Addressing the Problem of Islam's Image
There can be no serious doubting of the fact that Islam is in need of a better press in Europe. In spite of some of the more enlightened and rational approaches aimed at educating the public, it seems that widespread and persistent prejudices remain and that these tend to prevent the development of any open-minded discussion of the matter.
In her eponymously titled book, Anja Hilscher attempts to tackle this "image problem" and to address existing prejudices in a humorous and entertaining manner. A qualified primary and secondary school teacher in Germany, the author is herself a Muslim and has been for more than half her life. She is currently involved in the supervising of integration courses. (Since 2005, Germany's immigration law has required that some newly arrived immigrants take part in courses on German language and society.)
Over twenty chapters Hilscher tells us about the "real" Islam and takes the view that this is something that not only outsiders, but many Muslims, too, do not properly understand nor practice. The image of "evil Islam" is contrasted here with the colourful life she knows on a day-to-day basis as a Muslim.
The cliché of the seventy-two virgins in paradise is given short shrift in the book as is the perceived menace of Sharia law or the Islamic judicial system, which, according to the author is very much based upon the work of "medieval theologians with a strong inclination towards intolerance and fanaticism".
By highlighting such stereotypical clichés and constructing its arguments around them, however, the book also manages to provide the reader with some completely new stereotypes.
The reader also discovers that many Far Eastern and Western philosophies have in their essentials a great deal in common with Islam and that, ultimately, all religions worship the same God anyway. Numerous quotations from the Koran and the Hadith are included and the Bible brought in for comparison, while Goethe, Lao Tse and the German philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart all have their say.
In her concentration on the sarcastic wit that pervades almost every page of the book, Anja Hilscher overlooks a number of important points and some of her attacks come across as exaggerated and not always justified.
Is it all down to misunderstanding?
The idea of appending appropriate source citations to each chapter is basically helpful; however the way in which the relevant passages are used does not always demonstrate the care one might have wished for. It might also have been a good idea to have focused now and again on some of the more accessible interpretations of the religious sources, or at least to have drawn the readers' attention to the existence of these.
As it is, after reading the book, we are left to wonder why it is that in such a peace-loving and harmonious religion such excesses as terrorism and the (only too real) discrimination against women can exist. According to the author, it is simply all a matter of misunderstanding.
The book is laced with anecdotes on the Prophet's respectful and exemplary treatment of women. It all sounds very nice. But does this not involve the glossing over of some historical facts?
How does it square for example with the historical patriarchal context in which the Koran was revealed to Muhammad? The question posed at the beginning of the book about the relationship between religion and culture is never properly answered either. And if there really is equality between all religious and philosophical truths, then why should we need to bother to become all worked up with enthusiasm for Islam?
In conclusion, Hilscher provides us with a "prediction", a mystical vision of a future for the currently rather "uncool" Islam. She firmly believes that there will come a day when the differences between the various ideologies will dissolve and a "new Islam" arise.
All in all, "Image Problem" is an entertaining read for those who want to get to know something more about the friendly face of Islam and who are not going to be put off by the author's sometimes rather idiosyncratic humour.
© Qantara.de 2012
Anja Hilscher: "Image Problem: the image of evil Islam and my colourful Muslim world", Gütersloh Publishing House 2012, 160 pages. The book's currently available only in German.
Translated from the German by Ron Walker
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de