Muslims in Germany
Photo: Kunsthalle Hamburg | Licence: Public Domain

Equitable discrimination regarding the role of Muslims in Germany endangers the conservative world view

“All equitable discrimination, which arises quasi-automatically from demanding debates, endangers the consensus of the new right, which sees in Islam and its followers a necessary image of enmity to close its own ranks. The positive blueprint of a society that recognises the role of Muslims or even learns from Islam is displaced by the great negation vis-à-vis reality.”

How do the conservative elites confront Muslims? The answer is simple: mostly not at all. The presence of Islam in Europe is a thorn in the side of the right and the fundamentally critical attitude against this religion is an important part of their own self-image. The preservation of the Christian-Jewish West, a common rhetorical figure in these circles, negates the intellectual and historical contribution of Islam to this day.

The debate between Muslims and conservatives which takes place on an equal footing is an exception. However, in late 2021 an example can be found on YouTube demonstrating that this encounter is quite conceivable and exciting. The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson published a conversation with the American scholar Sheikh Hamza Yusuf on his channel. To date, the video with the unusual title What can you learn from Islam? has been viewed over two million times.

Peterson is confident enough to first approach the phenomenon with understanding. He asks questions about the socialisation of the interlocutor, the reasons for his decision to accept the religion and then tries to work out what Islam is. The conversation about God and the world, meaning and death, as well as the dangers of a possible ideologization of religious clientele, is a rare example of a genuine encounter between a conservative and a Muslim. The audience is offered an approach that derives the meaning of life practice not from extreme cases, but from the normal case of an educated believer.

The last great conservative in Germany to approach the phenomenon of Islam in an understanding way was probably Goethe. The universal scholar’s library contains numerous Qur’an translations and relevant specialist literature. The typical attitude of the preservationist is evident in the master’s scepticism about revolutionary endeavours, his abhorrence of ideology and his realisation that the Greek narrative was slowly being phased out of the European educational canon in terms of its impact. Goethe is a realist and understands the growing importance of financial engineering and the emerging consequences of globalisation. He does not consider a dialectic against Islam necessary for finding one’s own identity in stormy times.

A sound knowledge of Islam has long since ceased to be part of a conservative’s basic education. Who knows or refers to philosophers like Ibn al-’Arabi and Ibn Rushd? Where is the interest in the scholars’ contribution to Western development, curiosity about the topicality of Islamic economic law, sympathy towards the social dimensions of life practice, even a sense of the doctrine of virtue inherent in religious practice? What is widespread, on the other hand, are relatively simplistic images of the enemy or the persistent prejudice of the foreignness of religion.

The paradoxical result of this limited view is that young believers turn away from a political-ideological Islam, but at the same time find no welcoming culture in the bourgeois parties. The strategists of the CDU do not recognise the long-term potential of the new generations of Muslims in Germany. Arguments for a rapprochement would certainly exist: for example, people who adhere to their religion are conservative by nature and liberal on the other hand, as they are endowed with a sense of reality for a changing time. Young Muslims adhere to their narrative, profess family values, universal morality and – surprise – in their vast majority, the constitution.

In 2006, the founder of the German Islam Conference, Wolfgang Schäuble, tried to build a bridge to one of the country’s large minorities with a few cleverly worded sentences: “Islam is part of Germany and part of Europe, it is part of our present and part of our future.” The conservative mastermind divided his followers with his proposal. There are ‘thick boards to be drilled’. The thesis that excludes Islam from European history is one of the most important subjects of thought in right-wing circles in the Federal Republic. In this discourse, direct encounters are not foreseen, and if they are, then only with selected representatives within the spectrum of explicit criticism of religion. In 2011, a pamphlet by the FAZ editor Patrick Bahners (Die Panikmacher) caused a stir, questioning the one-sided treatment of Islam. His analysis has lost none of its topicality, not only for the political space to the right of the CDU: “Criticism of Islam is a system of sentences, not merely a logical construct, while at the same time a concentration of moods, a syndrome of resentment.”

