Interview with Irmgard Pinn

"Integrate Muslims into Europe's Pluralist Traditions"

The EUMC study on anti-Semitism in Europe states that anti-Semitism is widespread among young Muslims. In this interview, Irmgard Pinn, sociologist, Muslim convert and member of the board of the Forum of Independent Muslims, critically reviews some of the findings

The EUMC study on anti-Semitism in Europe states that anti-Semitism is widespread among young Muslims. In this interview with, Irmgard Pinn, sociologist, Muslim convert and member of the board of the Forum of Independent Muslims, critically reviews some of the findings

photo: private
Irmgard Pinn

​​According to the most recent study published by the EUMC (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia), there has been an increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Belgium. The study specifically focuses on a strain of anti-Semitism that is widespread among Muslims and, more particularly, young Arabs.

Irmgard Pinn: With all due respect to the EUMC experts that worked on this study, I feel that the study leaves many questions unanswered and does not allow for the sweeping conclusions to which many people have jumped on the basis of what they have read in it.

Most importantly, the experts could not reach unanimous agreement on a definition of "anti-Semitism", let alone an interpretation of the information they gathered for the study.

For example, what constitutes justified criticism of Israel or the Israeli occupation policy? At what point does someone overstep the line to anti-Semitism? Is there any point in identifying a direct link between "classic" European anti-Semitism and Arab/Muslim expressions of outrage and anger, which are interspersed with defamatory remarks about "the Jews" and draw parallels with National Socialism? Is there any point in reacting to this link?

Here in Germany, opinions on this point vary hugely. Competent experts like Stefan Wild, Sonia Hegasy, Mohsen Massarrat, and others caution us not to jump to sweeping, stigmatising conclusions and warn of political exploitation.

But is the EUMC not right when it draws attention to anti-Semitism among young Muslims in its study?

Pinn: As far as these young Muslims are concerned – and they are repeatedly highlighted as a potential threat – it is obvious that this is primarily about the situation in France, where there was, for a time, a concentration of verbal and physical attacks against Jews perpetrated by young Arab emigrants in the suburbs in particular. According to recent statistics, there has thankfully been a considerable decline in this violence.

The situation in Germany is completely different insofar as the majority of Muslims living here are not of Arab, but of Turkish descent. As worrying and condemnable as each of them was, the incidents that have been reported here over the past few years do not, in my opinion, justify the claim that we are currently facing a "new" kind of Islamic-tinged anti-Semitism.

However, this is no reason not to focus more on investigating the motivation behind certain oft-repeated negative comments about "the Jews" and the philosophy that is associated with such comments. But before we lay the blame for these comments at the door of the mosques and "Islam" – which is what often happens – we must first clarify whether the young people in question have any sort of religious orientation, and whether they regularly go to the mosque or attend a youth group.

As I see it, in those cases where young people (and adults) believe that the Koran justifies the voicing of defamatory anti-Semitic remarks and the perpetration of violence against Jews, we are usually dealing with a lack of religious education and commitment which – in France, Germany, and Muslim countries alike – undoubtedly has something to do with the state of these people's lives, the political situation in the world, general educational deficiencies, and other factors.

At least in those parts of the Muslim community that are guided by Islam, mosque communities and Islamic associations could and should play the important role of educating, instructing, and opening up opportunities for participation.

Let us take a closer look at the things that motivate young people to make anti-Semitic denunciations and commit violent anti-Semitic acts.

Pinn: In my opinion, Alain Gresh, editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, provided a convincing explanation of the situation in France; he says that it is all about the social and cultural integration of two minority groups into a majority society. Young Arab Muslims, who are largely excluded from the labour market, enjoy few educational opportunities, and have little prospect of promotion, feel that Jews in French society enjoy an excess of recognition and privileges: it is a case of "they have everything and we have nothing."

Moreover, in view of their personal situations, these young people really identify with the Palestinians; not only from the point of view of Arabs or Muslims observing the conflict with Israel, but also in the broader sense of a Third World liberation struggle. Anti-Semitic prejudices are adopted with a view to justifying and reinforcing their stance on this struggle. This attitude is also common among young Muslims in Germany; thankfully, however, it has rarely led to violence here.

What role do parents and the mosques play in all of this?

Pinn: In my opinion, parents only have a role to play insofar as families pass on the thought and behaviour patterns of a certain group. When it comes to typical "guest worker" parents, the majority of them have neither the knowledge, nor the awareness of problems that is needed to deal critically with anti-Semitism.

As far as the influence of the mosques is concerned, I would first like to point out that not everyone who is by definition a Muslim, is committed to Islam, let alone to a mosque community. This is why I do not consider it valid to create a direct link between anti-Semitism and Islam, and to make mosques and Islamic organisations responsible for anti-Semitic vulgarity and the violent acts perpetrated by young Muslims (or those who look like young Muslims) simply on the basis of an observance of such acts. After all, no-one speaks of "Christian" anti-Semitism when young Protestants or Catholics commit similar aggressive acts.

In saying that, I do not mean that there is no anti-Semitism among religious Muslims, in mosques, and in Islamic associations. On the contrary; some of the accusations that are being repeated over and over in the current debate are indeed justified; and Muslims and their organisations are quite rightly criticised for not having reacted to these accusations sooner and more energetically.

