From 9/11 to the Arab Revolutions

    About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    A Generation of Believers
    1991 – 2001 – 2011

    How has the world changed since 11th September 2001? In the past ten years far too many things have come under discussion as apparent consequences of the attacks.

    It seems to me important to concentrate on one particular aspect if one is to give an idea of what may actually have changed as a result of the attacks. In this essay I would like to talk about the generation of West Germans for whom September 11th 2001 put an end to deeply ingrained convictions about and hopes for unlimited freedom of movement. I am speaking of my generation, those of us who were in our twenties when the Berlin Wall came down. For us, the 1990s signified first and foremost the promise of an end to global confrontation.

    Fear of nuclear war

    Born in the 1960s, we were children of the Cold War for whom an end to the East-West conflict was simply not an option. Those born ten years earlier had heard the building of the Wall being talked about in every family, and were thus better able to imagine it coming to an end. Those who were born in the 1970s, on the other hand, no longer lived with the intrinsic fear of the Cold War. ‘Overkill’ was no longer a key element of vocabulary for people in this age group, whereas in my generation the assumption that humanity was capable of destroying itself many times over was a constant, not a variable. I am speaking not only of peace activists, of both right and left, within and outside the churches; this was the point of departure even for the apolitical. And it was certainly not only apolitical twenty-year-olds who had not reckoned with an end to the conflict between East and West. Nowadays it is necessary to make clear to people how deeply the Cold War was ingrained in our very marrow in order to recall the euphoria that gripped Central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nothing was bigger than the end of the Cold War. We felt as if we had lived through a historical upheaval on the same scale as the French Revolution. If I had to summarise this feeling with reference to one freedom that was gained by the change, I would say it was freedom of movement. The control of people’s freedom of movement does not work in the long term.

    Middle East and North Africa

    The decade of euphoria after the collapse of the Soviet Union in Europe in 1991 was also the last decade of the revival of the great post-colonial hopes in the Middle East and North Africa. These hopes were finally killed off in the year 2000. It was hoped that the Palestinian state would come into existence in 1999, but independence was not declared; the student movement was suppressed in Iran; Algeria put an end to what was effectively a civil war by consolidating the ‘military-industrial complex’ under Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika (although ‘industrial’ here means the energy sector, not the armaments industry), and in Egypt one man was to keep himself in power for another decade and longer. With the attacks of 2001, the hope of unlimited freedom after the end of the Cold War came to an abrupt end. The consequence was the marginalisation of Muslims from all kinds of different backgrounds. The still-new experience of ‘freedom of movement’ between east and west, north and south was over. By this I am referring primarily not to airport controls, full body scanners, biometric passports or Frontex, but to the mental partitioning-off of Muslims from the heart of German society. In the year 2011 this change in mentality is threatening our own generation’s project of a liberal society. We do not want to dictate to people what clothing they have to wear. This is the heart of a liberal constitution that we recommend people should emulate.

    The poisoned legacy of the attacks

    But the ‘public discourse about Europe increasingly calls for a categorical clarification of the attributes of belonging’, according to Ilija Trojanow. As the author sees it, a new consensus is already being established: that Europe did not evolve from a joint Judeo-Christian-Muslim cultural inheritance. The attempt to oust Islam from its place as one of the cultural roots of the Mediterranean region is one of the most dangerous long-term effects of the attacks across the world by al-Qaida and their sympathisers. Ten years after September 11th, the poisoned legacy of the attacks is starting to surface. You don’t need to be a scholar of the Bible or the Koran to know that Abraham is the father of all three religions. The latest construct, propagated in the West by so-called critics of Islam, of a Christian-Jewish civilisation that excludes Islam by definition could therefore hardly be more ignorant. It is, however, a self-image that will consolidate itself.
    In 2010, in commemoration of the night of the anti-Jewish pogroms on 9th November 1938, one of the most important liberal German journalists, Heribert Prantl, wrote an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung in which he said that Muslims were being ostracised nowadays in the name of a Christian-Jewish tradition. However, as he wrote in his editorial, ‘Christian-Jewish history [consists] above all of the persecution, expulsion and extermination of the Jews and the branding of the Talmud as heretical. And where the two had common roots, majority society has ripped them out. If Jews were acknowledged, it was after their conversion to Christianity. And until very recently this Christianity preached not the common heritage of the Holy Scripture but the triumph of the New over the Old Testament. […] German politics embraces the old, formerly stigmatised minority of the Jews in order to stigmatise the new minority, the Muslims. The Jews are misused in order to designate Muslims incompatible,’ Prantl concludes. This marginalisation is one of the consequences of the attacks of September 11th 2001. In recent years, Wolfgang Benz has demonstrated that the symbolical discourse about the Koran, headscarves and minarets reveals structural attributes of long-harboured European anti-Semitism. The renowned head of the Berlin Centre for Research into Anti-Semitism, who is also one of the founders of concentration camp research in Germany, was lambasted for these remarks.
    Nowadays it is held against ‘Islam’ (people say ‘Islam’, but what they mean is the people behind it) that, as the last of the great monotheistic religions to be revealed, it always claims to be superior to the others. (This is, incidentally, the same argument that was used against Christianity in the Judeo-Christian relationship.) At Christmas 2010, in Die Welt, one of the most widely-read conservative daily newspapers in Germany, the Dutch writer Leon de Winter described Islam as an ‘ideology of war’. He continued: ‘Our humanistic guiding principles, based on the equality of all people, demand that we formulate the principle of equality so broadly as to accept that all monotheistic mythologies have the same pacifist core. The facts prove that this is nonsense. Islam today is the most militant of the three monotheistic traditions. It regards Christianity and Judaism as falsifications of the message of the god Allah, and that is essentially an aggressive denial of everything that historically preceded the emergence of the Islamic mythology. The pious Muslim is even obliged to see Christians and Jews as falsifiers and liars. (Fortunately many Muslims refuse to spread this aggression – and in so doing they mitigate the belligerent rhetoric of Islam.)’ Ideas of being the Chosen People as well as possessing the sole authentic interpretation of the divine message are, however, to be found in all periods of history, among both theologians and followers of all three religions. This feature is most definitely not specific to Islam.

