Magazine, Vol. 1: Terrorism
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Terrorism and Islamic Studies

Islamwissenschaften und Terrorismus

“Fundamentally, the issue revolves around today’s interpretation and application of respective passages in the Koran”


Interview with Prof. Dr Christine Schirrmacher, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

42: Prof. Dr Schirrmacher, what is the relationship between terrorism and Islam?

Christine Schirrmacher: In this context, terrorism means an execution of violence against dissidents justified by a misappropriation of Islamic scripture. Ironically, the violence is directed against Muslims in particular: on a global scale, they – and not as one might assume, non-Muslims, are most often the victims of Islamic terrorism. In addition, I would label the condemnation of Muslims as non-believers by other (extremist) Muslims – the so-called takfir – a form of psychological terrorism. This psychological terrorism results in hatred, contempt, and conflicts, and in extreme cases leads to the killing of those deemed inferior and less religious than oneself. This is exemplified by the activists of the so-called “Islamic State”.

42: Throughout Europe, Islam has become a dominant theme of discussion, especially in the aftermath of terrorist attacks and crimes, Islam frequently becomes the focus of discussion – for example the question of the role of Islam in our society and its risk potential. What strikes you when looking at recent debates?

CS: It is especially striking that discussions about this topic are very agitated and they quickly lose their objectivity. Take, for example, the recent, devastating attack in Berlin during the pre-Christmas period in 2016. The emotionality rapidly inhibits objective, profound analyses and constructive solutions. On the other hand, many reforms that were overdue are pushed by incidents like these – for instance, a discussion about the effects of mosques frequented by radical Imams is now going on. Taking measures after incidents often leads to dramatic measures being taken. It is a well-known fact that some federal states of Germany lack the will to deport those applicants for asylum who have been declined. Some stakeholders vigorously insist on the opinion that north-African countries are not safe countries of origin. Frantic discussions as well as withdrawal reflexes – obstruct constructive solutions. But there are also level-headed stakeholders who remind us of topics that need urgently to be discussed in our society.

42: What kind of topics?

CS: For instance, how can the great number of refugees be more successfully integrated into society than was the case with immigrants from Southern Europe in the 60s? In addition, how can we find a balance between liberty and security in the digital age? What I mean by this, is whether more surveillance is needed in public spaces in order to find those responsible for acts of violence. On the one hand, many people voluntarily reveal a vast amount of personal information on social media, and this information has long been used and passed on for commercial purposes. On the other hand, these people reject the idea of law enforcement agencies compiling and evaluating recordings in order to solve crimes.

42: But these measures only come into effect when people are already willing to go to jihad. In your opinion, what measures are suitable to prevent the radicalization of young Muslims in Europe in the first place?

CS: Investing in school and vocational education is a preventive measure but not an exclusive solution. We should make an effort to ensure that as few young people as possible fall by the wayside. Someone with nothing to lose may in some circumstances be more liable to consider dropping out of society. Among the preventive measures are awareness initiatives and substantial Islamic education that encourages critical thinking and questioning, as well as targeted prevention programs in schools, educational facilities, and youth centres. Role-models from Muslim communities are of particular importance. It would be helpful to work together with local mosques in a constructive way. Participation, appreciation and a strongly pronounced “we” by society – instead of antagonisms like them and us– would be helpful as well.

42: One topic that is often debated when talking about rational measures is the ban of burqas. What do you think about this proposition?

CS: Of course, it is part of European culture to show your face and to make your facial expressions visible. However, banning burqas will certainly not prevent radicalizations. Instead, in some cases, it might lead to the seclusion of affected women. The “problem’s”origin, meaning the doctrine that women pose a threat to society outside of the house and that they should be completely concealed in public, would not change at all. Besides, do we really want the police to be occupied with collecting penalty payments from burqa-wearing women? Instead, we should rather show zero tolerance of those who propagate an image of women that puts them at a legal disadvantage, discriminates against them socially, and, according to the Sure 4,34 [a paragraph in the Koran, author’s note] allows husbands to mete out punishment to their wives if they are “disobedient”. This promotes actions which are criminal offences, and something like this cannot be invoked in Germany. However, a ban of the burqa is, of course, appropriate when it comes to government agencies or attending demonstrations.

42: In the dominant debate about Islam, we naturally talk about “Islamism”. You have addressed the issue in depth. Could you explain what this term means exactly?

