Since the 90s German churches have been organizing Christian-Islamic discussion forums. These forums had start-up difficulties but were eventually successful in promoting mutual understanding and must be continued, says Muhammad Abu al-Qumsan
Bridges have been built between Muslims and Germans and psychological barriers have been broken down through the contributions made by Catholics and Protestants in the country. During the 1980s and 90s, Christian churches reached out to Muslim students who were pouring into Germany, offering them space for their religious services and festivities.
With the end of the Cold War and by the beginning of the nineties, Islam moved into view as a replacement for the lost enemy. The churches, particularly Protestant churches, organized discussion forums on Islamic issues. At first, the forums were attended occasionally by small groups of Muslim students, but later developed into events that included the participation of Islamic organizations.
Both sides had very different motivations. Christians desired to learn more about Islam as a religion and of the lives of practicing Muslims. An effort was made to emphasize commonalities in order to ward off any possible conflicts or a competitive mentality. Muslims took care to present their religion and to correct an image of Islam prevalent in Germany, which many Muslims regard as distorted.
How to hold a constructive dialogue?
The West has developed stereotyped images of Islam, just as many Muslims have cliché conceptions of Western life and of Christianity. Given the fact that most Muslim students came from undemocratic countries, it is perhaps understandable that many discussion forums often turned out to be quite unpleasant experiences for Christian participants. Most of the Muslims simply never had learned how to hold a constructive dialogue in which the views of others are accepted and the weaknesses of one’s own opinions are recognized.
The scope of this article neither allows me the space to fully give praise to all of the efforts made, nor am I aware of every event organized through the help of the German churches. But I would like to draw attention to some of the results these forums have had on the Muslim side. Although, for the most part, the forums rarely attained the level of a dialogue, they did promote discussion and an exchange of information.
The forums offered the participating Muslims a window through which they could view German society. Acquaintances and friendships developed out of the repeated meetings, thereby helping to promote mutual trust. Thanks to the discussions in the forums, Muslims improved their spoken and written German and began to use these skills to grapple with German bureaucracy.
No "absolute right and wrong" any more
For the first time, many Muslims had the opportunity to hear other opinions and also to set aside their own prejudices against the West. In terms of social policy, the German churches have had extremely positive experiences in these joint projects. Many of the Muslims that participated in the discussion forums have since recognized the positive aspects of the other side, have distanced themselves from false assessments, and refrain from regarding all viewpoints from within the framework of "absolute right and wrong".
The forums made a direct contribution to moderating extreme religious views found among some Muslims. They provided a platform to speak about issues that Muslims regard as indisputable, even inviolable. As one Muslim participant commented, "I am embarrassed, when I think back to how I behaved during the first meeting."
German participants did much to engender trust in the majority society among Muslims in the joint working groups by seriously supporting Muslim demands and offering help in solving problems. The forums promoted mutual understanding and initiated working groups in which both sides could work for the common good.
Common work must be continued
This is only a part of what the Christian-Islamic meetings have achieved up until now. For participants on both sides there still remains much to do, especially in light of the problem of international terrorism, which has since plunged Europe into a state of fear and horror. A few young Muslims of the generation that was born in Europe are caught up in these activities, filled with anger perhaps on account of their unsuccessful integration, the feeling of being outsiders, and the disparaging and humiliating gaze of the majority society around them.
It is precisely in this critical situation that common work must be continued so that finally a real and honest dialogue on an equal basis can take place. We require clearly defined areas of activity to tackle chronic and deep-rooted problems, which, until now, Muslims have been left to face alone. A larger circle of Muslims must be reached by these activities to encourage their integration into the German community and to help them escape from ignorance and isolated lives on the edges of society.
The Muslim minority should actively contribute to solving their most urgent social problems by recognizing that they are full members of the majority society, with all the incumbent rights and duties. Muslims are receiving excellent help in the process by those who have won their trust in recent years by promoting Christian-Islamic dialogue. These people have supported Muslims in championing their rights and legitimate demands.
Muhammad Abu al-Qumsan
© Qantara 2005
Muhammad Abu al-Qumsan served five years as president of the Islamic community in Erlangen, Germany, and is a founding member of the Islamic Religious Community in the city. He is also a founding member as well as spokesman of an anti-terrorism campaign that appeared under the motto “Not in the name of Islam.” Since 1990, he has been active as a member of diverse Christian-Islamic discussion forums as well as of the Christian-Islamic Working Group in Erlangen.
Translation from German: John Bergeron