The last days of Europe, a lecture in Maastricht by German journalist and writer Henryk Broder
March 14, 2007 4 Comments
As part of a series of lectures on Europe and its citizens, Studium Generale bravely hosted a lecture on 28 February on one of the most controversial topics in politics and academia – if and how Islam is reshaping Europe. Hundreds of students poured into the auditorium on the Minderbroedersberg to listen to German journalist and writer Henryk Broder. He didn’t disappoint them and began with a punch: “These are the last days of Europe as we know it.”
The elephant in every room these days is the relationship between Islam and the West. We know there’s tension but most of us are afraid to talk about it beyond a superficial level. Discussing the role of religion in society and freedom of speech are doable but most people will avoid using words like Islam and terrorism in the same sentence. Broder isn’t like most. He spoke candidly about his feelings on Islam in Europe, making jokes like “Are there really 72 virgins waiting in heaven or is there one 72 year-old waiting for her redemption?”
Broder wrote a book in 2006 (Hurra, wir kapitulieren!, or Hurray, we’re capitulating!) on this topic in Germany and it’s been on the Der Spiegel magazine’s best seller list for months. In Maastricht students were also interested. There were so many people in the audience that they were sitting on the floor and sandwiched into the aisles. I was standing against a wall on the side and had students sitting around my feet so I literally couldn’t move for most of the lecture.
Europe as we’ve known it for the last 50-60 years will eventually disappear
“It’s not a question of whether Europe is going down, but how fast it’s going to happen.” This kind of statement is hard to ignore and raised most eyebrows in the Maastricht audience. Take the example of present day warfare, said Broder. We now have “asymmetrical warfare” and war isn’t “man to man” anymore. According to Broder, this explains the impossibility of combating terrorists because they don’t obey the rules of war (i.e. the well accepted Geneva Conventions which are enforced in the West). Broder feels the West is bending over backwards to appeal to Muslim groups, and in effect giving in to extremists.
Times were getting better in Europe but people don’t realise it. Europeans take for granted what they have and what they’ve gained since the two world wars. “It will take me a long time for me to get used to the fact that I can send email from any café in Europe,” Broder said.
Broder was born in 1946 near Auschwitz after his parents survived the concentration camp. He grew up in Poland and now lives in Germany. “My Western friends, even my wife and daughter, don’t understand me.” He still can’t believe that central heating works instantly. “But,” he added, “the central heating is slowly being turned down. It’s getting colder in Europe because we’re more cowardly.” According to him, Europeans don’t realise that they’re giving up their newly found freedoms because of fear and apathy.
The 2005 Danish cartoons that sparked riots and debate around the world
Broder is very concerned about censorship. He sees the Danish cartoons incident as a turning point and as the beginning of the end of Europe as we know it. He cannot believe these “totally innocent” images invoked so much anger. One of the cartoons says “Don’t send anymore martyrs, we don’t have any virgins left.” The drawings “pale in comparison to what’s printed every day in Arab papers on Europe, Christianity and Jews,” Broder commented.
Broder pointed out that Muslims took to the London streets to protest cartoons that they probably had never seen because these cartoons were never published in the UK. According to him, the cartoons were “used as an excuse to get out pent up aggression.” He mentioned particular images that he found disturbing – in particular a veiled women carrying a sign saying “God Bless Hitler.” Broder says these images from the London protests were never printed in mainstream media out of fear. He argued that freedom of expression should not be sacrificed.
In an obvious act of defiance, Broder displayed the famous cartoons right beside the podium where he gave his lecture. I took several photos of the drawings, and then realised there might be issues with printing these images. I was faced with the exact dilemma that Broder was addressing.
However, while I and others might find the pictures offensive, offending people should never warrant censorship. In my view, freedom of expression should only be curbed when the material falls under obscenity laws (i.e. child pornography and hate propaganda). Otherwise there is a real risk of shutting down public debate and expression.
So after much reflection, it did seem appropriate to show these images as they were central to Broder’s lecture. But on the other hand, after last year’s events, when people were fired, jailed or even died because of these very cartoons, things are indeed not that simple anymore.
Broder cited Salmon Rushdie and his 1988 Satanic Verses as an earlier example of the Islamic extreme denying freedom of expression. The novel led to accusations of blasphemy against Islam and to demonstrations around the world. In 1989 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa (religious decree) declaring that the British author should be executed for having insulted Islam in this novel. This death sentence forced Rushdie into hiding for several years in England. Broder reminded the audience of how unacceptable these incidents are and that Europeans are sitting by while freedoms are being ripped away.
Religion vs. Culture
There is a real dilemma here, explained Broder. No, Islam does not promote terror whatsoever. The Prophet Mohammed denounced extremism, and Islam forbids suicide. But how is this reconciled with the large numbers of terrorist acts made in the name of Islam? Or as Broder put it, “of course not all Muslims are terrorists but pretty much all terrorists since 9-11 have been Muslim.” Generalisations can be racist and short sighted, but given this context, is Broder entitled to say there is some kind of link between Islam and terrorist acts?
It’s the combination of politics with religion that concerns Broder and he said there is “obviously” a connection here: “[Muslim countries] are against the Enlightenment and there is no separation of religion and state.” He agreed that “there is probably just a small radical minority and the majority want to live a normal life.” “But,” he added, “they’re not able to discipline the minority who terrorise them to a point where they (minority) represent them (majority) publicly.”
