nonbeliever."

Khorchide threw out the idea that Koran verses that appear violent or hostile toward women or non-Muslims were valid for all eternity. He wanted them to be viewed as the words of a bygone era.

It appears that the professor, with the swoop of his pen, was ready to cross out all those things that had made people wonder whether Islam really "belonged to Germany," as Christian Wulff said in a 2010 speech during his presidency. One might even have thought that Muslims would offer Khorchide a pat on the back. That didn't happen: Just the opposite did.

On the website for DITIB, Germany's Turkish Islamic union and the country's largest Muslim organization, one can read that Khorchide's statements are a "rejection of the teachings of classical Islam" and an "insult to Muslim identity." For this reason, the professor was removed his posting at the university. As if that weren't enough, the coordinating body of Germany's Central Council of Muslims (ZMD), a cooperative made up of a number of large organizations, gathered a nearly 100-page assessment document to discredit him further, but luckily was not able to get far with it.

Susanne Schröter
Susanne Schröter is a researcher on IslamImage: picture-alliance/dpa/FFGI/Privat/Schröter

Islamic enlightenment

Khorchide and the DITIB are the stand-ins for the ideological poles in the ongoing debate over Islam's place in Germany.

In one corner there are scholars and adherents who have conceptualized Islamic theology as a modern science and who view the source material as specific to the time in which it was originally written and, therefore, malleable. This group includes intellectuals such as those who have joined forces via the Muslim Forum of Germany or similar initiatives. It includes researchers such as Abdel-Hakim Ourghi and authors like Hamed Abdel-Samad and Seyran Ates, who go much further than Khorchide in calling for an Islamic Enlightenment.

In the other corner are Muslims who steer clear of critical considerations of Islam and try to prevent new interpretations of old texts. Yet, whenever there is a terror attack attributed to Muslims, they respond that violence has nothing to do with Islam. That the number of attacks that have been committed in the name of Islam since the turn of the 21st century has increased is not something that this group's representatives are willing to consider. The ZMD's Aiman Mazyek, for example, recently called for doing away with the term "Islamism" - as if the disappearance of the word would make the phenomenon go away.

'Generation Allah'

The rhetorical quibbling gives the impression that there is good reason not to stir things up. Cases of extremism that do make it out into the public eye are downplayed as one-offs. Anyone who is paying attention might ask whether whatever lies beneath the strange indifference might also signify an ambivalent stance toward violence that is grounded in religion.

"Jihad," when used in the sense of a real war, is a word in the Koran and in Islamic heritage that is pertinent. There are clerics who say that violent jihad is an appropriate instrument for avenging insults to the Prophet Muhammad or militarized attacks on predominately Islamic countries. These clerics are even lent the pulpit at some mosques, though the official leaders of the houses of worship issue apologies to the community if religious youths clamor after extremists. But Salafism is a youth movement, and it draws in so many teenagers and young adults that the psychologist Ahmad Mansour speaks of a "Generation Allah."

Mansour isn't only referring to those youths who join radical groups and even fight in such places as Syria, but also those whose beliefs vacillate between extremism and orthodoxy. "Generation Allah" refers to youths who find meaning in life by subjecting themselves unquestioningly to God and his rules, who ask constantly what is halal (allowed) or haram (forbidden) because their perspective is that they can be winners in paradise. I have spoken to such young men. Living in contemporary German society is dangerous for these young men, full of sin, and as a result they reject any relationships with so-called unbelievers. They go beyond what is normally required of their faith.

Some organizations encourage such segregation. Nearly every mosque has soccer teams that play against other sides from other mosques. Islamic day cares cultural centers are being founded; Islamic aid groups, social work and youth work have arisen. Completely parallel structures are being developed that would allow Muslims to avoid contact with non-Muslims from the cradle to the grave. The hidden danger lies in how these orthodox ideas, which are contrary to the values and cultural norms in Germany, will be deepened. People who say gender equality is un-Islamic or that non-Muslims will go to hell may physically be in Germany - but not mentally. That holds true even for those who want to unquestioningly act on God's commands and reject questioning as heresy.

It would be nice to hope that these young people could gain access to the knowledge that liberal, enlightened and humanist Muslims have developed. An Islam that belongs to Germany can only be one that contains belief systems that are critical and reflective - and not one that wraps totalitarian thought in the guise of religion.

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