Islam in GermanyImam Idriz – "We need to allow controversial discussion"
Mr Idriz, a heated public debate is currently underway on the subject of the call to prayer, provoked by a model project launched by the city of Cologne. How have you dealt with this issue in Penzberg?
Benjamin Idriz: The issue of a call to prayer came up for us about a year ago, when the mosques were closed because of the pandemic. I had the spontaneous idea of making a public call to prayer on Friday as a signal to the believers that we were still there, so that they would not lose hope in the lockdown. We submitted the relevant application to the city of Penzberg. Once the idea got out, it provoked a lot of discussion, with letters to the editor in newspapers and a demonstration organised by an Islamophobic group from Munich. They came to Penzberg especially for that. That's when I realised our wish for a call to prayer had triggered quite a controversy.
How did you react to the hostility?
Idriz: Having talked it through with the mayor, I withdrew my request. Perhaps the time is simply not yet ripe for it. I was a bit sad that German society is not yet ready to tolerate a Muslim call to prayer for five minutes. I want to live in a country where church bells can be heard in public as a religious symbol, but also where the call to prayer is not seen as a threat to our commonly-held values, but as an enrichment. It would also enable us to be a role model for Muslim countries where Christian symbols are not allowed to be visible in public.
To criticise Saudi Arabia and other countries where Christians are not allowed to practice their faith in public, yet not to welcome the call to prayer for Muslims, is paradoxical. But the issue of the call to prayer should not dominate the German debate on Islam. There are questions that are far more important and elementary that require more urgent discussion than the call to prayer. It should be a local issue and not a nationwide topic throughout Germany.
New parishioners, new ways of life
In your new book "Wie verstehen Sie den Koran, Herr Imam?" [ed. 'How do you understand the Koran, Mr. Imam?'], you promote a contemporary understanding of the Koran that takes into account the historical context of the holy texts. What understanding of the Koran do your Penzberg parishioners bring with them?
Idriz: They hail from very different cultures and Islamic schools of law, and also have widely varying world views. They bring with them different traditions and family experiences that they have had, either here or in their home countries, and their level of education varies. Owing to a range of factors, we therefore have a very diverse and colourful congregation.
For me as an imam, it is important to reflect on these different views – the views from different schools of law and the religious experiences worshippers have had – from the perspective of the Koran, correcting them if necessary and giving guidance on how worshippers can read, understand and implement the Koran in this day and age, and in the place where they live.
In recent years, Germany's Muslim community has expanded to include many new immigrants. Do they bring with them a more traditional understanding of the Koran?
Idriz: Definitely. Over the last 40 to 50 years, mosque congregations in Germany were dominated by Turkish Islam. In the meantime, however, the image of Muslims has become more diverse not only due to migrants coming from crisis regions, but also owing to migrant workers from the Balkan countries. In the process, the image of the Muslim community has also changed here in Penzberg.
In the beginning, I generally preached in Turkish and Bosnian, because most of the congregation came from these two cultural backgrounds. Now I preach in several languages, but in recent years something else has been added, namely the German language, which unites us all with our different cultural backgrounds. Despite different views and schools of law, we can find a common language, namely German, the language of mutual appreciation.
For me, it is important not only to recite the Koran in Arabic, but also to read its universal message, to interpret it and exchange ideas on it in all world languages. I have noticed that the migrants who have recently arrived come to me with different questions, concerns and experiences to those of the Muslims who have lived in Europe.
My task is to build a bridge between West and East, between religious dogma and reason, between religion and democracy and different world views. In doing so, my aim is to emphasise common values, such as respect for religious freedom, mutual respect, diversity and tolerance, which are fundamental to both Germany's Basic Law and the Koran.
A new generation of Muslims
You describe your path as the middle way, in Arabic 'wasat', which seeks neither assimilation nor isolation, but a distinct identity of its own. That sounds like a difficult balancing act...
Idriz: It is not easy. We are experiencing dynamic development through social networks, digitalisation, ongoing globalisation and strong waves of migration. All this presents us with a challenge; we need to hold the middle ground. We need to focus on the values that unite us and build this world together, without going to extremes and sealing ourselves off in a parallel world. Our aim is to focus on the universal, common values and to work for the common concerns of all people in this world.
This is how I understand "wasat": a community that is moderate, that bridges the differences and does not contribute to division and parallel societies.
How is that received in the Muslim community at large? Are you in contact with other imams and congregations?
Idriz: Certainly, I sense an interest among other imams and their congregations. I am always getting enquiries from Muslim institutions across Germany. Initially, the majority were from German churches and non-Muslim organisations, but since my most recent book, The Koran and Women, two years ago, there has been a great deal of interest from Muslims. Despite the pandemic, I have done many readings, including from my new book. During the month of November alone, I will be making a tour of several cities and mosque congregations throughout Germany.
Has the discourse in the Muslim community changed?
Idriz: There is a new base of up-and-coming Muslims that is not necessarily organised according to congregation. I see a generation that identifies with Islam, but that at the same time is looking for new forms of organisation. They are founding new associations and initiatives that are very different to your typical mosque congregation.
This new generation of Muslims fascinates me. They are helping to ensure that Islam is found not only in congregations, but also in the midst of society, at universities, on social networks, in the media, on platforms and via very different channels.
These Muslims are open to new questions and new people, to new topics and challenges, such as environmental issues, equal rights for women, socio-political participation, interfaith dialogue and, above all, a new discourse on Islam in the context of the times. This is the tightrope the Muslim community in Germany and in Europe needs to walk.
Mercy and compassion are central elements in Islam
One major issue is how to prevent young people from becoming radicalised. In your book you write that there is a "forgetfulness of mercy" among some Muslims that can contribute to radicalisation. What do you mean by that?
Idriz: Radicalisation begins with thoughts and words, which may ultimately end in deeds. Mercy and love are therefore crucial, in addition to two other elements I value greatly, namely reason and positive experience. Both of these, not to mention values such as mercy and compassion, are central elements in Islam; the Koran emphasises them time and again. They are what should inform our understanding of Islam.
Radicalisation does not take place in the congregation, but rather on social media. As imams, we have to be even more active in reaching out to young people. I am very happy when I see young Muslims spreading the image of an Islam of love and respect on social media. Young people hang out on the Internet, not in the mosques. The image of Islam being a religion of reason and compassion needs to be strengthened on social media.
What else can mosque congregations do?
Idriz: Of course, the mosque is still the place to go when it comes to religious education and religious experience, the interpretation of religion and its practice. It is still a central place for religious education. The imams and the congregation councils must be open to different topics, to a culture of dialogue, open discussion and exchange that allows for controversial opinions.
They must be open to young people, without making a distinction between men and women. It makes me sad when young people, who can go anywhere together, are only allowed to engage in separate activities at the mosque, because that gives them no opportunity to exchange ideas. Some congregations are still against the idea, however. Yet, as long as controversial discussion remains taboo within mosque congregations, young people look for information on Islam elsewhere. On social media, for example, where radical forces are far more active than the congregations themselves.
Interview conducted by Claudia Mende
© Qantara.de 2021
Benjamin Idriz, born in 1972 in Skopje/Macedonia, is imam of the Islamic community in Penzberg and chairman of the "Munich Forum for Islam". He is author of, among others, "Der Koran und die Frauen: Ein Imam erklärt vergessene Seiten des Islam", (published in German by the Gütersloher Verlagshaus) and "Wie verstehen Sie den Koran, Herr Imam? Grundgedanken für einen Islam heute und hier", (also by the Gütersloher Verlagshaus).
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