Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Islamic Fascism - the substance of the argument (Part 3 of 3)

In Der Islamische Faschismus: Eine Analyse (Droemer Verlag, München, 2014), Hamed Abdel-Samad makes a case for including Islam, in its original form, alongside Nazism and Stalinism as one of the three variant forms of fascist totalitarianism Western Civilization has had to contend with.  He argues that it drove conquest from its 7th century origins into modern times and its essentially fascist nature can still be seen today in such organizations as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State.   As you will see in the interview below, Abdel-Samad's reasons for calling Islam fascist are the following:
 ... The idea that the world can be divided into good and evil, the idea that comes out of a Fuehrer principal and the idea that its adherents see the rest of the world as their enemy.  That sees anti-Semitism as its raison-d’être  - Islamism and fascism are united in that.  The ideology that the masses glorify struggle and make battles sacred, martyrdom, death.  It's identical with the jihad principle in Islam.   One doesn’t fight to live; one lives to fight.   That’s what unifies Nazism and Islamism.  The concept of the chosen.  In Nazism it’s the Aryan race.  With Islamists, it’s the Islamic body of believers.  They are lifted above mankind, both morally and in human terms.   The dehumanization of the enemy.  That they take on the status of animals, that their entire destruction becomes a goal.   That binds Islamism to fascism.  

Islam is absolutist (the Qur’an cannot be subjected to criticism); it follows the Führer principle (Mohammad cannot be subjected to criticism or disrespect); it punishes apostasy; and seeks to establish itself, ultimately, as the sole power on earth.

Abdel-Samad’s polemic is to be distinguished from anti-Muslim tirades, like the best seller Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany is abolishing itself) by Thilo Sarrazin, the most popular book in a decade, which mirrors the pseudogenetic notions we saw in the United States in The Bell Curve,where an argument was made that certain groups of people were bringing down the intelligence level of the community.  Or the views of the Dresden PEGIDA protestors, who were looking at the social problems in Berlin and other big cities and trying to head them off by stopping further immigration.  All Sarrazin accomplished, he says, was to provide xenophobes with a leader and Muslims with justification for playing the victim.  His own goal, Abdel-Samad says, is to generate more useful discussion on the topic of how Germans with a non-immigrant background and Germans with an immigrant background can find common ground in a love for German democracy.  These new euphemisms are of consequence, since they make the point that Germans of Turkish and other immigrant origin are now well established as fully German citizens, and it’s no longer a case of  “Germans” vs. “immigrants.”

But rather than relate his ideas second hand, let me try to quote them directly as much as I can.  Abdel-Samad has given a large number of interviews in which he details the content of his book.  Let me cite some of his answers to one such interview he gave in Vienna with the Austrian writer, historian and journalist and public commentator, Peter Huemer.       

For the sake of readability, I will not reproduce the entire interview and I will take the liberty of summarizing and rewording some of the questions and answers, while making every effort to retain their accuracy.   The translation is mine.

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PH: It is my understanding that the fatwa imposed on you by Islamic authorities in Egypt resulted from your claim that there is something fascistic about Islam itself that goes back all the way to its origins, i.e., Mohammad, and that that was considered an insult to the prophet.  Do I understand that correctly? 

AS: Yes.  That lecture I gave in Cairo was focused on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, but I maintained that things did not begin with the Muslim Brotherhood but are grounded in the ancient history of Islam.   Islam has many faces.  It has a spiritual side, which I personally find very agreeable, a social teaching, which is important to a lot of people, which give comfort to a lot of people.  But Islam also has a legal and political side which has a fascistic character.   I like to say that Islam has a birth defect.  Islam was successful early on in its history.  It came to power in the lifetime of the Prophet and founded a state, in contrast to Christianity, which lived for three hundred years as a minority, which led it to allow the concept of secularism.  

In contrast to Jesus, who was on the world stage no more than eighteen to thirty months, Mohammad had to assume several functions at the same time.  He was Prophet, head of state, general, finance minister, lawgiver, judge and politician, all at the same time.  All of this got mixed in with the texts of the religion.  All this is to be found in the texts and runs counter to the idea of secularization.   Islam takes the position that a Muslim is a Qur’an on two legs.  That a muslim’s every day life is regulated, twenty-four hours a day, by the Qur’an.  Islam determines what you are to do before going to bed, when rising in the morning, what you are, how you are, what you say before eating, what you say after eating, how you are to behave on the toilet, what you say before and what you say after you perform your duties.  

And this orientation has something to do with a particular image of God, an image shared by the other monotheistic religions, but is in Islam’s case exaggerated.  A jealous God, who tolerates no other gods, a God that directs man from afar, that watches you twenty-four hours a day, knows your deed and your thoughts.  Who punishes your smallest crimes with the torture of hell, but who cannot be questioned himself.  An angry God.  All that is in Islam.  The Islamism of today didn’t fall from the trees.   It is founded in this history. 

PH:  OK, so this Islam of the 7th Century is a great success.  And this has to do with the fact, as you have just pointed out, that religion, politics, the military build a single entity.  Within one century a great kingdom was establish extending from Persia to the Atlantic, to Andalusia, an enormous accomplishment considering the infrastructure, roads, etc., of the time.  A giant logistic accomplishment.  And with the fact that from the early Middle Ages to the late Middle Ages, Islam was far superior to Christianity.  In science, in culture, whether you consider astronomy, mathematics, medicine – a thousand years ago they were performing operations.  You say Islam became a problem, but this dynamism was at least at the beginning a formula for great success. 

