Ever since the Germans signed a contract with Turkey to bring in “guest workers” in 1961, Turks have poured in by the thousands, mostly from rural Anatolia. Germany’s most admired senior citizen and former chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, was opposed to the plan. There’s no way, he warned, uneducated folk from the hinterlands of a non-Christian country are going to blend in. There are going to be serious problems. Not to worry, said the decision makers, ignoring Schmidt’s advice. They’re only going to stay for a little while.
The decision makers were wrong. Once there, some went back, but many more chose to stay on. They had children and now those children have children and Germany has a Turkish minority population of over four million people, most of them Muslims. Many live in ghettos, and there is a sharp divide between those who have assimilated and those who have not. (For a brief summary of this history, see here.) While they are fewer than 5% of the total population, the lack of assimilation has led to social conflict. Some say they do not assimilate because of native German hostility; others say it's because they can't or won't without giving up their Islamic priorities.
A quick review of talk show topics in Germany will reveal that virtually all of them have, at one time or another, taken up such themes as “Is Islam Compatible with German (Western) Values?” The recent PEGIDA protest marches in Dresden speaks to this issue, as well. PEGIDA stands for Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamification of the West). And there is debate between those who argue this issue is just another media-generated problem and those who insist you have to be deaf, dumb and blind to miss it.
I have no interest in giving space to the xenophobes who argue Germany is a victim of cultural invasion, like the PEGIDA marchers. I mention them only to stress the importance of separating out the people who identify themselves as Muslims from the religion itself. When you don't do this, religion ends up on a pedestal and one ends up defending a (to my way of thinking) indefensible ideology instead of coming to the aid of individuals unfairly subjected to discrimination.
For me, one of the most interesting takes on the “Islamification” problem, or, as some frame it, Germany’s islamophobia problem, is the position taken by Hamed Abdel-Samad. Himself a secular Muslim, i.e., one who rejects the religion but embraces the culture associated with it, Abdel-Samad insists the way to go is to keep the discussion focused on the state, leaving religion to the private sphere. Germany, he says, is a constitutional democracy, and all efforts should be made to assure immigrants assume the same rights and responsibilities of the Grundgesetz (Basic Law = Constitution). While Muslims should be made welcome, in other words, the state has no business taking a position on Islam. In fact, the best course of action would be to follow the trend in German society toward secularism all around, and remove the support historically granted to officially-approved Christian and Jewish institutions.
That position has widespread support. But Abdel-Samad goes one step further. He argues not that Islam should be ignored, but that it must be ignored. The problem, he insists, is not islamophobia but hostility to Muslims, and he is careful to use that latter term (Muslimfeindlichkeit) rather than the term (Islamophobie) commonly used by politicians, social scientists and the media. Like the other two Abrahamic religions, he argues, Islam is based on a bronze age value system incompatible with the modern world. But unlike with Christians and Jews, whose cherry-picking of their foundational scriptures has enabled them to embrace the Enlightenment and humanistic values, Muslims are fundamentally, essentially, committed to the belief that their original texts are unchangeable. And without changes to the basic Islamic law, the shariah, - or at least a willingness to subordinate it to the Grundgesetz, Islam presents a real and present danger to German democracy. As evidence for his stance, Abdel-Samad asks anyone who disagrees with him to explain the status of women in the Islamic-defined nations (forty-seven countries have a majority Muslim population) around the world. Or the goals of Al Qaeda and ISIS. He has expanded on his position in his latest book Islamic Fascism.
And one more thing, in passing. In order to buy into the argument that Islam is essentially different from Christianity and Judaism - to take Hamed's argument seriously - one has to assume he is correct when he says the flexibility present in Christianity, which makes it possible for us to recognize that the born-again fundamentalists do not speak for Christians as a whole, for example, cannot be achieved in time in Islam, that they cannot come to embrace the "tradition" or the "magisterium" or the evolution of the heart of religion to include the influences of the enlightenment, as the Christians, for example, have done. To that objection, too, Hamed says, simply, "Look around. Tell me what you see in the Muslim world that suggests this possibility."
Abdel-Samad was not the first to put Islam and fascism together. In a 2007 Slate article, Christopher Hitchens traces the origin of the word islamofascism to an article in the Independent by Scottish writer Malise Ruthven, who was writing about how Arab dictators used religion to manipulate the masses in order to retain power. Hitchens asks whether Salafism or bin Ladenism has anything to do with fascism and reaches the same conclusion Abdel-Samad does:
Both movements [says Hitchens]are based on a cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind. ("Death to the intellect! Long live death!" as Gen. Francisco Franco's sidekick Gonzalo Queipo de Llano so pithily phrased it.) Both are hostile to modernity (except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons), and both are bitterly nostalgic for past empires and lost glories. Both are obsessed with real and imagined "humiliations" and thirsty for revenge. Both are chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia (interestingly, also, with its milder cousin, anti-Freemason paranoia). Both are inclined to leader worship and to the exclusive stress on the power of one great book. Both have a strong commitment to sexual repression—especially to the repression of any sexual "deviance"—and to its counterparts the subordination of the female and contempt for the feminine. Both despise art and literature as symptoms of degeneracy and decadence; both burn books and destroy museums and treasures.
The essential glorification of the state is missing in the various forms of “clerical fascism,” but, as Abdel-Samad points out, the chief goal of the Islamic State is the reconstitution of the medieval caliphate. Then there’s the whole notion of purity, not specifically racial, but in the need to eliminate the kufar, the profane.
In writing to a German-language audience, Abdel-Samad’s choice of the term fascism, sounds self-defeating to many. Why raise such a specter, they ask, inflate the problem and risk leading his audience to conclude the Islamic version is not actually all that bad, when the positive aspects of Islam are made plain? Why not just use the word totalitarianism? Isn’t the effect the same?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Will take that up in time. First, though, I want to lay out Hamed's polemic against the religion of Islam itself.
*I should be using the term “German-speaking” here, since Austria and Switzerland are dealing with the same issue in their own ways, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll limit my references to Germany, unless otherwise noted.