Moderate Islam in Germany
by Stephen Schwartz
COLOGNE, Germany — They are German, Austrian, and Dutch by citizenship, and increasingly, by birth.
They are Turkish and Kurdish in origin.
They are heterodox Shia Muslims, whose belief system exemplifies the diversity of interpretations in Shia Islam (something Westerners seem not to grasp at all, but which is visible in the moderation of Iraqi Shia Ayatollah Ali Sistani.) They are also spiritual Sufis, at a time when it has become fashionable for superficial Western commentators to express contempt for Shias and Sufis alike.
They count some 600,000 in Germany, out of four million Muslims in that country – and one in four of the population in Turkey itself.
They have been oppressed for generations in Turkey.
They are known as Alevis, and their experiences provide an important view into the multiple varieties of religious observance found in Islam. For the Alevis, although criticized by some Sunni Muslims for their distinctive attitudes and practices, reject any attempt to exclude them from the Islamic global community, or umma.
Efforts by radical Sunnis to define the Alevis as heretics or non-Muslims have been genocidal in effect, no less than intent. Alevis remember, with a profound sense of mourning, an atrocity in the eastern Turkish city of Sivas on July 2, 1993. On that occasion, an Alevi cultural conference was scheduled in the Madimak Hotel, with participation by Aziz Nesin, a popular writer. Nesin was known for his progressive views, including his insistence on freedom to criticize, without limitations, the faith of Islam. This issue has gained universal importance with the challenge of radical Islam to the planet, and controversies over the Danish media caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and the recent commentary by Pope Benedict XVI. Nesin had called for the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in Turkey.
Similarly, two prominent Alevi representatives I met defended the right of the Berlin Opera to present any work of art it chooses, without worrying about "insulting" fundamentalist Muslims (see last week's FSM column, "Muslims, Mozart, Idomeneo, and Idiocy.") Ismail Kaplan, an Alevi community leader and writer in Cologne, commented, "it is absolutely unacceptable that art should be repressed on the pretext of religion. Freedom of the imagination must not be surrendered after so many centuries of struggle and development." His colleague Necat Sahi, an artist whose work includes a message to God inscribed on the ceiling of an Alevi meeting hall, calling for greater friendship between God and the human community, commented: "As an Alevi I find such conflicts [over freedom of expression] especially absurd."
In the Sivas affair, a crowd of enraged fundamentalist Sunnis besieged the Madimak Hotel for several hours. Shouting demands for exclusive sharia or Islamic religious jurisprudence as the sole law in the country, and denouncing Nesin and others at the conference as "unbelievers," the mob set fire to the structure. By the time firefighters had arrived flames had consumed much of the building, yet Nesin and others escaped. (He died in 1995.) Still, 37 other people perished in the horror.
For the Alevis, Sivas is emblematic of the permanent battle for the soul of Islam – a conflict in which the enemies of the West, of Jews, and of Christians, are also murderous in their actions against Muslims of whom they disapprove. One should not have to point out that the same hatred that burned people to death in Sivas in 1993 incites radical Sunnis against Shias in Iraq. Nor is it comforting to realize that however often Western critics bewailed the fundamentalist Muslim rhetoric against Rushdie, they seldom, if ever, mentioned the martyrs of Sivas.
There should be nothing surprising in this: Rushdie had become a Westerner by adoption, and it was and remains easy for intellectuals from San Francisco to Stockholm to declare their solidarity with someone they consider one of their own. The West faces a great challenge: to comprehend and defend the Alevi factory worker in the Ruhr Valley of Germany and in Turkey; the Bosnian Muslim; the Albanian dervish in Macedonia; the Sufi intellectual in Saudi Arabia; the spiritual nonconformist in Iran, the Shia Muslim in Iraq or Pakistan, and the pluralist Muslim in Indonesia. All have seen their peers murdered and their holy places desecrated, typically by Muslim radicals. These little-known legions are typically ordinary working people and peasants. They have few globally-known cultural figures who speak for them. Yet they are indispensable allies of America in defending the world against terrorism.
Western "liberal" media and corrupt experts blame the U.S. and Israel for every form of extremism to emerge in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world. But Sufis and other non-Wahhabi Sunnis, as well as Shias, all recognize that violent radicalism originates in the ranks of the faith, and reflects power relationships in the Muslim world rather than developments from outside Islam. As in Iraq, where American support for the rights of Shias and Kurds makes possible a future for pluralism in Islam that can defeat extremism, so, everywhere that Muslims live, the future of freedom has friends.