    Jewish-Muslim alliances

    Why have Muslims across the world not distanced themselves more clearly from the attacks in New York and Washington? Whenever this demand has been made in discussion over the past ten years it has always seemed to me illogical. If, for example, a militant environmental or animal rights activist murders a politician, nobody expects members of animal rights organisations the world over to distance themselves from the act. There is just as little reason for Muslims to distance themselves from the attacks in New York and Washington. For them, the attackers would be as far outside their cosmos as they are for their Christian and atheist neighbours.
    In an age of growing Islamophobia, Germany can consider itself lucky to have a general secretary like Stefan J. Kramer at the head of the Central Council of Jews. While German media found the murder of the Egyptian woman Marwa el-Sherbiny in a Dresden courtroom barely worthy of report, Kramer drove to Dresden to present his condolences to the family in person. He wrote of the attack: ‘I did not drive to Dresden because I, as a Jew, am part of a minority. I made the trip because I, as a Jew, know that anyone who attacks another human being on account of their race, ethnic background or religion attacks not only that minority, but democratic society as a whole.’ Stefan Kramer expressed his surprise at the lack of media interest in the murder, and the considerable media response when he paid this visit of condolence to the husband of the victim. Two weeks after the murder the liberal weekly newspaper Die Zeit commissioned four editors to write a joint article explaining why the incident in the courtroom was marginalised in the minds of both politicians and the media, and to address the media’s failure of perception and joint responsibility.
    There are many Jewish intellectuals in Germany like Stefan Kramer: Almut Sh. Bruckstein Coruh (Professor of Jewish Studies in Hamburg), Salomon Korn (Vice President of the Central Council of Jews), Irene Runge and others, who are calling for a new liaison between Jews and Muslims. They are the ones who are speaking out against bans on headscarves, mosques and minarets. They denounce the growing Islamophobia in Germany and display public solidarity with Muslim victims of violent attacks when others remain silent. I do not wish to claim that there are not also European ‘hate preachers’ who speak against Islam – most of them secular in origin – but I would like here to highlight those who are less inclined towards historical amnesia, and who promote Judeo-Muslim-Christian mutual support – whether this be defined in terms of religion or of culture. Irene Runge of the Jewish Cultural Association in Berlin writes that after September 11th a greater closeness developed with Muslim groups in Germany. Almut Bruckstein sees how ‘Jewish and Muslim, Jewish and Arab commonalities disappear amid the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab war’. The Jewish state, she says, is ‘today not the right place for such a public experimental field, in spite of all the New Historians and Israeli post-Zionists. Instead, one envisages a European workshop, the aim of which is the renaissance of Jewish and Muslim cosmopolitan cultural traditions’. These are the words of the initiator and director of ‘ha’atelier – werkstatt für philosophie und kunst’, an international platform for Jewish-Muslim cooperation in philosophy, science and art. This platform was created in 2001. ha’atelier sees itself as a ‘nomadic faculty’ and has made such a renaissance its aim. Ten years after the attacks of September 11th 2001, a positive vision could emerge from coalition like this – one that takes us further than simply a return to the status quo ante.

    Underdog perspective?

    One can cite many reasons, both historical and political, why the Muslim world all too frequently and with a lack of self-criticism adopts the role of victim in any discussion. I too have on numerous occasions attempted to explain the genesis of this attitude, and to present insights into the world view from the Muslim ‘underdog perspective’. Nonetheless, I would urge the Muslim world to set aside this discourse of victimhood, against all the above mentioned odds and in spite of all resistance from within its own ranks. It should confront the ‘alliance against Jews and Crusaders’ which is usurping their faith and professes to speak in the name of the Muslim community from Morocco to Pakistan. Al-Qaida and its offspring are depriving Muslims of their religion. Given that Islamophobia could become a majority attitude in Western societies, Muslims should defend themselves against it and seek allies.

    Sonja Hegasy
    is the Deputy Director of the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, and chairs the Goethe-Institute’s Advisory Committee on Science and Current Affairs.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2011

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