AS: Granted, that we see period between the 7th and the 11th centuries a golden time for Islam.  For the Arab and Persian governed states.    You say, “Islam was superior to Christianity.”   But was it really Islam that brought this culture into being?  That’s an important question. …

PH: …and let me add something here.  And it was far more tolerant of others than was Christianity.

AS:  You say Islam was more tolerant, and not the rulers of the day.  They were pragmatic, and had little to do with the Shariah.   Harun Al Rashid* sat in his palace and drank alcohol – according to Islam, he ought to be whipped for that.  He listened to music, there was dancing, there were poetry contests in his palace in which Muslims, Jews and Christians criticized each other’s religions.  

Mohammad was criticized in Harun Al Rashid’s court by a Jewish poet!   There was erotic poetry, including homoerotic poetry, all kinds of things forbidden by Islam.  The fact that a ruler is a Muslim does not necessarily mean that his regime is Islamic.  The fact that these countries were ruled by Muslims does not mean that it was Islam that brought philosophy, culture and science into being.  Just look at the cities in which this knowledge blossomed.   Baghdad, Cordoba, Cairo and Damascus.  Why these cities?  Why not Mecca and Medina, where Islam began?   Were Mecca and Medina ever cities of knowledge or cities where people of different religions lived together?   No.  Since the beginning of Islam, Mecca and Medina were made free of Jews and Christians.  They had to be driven out, and to this day are not allowed into the cities of Mecca and Medina.  There was never in Mecca and Medina the study of philosophy, the natural sciences, or all these wonderful accomplishments.   

What came into being in Cordoba, Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus was the mixing of different cultures, and distancing of the rule from the shariah.  That’s what made tolerance, and science, and living together possible.  And we can see from Islamic history that whenever one distanced oneself from the shariah, people of different religions were able to live together.  Because religion did not determine that everything was determined by a higher force.  And freedom was possible.  But as early as the 12th Century, both in Andalusia and in Baghdad, in came Islamic fundamentalists who insisted we can’t go on living like this, we have to introduce the shariah, we have to live by the laws of Islam, and in no time it came to pogroms.  In Granada, 4000 people were killed in one day – 4000 Jews.  Philosophers like Averroes were driven out, sent into exile, because the religious leaders held them as apostates.  We have to keep these two things separate – Muslim rule and Islamic rule. 

PH: That means, if I understand you correctly, that the question of that time was whether the Qur’an should be interpreted, or whether it should be taken literally for all time.   And it was the orthodox forces who came to power, those who insisted on taking the text literally.  Even if it is 500 years old (at that time).  And with that began the fall of Islam?

AS: Yes.  Earlier, the rulers were pragmatic and understood that they had to allow certain freedoms.  They had to listen to the expertise of the Jews and the Christians and the Alawites, and learn from other minorities, and integrate.  If we do that, we can develop economically.  But there were certain events in Islamic history that stopped that development.  The Crusades played a role.  And the invasion of the Mongols played a role.  But these events cannot be used as an excuse for the retrograde movement of Islam.  All they were doing was what Islam had done previously.  When they had the power, they invaded and determined how things would be run locally.  The question is why one became weak…

PH: A counter argument…  When you read the texts of the Arab historians, they write of the Barbarian Invasions, i.e., the Crusades, and about the sacking of Jerusalem, where, for all practical purposes the entire Jewish and Christian population was murdered – the Jews retreated into their synagogues and the Christian knights rode in circles around them as they burned – just as the Nazis did – this kind of genocidal killing I just don’t see in the early days of the Islamic movement. 

AS: But how did Islam come to Egypt and Iraq and Syria?  The locals were given the choice: convert, pay taxes or die.  Those were military units, or bands, no different from ISIS today.   My Egyptian ancestors were not Muslims.  They were Copts who were forced to convert.  At first, they could get away with paying a tax, and there was actually an economic advantage for the rulers to not having them convert.  There’s a story about a tax administrator who, when faced with Christians who wanted to convert, said no – you remain Christians.  It’s better for you and better for me.  All that changed with the Crusades, when the Muslims enforced the protection of the Christians.  What you saw in Mosul, where the houses of Christians were marked with an N – (Nasari = Christian)*** – all that dates back to the time of the Crusades.   

But this came with laws that prevented Christians from repairing their churches or building new ones.  These laws apply to this day in many Islamic states.  There were even laws that requiring that their clothing show their faith.   They had to cut their hair off in front, and were forbidden to part their hair – that was limited to Muslims.  That’s the reality of life under the shariah.   There were times in history when the shariah was set aside, and at those times people were able to live together.   You can’t say “Islam” was more tolerant than “Christianity”.  You have to say that certain Muslim rulers, the ones that had the least to do with religion, made this possible.    That’s how history needs to be corrected.  I know that certain scholars of Islam and Islam experts make the claim that Islam is responsible for this freedom.  It wasn’t.  It was political pragmatism, and economics. 

