Interview Hartmut Fähndrich

Hartmut Fähndrich argues that perspectives on Islam are still quite narrow - and not only concerning non-Muslims. Stephan Moser interviewed the Swiss, who is among the most renowned translators of Arabic literature into German.

Hartmut Fähndrich criticizes the “over-Islamicisation” on both sides of the dialogue among Muslims and non-Muslims. Stephan Moser interviewed the Swiss, who is among the most renowned translators of Arabic literature into German.

You are a lecturer in Islamic Studies at the ETH in Zurich, but you’re not particularly fond of this official job title …

Hartmut Fähndrich: That’s because the term “Islamic Studies” is an expression of the one-sided and short-sighted manner in which the Middle East is perceived in the West. Our view of the Arab world takes place primarily through the window of religion; we automatically equate the Middle East with Islam, and we regard all Arabs, first and foremost, as Muslims. This, I believe, is fatally wrong.

Could you explain that in a little more detail?

Fähndrich: It’s a narrowing of the perspective that fails to do justice to the diversity of the cultural, political, economic and social situation in the Arab world. For one thing, there are also Christians living in the Middle East; but the main point is that Islam is certainly no longer the sole or decisive point of identification. Many of my Arab friends and acquaintances feel themselves to be Arabs or Egyptians and describe themselves as such, rather than identifying themselves primarily as Muslims. Besides, not all norms, values and patterns of behaviour in the Arabic world are “Islamic“; many of them are the result of traditions, political circumstances and a particular social situation.

The idea, so widespread in the West, that Islam is a kind of homogeneous block...

Fähndrich: ... is wrong. And what’s hidden behind this idea is a great deal of diffuse fear. The West could probably be a lot more relaxed in its dealings with Muslims if people here realised how varied – and how much at odds with itself – the Islamic world actually is. Islam includes fundamentalists as well as liberal reformers and people who keep their distance from religion.

Professed atheists, too?

Fähndrich: There are Arabs for whom religion plays no role whatsoever, and who also stress this fact in private conversation. But in the Arab world today, it’s still unthinkable to make a public avowal of atheism. There’s still too much social pressure to state some kind of religious affiliation – though not necessarily to Islam. Besides, anyone who confessed to being an atheist would have to reckon with a court case and a sentence, because many countries still have laws against blasphemy. In this respect, changes would be welcome. Even in an Arab country, it should be possible to admit in public that one is an unbeliever.

While “European“ books on the Middle East can become bestsellers, books by Arab authors seldom achieve more than a small print-run – and the Western media rarely allow any Arab experts to state their views. Why do you think this is so?

Fähnrich: For one thing, our schooling and our culture have given us a ready-made – but false – idea of how the Orient and the Arabs are supposed to be. Even today, our image of the Middle East remains strongly marked by European Romanticism. The world of the Arabian Nights, the perfumes and colours, the harem, the dagger concealed in the Arab’s robes as a symbol of his underhandedness... these clichés continue to colour and distort the way we see “Arabia“ – and this in turn makes it difficult for us to engage with the Arab world in a differentiated manner.

In what way?

Fähnrich: Most people want to see their clichéd ideas fulfilled, and they aren’t prepared to engage with anything that refuses to conform to this preconceived image. When I take part in readings with Arab authors in Europe, I can often feel the audience’s disappointment, because contemporary Arabic literature doesn’t fulfil their expectations of the enchanted Orient.

You’ve made it clear how strongly our “knowledge” of Islam and the Middle East is characterised by clichés and off-the-peg ideas. Does this also come to expression in the way we deal with immigrants from the Arab world?

Fähndrich: Absolutely. One feels one knows what “these people” are like, and how they function. Here, too, the problem is the “over-Islamicisation” of Muslims by Europeans. Whenever a Muslim immigrant behaves in a way that doesn’t fit in with our own norms and ideas, we tend to hold “Islam” responsible. The simple explanation for everything is: “That’s just the way they are - because they’re Muslims.”

