Opinion Katajun Amirpur

"You Have to Please Commit Yourselves!"

Following the murder of the Dutch director Theo van Gogh, Muslims must now demonstrate their opposition to fanaticism, argues Katajun Amirpur, author and expert in Islamic studies.

photo: AP
Take people to court if you don't agree with what they say or do, but don't kill them for it, argues Katajun Amirpur

​​A columnist in an Egyptian newspaper recently wrote that while it is correct to say that not all Muslims are terrorists, it is also correct to say that the number of Muslim terrorists is growing. It may be embarrassing, but it is true.

The fact that there are people who commit murder in the name of this religion is almost enough to make one ashamed to be a Muslim.

Take on board universalt values

We can tell ourselves hundreds of times over that this is an abuse of religion, but the more we say it, the less it consoles us. The only thing we can do is call on our brothers and sisters in faith to take on board the values that are considered universal for a good reason, but are unfortunately not considered by many Muslims to be so.

Naturally, we cannot suspect all Muslims, which is what the Muslim associations are worried about. Nor can we play down the situation: Islamist ideas and principles are spreading at universities.

While very few preach violence, many of the attitudes that are propagated there are quite simply incompatible with the free democratic constitutional structure of this country. And this is exactly the sort of soil in which fanaticism and radicalism flourish.

Calling on brothers and siters in faith

While it is no crime to think something that contravenes the constitution, as a Muslim woman, I must be allowed to call on my brothers and sisters in faith to commit themselves to and openly declare their support for this state, its legal system, and its principles.

Because in addition to those who loudly force their undemocratic opinions on the world, there are Muslims who silently defend this act of murder. Their consciences may trouble them for doing so, but they do admit that van Gogh should never have called the Prophet a pederast.

The freedom of speech

And the fact that he called Muslims "goat fuckers" was just too much; no-one should even think things like that. It is completely irrelevant whether he should or shouldn't have said these things: the Netherlands are built on freedom of speech and anyone who doesn't want to accept that, should leave.

Those who do not adapt to the system of values in place here, should not be here. Anyone who felt insulted by van Gogh should have taken him to court.

This is what many others did; after all, van Gogh's malice was not restricted to Muslims alone. He accused Leon de Winter of marketing his Jewishness and once said that de Winter probably wrapped barbed wire around his penis and screamed "Auschwitz, Auschwitz" during sex.

"Take people to court!"

De Winter took him to court. That's what you do in a state governed by the rule of law; either that or you put pen to paper.

Too many of my brothers and sisters in faith haven't yet grasped this. Many of them demand a tolerance that they themselves do not show to others.

They want to be allowed to be devout and would like public life in Europe to be turned on its head in order to accommodate them, but they are not willing to accept that others live differently.

As far as I am concerned, Muslims in Europe can build their mosques ⎯ taller and taller if they so desire it ⎯ Muezzins don't bother me either.

But they should not give me dirty looks because I have never seen the inside of a mosque in my native city of Cologne, Germany.

Muslims should be able to buy meat that has been slaughtered according to Muslim rituals, but they should not label those who enjoy a Cologne-style sausage every now and then sinners.

Muslim women should be allowed to wear their headscarves in school, even if they are working there as teachers, but if one of them ever asks my daughter why I don't wear one, I will do everything within my power to have that teacher removed from the school.

Offended by "Submission"

Maybe van Gogh's murderer really did feel offended by the provocations in the film Submission in which van Gogh projected Koranic verses onto a maltreated woman's body that was covered with no more than a see-through veil.

But even if the murderer considered these provocations blasphemous, it was not his job to avenge this crime (which is what Islamic law considers it to be).

That is the prerogative of God in heaven. And we should keep it that way; this is how most similar situations have been dealt with throughout the history of Islam.

Ayatollah Khomeini knew this when he declared Salman Rushdie to be an apostate. He had political, not religious, motives for doing so.

Khomeini knew that blasphemy and apostasy are offences on which only God can pass judgement. But some blind fanatic didn't know it and this is why Rushdie's Norwegian publisher got shot and almost lost his life.

And a whole series of Muslims in the Netherlands obviously don't know it either; otherwise they would not call Ayaan Hirsi Ali, co-author of van Gogh's film Submission, an apostate and make death threats against her.

How many Muslims know about their religion?

Unfortunately there are a lot of Muslims that don't know very much about their religion. That's what makes the whole thing so dangerous.

Even if van Gogh did overstep some limits of taste, there can be no denying the oppression of women in Islamic countries, the issue he highlighted in his film Submission.

The way he draws attention to this issue may be provocative, but Muslims - especially those living in Europe - would do well to grapple with the issue of the oppression of women instead of taking the provocateur to task.

After all, the oppression of women under Islam is widespread. Moreover, even though the roots of the problem lie in patriarchy, the Koran is generally used to defend the practice.

People must start taking a critical look at tradition

And how many people in Egypt know that the Koran does not stipulate clitoral circumcision? People must start taking a critical look at tradition.

If some Islamic regulations are incompatible with human rights, then they must be abandoned. To speak out in favour of cultural relativism and at the same time to have understanding for human rights abuses is quite simply wrong and not in the least tolerant.

And while we are at it, the argument that "Islam stipulates this or that" just does not hold water because every single verse can be interpreted in a myriad of different ways.

The Koran - a multiplicity of meaning

This is why Islamic exegeses have produced mystical, philosophical, left-wing, and right-wing Koran commentaries down through the centuries.

This is why, in today's 21st Century, the Koran should be interpreted in such a way that it no longer stands in contradiction to freedom of speech, human rights, and the rule of law.

This is why we can expect every Muslim who wants to live here to commit themselves to the system of values that is in place here, and not to demand a tolerance that he or she is not willing to demonstrate towards other designs for life.

That is a democracy that is willing to fight for its principles; and that is the sort of democracy we need.

Katajun Amirpur

© Katajun Amirpur

This article was previously published by the German daily, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 11 November 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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