PH:  If we go back to the 7th Century, soon after Mohammed’s death, we find a catastrophic split into Shiites and Sunnis tied up with the murder of caliphs, so yes, it’s true that this disastrous tradition entered Islam very early on.  And a second thing, which you mention in your book Islamic Fascism, around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press with moveable type, and the Muslim theologians succeeded, right up to the time of Napoleon, around 300 years later, in preventing the importing of the printing press into the Arab world.   That is an unimaginable catastrophe that has consequences even today.   I remember reading once what Karl Marcus Gauss said.  He pointed out that today, there are more books being translated into modern Greek than into Arabic.  There are ten million Greeks, and there are three hundred million Arabs, and the majority of books translated into Arabic are religious texts.    And that’s an unimaginable catastrophe and unbelievable atrophy that goes back to this decision, to prevent the printing press. 

AS: Yes.  I call that, in the book, the mortal sin of the Ottomans.  Because the rulers of the Ottoman Empire refused to introduce the printing press.  Without the printing press, Martin Luther would be meaningless.  Without the spread of the theses the Enlightenment would not have taken place, modern science would not have come into being.  The printing broke the monopoly on knowledge that was in the hands of the church and the princes, and privatized knowledge and gave access to knowledge to the average person.  People could read not only their Bibles, but  also secular works, critical and philosophical texts,  and that led to the Enlightenment.  The Ottoman Empire, especially the religious scholars, were afraid that the printing press would lead to a widespread distribution of the Qur’an, and that would mean the Qur’an could be falsified and that would mean the loss of control over the Qur’an.   

And this motivation has continued for a very long time.  The fear of touching the holiness of the text.  The fear of counterfeiting of the text.  In my view, that’s what prevented the Islamic world from becoming critical of their own history.  To escape this lack of maturity – as Kant says when he speaks of enlightenment as “man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” – that one stops leaving it to others to make decisions.  That’s why he said, “Have courage!”  Use your own reasoning.  And it’s exactly that that the religious scholars rejected.    

The printing press actually came a little earlier.  It came to Constantinople in 1729 and to Egypt in 1798 with Napoleon.  But even then, these machines could print only worldly texts and no religious texts.   And what an intellectual ossification came from that.  Three hundred, three hundred fifty years were stolen from us.  We had no idea what was going on on the other side of the Mediterranean.    

In the middle of the 18th century wonderful ideas were spreading – the ideas of Kant and Voltaire and Rousseau and Spinoza and there was a critical relationship to one’s own religion and one’s own society and political theories were developed.  And what’s the parallel in the Islamic world?  Especially in the Arab world?  In the middle of the 18th century?  Wahhabism.  The most radical form of Islam that we have.   Islam missed all discussion of how to deal with their own texts, how to relativize them.  That’s what the enlightenment accomplished, to create a certain distance between man and his ideas.  

With this distance it is possible to look critically at one’s own society and thus to develop it.  But when self-criticism is seen as a sin, when new thoughts are seen as a danger, when a harmless printing press can be declared to be a work of the devil, one can see why the Islamic world is 500 years behind. 

PH: Still, are we not to be thankful for the fact that Greek knowledge and science, that the Bhagavad Gita was protected in the monasteries.  Europe needs to be grateful to the Arabic/Persian culture for …

AS: Europe has the Arab/Persian culture to thank for a great many things.    Europe has no need to thank Islam for anything

PH: I should have said the Arabic/Islamic culture.  It’s not the Arabic/Persian but the Arabic/Islamic culture  

Take note here that Peter Huemer completely misses Abdel-Samad's point that it wasn't "Islam" that was responsible for transmitting Greek knowledge and science, but the Arabs and Persians working beyond the influence of Islamic doctrine.…  

And now I want to talk about a definition:

There are many political scientists who see fundamentalist Islam, i.e., Islamism,  as the third variant of totalitarianism, after fascism and Stalinism.  But you chose to use the term fascism.  I’m surprised by that.  For me, the leading definition of fascism is Reinhard Kühnl’s.  He defined it as a pact between the old elite and a new mass movement.  Take Nazism as an example. In Germany, the old elite was the military, the industrialists and the banks and large landowners, that is the old nobility and the higher bureaucracy, and they united with a new mass movement, and that’s the National Socialist Party.  And that leads to something explosive, and new.  And that’s not what I see in this case.  I don’t see a mass movement with Islamism.

AS: Iran 1979?

PH: 1979, yes.  But what about with the Islamic State?  And that leads me to another question.  Is Islamicism modern or anti-modern?    Nazism, in the end, was a modernist movement at the time.  Islamism, as it presents itself to us, is it not a form of anti-modernism? 

AS: It depends on how you define modern.  In terms of technology, then yes.  But modernity is essentially an intellectual attitude, and intellectual history, and Nazism was light years removed from that.  Modern means stress on individualism, on personal freedom and free thinking, critical thinking.  All that was missing in national socialism.  For that reason National Socialism was for me an anti-modern, anti-enlightenment, movement, exactly as Islamic is.  

You have used a definition of fascism that is limited to the outward structure.   I would define it differently, first in terms of ideology, then of organizational structure, and then of its goals.  And that’s where Islamism and fascism meet, in my understanding.   The idea that the world can be divided into good and evil, the idea that comes out of a Fuehrer principal and the idea that its adherents see the rest of the world as their enemy.  That sees anti-Semitism as its raison-d’être  - Islamism and fascism are united in that.  The ideology that the masses glorify struggle and make battles sacred, martyrdom, death.  It's identical with the jihad principle in Islam.   One doesn’t fight to live; one lives to fight.   That’s what unifies Nazism and Islamism.  The persecution complex.  The concept of the chosen.  In Nazism it’s the Aryan race.  With Islamists, it’s the Islamic body of believers.  They are lifted above mankind, both morally and in human terms.   The dehumanization of the enemy.  That they take on the status of animals, that their entire destruction becomes a goal.   That binds Islamism to fascism.

