15.05.2006Zafer Senocak – Abdelkader BenaliMuslims and Integration in Europe
In their correspondence, Zafer Senocak, one of the most prominent and versatile German Turkish writers, and Abdelkader Benali, renowned Dutch-Moroccan novelist and author, discuss their experiences in two different cultures and the integration problems Muslims are facing today
Berlin, 30 March 2006
Zafer Senocak I grew up in a family in which religion played a major role. During the fifties and sixties, my father was the publisher of one of the most influential Muslim magazines in Turkey. The magazine, which was simply called "Islam" was an intellectual platform for a conservative variety of Islam which tended towards theology, mysticism and philosophy. His kind of Islam was at the same time not directed towards politics: that approach to Islam had been largely banished from public life since the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
My mother, on the other hand, was a primary school teacher who came from a family of secularised civil servants. Her father was a judge – one of the first generation of lawyers in the Turkish republic. Her family viewed
Islam as something for the lower classes, symbolised by the headscarf of the peasant women and domestic servants. For them, Islam was the main reason for the country's backwardness. For centuries, hadn't Hodjas prevented progress with their dubious legal judgements? They had even prohibited the introduction of the printing press, for fear that such a machine might be used to duplicate the Holy Koran.
On the other side, Atatürk had liberated women from their social imprisonment, set the truths of science and research above those of religion and initiated a process of Enlightenment. In such an environment, my father was an outsider with his views and religious convictions. But his position as an outsider always fascinated me. He was an artistic man, and much more open than the strict Kemalists when it came to matters of art and social conventions.
What was he really fighting for? For his role as a man, for his faith, for his dignity, for democracy and human rights? At least in my case, the so-called "clash of civilisations" was fought out within my own family.
I always regard tension as something from which creative energy can emerge, and so I found myself quite happy in the role of an observer of these different worlds and values, even though I was repeatedly made aware that a dialogue on matters of faith is only possible in a very limited way.
All the same, those committed to the enlightenment, who believe in the responsibility of the individual, and those who are committed to faith, who see themselves as God's creatures, are dependent on each other. The former reminds people of their creative potential, the latter of their limitations. One without the other leads to slavery.
The Turkey of the sixties no longer exists. The headscarf is no longer a symbol of the lower class; it's now a symbol of the women who want to study but are prohibited from doing so because they wear it. Even the prime minister's wife wears one. For that reason she is not permitted to attend official receptions of the Turkish state. It's a paradox that the regime which wanted to liberate women from their isolation now prevents them from appearing in public. Muslim women are justified in seeing this as discrimination.
But what kind of religion is it which tells you what clothes you should wear? What has God to do with sex? Why does the man have to be protected from the attractions of women?
Wouldn't life be more beautiful if we (we men?) were allowed to observe these attractions in all their splendour? What is the advantage for women of these restrictions? For a long time, people thought the issue of religion had been dealt with – at least ever since the time of sexual liberation. But sexual liberation never arrived in Muslim societies, mainly because it's a very Western-Christian phenomenon.
In Muslim culture, sex doesn't need to be liberated from its connection with smuttiness – it's simply there: a natural phenomenon. But it has to be regulated, just like everything else has to be regulated. And it quickly becomes an issue of honour, always seen from the male perspective. It is scarcely possible to imagine a greater tendency towards structure and discipline than in Muslim society. In fact, in that way, it's very German, even though since Hitler the need for structure and discipline in Germany is not celebrated quite so excessively.
I saw an extract from a film recently. In it, the Netherlands presents itself to potential immigrants. There was a woman in the film, topless. At least that is honest. That is more or less how people in Muslim countries imagine the West: as a powerful machine for business and sex. But is that the way the West really wants to be seen? Can one, should one separate the human body from sexual desire, and does that bring about a more liberated relationship with oneself?
In Germany, there is a lively debate on the issues of the low birth rate and the decline of the family and plenty of discussion about values. It was only ten years ago when people in Germany were talking about the Fun Society. Everyone was supposed to be partying. It shows how quickly times change. Nowadays time is divided into tiny splinters. Perhaps that is one cause of the general feeling that people do not know where they are going or what they should do.
The late pope worked his way to pop star status with slogans like "no contraception" and "no sex before marriage." That too is the West. Sometimes I have the feeling that people here envy Muslims for their large "intact" families and for their general sense of community. This furtive envy is scarcely a satisfactory precondition for promoting individualism.
Does the West want to make its open society more attractive for Muslim immigrants, does it demand from them more respect and loyalty? The thought that the entire immigration process has an erotic element seems convincing to me. The two sides can only unite so long as there is a mutual attraction between them.
Zafer Şenocak is one of the most prominent and versatile German Turkish writer today. A prize-winning poet, translator, editor, political and philosophical essayist, and fiction writer, Şenocak is the most challenging voice of the Turkish population in Germany. His stylish and provocative essays explore taboo and repressed aspects of relations between Occident and Orient, Europe and Islam. His fiction has won him international acclaim.