Photo Gallery: Hamed Abdel-Samad and Islam

Foto: DPA

Political Scientist Hamed Abdel-Samad 'Islam Is Like a Drug'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Egyptian-German political scientist Hamed Abdel-Samad talks about his childhood as the son of an imam in Egypt, why he thinks Islam is a danger to society and his theories about the inevitable decline of the Muslim world.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Abdel-Samad, Germany is currently a divided country because of the controversial author Thilo Sarrazin,  whose new book "Germany Does Itself In" has triggered a heated debate on immigration and the willingness of Muslims to integrate into German society. Are you part of the pro- or anti-Sarrazin faction?

Hamed Abdel-Samad: Neither.

SPIEGEL: Have you discovered the happy medium in the integration debate? Or are you trying to avoid offending both your German friends and your fellow Muslims?

Abdel-Samad: I don't like the nature of this debate at all. Some are standing in judgment over Sarrazin while others are cheering him on without further reflection. Sarrazin has become a lightning rod for everything. Whether he is seen a hero or a scapegoat, Sarrazin has unintentionally become the friend of the idle and the clueless. All failings and accusations can now be addressed to one person: Superman Sarrazin.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that Sarrazin and his theories are overrated?

Abdel-Samad: I'm against Sarrazin's expulsion from the SPD (the center-left Social Democratic Party, which has started proceedings  to expel Sarrazin), and I believe that an open debate over integration in Germany is desperately needed. But his conclusions don't do us any good, because they're outdated. Germany isn't doing itself in, but it is changing through immigration, and that's a good thing. We should talk about the problems of living side by side, the failings of immigrants and what needs to be done for them.

SPIEGEL: And Sarrazin, the provocateur, is preventing this from happening with his theories on biology and race?

Abdel-Samad: He certainly isn't promoting it. It doesn't help us resolve the impasse of integration. You can see what's happening at the moment, the way people are becoming entrenched. A CDU (the center-right Christian Democratic Union) politician keeps emphasizing, again and again, that foreigners should learn how to speak German properly. An SPD politician, after having condemned Sarrazin's statements, is listing examples of successful integration. A Turkish idealist will sing the Green Party's multicultural hymn. Meanwhile, a furious critic of Islam tries to pin the blame for all Germany's problems on the Turks.

SPIEGEL: You're referring to Turkish-German sociologist Necla Kelek, who enthusiastically introduced Sarrazin's book at its official launch.

Abdel-Samad: Thilo Sarrazin is merely the proof that we have a problem. He is the messenger, and his message is that a tense culture of controversy prevails here. We have scaremongering, apologetics and hypersensitivity.

SPIEGEL: Should we have pretended that Sarrazin's book didn't exist?

Abdel-Samad: My modest Arab intelligence tells me that Sarrazin is more harmless than what the media are trying to turn him into. He can neither divide the country nor solve its problems.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps you could enlighten us. You are a fierce critic of Islam, which suggests that you ought to be in the same boat with Sarrazin, who thoroughly demonizes this religion. Why isn't that the case?

Abdel-Samad: He believes that Islam is gaining ground everywhere. I too am critical of many aspects of Islam. But I also see that it's on its way out. Islam doesn't have to be demonized, but it does need to be modernized from the ground up.

SPIEGEL: You predict the "downfall of the Islamic world," to quote the title of your new book. But Islam is the fastest growing of all religions, and Europe, in particular, is worried about being overwhelmed by Muslims.

Abdel-Samad: The numbers don't tell us very much. There are 1.4 billion Muslims. So what? The important thing is that in almost all countries with a Muslim majority, we see the decline of civilization and a stagnation of all forms of life. Islam has no convincing answers to the challenges of the 21st century. It is in intellectual, moral and cultural decline -- a doomed religion, without self-awareness and without any options to act.

SPIEGEL: Aren't you making the mistake of many radical critics of Islam, by lumping together the entire religion, in all of its many forms?