CS: Islamism is the politicised version of Islam. Its advocates reject the belief that Islam is to be lived merely as a personal faith. What Islamism teaches is that Islam needs to be enforced in the political-legal realm. Society needs to abide by Islamic values and rule, so that, for instance, the Islamist contraction of marriage is applied instead of the federal contraction of marriage. By contrast, those values deemed “un-Islamic” are to be prohibited and eliminated. Regarding criminal law, this would principally lead to the practice of physical punishment, such as amputations of hands as punishment for theft, or whipping and stoning as a punishment for immoral behaviour and adultery. In addition, the concept of democracy is rejected since this system is considered man-made, rather than of divine origin. 

42: What about the relation of Islamists to jihad?

CS: Islamists support jihad to “defend” Islam, but this can be interpreted very loosely under some circumstances. For some, it is necessary violently to “defend” Islam when caricatures are shown, for others, when people go to a bar or to the beach. In these cases, Islamism rejects democracy, women’s rights, the right to freedom, freedom of worship and equal recognition of dissidents. The Muslim Brotherhood, which was the first, and is nowadays the most considerable Islamist organisation and even considered “moderate”, professed – from the very outset – physical punishments, jihad, and Sharia marriage laws. The marriage law, for instance, allows polygamy, and divorce through repudiation.

42: So, Islamists teach Islamist values and advocate jihad. Nevertheless, in the discussions of the topic, the argument that jihadists act in un-Islamic ways often comes up. What is your stance on this? How religious are Islamist terrorists?

CS: Extremists refer to religion as the engine of their actions, which is not something one can explain away by saying that they have no “real” understanding of religion. We need to acknowledge that for them, it is precisely this. In the final stage of radicalization, which by now proceeds rather quickly, they really believe that they are rendering a service to God and that they are carrying out their duty as religious Muslims by blowing up themselves and as many other people as possible. But we know that many of those who join an extremist movement are not very religious in the beginning. Personal friendships, the warmth and acceptance of a group, and the community are more attractive to them than a particular stance on religion. m Extremism researchers have known for a long time that ultimately, personal factors determine whether someone joins an Islamist group or ends up in the right- or left-wing extremism.

42: What factors play a role in this regard?

CS: What does play a role in being attracted to such groups is a failure in school or work, but also biographical factors such as migration, divorces or death. However, Islamist extremism cannot be explained by simply calling it a phenomenon of social failure. Several of the 9/11 terrorists were studying to become engineers, and thus had a successful professional career ahead of them. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda successor Aiman az-Zawahiri both grew up in happy homes. It is, therefore, a mistake to assume that social aspects are the only basis or cause for Islamist terrorism. It also revolves around the ideology of martyrdom.

42: What role does the Koran play in this ideology? Does it contain paragraphs that are construed differently by Islamists in contrast to how the rest of the Muslim world interprets these passages?

CS: The Koran contains several requests by Allah to Muhammad asking him to fight and wage war against non-believers. Since the year 622, A.D., he led multiple offensives and defensive wars in Medina. The Koran promises those who fight and are killed “on the way” of God to enter paradise (e.g. Sure 47,4), something which is confirmed and emphasised by the Islamic tradition. The law of Sharia also emphasises the fundamental duty that the Islamic community has toward jihad. The question today is how to deal with these accounts. The majority of Muslims would not read this as an instruction to wage war against t non-Muslims. By contrast, extremists teach a literal interpretation of this verse. Fundamentally, the issue revolves around today’s interpretation and application of respective passages in the Koran.

42: The Bible contains passages that invoke the punishment of blasphemy and homosexuality with the death penalty. Why is it that the Bible is nowadays interpreted differently whereas the Koran is not?

CS: Nowadays, these passages from the Old Testament are all deemed “temporarily” valid by the Christian church, meaning that they were valid for the Israeli people at the time of the Old Testament, but their validity does not transcend time. That means that the Christian church was open for a kind of hermeneutics which differentiated between contextual instructions for certain epochs and timelessly valid commandments. These timelessly valid verses are given expression in the Ten Commandments, which demand the rejection of vengeance and hatred, and respect for all human beings including one’s own enemies. The Koran neither contains this absolute prohibition of violence and vengeance nor the general duty of love of one’s neighbour and enemy.

