Muslim-West clash: My insightful trip to Germany

By M Reyaz,

“I have grown certain that the root of all fear is that we’ve been forced to deny who we are”.

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Frances Moore Lappe, the American activist, could not give a more succinct explanation on the question of ‘identity’. An extension to the aforesaid observation though could be ‘or to accept what others are’. “Muslims in the West” or anyone, anywhere for that matter have the same symptom. So while they are in a state of ‘seige’ and see conspiracy of Judeo-Christian in everything – good or bad, non-Muslims have developed an Islamophobia. They see a threat coming to their culture and civilisation.

Check Point Charlie

9/11 and its aftermath was the nadir of what Huntington called “The Clash of Civilizations”. But on the hindsight 9/11 opened (or widened) the discourse on Islam and Islamophobia. Researches were initiated in the field and various organisations and universities tried to provide platforms for discussions – hitherto missing at large from public discourse.

Universitat Erfurt, Germany initiated one such programme sponsored by German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in 2002. Named ‘Muslims in the West’ this two-week long summer school invites research scholars/students from countries with significant Muslim population for better understanding of the West in general and Muslims living there in particular.

I was one of the three participants from India for the 2010 summer school – other two being Ayesha Nusrat and Shahnawaz Ali Raihan. This was my maiden sojourn to Germany and Europe and I carried the baggage of my share of prejudices against the West.

Student presentation.

My flight to Frankfurt was slightly delayed and I hence missed the last train for the night to Erfurt. As I frantically called Jessica, who eventually became Jessi for me and other expatriates like her German friends, she assured me she will be on station at 4 a.m. in the morning to receive me. As soon as I got down from train a smiling pretty girl hugged and welcomed me. As if the West had wide opened its arms to embrace this Orient, like it did in those two weeks for twelve Muslims from across the world – some of whom were quite hardened in their attitudes. Or like it has been doing for years now.

Of course they have their own biases too – whiteman’s burden, or ‘Oriento-phobia’ if you like. But isn’t that true for all societies and communities? What about ill treatment of South Asian labourers in Arab countries; Kurds in Turkey, Shia, Bahais, Christians and Hindus in Pakistan? The East too has its share of ‘sins’. If Muslims want West to understand how important it is for women to veil themselves, they need to appreciate the sensibilities of the West too on the issue and do not assume that every woman there is whore simply because she is scantily dressed. (And from my experience I can now say that not all of them are scantily dressed all the time. They have the freedom and they know what to wear and when and ultimately it’s their choice).

These were some of the topics that kept cropping in, as we had lectures by learned scholars and ‘healthy’ discussions on terrorism through different prisms; what is West and western and more importantly what is not; religion and violence; clash of civilizations; conflict and cooperation.

Buchenwald concentration camp

The trip was not just about boring conferences alone though. While an excursion to Buchenwald – one of the first and biggest Nazi concentration camp – reminded us of the horror of racism and the ‘guilt of Germans’; walking in the lanes of nearby medieval town of Weimar was fascinating. Weimar was the centre of the German enlightenment,where writers like Goethe and Schiller developed the literary movement of Weimar Classicism. Bauhaus movement and Walter Gropius also started here. Some of us also offered our Friday prayer in a park at Weimar while Nadja and Ulrike, our two German friends, kind of guarded us to make sure none disturbs.

Tour to Berlin took us back to the East-West divide. As an Indian I was particularly proud visiting the Allied Museum at Check Point Charlie dedicated to the Berlin Wall and events surrounding it. A section in the museum is devoted to the Messiah of Peace and the Father of Nation Mahatma Gandhi.

Although I have my reservations about how Germans selectively make memorabilia, I must appreciate how they do not run away from past mistakes committed like most of us in the subcontinent.

A mosque in Berlin

As the theme was ‘Muslims in the West’ we also visited some mosques in Berlin and Erfurt and met Imams and other people in charge. Mosques there are definite examples of fusion of Western and Muslim ethos.

It’s still too early to say how two-week summer school has influenced me, but I can safely confess it had only positive effects and helped me get new insights in matters that concern both the West and the Muslim World at large.

(Mohammad Reyaz is a student of M. Phil in International relations at MMAJ Academy of Third World Studies. He has completed MA in Convergent Journalism from AJK MCRC,Jamia Millia Islamia)