When it comes to the organizational structure, I’ve already mentioned the Führer principle, the strong hierarchy,  the idea of the infallibility of the leader, the terror militia, which they copied – there was a relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood of the day and the Nazi Germany and the militia was built on the model of the SA and the SS to reach their ends.  

Then we come to the goals.  And that’s where it becomes clear that national socialism has little to do with modernity.  NS wanted to roll back society to old family structures, to old social structures.  NS proceeds from the assumption that all men “tick” the same, that they must all have the same goals and that there must be a uniforming of the masses.  That unites fascism and Islamism.  Surveillance, mistrust of individualism, of art, of divergent creative energy, all that was seen as a danger, by both fascists and Islamicists, and the skepticism of the state as a site of decadence.  Islamicism has as its goal to eliminate individualism and make the masses into a block,  and the highest goal of both is world domination.  They both proceed from the assumption they have an inherent right to rule the world.  

If these many similarities are not sufficient … I’ve put them together to reveal the similarities and the dangers and the effect on and the fascination of the masses, all this is far more interesting than the distinctions that people, especially fascism scholars are arguing no no no, they’re not the same thing.   Those foreigners, first they take our jobs away and now fascism too? 

PH: I’ll stop with the pursuit of a definition, except to say what you have described applies as well to totalitarianism.   But let’s move on.  You said at one point, “Islam has certain fascistic tendencies that are evident in Islamism.”  No normally we make distinctions between Islam and Islamism.  But if I understand you correctly, you don’t dwell on this distinction, but for you it’s a fuzzy area. 

AS: As I see it, it’s fuzzy for Islam itself.  The transition from one to the other is very fluid and non-transparent between Islam and Islamism.  I used to belong to those who made a sharp distinction between the two until I realized the distinction is of no use to anybody, and actually it is more useful to the Islamists.  Islam is perfect, they say.  But there are a few people who misunderstand the Qur’an, and misuse Islam.  That's a very dangerous notion, because it opens the door to the notion that there will always be new forms of Islam.  Others will come along and say, "The IS people, they had it wrong.  Follow us.  We'll get the real political Islam right."  That's what they all say.  The IS people say, “Al Qaeda was wrong, but we are the ones who will apply the correct Islam politically.    The Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, Boko Haram, AKP in Turkey, all old wine in new skins.  

Fascism was ultimately defeated in Germany and there was a rethinking.  But people did not conclude that racism was a correct policy, just misapplied by the Nazis.  No.  People noted that that was the ideology itself.  And that it is us human beings that allowed ourselves to be misled by this ideology.  And that one is missing the opportunity in the Muslim world to name the heart of the problem correctly.   Either for centuries one fails to recognize the illness, or one situates the sickness elsewhere and calls it something else.  Either one refuses to take medicine or takes the wrong medicine and the problems multiply.  And I find that we are living in a time when Islam is developing into a ticking time-bomb.

PH: Islam?  Islam?

AS: Naturally, Islam.  What else?  I’m interested in a solution.  That’s why I call the illness by its name.  The sickness is anchored in Islam itself.  And when you don’t call this problem out for what it is, then one treats the outward infections but fails to address the tumor itself.  We’ve danced around the problem in the Muslim world and here in Europe for a very long time.  We’ve swept the problem under the carpet.  The increasing violence of Islam is a result of a failed educational policy in the Islamic world and a failed policy of integration in Europe. 

PH: I think we are in agreement that there is no such thing as the Muslims and a single Islam, that there is a multitude of…

AS: We are not in agreement.  I agree that there is no such things as the Muslims.  There is an enormous variety, from Sufis from Mali, who behaves quite differently from a Sunni from Saudi Arabia, or an Alawite from Syria or an Alavite from Turkey.  There are Shiites and Sunni and many streams and variations and there is no shortage of Muslims who long ago depoliticized their Islam.  In my view they are peaceful not because they are Muslims, but peaceful although they are Muslims.  But one Islam.

PH: But there are so many varieties! 

AS: Yes.  But actually, politically, within Islam all these differences are relatively uninteresting.  Maybe for ethnologists and other scientists and for people interested in different varieties of dance, then maybe it’s interesting.  But from a political perspective, it’s not interesting, because there it’s not a question of what divides Muslims, but what unites them.  And that’s Islamism.  And that’s the idea of the caliphate and of the introduction of the shariah.  The idea that it’s not man, but God who is the lawgiver.  That the laws of God are neither malleable nor negotiable.  And that’s the problem.  And that is the Islam.  Not a kind of Islam, but Islam.  Mainstream Islam.  The fact that there are many Muslims today who have grown up with the modern, who think liberally, who can think freely, who can draw positive elements out of their religion, of course, they are thinking people.  Many Muslims are against the idea of hacking off hands and beheading unbelievers.  But Islam is not against these things.  These Muslims, are for us an opportunity and I think when we in Austria or in Germany want to have partners, then we should extend our hand to these thinking Muslims instead of strengthening conservative communities and giving them a political leg up.

