Like Hannah Arendt, you see the public space as a space of appearance. You have pointed out that, according to Arendt, citizens are the ones who have the courage to leave their sheltered private realm, to show themselves in public and to present what makes them unique – by taking action and adopting a public stance, one becomes a citizen.
Gole: Arendt′s thoughts were helpful for understanding what it means for Muslims to be visible and how practices of seeing and being seen influence our lives together in the majority society.
Public perceptions of features of the Islamic faith often differ markedly from the subjective meaning attributed to them by Muslims themselves. If a person follows the Islamic dietary rules, this is just normal everyday life for that person. But it is quickly perceived as provocation or even aggression.
How might we deal with this?
Gole: We should consider more carefully what we call things. In France, people spoke first of headscarves and then of the Islamic veil. At some point, only the hijab was the subject of debate, followed by the burka. Why was this term chosen? It is not even commonly used in Afghanistan. It is revealing to see which words are bandied about in the European debate
The latest discussion was about the burkini.
Gole: That word is quite ironic. It doesn′t even exist in Arabic; it′s a cultural portmanteau composed of bikini and burka, just as the European Muslims are a cultural composition made up of different influences. The burkini challenges orthodox Islam and its rules and regulations and provides a way for Muslim women to take part in Western leisure activities. So the burkini is not meant to be aggressive and yet it still provokes so much resentment. Our Western standards call for women to show plenty of skin at the beach. Some foreign habits are accepted in Europe as merely exotic, others rejected as threatening. The latter is true for Islam, which cannot be culturally cannibalised quite as easily as other practices.
In Hannah Arendt′s opinion, wearing a burkini might then be a way for Muslim women to assert themselves as citizens? Then it would be anything but the expression of a parallel society.
Gole: Exactly. Some people think that Muslims should have their own beaches. But that would then promote the very thing that Muslims are repeatedly accused of – the formation of closed communities. Now that a headscarf ban has been imposed in public schools in France, many Muslim girls are attending private schools. They are isolated from the others.
What role do you think the media plays in the public debate?
Gole: The debate is dominated by voices that try to turn Islam into something exclusively Oriental and scandalous. The strategy involves polarisation and exaggerating differences, as if the public constantly needed a further escalation to get excited about.
The media often gives the impression that Muslim reality consists exclusively of radicalisation, jihad and the suffering of the refugees. But the reality is far more complex and knows far fewer extremes than people seem to think. This is a problem, because this viewpoint makes it practically impossible to perceive the majority of Muslims who are well-integrated into their communities in all European countries. We talk about them, but we don′t know them. We include them too rarely in the debate.
What are the reasons for all the exaggeration?
Gole: The more radical something is, the more we are fascinated by it. At the same time, it is easier to reject it. We can more easily reassure ourselves that this alien Other has nothing to do with us.