Since the refugee crisis in 2015, the fronts have finally hardened. Even if only some of the refugees are practising Muslims, the right-wing conservative conspiracy theory revolves with fondness around the alleged Islamisation of the Occident. In 2018, academics and intellectuals from Vera Lengsfeld to Uwe Tellkamp to Tilo Sarrazin wrote a joint statement against what they say is illegal mass immigration. Peter Sloterdijk commented on the reaction of the alienated as follows: “Freud explained the unease in culture by the renunciation of drives. It seems to me that today the discomfort is more related to losing the spectator privilege.” In other words, the critics were not providing a blueprint for the humane management of refugee movements, but rather claiming the supposed right not to be bothered by geopolitical realities.

It is part of the irony of history that today organised, “conservative” Muslims, and conservatives disillusioned with the mainstream parties, are fighting against similar-sounding labels such as “Nazi, Islamist or fascist.” For example, if you visit the channel of the Berlin Library of Conservatism, a think tank of the new right and an object of suspicion for many liberals, you will encounter numerous prominent speakers who distance themselves from the CDU and the far-right fringes. The basic idea behind this is a reconnection to the narrative of a body of thought, to the land of poets and thinkers, without falling back into the ideology of Nazi nationalism and racism. In the events that ask under what conditions there might be a conservative modernity or future, Islam is usually the elephant in the room.

The political scientist Werner Patzelt sees the presence of Muslims in Europe as an experiment with an uncertain outcome. He argues against a possible kinship of religiously motivated conservatives with different confessional backgrounds: “Religion and conservatism have nothing to do with each other.” Counterarguments are hardly allowed. In these spheres, talking at eye level with Muslims is not envisaged.

Eastern Germany is now a stronghold of the new right, ranging from mobilising the street with far-right civic movements, to possible parliamentary majorities for the AfD. What these factions have in common is to attribute every crime committed by immigrants to the religious order and thus the will to permanently reduce Islam in Europe to the level of a potential source of danger. In the end recognising the phenomenon of German Muslims is impossible within the framework of this logic. In addition, there is the well-known “conservative” demand to keep the East German provinces out of the pressure to change in an immigration society.

On the cultural level, the right-wing in the East seems to have attracted an eloquent advocate to its side in the writer Uwe Tellkamp. His bestseller Der Turm and the subsequent film adaptation guaranteed the Dresden native a broad public. A new documentary by Andreas Gräfenstein describes Tellkamp’s commitment to freedom of expression, the broadening of the corridor of opinion and against the idea of contact guilt. In 2018, he had triggered a storm of indignation with the thesis that “95 per cent of the asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in Germany from 2015 and after merely want to immigrate into our social systems.”

The author backed down from his untenable thesis, but at the same time expanded his contacts in the right-wing milieu and otherwise appeared little impressed by the criticism. The alliance of Dresden’s Pegida with openly Islamophobic circles does not concern him, rather he worries with an offended undertone about the denigration of the so-called civic resistance on the Elbe. The topic of immigration does not let Tellkamp go and plays a significant role in his new novel Der Schlaf in den Uhren. The work about the depths of the GDR past is supplemented with allusions to the refugee policy of the former German Chancellor. Within the framework of a complex fiction spread out over hundreds of pages, he describes the phenomenon of power in a state dominated by the media. The sleeping clocks, according to the author, conceal the demons and unsolved questions of the republic. The gifted writer reveals himself above all in long passages dealing with the island of Hiddensee, zoology, shaving or other phenomenological outlandishness.

The precision of which Tellkamp is linguistically capable is lacking in his statements that touch on Islam. Here the artist remains rather vague and abandons them with nebulous prejudices about a supposedly different way of life. The suspicion that most conservative thinkers never expose themselves to a level conversation at eye level also applies to Tellkamp. Is this a coincidence? Hardly. All the equitable discrimination that arises quasi-automatically from sophisticated debates endangers the consensus of the new right, which sees in Islam and its adherents a necessary image of enmity to close its own ranks. The positive design of a society that recognises the role of Muslims or even learns from Islam is displaced by the great negation vis-à-vis reality. Speechlessness is the basic condition of every ideology.

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