Yet this “over-Islamicisation” also takes place on the Muslim side. Less well-educated Muslims, in particular, tend to legitimise their behaviour as “typically Muslim” – simply because this is the kind of discourse they’re used to. That this anomalous behaviour can have quite different sources is something that both sides fail to recognise.

And what are the consequences of this “over-Islamicisation”?

Fähndrich: The main result of this “over-Islamicisation” on both sides is to consolidate the view that the conservative tendencies within Islam are typically or truly “Islamic”. The danger is that this may provoke a rejection of Islam in general, as a backward-looking religion whose codes of conduct are simply incompatible with our way of life. The kind of behaviour that's described as specifically Islamic, during discussions and round-table meetings, is often simply typical of people from socially and economically disadvantaged regions. This harms those liberal Muslims who are more than happy not to have to live in the Islamic world – for in Europe they can live and practise their religion as they themselves see fit, free from the prescriptions of the State and the kind of social control brought to bear by neighbours.

Can you give an example of the kind of process you're describing?

Fähnrich: Well, let's take the question of clothing. Though some Muslim women do propagate the wearing of the headscarf as an Islamic duty, many female followers of Islam reject it, feeling that religion has nothing to do with the clothes they wear. In the last few years, the media – quite uncritically – have adopted the conservative interpretation of what's "Islamic"; and they now write about "the Islamic headscarf". It would be more correct to refer to "the headscarf described by some people as 'Islamic'", and it would also be doing a favour to all those Muslim women who think differently, who just don't wear a headscarf, and who nonetheless feel themselves to be Muslims.

In 1990, Hans Küng introduced his "World Ethos" project, declaring that there could be no world peace without dialogue between the religions. Since then, this dialogue has been a hot topic – and in Switzerland, it's also being treated as a means of promoting integration. What's your view of all this?
Fähndrich: First of all, I ask myself to what extent the major world religions are actually capable of forming a basis for dialogue; capable, indeed, of peace at all; for each of them claims to be in possession of the truth. Isn't there a danger that this kind of dialogue is ultimately only a way of confirming what one knew already? In other words: 'We have something better than the others – and we are in fact better than they are, too.' Moreover: how representative is such a dialogue between religions? Are atheists also allowed to take part, and to present their viewpoint as one possible way of understanding the world? In my opinion, it’s only when this can be guaranteed that such dialogue can hope to have any relevance at all.

Nonetheless, such dialogue can have a positive effect by demonstrating the falsity of certain apparent parallels between Christianity and Islam, and this in turn can help to prevent misunderstandings. For example: mosques and churches may appear to be very much the same thing, but they're not. Thus, for many Muslims, there's nothing strange about the combination of religious and political activities in the mosques. Another example: the Bible and the Koran don't have the same significance in their respective religions. Beyond fundamentalist circles, there's no-one in the Christian world who still believes that the Bible is the literal Word of God. Muslims, however, do regard the Koran as just that – God's word, a divinely inspired book.

Elsewhere, you've suggested having a “dialogue between people" instead of a dialogue between religions. What do you mean by this?

Fähndrich: I think that when people are "over-religionised", it produces a distorted view of the individual. And somehow, it's also no longer adequate to our contemporary experience. Nowadays, we human beings have multifarious identities: who we are is shaped by many different factors. Religion can be one of these factors, but in my opinion, it shouldn't be used as the primary means of identification.

Thus, conducting a dialogue between people would mean promoting encounters between human beings who do indeed have differing ideas about religion, but who also have certain common experiences and problems that are capable of serving as a basis for dialogue and cohesion.

Interview: Stephan Moser
Source: KNA-Dienst "Ökumenische Information", No. 22/23, 03.06.2003
(The interview has been shortened slightly.)

In the dossier 'Deutsch-arabischer Literaturaustausch’ [German-Arabic Literary Exchange], you can also read an Interview with Hartmut Fähndrich on Arabic literature and the difficulties of translation.

Related Topics
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.