"An Outlet for Suppressed Intolerance"
Your book "Islamfeindlichkeit" offers readers a collection of critiques and essays concerning the various forms of Islamophobia. What are its prevalent forms today?
Thorsten Gerald Schneiders: Islamophobia can be most distinctly observed by glancing through the media, especially the Internet and blogs, in particular. But one often encounters alarming statements in the comments left by readers of newspaper and radio station websites. It is another question altogether as to how representative or significant these statements are, because there is a very solid network of anti-Islamists on the Internet. This means that it is often the same group of people agitating against Islam.
At what point do the limits of criticism of Islam become blurred?
Schneiders: Criticism has to be examined on a case-by-case basis to see if it is legitimate. It is not a matter here of undermining or even forbidding criticism, but rather to emphasise that there is a reasonable way of engaging in criticism. When in doubt, it is best to take a closer look. Simply said, wherever objectivity is abandoned and criticism instead serves a particular personal interest, criticism of Islam is being misused. In such cases, criticism does not serve the goal of improving social harmony, but rather of propagating personal viewpoints.
The question often arises if such "criticism" of Islam is simply a front for those trying to work out their personal problems, for example, people who have had negative experiences in a Muslim social environment. In many cases, purely personal experiences are portrayed as being representative for all Muslims.
Many opinion polls over the past few years show that Muslims are increasingly less welcome in Germany and in Europe as a whole. It seems that hostility towards Islam and Islamophobia are no longer isolated occurrences, but appear to express the views of mainstream society. How do you explain this phenomenon?
Schneiders: The previously mentioned online forums are not only frequented by extremist far-right fringe groups, but are in fact used by people in mainstream society, such as people who play an active role in politics and science.
Many of the phenomena that we associate here with the public debate on Islam could actually be attributed to other cultural groups, but no one wants to talk about this. As soon as something is linked to Islam, there is a rise in public interest. The most varied groups feel called upon to take a stand. In this respect, the forms of Islamophobia span the political spectrum from the far right to the extreme left. Certainly, a further aspect to this situation is that Muslim fanatics feed the headlines with their actions and statements, but this is another issue.
As a rule, the public debate is dominated by extremes. Either it's the turn of fundamentalists or it's radical critics of Islam with their polemics and rants against Muslims. Those who previously had to hide their xenophobia and racism have found an outlet for their suppressed intolerance through so-called criticism of Islam. Under the cloak of such criticism, they find themselves once again free to express their viewpoints.
In the media, the public is encouraged, figuratively speaking almost to the point of being shouted at, to finally criticise Islam. Germans find themselves being reproached for assuming a pathologically friendly attitude towards minorities as a result of their historical experience. The result is that closet racists now feel they can say whatever they want without being stamped with the stigma of racism.
The anti-Semitism researcher Wolfgang Benz has frequently pointed out that there are parallels between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He has been severely criticised for his position. What are the problems with this comparison?
Schneiders: First, as I starting point, I wish to say that in principle, I understand Mr Benz and also defend his position. When you are dealing with the worst phenomenon of inhumanity in our history, then it is essential to draw conclusions and see where there are comparable patterns of behaviour, in order to address the problem at an early stage.
But the 2000-year-old history of anti-Semitism in Europe with its terrible excesses can in no way be equated with the current wave of hostility towards Islam. The historical and theological foundations are totally different. When present-day Islamophobia is compared to anti-Semitism, as if some sort of Holocaust against Muslims is about to take place, then this is completely exaggerated and absurd.
Many prominent critics of Islam, such as Necla Kelek, are simply accused of being racists. Critics of Islam claim that accusations of racism are merely attempts to pull the rug out from under the discussion and smother any criticism of Islam in the bud.
Schneiders: The search for knockout arguments shows that this debate is not about finding solutions, but plain and clearly about finding reciprocal polemical accusations and arguments. This is a dangerous development.
When a so-called Islam critic and a fundamentalist are sat down together, they both arbitrarily cite the Koran, take verses out of context, and hurl them at each other. One will cite a verse dealing with killing and the other will cite a verse stating that there is no compulsion in religion. This, however, is an approach averse to finding solutions. The aim is solely to manipulate public opinion. And what is the result of such "criticism" of Islam? What does it mean when one says "Islam is the problem," if I can quote Ralph Giordano.
The question is why do he and many others fail to offer an us an answer? Should Islam be banned? This is what Geert Wilders in the Netherlands wants. He says that the Koran should be placed on a list of banned books. How can we reconcile such demands with the pluralistic spirit of our constitution, which these people convulsively quote? As such, I feel I have to promote and appeal for the need to bring more objectivity to the discussion.
You have completed another book with the title "Islamverherrlichung. Wenn die Kritik zum Tabu wird" (Glorification of Islam. When criticism becomes taboo). What is it about?
Schneiders: The aim is to show what reasonable criticism of Islam should look like. It is concerned with critically examining the foundations of the belief, but not with the goal of abolishing or superseding the religion, but of stimulation thought and providing inspiration. For instance, it deals with the issue of whether certain interpretations can still be maintained in the modern world. In addition, I discuss the social injustices faced by Muslims in Germany. And even on this point the book does not engage in generalizations. We don't speak of Muslims as a homogeneous block. The hope is this will encourage others to think differently.
When we look, for instance, at the educational level of many Muslims, we find many students with a poor high-school education and adults with a low level of education. But this has nothing to do with their faith. Much more, it reflects the fact that many are the children and grandchildren of immigrants that came to this country from simple backgrounds. There can be no doubt that this is the basis of some of the educational deficiencies. The call goes out, for instance, to Islamic associations, who should really better recognize these problems. Something has to be done.
Interview: Nimet Seker
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de
Thorsten Gerald Schneiders (ed.): Islamfeindlichkeit. Wenn die Grenzen der Kritik verschwimmen (Islamophobia. When the limits of criticism are blurred), VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften 2009.
Thorsten Gerald Schneiders (ed.): Islamverherrlichung. Wenn die Kritik zum Tabu wird (Glorification of Islam. When criticism becomes taboo), VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2010.