PH: Let’s see if I understand you correctly.  There is a variety of Muslims, but Islam itself you consider to be incompatible with democracy. 

AS: Neither Islam, nor Christianity, nor Judaism are compatible with democracy.  (loud applause)   They were not established to be compatible with democracy.  They come from another time.  They were politically neutralized and established under democracy.  I think in Europe Christianity and Judaism have found a way to play another role, under democracy, with new duties.  We are not done yet with the process of secularization.  Austria still has a lot to do.  We need another Joseph II to bring more secularization to this country.  That’s the problem with Islam.  Christianity and Judaism lived a long time as a minority and found a way to accommodate secularism.  Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar…”  But Mohammad himself was Caesar!  It was already too late.  And this duality between Caesar and the pope, created a space for politics which never existed in Islam.  This duality is missing.  Islam sees itself as the last message from God to man, the last book that God wrote personally, addressed directly to mankind.  That is an incredible demand.  Before God became silent forever more, he spoke directly to us, and left us with this final message, there is no way Islam can become part of democracy.  Islam cannot become part of anything!  It must determine everything from above.  And that is the very heart of Islamic fascism. 

PH:  OK.  So the monotheistic religions, if we follow Jan Assman, are since Moses, all three especially dangerous, murderous religions, and naturally the crusades have something to do with Christianity, and naturally the executions under Franco have something to do with Christianity.  And on the other side, naturally the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has something to do with Islam.  The question, on the one hand, naturally, is whether one can see this as a deformation or as abuse of religion.  And I concede, Christianity took a long time. I mean the pope once sang the praises of fascism.  It was only with Vatican II fifty years ago that a reconciliation took place between Christianity and democracy.  But I think it wasn’t due just to a loss of power of the Catholic Church, but the idea that religions can change in substance and in their basic structure.  My question is to what degree do you think this change is possible in Islam?  And to what degree will this concept of abuse by the likes of the Islamic State be accepted?

AS: In essence, religions don’t change by themselves, but must be forced to change from without.  But something happened in Christianity which did not take place in Islam.  When the Reformation took place, when one was no longer in agreement with the Catholic Church,  Luther’s approach was to return to the teachings of Jesus as a model.  And one can build on that.  He didn’t kill anyone.  He didn’t impose any inquisition, he didn’t start any crusades, he even taught the contrary.  He said love your enemies, who among you is without sin cast the first stone.  I’m not a Christian, have no intention of converting and am critical of all religions equally.  But when one sees these differences, then one can see that the crusades, and the inquisition and the witch burnings are a deformation and an abuse of Christianity.  At least of the teachings of Jesus.  But why are we talking of Khomeini and Hamas and Al Qaeda and Boko Haram as a form of abuse.  It’s a way of reading (the Qur’an), not an abuse.   When you go back to the figure of Mohammad,  you have to recognize that he conducted wars, beheaded people, drove Jews from their homes, and imposed his religion with the sword.  That may have been normal for his time, and I don’t want to judge him by the standards of today.  My problem comes when he is presented as a model for life in the 21st Century.  That’s when I consider what he did as crimes against humanity.

We have to make a deal.  I won’t insult the Prophet and the Qur’an, but they must remain in the 7th Century.  And not mix in with our affairs in the 21st.  Many Muslims have already accomplished that in their heads.  But the IS people proceed from the assumption that the message applies forever, that what is to be found in the Qur’an is not just for the 7th Century but applies to the 21st.   That what applies to the non-believers of then applies to the non-believers of today.  It’s not an “abuse” but a direct… they are not “interpreting”.  The people who are “interpreting” are the Muslim theologians who find themselves in a dilemma.   On the one hand they are a part of the modern world, and they are ashamed of such things as cutting off hands, and so they diddle with the verses in the Qur’an in such a way as to make them compatible with today.  They pick at a few raisins in a stone hard cake and tell us they have found proof that Islam is a religion of peace.  The fact that their interpretation makes them more sympathetic to us does not mean that their interpretation is correct. 

PH: When I listen to what you say, then I have trouble understanding why Islam needs theologians. 

AS: Exactly. 

PH: It’s a power position that established itself in the high middle ages and now it’s all set in stone.  Anybody who wants to read it can read it.  There is no interpretation to be made.   So who needs theology?  OK.  I want to move on to something else.  We’re sitting here in the Education Center of the Labor Chamber.  The Labor Chamber has many Muslim members.   They will say that what’s going on in Syria and Iraq is gruesome.  Something terrible is going on.  But it doesn’t have anything to do directly with us here.  Only what we are experiencing here directly is the general suspicion that falls on all Muslims.  And you are criticized for inciting criticism of Muslims.  What are we to say to these people?

AS: That’s a problem that has to be taken seriously.  But anybody who has read what I have to say can see that while I minimize the difference between Islam and Islamicism, I make a huge distinction between Islam and Muslim people.  Many people think a Muslim is a Qur’an on two legs and he or she goes around applying everything that is written in the Qur’an.  No.  Most Muslims have neutralized those things…

PH: So in your interpretation, the good Muslims are the less pious Muslims. 