Abdel-Samad: Of course our religion has many directions. The differences may be of interest to theologians and anthropologists, but they are quite irrelevant from a political standpoint. The decisive element is the general lack of direction and backwardness, which often lead to an aggressive fundamentalism. That sets the general tone.

SPIEGEL: But Dubai is worlds away from Somalia, and the relatively liberal Indonesia is very different from Iran's rigorous theocracy. Turkey is a democracy and currently has higher economic growth than any other European country. Are these all exceptions to the rule?

Abdel-Samad: There are differences, of course. But whenever Muslims seek to introduce Islamic studies into European schools or try to obtain nonprofit status for an Islamic organization, there is always talk of one Islam. The minute someone attacks the faith, they resort to a trick to stifle the criticism and disingenuously ask: Which Islam are you talking about?

SPIEGEL: Perhaps you could help us understand.

Abdel-Samad: In a sense, Islam is like a drug, like alcohol. A small amount can have a healing and inspiring effect, but when the believer reaches for the bottle of dogmatic faith in every situation, it gets dangerous. This high-proof form of Islam is what I'm talking about. It harms the individual and damages society. It inhibits integration, because this Islam divides the world into friends and enemies, into the faithful and the infidels.

SPIEGEL: It sounds as if you're not all that far away from Sarrazin in your views.

Abdel-Samad: The only thing Mr. Sarrazin and I have in common is that we both come from an immigrant background. He is afraid of the Islamic world, and I'm afraid for it. Germany offers both of us a forum, and for that reason alone the country cannot be done away with.

SPIEGEL: You advocate a milder form of Islam. What remains of the core of the religion?

Abdel-Samad: My dream, in fact, is an enlightened Islam, without Sharia law and without jihad, without gender apartheid, proselytizing and the mentality of entitlement. A religion that is open to criticism and questions. As far as I'm concerned, I converted from faith to knowledge some time ago.

SPIEGEL: You became an atheist.

Abdel-Samad: No.

SPIEGEL: You might as well admit it. Being an atheist is nothing to be ashamed of.

Abdel-Samad: But it isn't true.

SPIEGEL: Not a single imam, Catholic priest or rabbi would believe you. Believing in God means accepting that something exists beyond knowledge. If you don't share this belief, why do you insist on calling yourself a Muslim?

Abdel-Samad: Believing in God can also mean being at odds with him. I don't pray regularly, and I don't fast during Ramadan. In that sense, I'm not religious. But I perceive myself as a Muslim. It's my cultural community. For me, Islam is also my homeland and my language, and my Arabic can't be separated from all of that. You can distance yourself from Islam but remain within the heart of Islam. I don't want to yield to the fundamentalists who preach violence. They are on the rise.

'The Hatred of the West Hasn't Gone Away'

SPIEGEL: But isn't Islamism in retreat, despite -- or perhaps because of -- all the attacks al-Qaida has committed? Osama bin Laden is no longer the hero of the Arab street.

Abdel-Samad: The hatred of the West hasn't gone away. In fact, it's even grown in some places. And most of the violence is directed against Muslims, as is the case in Iraq and Somalia.

SPIEGEL: Former US President George W. Bush made his reservations about Islam clear to the Muslims of the world. In Iraq and Guantanamo, Americans humiliated Muslim prisoners and sometimes mocked their religion. A pastor in Florida even recently said he was going to burn the Koran.

Abdel-Samad: Everything you're saying is correct.

SPIEGEL: To this day, the Muslim world is sharply critical -- justifiably so, to a certain extent -- of the fact that Washington, with its pro-Israel policies, applies a double standard in the Middle East.

Abdel-Samad: But that's no justification for violence.

SPIEGEL: Of course not. But why do you insist that there is a causal relationship between terrorism and Islam? Why don't you attribute it to the miserable living conditions and lack of opportunities for which Arab dictators, who are often close allies of the West, are responsible?

Abdel-Samad: Because the terrorists invoke religion. And because poverty is not the cause of terror.

