Cultural scene

Between Pop and Jihad. Muslim Young People in Germany

“Young. Male. Muslim.“ These three key words are enough, believes journalist Julia Gerlach, to spread fear and suspicion in the West. This is a paradoxical situation as hardly anyone really knows the Muslims who live here. However, the shock in the wake of the attacks in New York, Madrid, Istanbul and London is so great that hardly anyone makes the effort to overcome their distrust anymore and to get to know the Turkish family living next door or their fellow student from Iraq.

“According to a poll by the Allensbach Institute carried out in May 2006, nearly half of those asked thought that there could be a major attack in the Federal Republic of Germany,” writes Gerlach. “42 per cent suspect that terrorists are among the Muslims living in Germany.” That is social dynamite and a vicious circle unless we take action, according to Gerlach, because “the fear has real causes.” But fear “feeds distrust, and with it the exclusion of young Muslims.”

“Pop Islam: The best of both worlds?

Yet the present generation of young Muslims in particular offers incredible opportunities for integration and understanding, as Gerlach makes plain. This is because the present generation deals both with traditional oriental family values and with Western cultural practices and the features of a globalised pop culture as a matter of course. “You can have both,” says Gerlach, quoting Moez Massoud, a young man who attended the American University in Cairo and went on to successfully set up an IT company: “It is precisely this duality that the Islamic world needs in order for it to make progress and to shed its bad image. Being religious does not mean cutting oneself off from the world.”
The author calls this new movement “pop Islam”, which is more than bridging the gap between the traditional and the modern, namely an increasingly freely chosen and acquired lifestyle. Of course, rapid digitalisation plays a part in this. “Pop Islam is global. Regardless of whether young Muslims live in Cairo, Singapore or Berlin, they feel they belong to a wider community. They watch the same television programmes, listen to the same music and wear the same fashions. What links them is that they seek the meaning of life in the Koran, reject the moral decadence of the West and are angry about the US’s policy on the Middle East.”

What is decisive for most young people in the Arab world here is what news they are presented with and how it is presented. They grow up with misery, violence and injustice. They grow up with a certain one-dimensional picture of the Palestinian conflict. It is no surprise, as Gerlach’s description of being young in the Arab world makes clear, that many people think that the West is waging a war against Islam and that in the process, culture is only required by the war leaders “in order to make it clear to people that they are different to the enemy.” That is why more Muslim young people are once again willing to accept Islam. An Islam that they believe can and should make the world a better place. One that can stand up to a vague media presence of Usama Bin Laden and the permissiveness of Western television channels with its own TV channels, and witty and pious series. An Islam that sets up foundations and Koranic schools, thereby removing uncertainties and offering a sense of direction. And that promotes peoples’ own initiative in breaking down prejudices.

Muslim young people in Germany

This pop Islam is in evidence in Germany, too. Although Gerlach needs 92 pages to come to the book’s actual focus, Muslim young people in Germany, the long “cast and credits” are necessary in order to be able to understand the movement’s global links and to be aware of who is who in Islam. Amr Kahled, who preaches a kind of participatory Islam on his own programme on Iqra TV, a channel financed by Saudi Arabia, and Sheik Yusuf al Qaradawi, one of the Arab world’s best-known Islamic scholars, who has a weekly programme on Al Jasira, are the stars of German pop Muslims, as they are around the world. Whether their roots are with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation that is officially banned in many countries, or with Turkish initiatives organised by Milli Görüs, which is eyed critically by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, most young people Gerlach questioned feel some loyalty to some association or other or even set up their own. The fastest-growing is Lifemakers, based on the movement of the same name set up by Amr Khaled in Egypt. The Lifemakers do not have fixed structures and are different in each country, depending on the local situation. The idea behind the organisation is simple - to change the world. Lifemakers Germany aims to do so first and foremost by feeding homeless people, but also runs computer courses for unemployed young people, for example in Munich, or sets up visiting services for the elderly. The group is so popular among many young Muslims because they can combine their faith with action and also help to build bridges in the process. “If we do something for people, we will receive benevolence,” is how 19-year-old Mimoun describes it. Another conclusion: more and more Muslims feel that they are Germans, too, and want to show this. Similar objectives are pursued by the Muslimische Jugend in Deutschland Association (i.e. Muslim Youth in Germany) and even by Milli Görüs’ youth organisations, which appeal to peoples’ faith and social responsibility. In this respect, pop Muslims are to be regarded as being like any other young people: They too have questions, want to stand aloof from old traditions while being loyal to them at the same time, and are searching for orientation. It is just that religion, with its promise of the hereafter, plays a much more decisive role here. But they all distance themselves from violence.

Seeking dialogue with pop Muslims

Gerlach believes that German pop Islam as a youth movement is a minority, a kind of avant garde. Yet even now, one should take them seriously as contacts and allies with regard to the threat of global terrorism and should seek dialogue. However, Gerlach expects politics to come up with the “right” solutions to the problem of “integration rather than assimilation”: recognising Islam as a religious community in Germany, having Islam lessons in German, taking into account diverse backgrounds in the curricula, having clear attitudes and rules instead of a general headscarf ban and finally holding a social discussion about what is actually to be understood by the term “German” so as to be able to proceed to define “integration”.

Gerlach’s descriptions are supplemented by an extensive glossary. Although as a “Westerner” one knows some expressions, one does not necessarily know their correct use. The word “umma” as a term for the Muslim community, for example, is not new, but how does on interpret this community? Is it equivalent to what we understand the Christian community as being? What exactly is the sharia, what are the aims of Salafism as a movement within Islam? One does not have to become a scholar of Islam. But anyone who has acquired a water pipe as a metropolitan lifestyle accessory as a matter of course should venture to broaden their horizons a bit further. Gerlach’s conclusion is that they will then realise that the clash of civilisations conjured up by Samuel Huntington back in 1993 does not exist: “The shocking thing (…) is that the clash of civilisations only exists because people believe in it. If you look more closely, it is not so much the cultural and religious differences that cause the conflicts in and with the Muslim world. Power politics, the distribution of raw materials and economic interests are behind them. We cannot afford to fall into the trap of a clash of civilisations.”

Julia Gerlach: Zwischen Pop und Dschihad. Muslimische Jugendliche in Deutschland. Ch. Links Verlag 2006. ISBN no.: 978-3-86153-404-4
Kerstin Fritzsche
is a member of the Online Editorial Team.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
November 2006

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