AS: No.  I didn’t say that.  One can be both pious and secular.  People who limit their religion to the spiritual and make no political demands.  Among my friends there are a number of believing Muslims who are secularists and democrats, people who understand that the demands of the Qur’an do not apply in the modern age.  I had a wonderful grandmother who prayed five times a day, who taught me much, much love and warmth, and she was never violent or radical.  It’s important to stress that.  But I protest that my book is against Muslims or that it creates hostility to Muslims.  

What you said earlier, that the IS have misunderstood the Qur’an and abuse it for their violent and hate and resentment.  The Qur’an, God’s book.  God himself can’t prevent the abuse of his book, and me, a mere mortal, am supposed to defend my book against misinterpretation?  [laughter]  I know that Muslim organizations try to bully me with this logic.  They say, you know, with your appearances and your writing you make life difficult for us.  There have been charges of rabble-rousing.  But when I see that there are some Muslims who are highly incensed that I should publish a book with this title, or that a certain cartoonist from Denmark who sketched the Prophet with a virtual bomb in his head, then they go wild.  They go into the street and 150 people died at that time.  But when the IS runs around with a flag with the name of Mohammad on it, and they march and they massacre people, suddenly they don’t get excited.  For me that’s a part of the problem.  And I challenge Muslims with my books.  Take this criticism seriously.  And react with books and articles, and not with hatred and rage.  And not with the role of the victim.  We are not victims here.  We are citizens.  We have the opportunity here in Europe to play the role of the citizen.  In fact, we have a responsibility to Muslims in the countries where dictatorships have grown up, who cannot develop any free theology, cannot express any thoughts freely.  That’s my criticism.  Not of the normal Muslim, the technical worker, not on the mothers at home.  

I don’t expect these people to take action and make excuses for the deeds of the radicals in Iraq and Syria, but I do ask of the Muslim intellectuals that they at long last finally stop this PR for Islam.  The problem we have with Islam is not an image problem, but a problem that Islam has with itself.  The problem Islam has with the interpretation of its own texts, with its political demands, with the establishing of equality between men and women, with the nurturing of hatred, with this message of fear, fear of hell,  those are the kinds of things which terrorists make use of when they are not debated and discussed.  Believe me.  I’m not a problem for Islam.  I’m a symptom.  I’m pointing to the problem.  When I see that a house is burning, and I start shouting, "Hey this house in on fire," then you can’t attack me for disturbing the peace.  

We don’t have that luxury.  We’ve got much more serious problems than image problems.  I’m against racism, and we can fight racism only when we name the problems clearly and seek solutions.  As long as we dance around the problem of Islam, then we give space for the right wing to take control of the problem.   These topics belong in the middle of society,  in politics, and it’s time to stop avoiding these problems because of a fear of being saddled with the charge of being racists.    When we writers and politicians are to speak honestly with Muslims about the problems, then we will develop a sensibility in the general public.  But when we start with the assumption that all criticism stems from a kind of islamophobia and block it, then we defame not only Muslims but a majority of people in Austria and Germany.  A phobia is an illness.  The fears people have in regard to Islam are not an illness.  These fears are real.  And justified.   And should be taken seriously. 

PH: You say that there is such a thing as islamophobia, but that the term is misused.

AS: I reject the term islamophobia.  This term is a political construct.  The first person to use it was the Ayatollah Khomenei, in order to describe the attitude of the west, especially American.  Then along came the islamophile scholars and researchers from Germany and America.  Then came a business man from Saudi Arabia by the name of Al-Waleed bin Talal who financed some twenty centers in the USA for Near East Studies and Islamic Studies and suddenly the term islamophobia was on everybody’s lips and in all these centers.  You can’t take this seriously.  What I do take seriously, I prefer the term “Muslimfeindlichkeit” (hostility to Muslims).  I was a member of the Islam Conference in Germany and the leaders wanted to establish the term “Islamfeindlichkeit” and I said no, it’s “Muslimfeindlichkeit” that is the problem.  Because we can limit it and define it.  Hostility to Muslims is when a Muslim wants a job, and because of his name he doesn’t get that job.   That’s a disgrace, and something we should fight against.   But what is “hostility to Islam” – when I say “In Sura 4, verse 34 it says a man may beat his wife” and I detest this verse.  Does that make me “hostile to Islam”?  Should I go on trial?   No.  I may, if I choose, take certain things in Islam and be hostile to them.  

And it’s particularly Muslims who have to fear what’s in Islam, since it’s primarily Muslims who are the victims of Islamism.

PH: To criticize religion, and the representatives of the religion, is in a western enlightened society obviously a right.  And the applies to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc..  That’s not the issue, but what there is that you don’t want to subsume under islamophobia, is a general prejudice against Muslims.  In Austria and in Germany.  And it’s a kind of general suspicion which these people live under.  It has to do with the fact they represent different cultures, and it has to do with the question of whether they are compatible with our democracy.   And that is in fact a problem. 

AS: It’s a problem that concerns all of society, but it’s also a problem with the way the Muslim communities and Muslim intellectuals present themselves.   If they were to be self-critical and engage in discussion about the problems that we have and take a stand against them, this problem would diminish.  But there is this general impression that they are all hiding under a blanket, they never speak the truth.  Just look at the public Muslims in Austria.  I just had a discussion with a couple of them in ORF.  They can’t come out with an honest opinion.  They always have to take into consideration who their clients are and who pays for them, domestically and internationally.  That’s very problematic.  Only an honest debate can draw the poison out of this climate.

