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Between taz and Islam:
Cultural, political and religious debates on the pages of the Islamische Zeitung
I recently read an interesting article about how in the face of first a global (real or imagined) food crisis and then the dramatic economic crisis, a number of national governments are concerned about keeping inner peace and stability. Food, most obviously, is a fundamental ingredient for any public peace and even more so in times of economic crisis and severe pessimism. As history has taught, hungry citizens make good protesters for any political ideology. The article continues to state that countries, who for reasons of their size of population, geographical context, availability of water or other reasons are particularly concerned about food security and subsequently political stability have in recently started to buy, or lease for long periods of time, large tracts of land in other sovereign nation states which they hope – often with the help of private companies – to farm and then repatriate their harvests. The article mentions the case of the South Korean government that recently bought 200,000 hectares in Madagascar. A private company administers the landholding. The same company hopes to gain a 99-year lease on yet another one million hectare in Madagascar. The article mentions that other countries – among them Saudi-Arabia, Japan, China, India, Libya and Egypt are involved or contemplate similar ventures. The article foresees a scenario – in particular in African countries that resembles colonial ventures of the 19th century. Quite rightly, the author asks the concerned question of what does it mean to a sovereign state if large tracts of land are beyond its control and no longer a resource for local food production (Hurrell 2008).
There is nothing very unusual about this article and many similar ones are written every day, in particular in the critical and often more leftist specter of the press. Fear of the pending crisis here mixes with a long-standing critic of globalization, and the illustration of abuse of economic and governmental power at the expense of the poor and in this case the poorest of the poor in Africa. The article in question, written by Dawud Stewart Hurrell however was not published in the taz, Guardian or Monde Diplomatique or other mainstream critical paper, but instead appeared in the German language Islamische Zeitung, a small publication that is published by a diverse group of German Muslims. Since its inception in 1995, the Islamische Zeitung has established itself in a small niche as a platform of debate for general (often anti-globalization) news, Muslim affairs at large, issues of Muslim piety and lifestyles and debates about the situation of Muslims in Germany and also Europe. In the decade and a half of its existence the paper, its online edition and more recently its short IZ.TV productions have incited controversies as to their goals and intentions and have triggered the almost predictable accusation of following some ill-defined “fundamentalist” or even fanatical agenda. The paper’s publisher, Abu Bakr Rieger, is an outspoken and at times controversial lawyer who is known for his critical attacks on capitalism and his dream of an alternative Islamic economy which at one time he sought to start in an – in the meanwhile abandoned – plan of an autonomous Muslim community somewhere in Eastern Germany. Regardless of the some of the controversies and certainly regardless of the almost “natural” opposition that is harbored in the German mainstream against almost all things Islamic, the Islamische Zeitung is an interesting and worthwhile publication that deserves a serious reading and analysis.
Based on a carefully overall reading of several years of the Islamische Zeitung (2007-2009), and a more detailed analysis of a smaller number of article, this presentation argues that the Islamische Zeitung constitutes a platform of exchange and debate that is one among numerous others where Muslims, and at times more specifically younger Muslims, debate what it means to be a Muslim in Germany, Europe and a globalizing world at large. I argue that such platforms are highly relevant in the context of the construction of German, but also globalized Muslim identities. These platforms are interesting in that they constitute an expansion of an existing public sphere that allows individuals (and groups) to present concerns that are often glossed over in the dominant public sphere, such as, for example, debates about the role of religion (in this context Islam) in the secular liberal state. Moreover I illustrate how the paper allows individuals to propose themes and practice relevant to Muslim identities and lifestyle and put them up for public debate. Finally I show how the paper also positions itself as a link to a globalized Muslim ummah (community of believers) in the context of a 21st century consumer society and culture, where identity construction is often closely tied to what individuals consume and how represent themselves by way of material goods and related practices.
Reading the Islamische Zeitung one is struck by certain similarities to the secular leftist taz, both with regard to the format and layout and some of its political reporting. Yet the left-leaning and, for example, clearly anti-globalization message of the paper is frame by a distinctly pious Muslim discourse. Critical articles about issues ranging from unemployment to sustainability stand next to emotional or spiritual, and community-building article about the month of Ramadan, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. Other than the very secular taz, the Islamische Zeitung gives considerable space of issues of piety, Islamic practices and lifestyles. Issues include regular sections with heading such as “World,” “Globalization,” “Foundations,” “Berlin Pages,” “Germany,” “Culture,” “Muslims and Lifestyles” (Lebensart). Under these and other heading the paper provides (on 24 pages – published every three weeks) a broad selection of political news (local/Berlin, national and global), commentary, longer topical essays, religious instruction/guidance (on the “Foundations”/Grundlagen page), book reviews, lifestyle reports and advice, religious advice and interviews. The paper also includes ads. With a fairly small (about 10,000) edition and its online presence, the paper has a limited readership and represents a particular segment of more pious Muslims. It is not a representative voice of German Islam (if such a thing could ever exist) but instead reflects the interests of a constituency that is very consciously pious and sees Islam as a decisive element or marker of their existence. The Islamische Zeitung functions as one platform of debate for a broad range of issues and concerns shared among such pious Muslims.
Platforms of debate and controversy are central ingredients of a liberal, pluralistic and very importantly also multicultural society where participation and citizenship ideally transcend the ownership of a passport and voting in elections every four years. The good citizen should engage society, its constituents and current debates, both as far as they concern the particular citizen but also insofar as they are of relevance to society at large. Ultimately this is impossible and most citizens end up engaging issues and debates that are most relevant to their own lives and welfare. Muslims are no different and thus the Islamische Zeitung picks up issues that are most relevant its envisioned readership. And, very importantly, it takes up those issues that are neglected or deemed unimportant in other media. By addressing such, often controversial issues the paper opens up a space for debate and engagement for journalist, experts, or the interested public. This presentation will take up a few exemplary articles and topic and analyze how they position themselves and contribute to public debates and culture in Germany.