Heroes of the Orient

Who is a "hero of Islam"?

The answer to one of the most sensitive questions of the early 21st century can be very different. Latifa Ibn Ziaten experienced this herself, to her horror. Her 30 year old son Imad was shot seven months ago. He was a paratrooper in the French army. "My son was proud to serve his country," Latifa said at the memorial service in spring. His murderer was Mohammed Merah, a 24-year old Islamic terrorist who killed three Muslim soldiers of the French army and then three Jewish children and a rabbi infront of an Orthodox Jewish school.

Ibn Ziaten Latifa, a 52-year old woman with a headscarf, went after the ceremony to the district where the killer was brought up, in the "Cité des Izard" of Toulouse. "Who is Mohamed Merah for you," she asked the young people in the street. "A hero of Islam," they shouted. "But he killed my son," she said. The boys felt uneasy. Before them stood a fellow muslim. They apologized for their remark. Latifa went to eat couscous with them. A short time later she started her own movement "for youth and peace." She wants to raise awareness that the underprivileged children of immigrants in "Cité of Izard" are part of the narrative of their new home: French from the Maghreb are citizens of the Republic, not the antithesis.

This religious minority is not only a challenge for immigration and integration policies in Europe. European Islam needs a reform movement. For European Muslims become more and more aware not just about their diversity, but also their differences. Since 9/11 the reputation of the teachings of Mohammed has reached a low point. The shrill cries of Islamist fanatics irritate the majority of moderate Muslims at least as much as non-Muslims. Louder and louder grow the voices which do not want to leave Islam to the Islamists. "I say:"Speak out!"says the pop star of European Islam, the controversial professor of Islamic studies, Tariq Ramadan, in an interview with “profil". “We need self-criticism!”

But criticism, let alone self-criticism is hard to find in the enormously heterogeneous world of Islam. The followers of the Prophet Muhammad have spread since the seventh century from the Middle East all over the globe. 1.6 billion Muslims live today either in countries where they are the majority as in Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran or Egypt. Or they live as minorities in predominantly Christian countries in the West. In Europe - without Turkey - about 40 million people pray towards Mecca. Or rather not, because many Muslims stopped praying long gone. Unlike in Christianity, where you can simply resign your membership in the church, there is no exit from the Islamic faith. Atheist Muslims are therefore difficult to recognize in statistics.

Ideologically the bandwidth extends from agnostics who celebrate traditional festivals to Wahhabi Al Qaeda terrorists. Al Qaeda with its anti-Western, violent ideology is still in the eyes of many equated with Islam per se. At least in the West, Islam is itself in many enlightened observers as reactionary, misogynist religion under general suspicion. A poll released last Thursday on behalf of the French newspaper "Le Figaro", found that 43 percent of French people view a Muslim community in their country rather than "threat" to the identity of France.

Islam is less hierarchic than Christianity. Sunni Islam has not even a clergy. But even within Shia Islam there are different schools of law, whose authority is only valid for the respective followers. "Umma", the community, is all embracing. A reform movement can therefore not renounce a pope, because there is none.

Despite similar conditions Judaism has seen the establishment of a reform movement, which allows women to be rabbis. However, this development came after three thousand years of religious debate. The modern Muslim middle class in Europe, however, has only just emerged. The cheap guest workers, which had been brought in the seventies from Turkey to Germany, had become a religious minority by the late eighties. In Vienna the Muslims from Turkey, Bosnia or Albania are not particularly radical traditionally.

But as the circumcision debate last summer showed: the understanding of cultural differences quickly reaches its limits. Muslims and Jews felt their very existence put into question, because many German and Austrians were in favor of a legal ban on circumcision. It does not help that the German lands have also become battleground for Islamist jihadists. A native of Iran, the rapper Shahin Najafi emigrated to Germany in 2005 to be able to sing his defiant lyrics in the free world. After one of his songs about a religious leader was clicked on 500,000 times on YouTube, the Iranian mullahs reacted. In May 2012 a Grand Ayatollah imposed a fatwa against Najafi. Someone then put a bounty of $ 100,000 on his head. The rapper is now living underground in Cologne. Since the Islam-critical filmmaker Theo van Gogh was shot dead on a street in Amsterdam in 2004, critics of Islam in Europe must fear for their lives.

Although such death-fatwas promote the need for reform within Islam, it does not exactly facilitate a public debate. In France Islam-Expert Olivier Roy called on the French to look beyond the fear of extremists and face the facts: the cheap laborers from the former colonial empire ave emerged into a Muslim middle class, which should be integrated - together with their religious rituals and needs. For republican France this is difficult. Since 2004 it is forbidden to go with a headscarf to state schools. As a reaction fmany young Muslim women turn to religious schools. Marseilles or Paris have now purely Muslim neighborhoods, in which restaurants only serve halal meat, which was prepared according to Islamic dietary laws. The French Islam expert Gilles Kepel draws a bleak scenario in his study "93": "The younger generation of Muslims is seperating itself more and more," he analysed in an interview with profile (profile No. 12/2012).