We need a new formula.  I understand Austria has a long tradition of working with Muslim organizations, but I think these arrangements are not longer appropriate for today and they should be renegotiated.  The question of Islamic instruction has be be renegotiated. 

PH: That’s happening now in Austria.

AS: Exactly.  But too late.  That should have been done in 2009 with that study published by Mr. Khorchide** in which it was revealed that 22% of the Islam instructors in Austria are anti-democratic.  We now have teachers, financed by the state, presenting anti-democratic and violent ideological ideas in the schools.   When that study was published, it was a golden opportunity for both the state and the community of believers as well as the secular intellectual Muslims.  But what happened?  From the community of believers the study was blocked and called the scientific validity of the study in question.   Not true.  All our teachers are so dear and democratic and nice.  And “Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen” (love, peace and harmony) and that’s the kind of thing that causes anxiety in the land, that they don’t see that this is in our own interest to identify these teachers.  What did the state do?  They called the teachers together and they had to fill out a form.  That is to say, “Starting today, I’m a democrat.”  It’s all eyewash.  That’s when the Muslim community itself should have stepped in and cleaned itself up. 

I am a secular man.  I think it is wrong that this discussion of integration is constantly islamicized and dumped on the Muslim community.   That’s wrong.  We are integrating people.  Individuals.  Not groups.  Not mosques.  Not churches.  Religion is a private thing.  I’m opposed to Islamic instruction in schools for a variety of reasons.  It’s not the job of the state to transmit religious truths to children.  Rather, the school should offer a balance to that which is taught in the family and in the mosque.  Critical thinking.  Questioning of religious truths.   Those are our citizens of the future.  And not religious communities in need of protection.  That’s no solution for integration.  It’s my opinion that – I don’t want to make a generalization of all mosque communities, but many of them have no interest in integration.  Rather they thrive on the skepticism the Muslims have about Austrian society.  It is in this gap that they thrive.   And that’s what they have to offer to Muslims.  And that’s why they should not be involved in integration.  Integration begins precisely with the emancipation from these faith communities. 

PH: Good.  I grant you that religion should be taught as cultural history with the significance of religion in society...

AS: It should be called “Religionskunde” (the study of religion) and not “Islam”. 

PH: Right.  But I would take issue with what you say about taking religion out of the schools.  Particularly at this time, when there is a new law governing the teaching of religion by the state, I consider that a giant step forward, because when you take it out of the schools, what happens is exactly what you fear most, it gets it wanders away into the back alleys and that gives precisely those people access as religion teachers that we don’t want teaching about religion.   It must be controlled by the government – and I know this is a border area between freedom of opinion and religious freedom – it’s my opinion that it has to be strongly controlled what is taught in the schools, and it has to be in strongly controlled what is taught in the mosques.   

And now I’d like to turn to something else you brought up.  There were intensive demonstrations in the summer when Israel bombed Gaza and Muslims died.  In this instance, Muslims were the victims of bombing.  In the case of the IS, it’s Muslims who are the perpetrators.  And the victims too are almost entirely Muslims.  But there have been no demonstrations so far because the perpetrators are Muslims.  That’s the negative part.  Then last August, in Die Furche, the Catholic weekly in Vienna, I read, “How does the Muslim community stand in regard to the Islamic State?  The rejection is widespread, yet in the media this fact is largely overlooked or not taken seriously.  

In the meantime, in France – and this is connected with the murder of the Charlie Hebdo people, and in Germany – there are demonstrations by Muslim officials who say, “Enough with this barbarism.”  And in the U.S. and Britain, there is the “Not in My Name” movement.  That means that’s a beginning.  Muslims in responsible positions are standing up and saying that is an abuse of our religion and we want to have absolutely nothing to do with it.  Those are criminals.  I consider that hopeful.  There are I don’t know how many hundred million Muslims in Europe.  I’d like to see large Muslim demonstrations in the cities that make it clear that this is not our Islam.  It would be especially nice if we non-Muslims could march alongside them, because that would build a community.  And a large demonstration like this, which should be organized by Muslims, that’s something I am hoping for.

AS: It is of course always praiseworthy when representatives of Islam take such initiatives,  and start a movement.  It comes, in my opinion, a little late.  Time to reject the IS was sooner rather than saying, “What does that have to do with me?  This has nothing to do with Islam.”  That’s where the problem begins, when people try to push this problem away from Islam because that eliminates the possibility of a critical engagement with the religion itself.  Instead, the Muslim organizations began in the same week as the Gaza War a giant movement of all Muslims – the Muslim brotherhood was of course a part of this – against the war – egged on by the Turkish government because it’s in the interest of the head of government in Turkey.  There were many many Muslims in the street in the same week.  I'm talking about the representatives.  There are few Muslims who approve of what IS is doing.  That’s a fact.  But the representatives, those people who speak in the name of Islam hesitates, washed their hands in innocence.  

Then the pressures started.  There were a couple of mosques set on fire, the details are still not clear.  But then they combined the two topics.  I think that was a mistake.  It’s clear we’re all against burning down mosques.  But by putting the two things together, it makes a statement, “I’m against what the IS is doing, but I am also a victim.”  Reminds me of an Egyptian joke.  There was a watchmaker who wanted both to place a notice in the paper about the death of his son and to place an advertisement about his business.  He didn’t have enough money to do both, so he published one notice:  “I mourn the death of my son and I repair watches.”  That's what the Muslim leaders in Germany did.  They should have just gone into the street and said we are against the IS, period.  But this…

PH: We are in agreement that this would have been the best way to prevent enemies of Islam, however you define them, set fire to mosques.  But before we end, I want to pose a question that will no doubt be directed to you.  When you were a student you were a Muslim brother.  Why did you leave?