Broder did admit “I’m not talking about my Turkish grocer who wants to send his kids to college.” But this sounded more like an appeasement, rather than a heartfelt comment after he made so many remarks against Islam.
On the whole, I was intrigued with Broder’s comments and agreed that many of the issues he raised were worth debating. But in the end I thought he went too far. His sharp humour can be entertaining but I found it too black and white. He went too far when he described a well-known British neo-Nazi who converted to Islam and asked, “Why did he convert to Islam and not another religion? There must be a reason!” This triggered an angry response from a Muslim man in the audience who was offended by the connection of Nazism and Islam. The links to Nazism are an extreme example. While he addressed some sensitive subjects that most academics usually shy away from, he too easily dismissed the fact that Islam is a rich and dynamic religion and the second largest in the world representing around 20 per cent of mankind.
Broder finished his presentation with a dramatic statement, “I may well be paranoid, but they’re still after me,” hinting that Rushdie isn’t the only one threatened by Muslim extremism.
Many audience members said they were offended by Broder. One student even said she was “shocked” by his remarks: “I don’t think I understand you. You’re strengthening divisions.” Another man said “I am a Muslim from Iran. So you’re saying the cartoons should be shown just to prove freedom of expression?” Yet another asserted “I am Muslim and suicide is definitely forbidden in Islam. And you shouldn’t say Muslims are the same as Nazis.”
“In my view Islam is not the enemy.”
The second speaker, Family Law Professor Frans van der Velden who specialises in the Rights of Minorities travelled from the University of Amsterdam to offer his opinion on Islam in Europe. While acknowlegding the realities of extremist Islam, Van der Velden was far more balanced in his views than Broder. He emphasised positive developments in Islam instead of focussing on linkages to terrorism. He spoke of recent linguistic studies of the Koran that explain there are no virgins in heaven but rather a “handful of grapes” in the skies above. The Koran only prohibits wine according to these new studies, and so most other types of alcohol are acceptable to consume.
Van der Velden agreed we’re “facing a huge problem here” and that some people are indeed using “religion as a weapon for power.” For him, the public outcry over the Danish cartoons wasn’t really about religion but rather political interests. As opposed to Broder however, the professor offered a solution to the so-called clash of civilisations. He said Islamic advocates of global peaceful coexistence need to forge ahead. We “need intelligent dialogue” and to decide “who are our friends and who are our opponents.”
“There is a lack of knowledge – I know Islam has many faces.”
According to Van der Velden, there is a false interpretation of Islam within mainstream society: “In my view Islam is not the enemy.” Van der Velden described how the few radicals call majority Muslims “heretics” if they don’t join their fight. “If extremists are the enemies, then we must remember that Muslims need our help. Only then can we find peace, by working together,” he said.
“Do we really know enough about progressive Islam?”
Van der Velden pointed out that there are many new developments in Islamic communities that no one is talking about. For example, we’ve all heard about Jihad but almost no one knows about “Ijtihad”. The professor described this as doing one’s utmost best. Ijtihad has the etymological roots as Jihad deriving from the Arabic verbal root jahada “to struggle”. It is a method of legal reasoning that does not rely on traditional schools of jurisprudence. Van der Velden says that in 2004 the Moroccan government used Idjtihad to bring to force new Code of Family Law. These laws were implemented in order to comply with modern international human rights law.
Another example of the many faces of Islam took place in Canada. Van der Velden described how in 2005 Sharia law was almost introduced for settling family disputes in Ontario, Canada. But Muslim women’s groups protested that “it was absolutely against their interests.” Fears of death by stoning and forced early marriage led one of them, Homa Arjomand, to coordinate the International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada, which urged for a “total separation of religion from the state and education”, so that “ a person’s religion does not enter the picture in defining their social and political identity.” After a long debate, the province’s premier eventually rejected implementing Islamic law in Canada.
The audience was more accepting of Van der Velden than Broder and asked him how they can practically begin the bridge building between Muslim communities and the mostly Christian West. The professor encouraged dialogue. “If we want human rights as a cornerstone of Europe, then we must accept multiculturalism, and we must face it in a more intelligent way.”
Overall the discussion was informative and thought provoking. Even when they address controversial topics, public forums like this are necessary in a democratic society. The University of Maastricht and Studium Generale have done a good thing by exposing different viewpoints on this issue. Perhaps next time the organisers can invite a Muslim speaker into the mix which would make the event more representative.
By Danya Chaikel
Danya Chaikel is from Vancouver, Canada and recently graduated from law school. She has a background of working with migrants and promoting human rights. Danya recently moved to Maastricht to be with her Dutch partner.
About Henryk Broder:
Henryk Broder is a Jewish German journalist and author. He writes, produces and directs for German media. He mainly writes about Jewish topics, National Socialism, and the German left in the Der Spiegel magazine and the daily Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. He is co-editor of the Der Jüdische Kalender (The Jewish Calendar), a compilation of quotes and texts relating to Jewish-German culture, which is published annually. His best known books are: Der ewige Antisemit, Erbarmen mit den Deutschen en Volk und Wahn. Recently he wrote the books: Der Nächste bitte! and Hurra, wir kapitulieren! For more information (in German) see Broder’s personal website www.henryk-broder.de.
The text of Henryk Broder’s lecture is available on Studium Generale’s website.