Also in the UK from the Queen downwards non-Muslims and Muslims alike are overwhelmed with the development of European Islam. The former Empire considers itself liberal immigration country. Not only rich prince from the Gulf States flock to London and drive with Porsches around the luxury department store Harrod's. Generations of immigrants from the Commonwealth countries of Pakistan and India have come here to work and live. And they all brought their traditions and politics.

With the death-fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 everyone suddenly realized that the integration of Muslims would not work without difficulties. Rushdie lived underground for a decade, as he describes in his recently published memoir, "Joseph Anton". Militant Islamism in the UK has an ugly history. After nine years of fighting deportation it was finally decided on 5 October to extradite the radical Islamist preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri. The ideological forerunner of 9/11 was delivered to the U.S., where he will face a life long prison sentence. The Queen must have been quite happy about it. She had confided to a BBC correspondent years ago that she could not understand how a hate preacher like Abu Hamza could still walk around freely in London.

The curse of the extremists is in reality less heavy on the residents of Buckingham Palace. More immediately it hits its own faith community. Usama Hasan, himself a former Islamist, fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion. He comes from a Wahhabi family, his father has been for decades a leading member of the Masjid al-Tawhid mosque in Leyton, East London. The Hasans came from Pakistan, they sent their son to England's elite schools. Usama was educated at Oxford. But he became more religious and ideologically radical than his father: "After 9/11 I could no longer stand living as a Muslim in London, I moved the family to Pakistan in order to live the true Islam." There Usama became disillusioned: "There was no love and no peace among Muslims, just corruption and violence."

In 2003 he came back to his second home in London. The returnees conducted Friday prayers once a month in the mosque of his father. His views became more moderate, he included women, he spoke of the advantages of Western values and how Islam can be compatible with democracy. The community reacted with incomprehension to the overly liberal imam. His father spoke out for him, but without success. Last spring, the mosque expelled Usama.

Now Imam Usama Hasan has no mosque anymore. Instead, he works for Quilliam, a think-tank against extremism in which former Islamists advocate democratic Islam. "I'd like to start a liberal mosque," says the bearded 40 year old with his Oxford accent. "But first you need money and secondly, I would be afraid that the mosque would be burned down on the first night."

Muslim reformers in Europe as well as in the Middle East have to fear Islamist violence. Thanks to the Arab Spring Muslims have the chance to develop democracies with an Islamic character. The Muslim Brotherhood wins the first free elections. For now, they rule pragmatically in Egypt under President Mohammed Mursi, but the democratic activists from Tahrir Square fear unspoken intentions of the Islamists. At Al-Azhar Mosque and University in Cairo, which is considered a spiritual and intellectual center of Islam, the thinkers are looking for new positions. But in the grip of army and Islamists the enthusiasm for reform is reduced. "We must take everything step by step", says the President of the Heliopolis University in Cairo, Hamid El-Zoheiry cautiously: "We can reform through science."

Can science keep the religious zeal of the ruling Islamists in check? In Turkey, an Islamic-oriented party under Recep Tayyip Erdogan ruled for almost ten years more or less democratic, but what is still considered democratic in Turkey would be a violation of the freedom of expression in Europe. Turkish pianist Fazil Say faces a prison sentence of fifteen months, because the radical Kemalist has posted jokes about a muezzin on Twitter.

On the edge, as in the center, Europe will find it easier to live with its Muslim middle class, if its position becomes clearer. Can headscarves as Yarmulkes or crosses be an expression of religious identity without expressing anti-democratic ideas? Perhaps, as long as the religion is understood by all as a private matter. Europe is just at the beginning of this discussion. And Islam at the beginning of a profound reform debate.

Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the mother of the slain soldiers of Mohammed Merah, is an example of how modern Muslims in Western Europe take their place in society. She wants to fight for better education of immigrant children in France, so that they adapt better to their new home. "I was received with open arms by France," she says. Against the wishes of her husband she has started wearing a veil after the murder of her son Imad: "As an expression of grief." It holds that Islam is a private matter.

She will return to her fight for peace between the French of all faiths only in late November. She is currently in Saudi Arabia. Latifa Ibn Ziaten went on the Hajj, the pilgrimage for devout Muslims to Mecca.

Europe has long been an Islamic middle class, longs for a reform of Islam. but modern Muslims in the West suggests both the distrust of Majority population and the hatred of the fanatics from their own ranks against.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz