"Islam is not monolithic"
MUM: As a scholar of the subject, how do you react to the perception of Islam in the public sphere?
Kaplony: Naturally, most people don't know very much about Islam. But I also think that reservations about Islam have less to do with Islam itself than with those who wish to express their antipathy to it. Perceptions of the world that are characterized by simple dichotomies are not difficult to disseminate, since they tend to divide the world cleanly into good and bad, black and white. It is relatively easy to apply such a scheme to Muslims, given that a number of extremist groups within this multifaceted religion claim to be the guardians of the true Islam. Although Islam has in many ways drawn on elements of Western culture, these marginal groups are bent on rejecting Westernization, and postulate that their Islam is the core of their own identity.
In light of the existence of these groups, it is all too tempting to instrumentalize incidents such as those that occurred on New Year's Eve in Cologne, and condemn them as 'Islamic' per se, as unfortunately often happens. The fact is that episodes like this have nothing to do with religion. There are other more specific explanations -- one of which lies in the frustration felt by many North African males who have been brought up in a patriarchal society and find they have no chance of marrying.
Sadly, these are problems are widespread in North Africa and Egypt. Women who take the bus or make use of public spaces run the risk of being groped or otherwise molested. In Egypt the issue has given rise to spectacular legal battles. The point is that this kind of behavior is not tolerated -- people reject it there as vehemently as they do here. But as soon as it is practised in Germany, it is immediately labeled as 'Islamic'. In our upcoming lecture series, we therefore want to explain what this religion is really about, and how it works.
MUM: Many regard the sharia as hopelessly outdated. How do you view the status of Islamic law?
Kaplony: The sharia first emerged about 150 years after Mohammed – in particular in Mesopotamia -- in what is now Iraq -- and in Western Arabia. Islamic law is a pragmatic and widely used legal system that is applied over the whole area that extends from Morocco to Central Asia and beyond. It must have had some appeal, given that it spread throughout this vast span of territory.
In most Islamic countries today, the sharia is restricted to very specific areas of life, such as family law, and many of its prescriptions are quite flexibly applied. This picture is in accord with the demands made by many Muslims that the application of the sharia in Europe should be adapted to the local customs and living conditions here. This would largely avoid conflicts with the statutory provisions that are in force in European countries. One example concerns foods that are available here, but are forbidden by Islamic law. In European countries, however, these provisions are seldom enforced, and Muslims can buy their meat in the supermarket like everybody else. Of course, there are some groups of Muslims who object to this. But the most important presumption in this respect is that God wishes to make the daily lives of believers easy. In other words, one should take care to distinguish the important matters from the unimportant, and people need not worry too much about trifles. In contrast to the general perception in Germany, the sharia has the potential to evolve in a more progressive direction and does offer ways of adapting to other cultural norms. Islam and its legal system are not fossilized. It is a very pragmatic religion, which however – like every other religion – has its share of fanatics. The Salafis, for instance, insist on sticking to the letter of the sharia.
MUM: To add further to the confusion, in public debate the terms 'Muslim' and 'Arab' are often regarded as synonymous. How do you react to that?
Kaplony: That, of course, is not at all the case. Arabs are, in fact, a minority in the world of Islam. Conversely, there are Arabs who are Christians. One of the fundamental problems is that we always view the region inhabited by the Arabs in terms of the existing Arab states – which is not a particularly helpful way of looking at the matter. It makes far more sense to take the Arabic language as one's point of departure, because it best reflects the customs and experiences of its speakers. In addition to its standard form, Arabic comprises five families of dialects, which are spoken in North Africa, Egypt, Syria-Palestine-Jordan, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, respectively. So it is more appropriate to speak of 'Moroccans' as 'North Africans'. Indeed, references to 'the Arab world' tend to be misleading. The whole region is integrated by the fact that it shares standard Arabic as a common language, but one should never lose sight of the five dialect groups and the influence of minorities in the various states. The differences between these language communities also determine the criteria that must be borne in mind when discussing issues like religion, social class, education, culture or questions of gender. Seen in this light, the crucial questions in Cologne concerned not so much 'young Muslim males' as 'young males from North Africa'.
MUM: Do you believe that our society is looking for ways of learning more about Islam, perhaps sensing a need to re-examine its own prejudices?
Kaplony: Definitely. And that is one of the reasons why we decided to put on this series of public lectures on the subject. We realize that people strongly feel the need to obtain more information, and this is also reflected in rising numbers of students of the subject. The study of Islam is very much in fashion.