42: Nonetheless, are there statements in the Koran that contradict Islamist-terrorist actions?

CS: Of course there are passages in the Koran demanding peace among Muslims (Sure 8,1) or peace with the enemy, provided that he keeps peace (Sure 8,61), and also asking for benevolence toward poor people and orphans (e.g. Sure 2,83) or – according to some interpreters, for freedom of worship (Sure 2,256). But there are no paragraphs that generally forbid warfare, combat or vengeance. This means the question is not so much about whether peace-oriented passages do exist than about how to deal with those paragraphs calling for battles, vengeance, and war. What is problematic, though, is that Islamist theology has not yet developed hermeneutics which define such verses (such as Sure 9,29) as invalid in this day and age. Some Islamic scholars are, however, demanding a historicised interpretation – like the Sudanese Islamic scholar Abdullahi an-Na’im. These scholars are persecuted as apostates or heretics; some of them have even been murdered. The established theology of universities and mosques in the Middle East has not yet opened up for such a fundamental theology of peace.

42: Apart from the different interpretations of the scriptures, what are the fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam?

CS: One of the fundamental differences lies in the personality of the respective founders: Muhammad envisioned himself as being sent to the people of Arber: as a mortal human being and last prophet who came in order to correct and eventually proclaim the “primal revelation”, just as it had been proclaimed to Jews and Christians in earlier times. However, this primal revelation was – from the Islamic point of view – a kind of Islam from which the Jews and Christians departed. This is why Islam is seen as the first religion of humankind rather than the last revelation after Judaism and Christianity. Many Muslims believe that the example Muhammad set should be imitated thoroughly, but this bears the problem that Muhammad was a legislator as well as a politician. The essence of Christianity is the message of Jesus, the son of God, who came to free humankind from its sins and to reconcile them with God. The consequences of following him mean acting ethically, directed by the actions of God, and it means turning toward one’s fellow beings. In short, one could say that Islam teaches that human beings need to turn to God through submission, while Christianity teaches that God turns to mankind through his son Jesus. This results in differences in the conception of man and God, and also in relation to the state and the community. 

42: Why is there – compared to Islamic terrorism – barely any terrorism motivated by Christianity?

CS: According to all churches, leading theologians, and Christian movements on a global scale, the prohibition of hatred, contempt and violence against anyone including enemies is fundamental to Christians. Indeed, Christians believe it is their duty to be benevolent to one’s enemies. To justify terrorism with the Christian message would be very difficult regarding this issue. This said, Christian terrorism has happened every now and then – for example in the conflict in Northern Ireland, albeit unanimously condemned. Apart from this, the New Testament calls for the acknowledgement of the state as a peacekeeping power, and not to fight the state. This necessarily excludes an armed fight for “more Christianity” in the state and society. In addition, the New Testament does not define any state territory as the “kingdom of God”. Instead, it strongly argues that the kingdom of God manifests itself in the actions and thoughts of humans and not in the conquering of territory. Nevertheless, one should emphasise the fact that Christian churches needed some time to reconcile with democracy. Christianity went through considerable development in order to achieve the rejection of any kind of violence in the course of its history.

42: As an Islamic scholar you are devoted to the topic of Islam. This is naturally not the case for all of society. For that reason, I am now interested in your experience: What misunderstandings are there in dealing with Islam?  

CS: Whenever an attack takes place, the debate revolves around two extreme claims: on the one hand “Islam is like this” and on the other “this has nothing to do with Islam”. In my opinion, neither of these are correct, nor are they a constructive contribution to the analysis of terrorist incidents. It is important to differentiate between the different kinds of Islam, but this requires some considerable effort and commitment. In my opinion, Islamic groups and organisations must distance themselves more clearly from political – albeit non-violent – forms of Islam, as this would unburden the many democratically-minded Muslims. It would also enable a constructive and critical evaluation of this topic, with leading representatives of Islam in Germany, from mosques and umbrella organisations. We cannot shy away from raising important questions in society, and we should come together to contemplate how we can communicate issues such as a role for women which is compatible with Western values, or a general condemnation of violence in the name of Islam.

42: Prof. Dr Schirrmacher, thank you very much for this interview.

Interview: Eliana Berger

Translation: Leonie Dieske


Prof Dr. Christine Schirrmacher
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität

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