If I were a Moslem…

…Some more thoughts referring back to my last post and to the new Oxford Union Society’s video of Mehdi Hasan’s defense of Islam as a religion that does not allow the general defamation of all Moslems.

What I would do if I were a Moslem? I would, of course become an atheist… well not necessarily. The question is: Where would I position myself in the on-going debate of Islam? – “the religion of peace”; “the only true religion”; “the religion of terrorism and turmoil” – the question is intriguing for the German historian and the question whether Germans have to accept a guilt of their forefathers.

My position is here unambiguous. I would always accept the option of collective responsibility as the option of far wider political consequences. Once you accept responsibility (especially if you do not have to feel responsible – why should you? You did not kill anyone…) you can call for reforms from within – a German position, I guess. And, of course, I would read the Quran as a highly problematic book.

Am I “Islamophobic” with this statement? No. Just as I am not Germanophobic although I know what “we” Germans did in the last 100 years.

1) Identify with the problem. If you are German you know this debate of collective guilt. “We”, if I may use the collective pronoun of German identity, have exterminated six million Jews of all European nations only half a century ago, and that was not an accident. “We” had the necessary ideals to call for their extinction and we had not seen them as a problem. People were aware of anti-Semitism in the 1920s, and they did little to stop it. It had been part of the larger German culture in its range from Lutheran Christianity and Wagnerian music to the right wing production of trash newspapers and conspiracy theories.

After 1945 the majority of the German population felt no need accept a collective guilt. Who had blood on their fingers? Soldiers? They had been forced to do what they had done. The legal system? Our judges had been professionals; they had followed the laws. Some people had indeed organised concentration camps but even they had not been parts of chains of command. The nation, so the general claim, had to regain its integrity by getting back to its better ideals. Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven were Germans to identify with. Hitler, Goebbels and Eichmann had been criminals, and that again had not been apparent before 1945.

Politicians apologised on the international stage. The nation paid reparations and normal people felt it was highly unfair to accept any guilt. Left wingers took – in the late 1960s – the radical step to speak self-critically of what “we Germans” had done – though they were the least responsible. Socialists, communists and liberal intellectuals had been persecuted by the Nazis, and yet they were now, in 1968 and 1969, the groups who claimed that “we” had committed these crimes. The acceptance of collective guilt was a revolution. Why? Because once you begin to use the collective “we” and once you accept guilt you can define politics on a broader scale. (The problem is of course the alliance with external “strange bedfellows”. Any Moslem who sees his own religion as a problem will have “friends” from right wing Christian fundamentalists to left wing Western atheists – that is what makes the step so difficult.)

But how can I as a defender of Western pluralism – of pluralism within my own nation – promote such a simplifying collective “we”? Why not? Why should not a broad spectrum of people unite on some selected questions? Germans can unite on the point that “we” failed both as a nation and as a culture of highest moral principles in the 20th century. The consensus is practical and progressive. It rather supports a nation of various ideals and diverse subcultures. You lose this pluralism if you start to protect this “we” as sacrosanct and unblamable. Eventually I as an individual will always be able to specify that “we Germans” had a terrible national agenda only two generations ago, whilst I myself have my earliest recollections only in the 1960s, when all this was already fading away into the past. It is clear that I was not involved in any of the atrocities. Yet, I can remember the generation of my grandparents though, and I feel uneasy when I read letters they wrote in the 1930s – almost all of them supported the Nazi regime.

2) Chose the ground on which you have the debate, insist on secular grounds if you discuss how you want to live. The debate between Irshad Manji and Mehdi Hasan dealt with the reasons why Moslems should discuss all kinds of things on the basis of the Quran. Manji said, one would otherwise give extremists the unchallenged right to define what a Moslem identity really is. It was her solution that all Moslems should reclaim their personal right to read and interpret the Quran – as a book of liberalism and free thought. Manji pleaded for a mainstream defense of Islam which would then supposedly marginalise all extremists.

I feel extremely uneasy about this strategic option. “Reformist Muslims” should not underestimate the Quran. They will be defeated in theological discussions by extremists as soon as they try to turn the Quran into a book of modern ethics. Once they defend the Quran as a book of free thought and individualism they will struggle in a game of cherry picking against cherry picking which the extremists will win. This is a 7th-century text of immensely radical views. You might say that these views were progressive back then, yet that again will not make them progressive today. I doubt that it makes sense to use the word very word “progressive” in historical contexts.

Why not take the bold step and demand see your views accepted as your views? Why should I reinterpret the Bible or Hitler’s Mein Kampf in order to defeat Neo-conservatives and Neo-Nazis? I will fight Neo-Nazis with a look at Germany’s constitution, no matter whether they accept the constitution or whether they want to get rid of it. I will chose the battle ground, as it allows me to state my own position, and as it allows me to defend a wider agreement. The overwhelming majority of Germans will defend the constitution. They will criticise our parties, their politicians, the political class in general, but they will still use the constitution to fight against precarious laws these politicians want to pass.