I am thinking here about the thoughtless adoption of anti-Semitic hate propaganda like the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and the anti-Semitic – and therefore unislamic – interpretation of certain parts of the Koran in sermons and popular writings.

Muslims have also failed to develop binding maxims on the basis of Islam's criteria for the way in which a Muslim should deal with Jews and Christians. Such maxims would prevent people from employing the same old anti-Semitic clichés in difficult situations that are characterised by conflict, discrimination, and violence. Finally, I consider it a fatal mistake that the majority of Muslims that consider themselves to be anti-racist and anti-anti-Semitic have not yet succeeded in distancing themselves clearly from the scholars and Muslim minorities that interpret certain verses of the Koran in a way that is in line with "classic" anti-Semitic philosophy.

This is partly the result of ignorance and a certain "blindness" towards anti-Semitic stereotypes and patterns of interpretation, and partly because they only attach a marginal importance to doing so, and think that in behaving in this way, they are avoiding internal disputes and are not attracting the attention of the non-Muslim world.

What can be done to combat anti-Semitism?

Pinn: An effective and, in my opinion, promising way of combating anti-Semitism and, indeed, any type of racism would be one that involves Muslims living in Germany and gives them an important role to play, e.g. as cultural interpreters.

The de facto situation is such that on the one hand, religious Muslims and their organisations are not integrated in any meaningful way into the countless activities against racism and right-wing extremism either at political or social level (whereby the current accusations of anti-Semitism will constitute yet another barrier to their involvement) and that on the other, the majority only have a fragmentary – and often ideologically distorted – knowledge of the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, the persecution of the Jews before and during the Third Reich, the foundation of Israel, and the history of the region etc., let alone a knowledge of the different interpretations of certain parts of the Koran or the current attempts of right-wing extremists and revisionist groups from Europe and the USA to obtain both allies and material support in Muslim countries.

What is the reason for this?

Pinn: Most Muslims living in Germany either moved here several decades ago in search of work, or grew up in districts mainly populated by "guest workers". The majority of first-generation immigrants did not receive a comprehensive education (not to mention the poor quality of the history lessons they received in their native countries) and were not in a position to change all this as a result of their jobs and situations. The generations that followed, on the other hand, passed through the German educational system; the majority of them never making it much farther than secondary school.

Moreover, very little of what was taught in their history classes, which should have provided them with information about anti-Semitism and explained the background to them, has actually stuck in their heads. Quite apart from the question as to whether they differ greatly in this regard from German, non-Muslim schoolchildren from the same districts and with the same educational opportunities, the aforementioned identification with Palestine and the Palestinians and the feeling of being forced to sympathise with the history of Jewish persecution and extermination, while no-one is interested in their personal experiences of discrimination, emigration, expulsion, and violence, must surely have a considerable role to play.

Moreover, of the young Muslims that do have better qualifications, very few are historians, social scientists, or arts scholars with research themes or work that focus on these issues and who could carry their findings, questions, and ideas into the Muslim community. This is why the calls for mosques and Islamic organisations to educate and inform their young people and to counteract anti-Semitic patterns of thought and behaviour in their youth work, which have repeatedly been made during the current anti-Semitism debates, have fallen on deaf ears.

This is not necessarily the result of a conscious attitude of denial (which naturally also exists), but rather the result of the fact that the qualified people, structures, and locations that are needed for internal debates and discussions, and the preparation of suitable instructional material etc., simply don't exist.

You have said that Muslims in Germany are willing to discuss anti-Semitism. How are they going about it?

Pinn: I think that the vast majority of Muslims are completely unaware of the current debate. This is quite simply the result of the social structure of the Muslim community, the media they access etc. But of those Muslims that read the more sophisticated German-language newspapers and magazines, very few consider anti-Semitism to be an independent problem that must be treated as a priority issue.

It is more the case that most religious Muslims – at whom these criticisms are primarily directed – feel that the relevance of this issue is being inflated in the current, anti-Islamic climate in order to humiliate Muslims and drive them into a corner, and in order to distract the public from the crimes that are being committed as a result of Israel's occupation policy.

Despite these doubts and reservations, many activities have been undertaken as part of interreligious dialogues and trialogues. And these activities are not just a recent occurrence. Naturally, a critical approach to anti-Semitism is part and parcel of such discussions. In this context, I would like to mention the many congresses and other events in which representatives of the Central Council of Muslims and the Council of Islam have taken part, and the years of involvement of the German Muslim League.

In the current debate, however, the questions that are being asked and the accusations that are being made can only be tackled properly on the basis of historic and social facts, e.g. the relationship between the Muftis of Jerusalem and the National Socialists, the structure and effects of anti-Semitic patterns of arguments, the relevance of anti-Semitic writing of European origin to the conflict in the Middle East, and religious pluralism in the Federal Republic of Germany.

There is indeed a willingness and an interest in acquiring this knowledge and dealing with the questions and reproaches that are coming from outside Islam, not only among independent intellectuals, but also among the representatives of clubs and associations.

© 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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