Between Pop and Jihad: Muslim Youths in Germany

"Young, Trendy and Deeply Religious"

In her new book, Julia Gerlach points to a new Islamic youth culture: Pop Muslims. According to Gerlach, the Islam practiced by Pop Muslims may appear modern, but it is far from liberal. Ingmar Kreisl has looked at how the author portrays this new branch of Islam

​​Gerlach’s description of this group of Muslims paints a picture quite different from the predominant clichés of immigrants. These youths were born in Germany, are young, successful, integrated, and deeply religious - many of them speak German much better than they do the language of their parents. A symbiosis of modernity and Islam seems manifest itself in their way of life.

According to Gerlach, "Pop Islam" is a "remix" of lifestyles. Pop Muslims adopt Western music, fashion and television culture, but in doing so they also "Islamisize" it. They embrace those elements that seem to conform to Islam, while "un-Islamic" values do not find entry into their world.

Call for a "civil jihad"

The roots of this movement lie in the Arabic world, where a trend toward the revival of Islam can be observed ever since the failure of socialism and Arab nationalism. It is above all the youths in Arabic cities who see no future for themselves and thus seek consolation in Islam.

This trend is additionally fueled by Saudi television and various foundations. Pop Islam is one of the new currents in Islam that stands in stark contrast to arch-conservative Salafism.

The idols of these new youth movements are sermonizers who are adored like pop stars. One of them is the Egyptian-born television personality Amr Khaled.

He is considered an important role model for young Muslims. Although he has a classical religious education, he is one of the most popular religious figures in the Arabic world. Via Arabic satellite channels he is able to reach millions of believers, also in Germany.

Amr Khaled’s mission is to spur a renaissance for Islam and to lift Muslim youths all around the world out of their state of existential crisis. To this end, he encourages Muslims to become active in both social and religious contexts. He calls upon them to engage in a "civil jihad" in the name of their religion, with the goal of improving Islam’s image.

Moderate by Muslim standards, extreme by Western standards

The Islam practiced by Pop Muslims may appear modern, but it is far from liberal. To the contrary: it is conservative and places value on strict customs, a separation of the sexes, and the veil.

Many Pop Muslims are oriented toward the words of Egyptian-born Sheikh Al Qaradawi, one of the most influential religious figures in the Arab world. Though he is considered a moderate among Muslims, his statements are often seen as extreme in the West, for example his most recent call to jihad against Israel.

Julia Gerlach
Julia Gerlach

​​But Pop Muslims are eager to distance themselves from Salafistic currents, criticizing the latter’s understanding of Islam as close-minded and backwards. Pop Muslims accept modernity and want to take part in it, yet only from within their conservative Islamic value system.

In her book Gerlach offers portraits of a few young Muslims in Germany who exemplify this trend toward Pop Islam. They are all born and raised in Germany, very religious, but also successful and socially engaged. Still a minority, Gerlach describes them as a kind of "Muslim avant-garde."

Representatives of a new European Islam

If it were not for their devout religious beliefs, it would be difficult to distinguish these youths from their Christian peers – they even indulge in Islamic rap music.

Ammar, an Ethiopian convert to Islam, raps about the Prophet and the Koran, praising his fellow female believers for wearing the hijab and being modern kids nonetheless.

In the interviews, the youths talk about their life in Germany, their religion, and their views. All of them perceive themselves as modern and as representatives of a new European Islam.

Their message: I am Muslim and hip. It seems that a new Muslim self-understanding is emerging. Young Muslims want to create a more positive image for Islam in Germany, which has suffered due to terrorism.

They have thus become socially active, offering other youths help with their homework and distributing sandwiches to drug addicts and the homeless.

Lack of criticism

Their look may be cool, but they cannot be said to have a liberal outlook. Pop Muslims value Islam above all else, including government and the law. They do not let their children participate in swimming lessons, and school excursions are seen as having a bad influence on children.

It seems that a new Islamic youth culture is on the rise in Germany, in which there is no contradiction between being a firm believer and a good citizen.

Pop Muslims want to have a say in society, but they speak in the name of Islam, says Gerlach. Their attitude can be summed up succinctly: yes to integration, but no to assimilation.

Although the book offers insights into the lives and minds of young Muslims in Germany, some questions remain unexplored. Gerlach often quotes voices critical of Pop Islam, but these views are not given a significant place in her book.

And the young Muslims she interviews are not confronted with any critical questions. It is mentioned that Pop Muslims place God above and beyond government and the law, but this viewpoint is cited without commentary.

Gerlach writes that the Pop Islam movement has a rather conservative interpretation of Islam, but just how conservative their religious views are is left open.

Ingmar Kreisl

Translated from the German by Christina M. White

© 2006

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