Thursday 16 July 2009

Navid Kermani, Wer ist Wir?

Researching this piece, I’m astounded to find that although Navid Kermani is present pretty much all over the English-language web, not one of his books has been translated into English.* You can read his essays on cultural identity in the “Islamic world”, literature itself, a sample translation from his short story collection Vierzig Leben, and so on and so forth. He’s published 16 books, as far as I can tell, from scholarly works on Islam to fiction to the secret of Neil Young’s effect on colic to a children’s book about a lonely little Iranian girl in Germany.

Kermani, a German-Iranian, recently hit the headlines when he was nominated for an award for cultural dialogue but rapidly dropped when his Christian co-nominees objected. His fellow Islam scholar – and holder of this year’s August Wilhelm von Schlegel Visiting Professorship in Poetics of Translation – Stefan Weidner comments on the issue at qantara. As various people have noted concerning the murder of Marwa al-Sherbini, Germany has yet to wake up to Muslim sensibilities. And perhaps this book is at least one step along that path.

Wer ist Wir? (Who is We?) is subtitled “Germany and its Muslims”. Unlike many other books on the subject, it’s actually written by a Muslim. And not a Muslim who has turned their back on their faith for whatever reason but someone who knows what he’s talking about and sees himself as a representative of his own religion. As the title suggests, Kermani regards Muslims as part of Germany rather than some kind of alien entity that descended on the country with the first “guest worker” agreement with Turkey – a logical enough standpoint really.

The book covers a lot of ground – Kermani’s own experiences as a child of Iranian doctors in small-town Germany, the middle-class rediscovery of religious identity in Egypt, India and Europe, actual progress in Germany on the cultural front, Islamist terrorism of the imported and home-grown varieties, the Qur’an and violence, whether “Islam” can be integrated into European societies, his experiences of the German Islam Conference. And what most interested me, his own personal manifesto of diversity, entitled “In Praise of Difference”.

The tone varies – obviously the Islam scholar in him comes to the fore when it comes to Qur’an exegesis, while the stories from Cologne’s schoolyards are very personal. But throughout, the author’s voice is very strong. This is far removed from a scholarly work or even impersonal German-style journalism, and as such is a very enjoyable read, aside from being very informative.

Without ever descending into embarrassing “I just love all cultures” hippydom, Kermani celebrates diversity in Europe. He points out that Germany’s Muslim cultures are very different to those in Britain or France, as the largely Turkish population they consist of originally came from undereducated backgrounds rather than colonial elites. He sings the praises of increasing acceptance – not tolerance – of Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Germany.

People who marry into other cultures are now rarely ostracised as they were in previous generations, and he himself is now rarely asked when he’ll be “moving back home”. (Incidentally, I was asked while pregnant whether I’d be going “back home” to give birth. I laughed and assumed the official who asked me had never been treated on the NHS.) And despite the small but headline-hitting campaign against a large and visible new mosque in Cologne, Kermani writes, the support at grassroots level was actually overwhelming. Immigration, he says, is always a challenge for societies, but in his eyes Germany has dealt with it well – considering.

Considering, that is, that the country had what he calls a “non-integration policy” under Kohl and his predecessors, actually paying people to repatriate. And considering that many people on the left reacted by unquestioningly embracing everything foreign – perhaps also trying to make up for their fathers’ and grandfathers’ sins?

Many of the experiences Kermani describes were familiar to me – that feeling of repulsion when people mouth off about foreigners and then say, “Oh, I don’t mean you!” – automatically putting you into the “good immigrant” pigeonhole. The anger that our children will have to decide whether to be German or Iranian (or British, or Turkish, or Vietnamese…) at the age of 18. The idea that Heimat is much more complicated than choosing one country over another. The sheer bewilderment over many Germans’ belief that cultures are like soap bubbles that will burst if they ever come into contact with one another.

His solution, which I’m not sure I share, is to plump for Europe, with all its cultural and political achievements. What he calls a secular, trans-national, multi-religious and multi-ethnic voluntary community, which extends beyond its own geographical borders – realising, of course, that this is a utopia. Yet he writes that the promise of belonging to Europe was a driving force for the states in the south and east to shake off dictatorship twenty years ago. And he hopes this same promise might have a similar reforming effect on Turkey and other countries.

Wer ist Wir? is very much a German book and so is unlikely to be translated. But if you do read German, it has a lot to offer in terms of understanding how Europe deals with its Muslims and how Muslims deal with Europe.

*Update: According to Kermani's website, his non-fiction title The Terror of God will be published in English by Polity Press.

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