I decide how I live my Islam

20 October 2010
Only in en
Blätter lets a German Muslim speak for herself; Dilema veche ridicules Romanian kowtowing to French racism; Esprit and Reset come out strongly against the burqa ban; Hungarian Quarterly predicts minority politics will top Hungary’s European presidential agenda; NZ talks to writer Mavis Gallant about the futility of revolutions; Glänta converses with poets who refuse to speak; and dérive wakes up urbanists to the suburbanization of the planet.


The publication of Thilo Sarrazin’s notorious book Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany is getting rid of itself”) has revived the debate in Germany on the supposed inability of “the Muslims” to integrate into European societies. In Blätter, German Muslim theologian Lamya Kaddor criticizes the fact that liberal Muslims like herself do not appear in the debate, caught as they are between critics of Islam, commonly called “experts”, and conservative Muslims:

Born in Germany, I am a German of Muslim faith with Syrian roots. My home country is Germany, no question. I don’t have another home. I went to kindergarten, school and university in Germany. […] I vote here, take an interest in German politics and pay my taxes. I defend our democratic order and am in favour of free speech, religious freedom and equality. In other words, I don’t just live in Germany. I participate in social and political processes, and here I am as happy as can be. I am an observant Muslim, and that does not stop me being a good democrat. That’s exactly how we Muslim Germans, or German Muslims, want to be understood. There’s got to be an end to seeing us as foreign. It’s not up to others to tell me whether and how I’m German: I want to decide for myself what the fact of my being German means. It’s not up to others to tell me what Islam is or should be: I want to decide for myself how I live my Islam.

Sarkozy the firebrand: In France, the Roma are the bogeymen of the day. In order to divert public attention from inconvenient issues such as the pension reform and corruption and tax fraud, and to recapture the rightwing vote after defeat in the regional elections, Nicolas Sarkozy has begun a “national war on criminality”, writes Bernard Schmid. “Now, however, it seems that the government […] has overstepped the mark. On the first Saturday in September, around 150 000 people throughout France demonstrated against this racist policy.”

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 10/2010


Attempts by successive French governments to deal with Roma migrants smacks of colonial racism, argues Valeriu Nicolae in Dilema veche (issue 344). “Targeting Roma alone cannot be seen as anything but racist. If the same policies were applied equally to all French citizens involved in cases of bribery, nepotism, corruption, financial mischief or embezzlement, a good part of the French political class would have to be expelled or lose their citizenship.”

Under pressure from the French government, Romanian premier Emil Boc (“possibly forgetting that he is the prime minister of an EU country and not the governor of a French colony”) appointed Valentin Mocanu, despite his inexperience, as minister for Roma issues. Moves such as this, writes Nicolae, perpetuate the failure of policies on Roma. “Both national governments and the European Commission are dramatically understaffed with the right people in this sector and unprepared to solve the problems. Some funds are provided but there is no vision or strategy that might ensure the expenditure produces results.”

Struggling to meet its election promise of deporting 30 000 illegal migrants yearly, the French government has turned to the pool of Roma in the country, writes Olivier Peyroux. The notion that the Roma’s lifestyle and other cultural differences are to blame for their marginalization is a myth: Roma in the first waves of post-communist migration were able to integrate in the West. “More than cultural fatality,” writes Peyroux, “it is administrative obstacles blocking access to the labour market that condemn Roma to permanent pariah status in European societies.”

Welfare cuts: Ovidiu Nahoi (issue 341) questions the assumption that the heavy impact of the financial crisis on Romania is due to public overspending: “For 30 years, in a country considered by many to be too generous on welfare, no new hospital has been built. The state must indeed be reformed, but by making its social policies more efficient and fair, not by stripping away its welfare functions.”

Media: Having won the struggle with former communists for media control, Romanian journalists allowed a personality-led media model to develop, writes Cristian Ghinea (issue 344). This meant that media ethics never developed and outlets failed to turn into respected institutions. The state, meanwhile, sought to control the press and even entered into open conflict with critical media. Foreign investors were put off, leaving quality outlets in the hands of local moguls.

