Islam and the West

The Islamic scholar Gudrun Krämer discusses tolerance and freedom of religion among Muslims, the role of the Crusades and colonialism in today's conflicts, and the mistakes made by Western critics.

Something is rotten in the relationship between the Islamic and Western worlds; there is a diffuse but pungent odor of fear and mistrust. The unease has primarily to do with the issue of violence: violence that permeates the past and the present, violence in all its glory - honor killings, suicide attacks, the Crusades, colonialism, the Taliban, Abu Ghraib, sharia, headscarves, youths rioting in France, jihad, Israel, insulting the Prophet, and freedom of speech. What a tangle!

The atmosphere of distrust between Muslims and the West has been around for centuries. Lately, it hasn't been getting any better.

The atmosphere of distrust between Muslims and the West has been around for centuries. Lately, it hasn't been getting any better.

Europe, the West and Christendom have all but become synonymous, as have the Middle East, the Islamic world and Islam itself. Theory and practice, unalloyed doctrine and tainted practice are all blithely muddled together. Political conflicts assume the mantle of cultural clashes and vice versa.

As so often, perceptions weigh at least as heavily as facts. However, in this case the bare facts are daunting enough. Once upon a time, a clear distinction between "Islam" and "the West," may have been possible. But no longer. The boundaries are blurring: Millions of Muslim men and women live in the West and many are citizens of Western nations. They are therefore now inextricably part of the West.

The resulting conflicts are very real

Conversely, the West has left its mark on the Islamic world; through its politicians and generals, but also through its materialism, technologies, communication tools and organizational paradigms, things with which only hermits can completely avoid contact. The resulting conflicts are very real.

Yet, given the current European propensity for viewing reason as a Christian legacy and themselves as sole heirs to the Enlightenment, it ill befits Europe's residents to cast reason aside whenever their relationship with Islam and Muslims is at issue. Let us begin with religion. Germans particularly are wont to portray the Judeo-Christian tradition as the cornerstone of European identity and culture - however tenuous and contentious the realities may be. Islam does not even merit a mention. Educated commentators might, at best, make passing reference to Islamic Spain, where the Greek classics were translated by Muslim and Jewish scholars and exported to the Christian West. This may secure those scholars a modest place in Europe's cultural heritage - albeit as mere messengers, rather than as thinkers in their own right. From a religious perspective, however, their existence matters little.


An internationally acclaimed expert in her field, Gudrun Krämer (53) is currently a professor at the Free University of Berlin's Institute of Islamic Studies. In 2005, she published a history of Islam.
For centuries Christians regarded Mohammed as a false prophet; even today few Christians would probably consider him a true prophet. The Islamic attitude toward Judaism and Christianity is quite different. Islam sees itself explicitly as belonging to the same monotheist tradition as its two sister faiths embody. It connects to them, relates to them, but at the same time considers itself superior. Just as the New Testament succeeds the Old Testament for Christians, the revelation of Islam concludes the chain of revelations for Muslims. The Torah and the Gospels are respected, but it is the Koran alone that contains the true message. Moses is a prophet, Jesus is a prophet, but Mohammed is the "Seal of the Prophets."

It isn't exactly clear where Jews and Christians fit in when Islam distinguishes between believers and non-believers - although the distinctions are no less rigidly delineated than those between Jews and non-Jews, or Christians and heathens, in the West. In some passages, the Koran refers to them as believers, but in others they are conscripted into the great army of unbelievers that Muslims must fight with every resource available. From a theological perspective, this is a complex issue, because the Koran and Islamic theologians hold that believing in Christ as the son of God is perilously close to polytheism, for it suggests that Christians do not worship a single God. This point, like so many others, highlights the extent to which the Koran - treated by most Muslims as the unadulterated word of God, to be understood verbatim - requires and has always required interpretation.


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Such an assertion inevitably offends fundamentalists, who hold fast to a literal reading of the scripture and believe it must be followed without any "ifs" or "buts." The assertion is nevertheless valid - and thinking Muslims have always admitted as much.

Pragmatic tolerance

In practical terms, the situation has been somewhat more straightforward. Jews and Christians enjoyed the protection of the Muslim authorities. They were, after all, recipients of a scripture of revelation, who, like Muslims, believed in the one and only God - albeit, from an Islamic point of view, in a diluted form. Hence the designation dhimmi ("protected person") applied to both Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule. This exemptive status explicitly distinguished them from the non-believers who were the Muslims' predefined enemy. In exchange for the payment of special tributes, their independence was guaranteed and they were protected from physical violence.

In the course of the Islamic conquests in southern and southeastern Asia, Hindus and Buddhists were granted a comparable status, although these faiths were scarcely monotheistic. Muslims were as capable as anyone else of differentiating between religious and political necessity. Consequently - with Islamic conquests serving to extend Islamic rule - they exercised a pragmatic tolerance.

Like all foreign invasions, these conquests involved violence or at least the threat of violence, a fact that many of today's Muslims are reluctant to acknowledge. Not unlike the West's former colonial powers, they prefer to cast themselves in an altruistic role, with invasion and occupation masked as a mission civilisatrice. As a rule, however, Muslim conquerors did not force subjects to convert to Islam, which most scholars believe is explicitly prohibited in the Koran (Sura 2, Verse 256: "There is no compulsion in religion.").

The picture is scarcely rosy

In such circumstances, tolerance was closer to toleration, not tantamount to acknowledging that members of other faiths were equal in religious terms or deserved the same rights. But that attitude also prevailed in Europe until well into the 19th century. Equality for religious minorities under the law is a relatively recent concept. And Europe for one has experienced more than its share of problems when trying to put this idea into practice.

If tolerance in the sense of toleration is the yardstick, the Islamic world cuts a far better figure than historical Christendom, although here too the picture is scarcely rosy. The Renaissance may have seen outstanding cultural achievements in Europe, but it was in no sense harmonious - not even in Islamic Spain, which is often retrospectively idealized as a "golden age" of peaceful Muslim, Christian and Jewish coexistence.

Even under Islamic rule, some members of other faiths were persecuted, forced to convert or subjected to pogroms. These, however, were the exception, not the religiously sanctioned rule. In any comparison with Europe - whether during the Christian-dominated Middle Ages, the Reformation or the era of totalitarianism (which, we might remember, postdated the Enlightenment) - "Islam" emerges as the clear moral victor.

The present situation is different. With a few highly publicized exceptions, religious tolerance is still exercised in predominantly Islamic societies. Today, however, toleration is not enough. There are demands - mainly, but not exclusively, from the West - for religious minorities to be granted the same legal rights and, by extension, for freedom of religion. In most chiefly Islamic societies, the religious and legal categories derived from the Koran have remained in force. Consequently, non-Muslims are denied equal rights in some walks of life. They can be hindered from maintaining and renovating their churches, monasteries, synagogues and temples; they are not allowed to proselytize; and, not infrequently, they are barred from certain functions and offices.

That is not only true of countries like Saudi Arabia where sharia law applies, and the authorities obstruct the practice of other faiths. It also holds good for a country like Turkey, which regards itself as secular. This is partly due to the frequent equation of "Turkish" with "(Sunni) Muslim" - a politicization of religion rejected by most Muslims outside Turkey.

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