SPIEGEL: That's odd. We don't condemn Christianity because splinter groups in Northern Ireland commit murder in the name of their religion. We don't take Judaism to task when a terrorist in Hebron slaughters Muslims in the tomb of Abraham and invokes Yahweh. But with Islam…

Abdel-Samad: …it's a different story. Because violence has allied itself with the culture.

SPIEGEL: That's what you claim.

Abdel-Samad: And because the perpetrators invoke the Koran more often than not. That's why we urgently need heretics who, ignoring taboos, question everything about this religion.

SPIEGEL: You make it seem as if your religion weren't changing. The American news magazine Time praised Islam's "quiet revolution" in a cover story. And the reformers you call for do exist. One of them is the Iranian thinker Abdolkarim Soroush, who recognizes many paths to the true faith, and another is the recently deceased Egyptian theologian Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.

Abdel-Samad: I knew Abu Zayd well, and I respected him. You know that radical judges declared him to be divorced from his wife because of his liberal views, and that he had to flee Egypt and go to the Netherlands. But those kinds of thinkers are the exception. Most so-called reformers of Islam remind me of the band on the Titanic, which kept on playing even as the ship was sinking, so as to give the passengers the illusion of normalcy. The underlying problems are not addressed.

SPIEGEL: And what are they?

Abdel-Samad: Questioning the Koran itself. Although debates are now being initiated, they are never brought to a conclusion. Reformers and conservatives alike continue to be obsessed by the holy book. Sometimes I ask myself who needs the Koran today. Could it be that our faith has a birth defect? Did it become successful too soon, and is that why government and military responsibilities became intermingled with religion? How could Islam have reached such heights in the Middle Ages, and why did almost everything go wrong after that?

SPIEGEL: What does the Koran mean to you?

Abdel-Samad: I still reach for it often. It is my education, my childhood.

SPIEGEL: Talk about your Egyptian homeland.

Abdel-Samad: I was born in a small village on the Nile, as the third of five children. My father was the imam and the supreme keeper of the faith there, and he deliberately gave me an especially holy name: "The Thankful Slave of God." Under his tutelage, I soon learned the Koran by heart. It was a sheltered time, and yet I often saw my father strike my mother, who would kneel in front of him without complaining.

SPIEGEL: Why did he do it?

Abdel-Samad: Because he was forced to flee from the Israelis when he was a soldier in the Six Day War, and he was never able to get over that experience. Because most men in the village hit their wives. Because the religion didn't expressly forbid it. It was the way things were.

SPIEGEL: You were abused as a child.

Abdel-Samad: I must have been four at the time. Paralyzed by fear, I recited the Koran for hours at night. I was abused again at 11, this time by a horde of young men. In accordance with our tradition, it was unthinkable to tell my father or anyone else.

SPIEGEL: You hold Islam partly responsible for those crimes?

Abdel-Samad: Yes, as it is experienced today. Suppressed sexuality, living in extremely cramped quarters in a closed society and enslavement to authority were causal factors.

SPIEGEL: Those are exactly the same phenomena for which Catholic institutions have been known.

Abdel-Samad: Perhaps. My father, at any rate, wanted me to become an Islamic scholar. But I had decided to study English and French, and for days I prepared myself, with great trepidation, for the confrontation. He accepted my wishes, but it seemed to me that he was filled with despair. At the university in Cairo, I flirted ideologically with the Marxists and the Muslim Brotherhood. I shouted anti-Semitic slogans at demonstrations. Because everyone was doing it.

SPIEGEL: What brought you to Germany?

Abdel-Samad: I wanted to get away from all the constraints. I had worked as a tour guide for a while, during which time I met a German woman who invited me (to come to Germany). But I had by no means overcome my fears and my lack of direction. When I was standing in front of an official at the airport in Frankfurt in 1995, I imagined that he hesitated before stamping my passport. I thought that his eyes were telling me: Here we go, just another camel whisperer who wants to take advantage of our prosperity.

SPIEGEL: Did you integrate swiftly into German society?

Abdel-Samad: Not at all. Germany seemed alien to me, like a complicated machine with no operating manual. I eventually married my girlfriend, a rebellious, leftist teacher who was 18 years older than me. But it wasn't out of love. She did it for tax reasons and I did it for the German passport.

'I Overindulged in the Fruits of the West'

SPIEGEL: So it was a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Abdel-Samad: Basically, it was, except that I wasn't prepared for Western freedoms. It was a curse for me at first, and it made me aggressive. I began studying political science in Augsburg. There were temptations everywhere: young women in the student union and beer at the bars. I felt guilty whenever I overindulged in the fruits of the West, which my faith forbade. I felt humiliated and uprooted. For a short time, I joined a group of Islamist students, trying to escape my loneliness in the warm glow of companionship. Others have fallen into the clutches of terrorists that way. I didn't. I did however have hallucinations and cold sweats, and I felt the fear of death.

SPIEGEL: Did you get professional help?

Abdel-Samad: Yes, I checked myself into a psychiatric clinic. I was on the verge of suicide. They transferred me to a closed ward and treated me for borderline personality disorder. It was hell, and the hell was also inside of me. I did everything I could to convince the therapists that I could manage outside again. The doctors trusted me. After I was released, I embarked on my next escape, this time to Japan, where I learned Japanese and got involved with East Asian spirituality. I met the love of my life in Kyoto, a woman who is half-Danish and half-Japanese -- the woman I'm married to today.

SPIEGEL: Could it be that you assign too great a role to religion in your life, that you expect too much of it?

Abdel-Samad: That's for others to judge. I have approached Islam rationally and have read Kant and Spinoza. I've studied the Enlightenment. And I've studied the Reformation, which has failed to materialize in Islam to this day.

SPIEGEL: You criticize Muslims as a group for taking offence quickly and even savoring it. You have accused European liberal leftists of pursuing a "policy of appeasement" toward Islam. Why do you, as an academic, sometimes enjoy being the provocateur in a similar fashion to Sarrazin? Is it the unforgiving nature of the convert?

Abdel-Samad: You have to state your opinions clearly if you want to be heard. There are plenty of apologists for Islam.

SPIEGEL: But the trend here in Germany seems to be going in the other direction. The Islam alarmists dominate public opinion. Muslims are ridiculed on the Internet as "goat fuckers" and "veiled sluts," while the religion is derided as "barbaric."

Abdel-Samad: Which is so beneath contempt that I don't even want to dignify it with a response.

SPIEGEL: But Islam-bashing has become socially acceptable among many German intellectuals. Do you feel comfortable in the company of Islamophobes?

Abdel-Samad: I don't like that expression. A person who has a phobia is someone who harbors fantasies. But the dangers posed by Islamists are real, and many Muslims' unwillingness to integrate in Germany is a serious problem. It isn't my problem when other critics exaggerate and their rhetoric gets out of hand. I can only speak for myself.

SPIEGEL: The respected historian Wolfgang Benz, who has been the director of the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University of Berlin for many years, is now drawing parallels between anti-Semitic agitators and extreme critics of Islam. According to Benz, they use similar methods to develop their stereotype of the enemy, for example by using deliberately distorted images and hysteria. Is there anything to what he's saying?

Abdel-Samad: You can compare anything with anything else. I don't see a relationship.

SPIEGEL: You are in the process of becoming the model Muslim for conservative politicians in Germany.

Abdel-Samad: What makes you say that?

SPIEGEL: German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of the conservative CDU, has appointed you to the German Islam Conference.

Abdel-Samad: Is that all? Yes, I have attended three meetings so far, and I think it's an interesting panel, one in which Muslims of many different stripes interact and debate in a civil way. It's a plus for Germany.

SPIEGEL: You accuse your fellow Muslims of continuing to search for scapegoats.

Abdel-Samad: Yes, instead of seeking faults within themselves. Perhaps the process I experienced is the process Islam needs as a whole, namely that everyone looks at themselves critically and stops constantly blaming others for their own misery and feeling like a victim. They should also liberate themselves from constraints. Bitterness and finger-pointing only lead to violence, and we have enough of that in the world.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Abdel-Samad, thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan