Interview with Islam Expert Dietrich Reetz 'Muslims Have a Right to Be Different'

Islam expert Dietrich Reetz of Berlin's Center for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO) speaks to SPIEGEL about Muslims in Germany, social tensions and the prospects for dialogue between the communities.

Students in class at an Islamic school in Berlin.

Students in class at an Islamic school in Berlin.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Reetz, recently the debate about the propensity to violence, among young Muslim men in particular, has heated up in Germany. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung co-editor Frank Schirrmacher wrote that, “the mixture of youth criminality and Muslim fundamentalism” is “the closest thing today to the deadly ideologies of the 20th century.” He is drawing an analogy to fascism and Stalinism. Is that excessive dramatization or is there a real threat?

Dietrich Reetz: The incidents have been exaggerated. The negative images that are projected on Islam have little to do with religion, but instead are largely a result of the political problems and social situation of the people in question. Before immigrants’ beliefs came to the forefront, the same problems were treated mainly under terms such as immigration, integration, and multicultural society.

SPIEGEL: But why is the discussion now concentrating on Muslims?

Reetz: The climate has become more charged, which of course has to do with the 9/11 attacks as well. The polarization happens on both sides -- there are Islamist politicians looking to profit from it, and Western politicians who use anti-immigrant resentment to drum up support for their own parties, as happened early this year during the state elections in Hesse. “Islam” and “Muslims” have become provocative catchwords.

SPIEGEL: Muslims are often perceived as aggressive, demanding, and intolerant.

Reetz: First we need to take note of the fact that the vast majority of Muslims in Germany behave peacefully. Furthermore, not everyone who comes from a Muslim-influenced cultural group is religious or Muslim. So we can’t ascribe the problems that occur in socially troubled areas to religion or Islam.

SPIEGEL: Muslims in Germany mostly live in urban areas with social problems: unemployment, political discrimination, societal stigmatization. In this context, what is the significance of young Muslim men’s identification with Islam?

Reetz: Recourse to religion offers young immigrants a cultural foothold when they feel excluded from society or sense that their chances of advancement are slight. The youth who increasingly turn to religion belong to a generation that was born and grew up in Germany, but asserts its right to live its own culture and religion self-confidently and without restrictions.

SPIEGEL: Is publicly and demonstratively declaring oneself a Muslim intended as a rejection of European values?

Reetz: Islam has contributed to European identity since the early Middle Ages and was present in Spain for centuries. Moreover, Islam grew from the same historical and cultural roots in the eastern Mediterranean as Christianity and Judaism. In this respect it too belongs to the heritage of the European West. However, after being separate so long, Islam seems alien to many Europeans. The new generation wants to be considered European Muslims.

SPIEGEL: How many of the Muslims living in Germany are deeply rooted in their religion -- and how can that be measured? Whether they go to a mosque? Or whether they observe Ramadan?

Reetz: According to different studies, which vary greatly depending on the questions asked, 50 to 70 percent place a value on religious symbolism. This proportion may have grown in recent years, but there is no comparative research that could be used to prove that. Certainly many people have a desire to observe certain religious rituals in their daily lives, although these also have a cultural aspect. Ramadan, for example, is a family tradition, not just a matter of belief.

SPIEGEL: The Islam scholar Stefan Weidner recently pointed out that the majority of Muslims living in Germany already inwardly belong “to us,” meaning that they have converted to Western values and view religion only as something external. As evidence he cites that many no longer care at all about Ramadan.

Reetz: In practice this is quite varied, something that doesn’t differ that much from these families’ countries of origin -- there are also “secularization processes” in Turkey, Pakistan or Egypt. A conservative segment of the population places great importance on religion, while for others religious ritual still plays a role only in that it reminds them of their homeland. But Muslims also have a right to be different, as long as they don’t violate laws or the constitution. How far they have distanced themselves from their religion can not be the standard by which they are measured in order to be seen as good citizens. No one judges whether Christians or Jews are good or bad citizens based on the degree of their religious belief.

SPIEGEL: Preserving an identity as a Muslim is one thing. It’s another thing whether someone accepts the basic values and rights here, for example the equality of women or sexual self-determination.

Reetz: So far as I know, all the large Muslim associations recognize Germany’s legal system and constitution. I don’t believe that the conservative Muslim outlooks on topics such as sexuality differ greatly from those of devout Catholics, for example. The German pope's views on these issues do not differ greatly from those of certain Muslims. In rural Catholic areas, rituals and a belief in miracles still belong to daily life, and previous generations still practiced exorcism, which might seem very alienating to outsiders. Pluralistic European society can and has withstood that.

SPIEGEL: The analogy with exorcism is rather weak, since such practices are only rare exceptions in Western Europe today. In contrast, forced marriages are still very widespread in Muslim societies, and for many Muslim women it is very difficult to lead independent lives.

Reetz: Certainly, a direct comparison can’t be made with exorcism. I only meant to point out that controversial religious practices were also common in Europe not so long ago. Really though, it’s a matter of everyday religious practice in public spaces. And when Muslim women are prevented from exercising their rights, they are entitled to take that up as an issue. And by the way, arranged marriages are common in a wide spectrum of cultures and are not necessarily the same as forced marriages. When that is the case, women should certainly have the opportunity to protect themselves. But within Islam there are various conceptions of how women’s role can be strengthened. There are more than a few young, religious women in mosque communities who consciously choose to observe the dress codes and emphasize religion when appearing in public. That too is a form of modernity, and we shouldn’t pit it against the secular form. Most religious Muslims also value involvement in greater society -- that is to say, to be secular in a broader sense.

SPIEGEL: The number of immigrants naturalized in Germany has declined in recent years. Does this indicate a rejection on the part of Muslims -- mostly Turks -- who live in Germany, and that they would rather withdraw into their own “parallel society” than become part of the majority society?

Reetz: The decrease can be attributed to bureaucratic hurdles as well as cultural and political problems. When Turkish nationals stand to lose more than they gain through the naturalization process, they are unlikely to apply.

SPIEGEL: In what sense do they lose more?


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