The full table of contents of Dilema veche 341-345 (2010)


The French ban on the burqa in September met with remarkably broad agreement: the parliamentary vote was near-unanimous, Left and Right were both enthusiastic, and public support was overwhelming. But for Paul Doumouchel, writing in Esprit, the ban violated every principle of good lawmaking. As a Canadian, he brings an alternative perspective onto the debate in France.

The major critique holds that “wearing this piece of clothing shocks the values of the majority. It leaves others ill at ease; that isn’t French!” Following this line of argument to its logical conclusion, argues Dumouchel, would mean arguing that “it is legitimate to forbid any behaviour the majority of citizens consider unpleasant”. This would be to undermine the entire edifice of liberty.

Most problematic, however, are the feminist arguments that seek to free women from the “walking prison” of the burqa. This denies the possibility that wearing it may be a free choice, and offers women a backwards “liberation” that consists of limiting what they can wear. Worse, even when women wear the veil out of subservience to men or tradition, it merely replaces the walking prison with a fixed one: “If they cannot leave home without wearing a burqa, can a ban result in anything other than condemning them to stay in the home? Under the pretext of granting freedom to veiled women, the ban denies them access to public places and leaves them in the hands of the very tradition it rejects.”

Emergent economies? In the West, the current economic crisis has not yet found a name. In Asia, the name is clear: the “Atlantic Crisis”. Esprit places subprime loans and failed banks within the context of Europe’s declining global power, a decline all the more obvious from afar. “The Asian countries”, writes Olivier Mongin, “interpret the period differently; they see themselves not as ’emerging’ but as reoccupying the position at the top. For them, the ‘Atlantic crisis’ is nothing but an episode that accelerates their return to the ranks of the principal economic powers.”

Koshore Bahbubani examines the implications of this eastward power shift for the institutions of global governance. Today’s multilateral institutions – the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization – may have been set up to serve the interests of the Atlantic states in the twentieth century. But “the Asian states have become the greatest defenders of the regulatory system created in 1945, desiring not the weakening but the strengthening of a new world order.”

The full table of contents of Esprit 10/2010


In Reset, Martha Nussbaum argues cogently and exhaustively against banning the burqa. She contrasts John Locke’s concept of tolerance, by which legislation should be struck down if its intent is discriminatory, with that of the seventeenth-century American philosopher Roger Williams, who argued that a law which is not discriminatory can still impose actions that offend against an individual’s conscience. Williams’ argument that the customs and prejudices of the majority should not be imposed on the minority apparently persuaded Washington not to impose military service on Quakers, and is the tradition Nussbaum wishes to uphold, albeit with a few provisos.

Having dealt with the philosophical distinction, she makes short work of more shallow arguments, such as the idea that the veil is secretive and therefore inherently subversive of our values (during the Chicago winter, citizens are generally wrapped up in clothing to protect themselves, but no one has ever taken this as a threat), or that it turns a woman into an object (certainly, but so do many other aspects of our culture: pornography, fashionable but uncomfortable clothing and plastic surgery).

Liberal Islam: Navid Kermani writes a moving and lengthy obituary for Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, the influential Egyptian Koranic theologian accused of apostasy. “He had a much clearer idea of what Islam is than those who persecuted him, defended him or, in the West, used him for their own purposes. He stood up to the Zealots who in the name of this same Islam called for his execution.”

A selfish gene? Zygmunt Bauman draws on recent scientific research on social insects that challenges current certainties about the “selfish gene”. Bees, wasps and termites migrate from one nest to another – and most surprisingly can do so as individuals. Nature clearly thrives not on retaining the purity of genes, but on their endless and random mixture.

Italian matters: Reset introduces us to the man who wants to lead the Italian Left, the mayor of Turin Sergio Chiamparino. An extract from his new book The Challenge. Going Beyond the Democratic Party to Start Winning Again offers little that is original – a plate of reheated Blairism. Still, Reset does well to give him space, as he may well succeed in his bid for power, and if he does, we will be hearing from him again.

The full table of contents of Reset 121 (2010)


In January 2011, the rotating Presidency of the Council of Europe will fall to Hungary, the third country in the current 18-month trio following Spain and Belgium in 2010. The Hungarian presidency will be mostly concerned with “rolling policies”, writes Gergely Romsics in The Hungarian Quarterly. These will include providing impetus to the Lisbon Agenda on “sustainable growth” (and the accompanying Social Agenda); budget reform (tying EU expenditure to tangible income); “freedom security and justice” (implementing the controversial Stockholm Programme); and the Europeanization of the western Balkans (completing the Croatian accession negotiations and pushing forward with Serbian and Montenegrin integration).

Nevertheless, a uniquely Hungarian item will be “the preservation of cultural diversity with special regard to small cultural communities”, writes Romsics. “It is not hard to see the link between the existence of numerous Hungarian minorities in neighbouring states and the initiative to produce EU guidelines on the preservation of cultural diversity directly targeting communities rather than guaranteeing the rights of individuals. This area could reveal itself to be a minefield should centralized but historically diverse countries (France, Romania, etc.), or states with large immigrant communities, be made to feel threatened in their existing policies.”

Architecture: Almost unheard of in his home country, Hungarian architect László Hudec is a name to be reckoned with in China, writes János Gerle. Escaping imprisonment in Siberia, Hudec set himself up as an architect in Shanghai in the 1920s, where he profited from the reluctance of the emergent Chinese bourgeoise to commission work from citizens of the colonial powers. Today, the rapid pace of change in Chinese urban landscapes has led to a resurgence of interest in architectural heritage; Hudec, best known for the Park Hotel in Shanghai, is being celebrated as a pioneer of Chinese modernism.

Also: Krisztina Passuth on the group of expressionist Hungarian painters known as “The Eight”; and Esther Vécsey Mattyasovszky Zsolnay on the Zsolnay ceramics factory in Pécs.

The full table of contents of The Hungarian Quarterly 199 (2010)


In NZ, Canadian novelist Mavis Gallant recalls how, as an expat in Paris, she experienced May ’68 first hand, keeping a diary of the events that was published two decades later. In interview with Anna Aslanyan, who has translated excerpts of the Paris Notebooks for the issue, Gallant insists that despite having taken part in the demonstrations, she was “just an observer”. “With their relatively strict upbringing, the first thing the French did was chop down trees and burn cars. I couldn’t comprehend that, having grown up in Canada, in a much calmer climate.”

Yet Gallant’s journalistic distance could not entirely insulate her from the revolutionary fervour of the day. “I must admit I was naive, too. I thought something was definitely going to happen; I didn’t necessarily approve of it, but I wanted to witness it, to be on the streets when it came. I wanted to see changes, whatever they might be; I had high hopes.” Against her better knowledge, Gallant was looking forward to the fulfilment of the “collective dream”. In retrospect, little remains of her revolutionary sympathies: “Revolutions, when they happen for real, rarely lead to something good”.

Lenin’s heritage: Aleksandr Chantsev examines the less than respectful treatment handed out to the twentieth century’s most notorious revolutionary in the last two decades. It began in 1991, when a TV show revealed “the main mystery of the October Revolution”: that Lenin was, in fact, a magic mushroom (apparently, the fathers of the revolution had a penchant for hallucinogens). In another macabre story, entitled Mummy, children visiting Lenin’s Mausoleum are terrified to see a familiar figure that, working at a desk, resembles both a living person and a mannequin. It seems the slogan “Lenin Is More Alive Than All the Living”, favoured by the communist propaganda, has given way to its opposite, remarks Chantsev.

Also: Postmodernist historians of totalitarian societies underrate the role of ideology at the individual level, preferring a performative reading of subjectivity, writes Jochen Hellbeck. This fails to explain why the Soviet and Nazi regimes generated absolute commitment.