If I were a Moslem discussing women’s rights in Afghanistan – I would not use the Quran to defend my position; I’d try to fight for a constitution (and a law court to defend this constitution) and I would defend my civil rights in that case. You lose if you fight on the wrong ground. If you discuss how you want to live – then a constitution is the ideal battleground because it is the battleground of a consensus we have to reach and to defend. If you think you can use the Quran to defend gender equality, you will lose on all sides: radicals will quote passages you will dislike, and they will win. Experts will show you, that you do not understand enough of this book. But what is worse (for the historian): You will hardly have a chance to read the Quran as it really is and was – you will always have to bear in mind your personal agenda. “This is a book of peace”, so your agenda, so no way to see the contrary even if it is blatantly obvious. Leads me to a third and professional point:

3) Chose the historical perspective. Are my Moslem friends the problem of Islam (a position discussed in the two videos in ugly attempts to defend the sacred text)? No. I love them for their very precepts. I trust them. Some are Moslems, some are ex-Moslems, most of them ex-Iranians. I even had stern Muslim believers as my guests who were not sure whether atheists or “women without honour” should enjoy the protection of laws. I confessed that I was one of the people that should be killed then… and still I saw no reason to fear them.

My personal feeling is that the problem is actually not the believer – to get back to Irshad Manji’s main argument – the problem is the Quran and the present political constellation.

Mehdi Hasan made a good point in the final turn of the debate when he challenged Irshad Manji to finally confess her religion. She wanted to be a Muslima, but was she not merely a deist? She was ready to agree – maybe she was a deist. You do not need the Quran to pose as a deist. It is the end of Islam.

As a historian I would disagree with Irshad Manji both on her proposal to reinterpret the Quran as the book of critical thought, and on her simple readiness to speak about all Moslems.

Moslems have actually created a wide range of options to safely live with the Quran – a book of immense intrinsic problems. They have learned to leave the interpretation to experts (to some extent a solution: now you can gather behind different experts of your choice). They have learned to pick the best verses and to turn them into superior verses. They have learned to love the book for its poetical sound – rather than its political content. They have developed a tradition of humanism. They have developed a strong tradition of personal search and mysticism in which you replace the text with the peaceful experience of a never ending quest of the divine.

I would say: The finest examples of culture we find in Islam are designed to defuse the problematic text. We should appreciate the culture that has learned to live with this problematic text.

As someone from a Christian, Lutheran, Calvinist, protestant, and central German background and as a historian I’d say: We in the West had to learn to live with the Bible – and it was actually far more difficult. Luther and Calvin pleaded for the individual as the sole interpreter of the Bible. They denied experts the right to be best interpreters – and caused a disaster for the next 250 years: Protestants got violent. They took the law into their own hands and they used the Bible as their guide. The early modern witch-hunts caused a regime of terror only after the reformation, and they were most terrible in those countries where the individual reading of the Bible was propagated as progress. The Bible did indeed legitimise the burning of witches. It actually called for their persecution. About 40,000 to 60,000 – mostly women – were executed in central Europe between 1480 and 1750 in the name of the Bible.


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Eventually we stopped the killings – not because the Bible told us so, but because we realised that we should create our laws in independent secular decisions.

We did not go back into the era of theological authorities and Bible experts. We began to rewrite the history of Christianity as a story of persecutions and we began to re-read the Bible as a potentially problematic book.

But what is left of Islam if we turn the Quran into an intrinsically problematic historical book? My answer is: The richest culture of schools, traditions and perspectives on life that has enabled Moslems all over the globe to remain and even become tolerant.

I have no problem to define myself as a Westerner who went through centuries of bloodshed and interreligious wars. “We” went through the Crusades, “we” went through the extinction of Christian minorities in Europe. “We” went through the witch hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries. “We” went through the era of Christian supremacy in which we legitimised slavery and colonialism all over the globe – often enough with a look at the Bible as a text of a global mission. I can easily say all this and I can still praise the wider culture that is now able to explore all this in university seminars – with a feeling of horror. “We” teach the terror at our schools as a thing of the past. “We” encourage our pupils to explore it. They may still be Christians – but they are Christians who have learned to live with a past of achievements and disasters. Though it sounds terrible: I will defend my perspective on the disasters of the Christian religion and of Germany’s National Socialism as an asset to return to in debates. I can use this history to call for more awareness. It is a rich history. What I defend exactly? Our ability to face this past. (I secretly admire Auguste Comte who did not say: let us forget this past of all the religions and persecutions, now that we have reached the secular era. Comte pleaded for the acceptance of this past. He provocatively revised the public calendar and filled it with everything we had to overcome. The critical integration of all movements is the productive step. It requires a certain readiness to use the collective “we”. The globalised “we” of collective responsibility remains an aim here.)

    Featured image: Eine erschröckliche geschicht, so zu Derneburg in der Graffschafft Reinsteyn, am Hartz gelegen, von dreyen Zauberin, unnd zwayen Mannen, Ist etlichen Tagen des Monats Octobris Im 1555. Jare ergangen ist. See the Wikipedia article on these executions.
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