Renowned scholar of Islam Gudrun Krämer regularly contributes to the public debate on Islam in Germany. In 2010, she was awarded the Gerda Henkel Foundation's International Research Prize for her work. Nader Alsarras spoke to her at the "Germany's Muslims and European Islam" conference at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin
Professor Krämer, since the publication of Thilo Sarrazin's book in particular, talking about Islam in Germany usually means talking about a "problem". In your opinion, why is the discussion about Islam and Muslims in Germany always so negative?
Gudrun Krämer: You are quite right to raise the issue of the "problem with the problem". The perception of Muslims in Germany is primarily dominated by problem areas. The discourse always homes in on the same problems, which can ultimately be reduced to a single issue, namely that of violence: violence within the family, violence against dissenters and those of other faiths in Germany, in western societies and in the Islamic world.
There are steps that can be taken to counter this problem. In my view, there is a strategy that must be adopted by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, a strategy that should aim to highlight the normal, the non-violent – not in an obvious way, by saying "look, these people are not violent", but in a way that makes it clear that Muslim life in Germany is something normal, a matter of course. It's not something that's going to make headlines, but in my view it would be an effective strategy.
Many European countries are currently seeing the emergence of right-wing populist movements, which stoke hatred against Islam and exploit peoples' fears. These movements are gradually finding more social acceptance. Geert Wilders is leading the way in the Netherlands, and similar things are happening in Switzerland and France. How worried are you by these movements? Will they at some point become mainstream?
Krämer: In a Europe that prides itself on its enlightened attitudes, I consider these right-wing populist movements to be very dangerous and worrying. The fact that some of them are already firmly anchored in mainstream public life makes it even more so.
The views propagated by the Swiss People's Party (SVP) in Switzerland don't just come from the radical fringes. Supporters of this party definitely represent what is referred to as the "social middle ground". They do not hold radical views on every issue, but they do on Islam and the Muslims, which they perceive and portray as a threat.
This must be faced and confronted. Decisive steps must be taken to counter such tendencies at home, in this case in Germany. Moreover, if it's possible to take such steps at European level, then this opportunity should be seized.
Some interesting findings have recently come to light in this context. For example, I was interested to see that public opinion in the Netherlands, where a right-wing party is even in government, is less critical of Islam – you could even say less Islamophobic – than some sections of public opinion in Germany, where such parties are not currently tolerated.
Today, journalist and writer Hilal Sezgin introduced the concept of "Islamic feminism" into the podium discussion. It's a subject that again invites the question of the veil ban in Europe. Can you rule on people's happiness by enacting laws to ban facial covering in public places? Is this not an impingement not only of women's rights, but also of the fundamental human rights that Europe actually stands for?
Krämer: In my view, this is a question where you adopt a position that you've set out for yourself and that you perhaps can't justify legally and philosophically right down to the last detail. My personal conviction is that devout Muslim women have a right to cover their heads with a veil if they want to or if they think they should or even have to. I think people in Europe have to accept that.
However, I would not like to see the wearing of veils that cover the face in my country. I don't want to encounter a woman – or, why not, perhaps a man? – in certain situations without being able to look her – or him as the case may be – in the face. My view is that this is a demarcation, which in the context of my culture, of German culture, is an expression of latent aggression. That doesn't have to be the case everywhere, above all not in places where most women wear veils; but this is how I perceive it here.
I am not comfortable with an outlook that is ultimately based on the view that the opposite sex represents a permanent sexual threat, even just with his or her gaze. I wouldn't like to see that in my own society. And for that reason I would say that it may be that a ban on the wearing of veils restricts individual freedom of choice – in this case that of a Muslim woman – but I think that's legitimate, because women are not allowed to run around topless in public either.
After all, that is also a position that, in my view, cannot easily be justified from a legal and philosophical point of view. Why should it be forbidden? Why shouldn't a nudist party come forward and argue in favour of the right to run around topless? In this case too, the arguments against focus on the violation of a sense of convention and decency, which is based on a cultural position that would be approached quite differently in another society.
You were recently awarded the Gerda Henkel Prize for your work as a scholar of Islam. How do you see your role in public life, as one of the voices rising up against the growing mistrust of Muslims?
Krämer: Although it may sound rather lofty, as a citizen I feel a certain obligation to contribute to public debate in my professional field. But I would like to add that I'm still an academic, which means that professionally, I'm fully stretched. My work, which involves serious research into various phenomena arising from Islam and Islamic societies, keeps me very busy, and I can't always chip into discussions as a public intellectual, as a full-time journalist or political activist might do. There are limits.
Interview: Nader Alsarras
© Qantara.de 2011
Islam scholar and historian Gudrun Krämer is director of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the Free University Berlin and director of the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies. Her special research subjects include religion, law, politics, society and the modern age of Islam.
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de