Hamed Abdel-Samad has the honor – or the dubious distinction, if you prefer – of being known as Germany’s chief Islam critic. His views on Islam, that it is a form of fascism, a loaded word in Germany, are highly controversial. He is sometimes put together with Thilo Sarrazin, the “Muslims are coming!” alarmist whose 2010 book, Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany is doing away with itself) quickly became the best-selling book of the decade in Germany almost as soon as it was published. Sarrazin takes the Bell Curve position that intelligence correlates with ethnicity and race and warns that Muslims constitute a danger in Germany and in Europe. But Abdel-Samad insists it’s religion in its present form that is dangerous, and that what we should be aiming for is helping Muslims to form a secular cultural counterforce to Islam. There is no reason to see them in hostile terms. As one who identifies himself as a secular Muslim, one might argue his very existence takes the punch out of Sarrazin's assertions.
On the other hand, Abdel-Samad also illustrates what happens when Germany's Leitkultur ("core - i.e., 'original German' culture") is exposed to those from without. What seems to disturb defenders of tradition most about Abdel-Samad’s views is his broad brush. He goes for the throat, not just of Islam, but of all three Abrahamic religions. He considers all of them to be evil forces based on a violent ideology. That said, though, he is particularly down on Islam and finds no meaningful distinction to be made between Islam and Islamism. Always making a distinction between the ideology and the people who espouse it, however, he is quick to point out that it is possible to be a pious Muslim and dedicate oneself to democratic principles, albeit only by distancing oneself from Islam's essential teachings.
Most people argue that religion is what you make of it, that Islamism is the term for the radical literal fundamentalist forms of Islam, while the word Islam itself is the blanket cover term for the entire history and culture of the Muslim peoples. They insist that there is nothing “essentially” good or evil about religious doctrine; it’s how it is interpreted and put into practice that matters. Some, like the Viennese political scientist Farid Hafez, argue that Islamism shouldn’t be seen as a religious force at all, but a political one, and contrasts it with Islam and its message of peace.
I’m starting this informal coverage of Islam in the German-speaking countries with a review of the ideas of Abdel-Samad not because I share his views (although I actually do, to a large degree at the moment) but because I am more familiar with them and have a better chance, I believe, of doing his views justice than I have with others in the field at present. And I am limiting myself to Germany and Austria, and to a lesser degree the other German speaking countries, to keep the discussion from getting too broad and out of hand.
A brief biography
Hamed Abdel-Samad was born in 1972, the third of five children, in Giza, the part of Cairo where the pyramids are located. He describes his mother in glowing terms and his father as an intimidating patriarch who regularly beat his wife, a man whose influence he felt the need to run from. In time, however, Hamed’s father would become one of his strongest supporters. He stopped preaching at one point when his son became political and began to see himself as a failure as a husband and father. But he then went back into the pulpit to defend his son when a fatwa went out on him for his first book, The Fall of Islam. Hamed learned the Qur’an by heart as a child and had been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an imam.
At the age of sixteen Hamed left home. Alone now in Cairo, he struggled to find an identity of his own, first among Marxists, then, a year later, among the members of the Muslim Brotherhood, where he became an ardent anti-Semite. The fiercely independent streak that led to a quick disillusionment with the Marxists then worked its way again with the Brotherhood. He tells the story of a trip to the desert with a bunch of young recruits. In the stifling heat, all they had to eat was an orange. “Peal the orange,” their leader told them. “Now throw the orange in the sand and eat the peel.”
It was at that moment, Hamed says, that he realized these were people who would never have what it takes to run the world, that their only followers would be people who could not or would not think for themselves. This orientation to the world was not for him. He would be a free man.
While studying French and English at the university in Cairo he took a job at the airport, where he met a German woman who invited him to come live with her in Augsburg. He jumped at the chance. She was eighteen years his senior and the relationship quickly fell apart. For all sorts of reasons, apparently, and not just because of the age difference.
In a biography of Abdel-Samad written by Henryk M. Broder for Der Spiegel, Broder tells us that Abdel-Samad found Germany to be “a complicated machine with no operating directions.” He nonetheless threw himself into coming to terms with it, learned in the first four months to swim and ride a bicycle, and make sense of new concepts such as “overcoming the self” and “working on relationships.” In the process he managed to pass the qualifying exam for political science at the University of Augsburg. His master’s project deals with the isolation and humiliation Muslims feel in Germany, given their early religious upbringing.
Hamed Abdel-Samad has published three books thus far dealing with his own personal disillusionment with Islam and one on politics in the Arab world. Mein Abschied vom Himmel: aus dem Leben eines Muslims in Deutschland (My Departure from Heaven: From the life of a Muslim in Germany), came out in 2009, followed by Der Untergang der islamischen Welt: Eine Prognose (The Downfall of the Islamic World: A Prognosis) in 2010. His book on the Arab revolution followed in 2011 with the title, Krieg oder Frieden (War or Peace). In 2013, a television round table discussion with Abdel-Samad and two others (Herfried Münkler and Juli Zehon) on the future of politics would lead to a book with the title of Was steht zur Wahl? (What are the choices?) The following year, in 2014, he would publish Der Islamische Faschismus: Eine Analyse (Islamic Fascism: An Analysis).
Today, Abdel-Samad is the chief voice in Germany (and, probably elsewhere, as well) for the view that Europe ought to cease and desist concerning itself with Islam and whether it is compatible with Western values. It isn’t, he claims. Rather, he says, they should put those energies to work helping assure that Muslims who have come north in search of freedom and opportunity have every opportunity to get what they came for.
Whether you agree with him or not, he speaks with some authority on Islam. He has spent a lifetime building on his early knowledge of the Qur’an, and religion and politics more generally. At one point he broke off his quest for understanding how Germany works and went off to Japan, where he met and married his present wife, a Danish citizen with a Japanese mother, a student of philosophy with a special interest in Sartre and Kierkegaard. After working for a time with UNESCO in Geneva, he joined the department of Islamic Studies at the University of Erfurt, then the Institute for Textbook Research in Braunschweig, and eventually, in 2008, at the Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich, where he began to repair from the anti-Semitism (“although I had never met a Jew”) of his youth. In Munich, his dissertation dealt with the image of Jews in Arab textbooks.
Hamed is a member of the Giordano Bruno Society, a non-profit group working to support the notion of evolutionary humanism. One of the groups they support is the Central Council of Ex-Muslims.
Hamed is also a regular lecturer on the intersection of politics and religion in Islam and the place of Muslims in Germany and a frequent guest in interviews and debates and talk show discussions. To get an idea of the breath of his exposure, type in Hamed Abdel-Samad on the YouTube search line. Over 10,000 entries will show up. Fortunately, for English-speakers, some of these are available with English subtitles. This one, for example, a lecture given to the Giordano Bruno Society in Hamburg on the topic of his latest book, Islamic Fascism.