AS: I was with them for two years.  It’s the typical story.  I came from a village, was all alone in Cairo, didn’t have any friends, felt alone in the masses, had no way to express myself politically, and there was a death in the family and I couldn’t deal with it.  I needed this organization.  And they were super at the beginning.  They take you in, give you support, then you begin to feel important, you take on a role and a long-term project.  That's very important for young people.  Then suddenly comes the indoctrination and brainwashing.  I am a born sceptic and I began to see that these were people interested in substituting one dictatorship for another.  The way they dealt with us, blocked criticism, denied things, double talk - outwardly they talked about reform, and among themselves talked about taking over - that led to serious doubts and I began to realize I was on my own.  There was a time when they marched us into the desert in a terrible heat.  We each had an orange to eat.  After hours we were excited to finally have something to eat and drink and began to peel the orange when the leader says to us, “Now put the orange in the sand and eat the peel.  It was at that moment that I realized that there was no way such men as these were capable of constructing a working state.  The only people they could control would be those who followed them blindly and didn’t think for themselves.   We know that from all kinds of groups – not just Muslim ones -  and I’m glad I had that experience, because it taught me what they think, how they operate, what they say publicly and what they say privately.  

That’s why I remain skeptical when I hear their protestations about democracy.  I know what they think and am glad I got out.  It would have been fatal for me.  I might have become one of the radicals.  So many things go into the fascination, world conquest, jihad, changing the world, but also inferiority complex of the individual – a mixture, actually, of inferiority complex and the vision of power.  And that brings us back again to the comparison between fascism and Islam.  This combination of humiliation, illness and the lust for revenge.

PH: Last question.  In your book, The Fall of the Islamic World, a prognosis: If Islam does not fail in Europe what is the faith community, and how should they behave if they want to prevent this downfall, since there is a universal suspicion against these people, a massive hounding of these Islam and Muslims (sic)

AS: I don’t know how much the communities themselves are capable of changing themselves from within.  They have to be forced to change from two sides.   Normal Muslims have to stand up and say “Not in my name.”  They have to say to these representatives, “You don’t represent me.”  No matter what you say, the Qur’an is much older and it is constantly being called into question.   And the state needs to stop valuing the Islamic organizations so highly.  Not treat them like the Oracle of Delphi whenever there is a problem.   The way to go is this: Muslims are people.  They are children in kindergarten and school, they are workers, they are a part of this society.  And the way you take part in society is to become a part of the organizations, the economy.  

And these false debates don’t work.  One doesn’t solve problems debating whether there should be more minarets or bigger or smaller mosques.  Instead, we need to invest more in these people.  People who need emancipation.  They need help in learning how to think critically.  They will change their communities eventually.  For Islamic intellectuals, the biggest danger comes from outside.  What happens in Islamic history.. they are living with great difficulties, an increase in population, badly led educational programs that lead automatically to radicalization.  What we see in Syria and Iraq, is increasingly in places like Yemen and Libya.  Algeria may break apart.  And who knows what may happen in Saudi Arabia.  Now there’s a big issue.   

We are sitting here in Austria in this wonderful center for international dialogue built with money from King Abdullah – interreligious dialogue! – and we get all excited when IS cuts off the heads of people.  How many of you know that in the last weeks when we were occupied with the beheadings by the IS that Saudi Arabia beheaded nineteen people?   You don’t know that.  Or only a very few of you.   Do you know that my friend Raif Badawi, a very nice blogger, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and a thousand lashes of the whip and a fine of 260,000 euro because he blogged something critical about Islam?  And we sit here, with representatives of the Saudi government and have “interreligious dialogues.”  How nice!  

Real dialogue begins with honesty.  When I respect Muslims, I take them seriously and I criticize them honestly and trust them to take this criticism on and react positively and honestly.  And we have to do that inside the country, as well.  This pretense of dialogue doesn’t bring us together.  It does no good to sit in an air-conditioned room in Vienna and tell each others great stories about Abraham while men in Saudi Arabia are being beheaded and women are humiliated and toyed with and whipped for the slightest offense.  Honesty means, “No my friend, before you sit down at a table with me to discuss the wonders of the three monotheistic religions, go home and have an inter-Saudi conversation with your people and solve your problems at home. 

PH: I thank you for this discussion (to AS) and (to the audience) for your interest.

*Harun al-Rashid was the fifth Abbasid Caliph. His birth date is debated, with various sources giving dates from 763 to 766.   His surname translates to "the Just", "the Upright", or "the Rightly-Guided". Wikipedia
 ** Mouhanad Khorchide is a professor of the sociology of religion at the Islamic Religion and Pedagogical Institute at Vienna University.  Read more at http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=e7d_1233866244#BPhoKhAwDk5LZVrW.99]  
See also: http://gatesofvienna.blogspot.com/2009/02/martyrs-hand-grenades-and-austrian.html
***nasara - from "Nazarene" a pejorative term in Arabic for Christians

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