In a SPIEGEL interview, Egyptian-German political scientist Hamed Abdel-Samad talks about his childhood as the son of an imam in Egypt, why he thinks Islam is a danger to society and his theories about the inevitable decline of the Muslim world.
Hamed Abdel-Samad grew up in Egypt as the son of an imam. He came to Germany at the age of 23, and he has lived here for most of the last 15 years. He worked as an academic in Erfurt and Braunschweig and conducted research at the Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich before deciding to devote himself entirely to his writing. Though highly critical of Islam, Abdel-Samad has never turned away from the faith completely. His new book Der Untergang der islamischen Welt ("The Downfall of the Islamic World") is published by Munich's Droemer Verlag.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Abdel-Samad, Germany is currently a divided country because of the controversial author Thilo Sarrazin, whose new book "Germany Does Itself In" has triggered a heated debate on immigration and the willingness of Muslims to integrate into German society. Are you part of the pro- or anti-Sarrazin faction?
Hamed Abdel-Samad: Neither.
SPIEGEL: Have you discovered the happy medium in the integration debate? Or are you trying to avoid offending both your German friends and your fellow Muslims?
Abdel-Samad: I don't like the nature of this debate at all. Some are standing in judgment over Sarrazin while others are cheering him on without further reflection. Sarrazin has become a lightning rod for everything. Whether he is seen a hero or a scapegoat, Sarrazin has unintentionally become the friend of the idle and the clueless. All failings and accusations can now be addressed to one person: Superman Sarrazin.
SPIEGEL: Are you saying that Sarrazin and his theories are overrated?
Abdel-Samad: I'm against Sarrazin's expulsion from the SPD (the center-left Social Democratic Party, which has started proceedings to expel Sarrazin), and I believe that an open debate over integration in Germany is desperately needed. But his conclusions don't do us any good, because they're outdated. Germany isn't doing itself in, but it is changing through immigration, and that's a good thing. We should talk about the problems of living side by side, the failings of immigrants and what needs to be done for them.
SPIEGEL: And Sarrazin, the provocateur, is preventing this from happening with his theories on biology and race?
Abdel-Samad: He certainly isn't promoting it. It doesn't help us resolve the impasse of integration. You can see what's happening at the moment, the way people are becoming entrenched. A CDU (the center-right Christian Democratic Union) politician keeps emphasizing, again and again, that foreigners should learn how to speak German properly. An SPD politician, after having condemned Sarrazin's statements, is listing examples of successful integration. A Turkish idealist will sing the Green Party's multicultural hymn. Meanwhile, a furious critic of Islam tries to pin the blame for all Germany's problems on the Turks.
SPIEGEL: You're referring to Turkish-German sociologist Necla Kelek, who enthusiastically introduced Sarrazin's book at its official launch.
Abdel-Samad: Thilo Sarrazin is merely the proof that we have a problem. He is the messenger, and his message is that a tense culture of controversy prevails here. We have scaremongering, apologetics and hypersensitivity.
SPIEGEL: Should we have pretended that Sarrazin's book didn't exist?
Abdel-Samad: My modest Arab intelligence tells me that Sarrazin is more harmless than what the media are trying to turn him into. He can neither divide the country nor solve its problems.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps you could enlighten us. You are a fierce critic of Islam, which suggests that you ought to be in the same boat with Sarrazin, who thoroughly demonizes this religion. Why isn't that the case?
Abdel-Samad: He believes that Islam is gaining ground everywhere. I too am critical of many aspects of Islam. But I also see that it's on its way out. Islam doesn't have to be demonized, but it does need to be modernized from the ground up.
SPIEGEL: You predict the "downfall of the Islamic world," to quote the title of your new book. But Islam is the fastest growing of all religions, and Europe, in particular, is worried about being overwhelmed by Muslims.
Abdel-Samad: The numbers don't tell us very much. There are 1.4 billion Muslims. So what? The important thing is that in almost all countries with a Muslim majority, we see the decline of civilization and a stagnation of all forms of life. Islam has no convincing answers to the challenges of the 21st century. It is in intellectual, moral and cultural decline -- a doomed religion, without self-awareness and without any options to act.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you making the mistake of many radical critics of Islam, by lumping together the entire religion, in all of its many forms?
Abdel-Samad: Of course our religion has many directions. The differences may be of interest to theologians and anthropologists, but they are quite irrelevant from a political standpoint. The decisive element is the general lack of direction and backwardness, which often lead to an aggressive fundamentalism. That sets the general tone.
SPIEGEL: But Dubai is worlds away from Somalia, and the relatively liberal Indonesia is very different from Iran's rigorous theocracy. Turkey is a democracy and currently has higher economic growth than any other European country. Are these all exceptions to the rule?
Abdel-Samad: There are differences, of course. But whenever Muslims seek to introduce Islamic studies into European schools or try to obtain nonprofit status for an Islamic organization, there is always talk of one Islam. The minute someone attacks the faith, they resort to a trick to stifle the criticism and disingenuously ask: Which Islam are you talking about?
SPIEGEL: Perhaps you could help us understand.
Abdel-Samad: In a sense, Islam is like a drug, like alcohol. A small amount can have a healing and inspiring effect, but when the believer reaches for the bottle of dogmatic faith in every situation, it gets dangerous. This high-proof form of Islam is what I'm talking about. It harms the individual and damages society. It inhibits integration, because this Islam divides the world into friends and enemies, into the faithful and the infidels.
SPIEGEL: It sounds as if you're not all that far away from Sarrazin in your views.
Abdel-Samad: The only thing Mr. Sarrazin and I have in common is that we both come from an immigrant background. He is afraid of the Islamic world, and I'm afraid for it. Germany offers both of us a forum, and for that reason alone the country cannot be done away with.
SPIEGEL: You advocate a milder form of Islam. What remains of the core of the religion?
Abdel-Samad: My dream, in fact, is an enlightened Islam, without Sharia law and without jihad, without gender apartheid, proselytizing and the mentality of entitlement. A religion that is open to criticism and questions. As far as I'm concerned, I converted from faith to knowledge some time ago.
SPIEGEL: You became an atheist.
SPIEGEL: You might as well admit it. Being an atheist is nothing to be ashamed of.
Abdel-Samad: But it isn't true.
SPIEGEL: Not a single imam, Catholic priest or rabbi would believe you. Believing in God means accepting that something exists beyond knowledge. If you don't share this belief, why do you insist on calling yourself a Muslim?
Abdel-Samad: Believing in God can also mean being at odds with him. I don't pray regularly, and I don't fast during Ramadan. In that sense, I'm not religious. But I perceive myself as a Muslim. It's my cultural community. For me, Islam is also my homeland and my language, and my Arabic can't be separated from all of that. You can distance yourself from Islam but remain within the heart of Islam. I don't want to yield to the fundamentalists who preach violence. They are on the rise.
Parts two and three of the interview here.
Children take part in the Shiite ritual of Ashura in Baghdad. "In almost all countries with a Muslim majority, we see the decline of civilization and a stagnation of all ways of life. Islam has no convincing answers to the challenges of the 21st century," said Abdel-Samad.