The full table of contents of Neprikosnovennij Zapas (NZ) 4/2010


The new issue of Swedish Glänta is actually a translation of a 2007 issue of the South African journal Chimurenga on “Conversations with poets who refuse to speak”. (“Chimurenga” is a word from the Shona language, meaning “revolutionary struggle”. It is the name not only of the Cape Town-based journal, but also of a Pan-African online archive of independent cultural and literary magazines “which have been influential platforms for dissent and which have broadened the scope for print publishing on art, new writing and ideas in and about Africa”.)

Ethics and photography: Mixing fact and fiction, Suren Pillay tells a compelling story about journalistic ethics. A photographer takes a picture of a young man throwing a petrol bomb during a 1985 township riot and ponders over the possible consequences of publishing the photo. “The camera was a double-edged sword. Like seasoned politicians, these kids had learnt that they needed us to get their message out. But it was a fragile affair because they could be identified by the pictures we took. Many had been.”

The photographer chooses to get rid of the film. But a colleague he brings along does not and the next day his picture is in the hands of the police.

Even though I did not take that picture, it seemed like I had done everything else but push the shutter release, and done too little afterwards. It’s the kind of betrayal that seeps into you more insidiously, more slowly, I think, but more dangerously. Until the day you start thinking about the nice way the ‘scarlet red of fresh blood contrasts with black skin’, as I had heard one photographer put it. That’s the betrayal that settles inside you undetected like a virus, as you begin to think about selling images, winning awards, beating others to the kill. And you only realize it when it’s too late. That’s the beauty of it. A Faustian pact signed in drunken stupor a long time ago and too late to undo once you’ve sobered up. In the end your eye becomes an undercover agent for the devil. And you need a fix every day. Or the hangover moves in. Permanently.

Also: Harper Lee and Thomas Pynchon are two examples of writers whose silence has become almost legendary. Less known is the uncommunicativeness of Mali writer Yambo Ouologuem, who had not been interviewed in nearly three decades when Christopher Wise set out to do so – and succeeded.

The full table of contents of Glänta 2/2010


On the occasion of its tenth anniversary, dérive ran the 10-day-festival “urbanize!” and has published a triple-sized double issue entitled “Understanding urban research”, which remains true to dérive‘s original approach: multi-perspectival and interdisciplinary.

Suburbanization: Recently, the mark was passed at which more than half the world’s population lives in cities, writes Roger Keil: “Urbanization is ultimately the central aspect of growth and the crisis of the contemporary world economy, and this gives rise to a fundamental conflict: the planet as building-site meets the planet of the slums. For the world’s population, the spread of urban space, a global phenomenon, marks the moment of common experience.”

Yet one aspect of this global trend has so far been neglected: global suburbanization. “Despite the normative preferences of city planners and environmental experts for compact, densely populated urban forms, the wave of suburbanization is sweeping across the world unchecked in a kaleidoscopic variety of forms. […] That’s why the urban century is rather the suburban century. The old models of urban research that populate the literature – Manchester, Paris, Berlin, Chicago – are increasingly being relativized and perhaps even obsolete.”

A new open city: “Cities have long been the sites of conflict: wars, racism, religious hatred, expulsion of the poor”, writes Saskia Sassen. “And yet, whereas national states have historically responded by militarizing conflict, cities have tended to triage conflict through commerce and civic activity. But major developments in the current global era signal that cities are losing their capacity to triage conflict and are becoming sites of a whole range of new types of conflict, such as asymmetric war and urban violence […], drug wars [and] major environmental disasters.” Yet Sassen is still confident that cities will find ways to cope with these problems: “Cities face challenges that are indeed larger than human differences. If we are going to act on these threats we will have to work together, all of us. Could it be that here lies the basis for a new kind of open city, one not so much predicated on the civic as on a new sense of shared urgency?”

Also: dérive presents “laboratoire dérive” – instructions to urban explorations and international exchange; and art inserts by Daniel Knorr, Alice Creischer, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Lara Almarceguí and others.

The full table of contents of dérive 40-41 (2010)

Published 20 October 2010

Original in English
First published in

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