With the recent rise in Islamophobia across German – and the wider European – society, the Islamic theologian Hamideh Mohagheghi warns against retreating from the debate. Now is the time for Muslims to practise their faith in confidence, step forward and speak out. Interview by Canan Topcu of Qantara.de
Interview with the Islamic theologian Hamideh Mohagheghi
We need to talk
With the recent rise in Islamophobia across German – and the wider European – society, the Islamic theologian Hamideh Mohagheghi warns against retreating from the debate. Now is the time for Muslims to practise their faith in confidence, step forward and speak out. Interview by Canan Topcu
Ms Mohagheghi, you came to Germany from Iran as a young woman more than 40 years ago. What did moving to a different culture change for you as a Muslim woman – in the sense of your religion, for instance, or how you felt about practising it on a daily basis?
Hamideh Mohagheghi: I lived in Iran for the first 22 years of my life and that is where I was socialised. My upbringing was very strict and so much was forbidden. Notions of morality and what women were and weren’t allowed to do were always in the foreground. Women were not supposed to show themselves in society and had to adhere to a certain dress code … here in Germany, I was able to put aside all those exaggerated notions about morality I grew up with. They no longer exist for me, because I was able to step back and contemplate them objectively here. As regards the practice of my faith, nothing much has actually changed – at any rate, nothing that I have noticed. But I do think you change unconsciously when you spend a long time in a culture that is different to the one in which you grew up and were socialised in.
Can you be more specific about what you left behind?
Mohagheghi: “If you do this or that, you’ll go to hell”, or “If you don’t do this or that, then God will punish you”: these are sentences that I heard all too often. The fear of a punitive God was my permanent companion. Orienting my behaviour according to what rewards I would receive in the hereafter if I acted or didn’t act in a certain way: I don’t do that anymore. My motivation for what I do and how to behave is no longer geared exclusively towards the time in the hereafter.
The situation you describe during your childhood and youth is one that children are still facing today – and not only in Islamic countries with strict rules. Here in Germany as well, Muslim children grow up with the idea of a wrathful God and the fear of hell-fire. What can be done to prevent this fear-laden relationship with God and sinful behaviour from being passed down from one generation to the next?
Mohagheghi: Islamic religious instruction in the schools here gives children a chance to learn about a different concept of God and a divergent doctrine of the faith. If children are able to learn about their own religion from teachers with good didactic training and a thorough grounding in religious teachings, they will be able to overcome the strict patterns in their own families and culture. At least that’s what I hope.
But won’t that this change process only become noticeable in the next generation – when the Muslim children of today become the Muslim parents of tomorrow and convey their beliefs to their children?
Mohagheghi: Not necessarily! Change can already be observed today. What I am noticing in Lower Saxony is that there is some re-thinking is going on – both in the mosque communities and in families. Children who participate in Islamic religious instruction at school come home and confront their fathers and mothers with questions: questions and topics to which parents may at first respond with shock. I also frequently hear imams saying that they are grappling with the question of what they should teach children and young people at the mosque. Only having them learn pious sayings, prayers and verses by heart and teaching them how to read the Koran: that’s not enough in the long run. This is because the children now have a basis for comparison – they challenge the imams with what they have learnt in school about their religion.
So you’re saying that Muslim children – ideally – acquire a solid base of knowledge about the Islamic religion at school and therefore learn a different way of thinking about their God. What about their parents? The faith of many Muslims seems to be more like a superstition than a pious relationship with God nourished by in-depth contemplation of the Koran. Don’t adults perhaps also need some “tutoring” about what the Koran says, what the suras meant at the time they were written and how they should be interpreted today?
Mohagheghi: I know of a women’s group in Hanover that has been meeting once a month for more than 20 years to talk about and reflect on what the Koran says. As far as I know, such forums for exchange cannot be found everywhere, but it would certainly make sense if they were. What is lacking – even in the mosque communities – is an infrastructure for dealing more intensively with the Koran and Islam. Today, we can inform ourselves via the Internet, but that in turn harbours the danger of ending up in the wrong forums.
Islam belongs to Germany: “Muslims are part of this society, so policymakers have to create a framework within which they can practise their religion. And vice ersa: Muslims have to accept that other values and morals also exist in this society,” says Mohagheghi
There’s another topic I would like to ask you about: what importance do you attach to the teaching of Islamic theology at German universities?
Mohagheghi: For years, we here in Germany have been preoccupied with the practice of the faith – meaning how we worship, how often we worship, when and why we fast and whether and why headscarves must be worn. These questions have now been joined by the issue of extremist Islam and Islamic terrorism. Until now, we’ve dealt much too rarely with the theology behind it all, with theology in terms of putting the question of God at the centre of our considerations. What God are we talking about? How should this God be present for us? What do we want to teach our children about this God? I perceive this as an impoverishment of Islamic theology in the Western world. My hope is that the essential questions will be taken up in more depth at the centres for Islamic theology at German universities and that profound theological examination and spiritual perspectives will make more room for the faith itself. But I believe it is still too early to predict what sort of sustainable impulses will radiate from these centres.
At a conference in Frankfurt am Main, the question of what constitutes a European, or German, Islam was recently discussed. What distinguishes the brand of Islam that people here live by?
Mohagheghi: German Islam, Euro-Islam: these are mere labels that don’t mean much to me. If we speak, for example, about Muslims in Indonesia or in Canada, we don’t use terms like Canadian or Indonesian Islam. The history of Islam shows that Muslims have always adapted to existing social structures. I can envisage how Muslims in Germany could and should practise their faith. First of all: Muslims are part of this society, so policymakers have to create a framework within which they can practise their religion. And vice versa: Muslims have to accept that other values and morals also exist in this society. They should not impose their standards of good and bad, moral and immoral, on others. When, for example, people dress more permissively in public, this should not be censured by Muslims. I have in mind a co-existence characterised by mutual respect.
In the public debates, Islam and Muslims are frequently equated with violence. Anyone who comes forward and explains that this is not so, that Islam is a religion of peace, is ridiculed. How can Muslims credibly defend their religion in this country?
Mohagheghi: Under no circumstances by acting offended and retreating, saying that Muslims will not be accepted or heard no matter what they do. It would be wrong to withdraw from the dialogue and cultivate a climate of resentment. Right now especially, it is important for Muslims to live by their faith in confidence, to step forward assertively in public and speak up at every available opportunity. And what’s important above all is to live by and defend the values that distinguish Islam: mercy, kindness, charity, peace of mind, patience.
Hamideh Mohagheghi is a lawyer, an Islamic theologian and scholar of religious studies. She currently works as a research associate with the department of Islamic Theology at Paderborn University.