Sherin Khankan on Islam

Sherin Khankan (°1974), Denmark’s first female imam and one of the leaders of the Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen, was interviewed for Belgian television (May 29th, 2017).

The full interview can be watched here – definitely a MUST SEE:

Here are some transcripted excerpts from the interview:

Interviewer Bart Schols: Did you get some bad reactions on what you’re doing? Because every religion has a very traditional side sometimes, probably also in Denmark?

Sherin Khankan: Actually, I never focus on the bad reactions. I always focus on the support, and we have a lot of support from all over the world. Actually, recently we had a visitor, from one of the world’s largest mosques, the world’s third largest mosque – it’s the Grand Mosque in Indonesia –, and the grand imam he came and he blessed our mosque, and he prayed in our mosque, and he made a written document, saying that female imams are of course a possibility, and it’s a part of our Islamic tradition and theology… So, but of course, when you create change… When you change the structure, when you change the fundamentals, when you challenge the patriarchal structure, you challenge the power balance. And when you do that, people will get upset, it’s natural.

So we are prepared for opposition, but actually the worst opposition that we met so far was not from Muslims. The reactions from Muslims were quite moderate, but from the right wing parties, Islamophobes, Nazi-parties… we had very bad reactions.

Interviewer: More than from the inside?

Sherin Khankan: Yeah, I think it’s because… to Islamophobes progressive Muslims are a greater threat than Islamists are, because we are actually able to change the narrative on Islam in Europe.

Interviewer: Okay. You are traveling around the world with a message, if I may call it like that. What is the fight that you are fighting?

Sherin Khankan: First of all we want to give women the chance to disseminate the Islamic message. We want to create a place where women are equal to men. We want to challenge the patriarchal structure. We want to challenge the growing Islamophobia, and we wish to unite or unify all the great forces throughout the world who are fighting for women’s rights.

Interviewer: That’s in general, but if you, like in different countries, because you travel around the world, around Europe… you have different issues. There’s the headscarf, that’s a discussion about everywhere, also here in Belgium. What is your position on that?

Sherin Khankan: I do believe that, it’s stated very clearly in the Declaration of Human Rights, that any person has the right to practice his or her religion in the public sphere and in the private sphere. So if a person chooses to wear the headscarf of her own free will, it’s her choice and nobody should be able to touch that woman.

Interviewer: Also a police officer, for example?

Sherin Khankan: Of course, why not? A police officer, a doctor, a lawyer, a judge, anyone, because what’s important is not what you wear on your head. It’s what you have inside your head. So even if you ban the scarf, people will still have the same opinions inside. So it’s not a matter of the scarf, it’s a matter of realizing that we are living in a world and we have to accept pluralism as a factor, as a fundament for our societies. If not we are becoming oppressive. So I’m fighting for any woman’s right to wear the hijab and not to wear the hijab…

From a rational point of view, you would expect that Western extreme right-wing parties are delighted with the kind of Islam Sherin Khankan is advocating. After all, their message to people from other cultures has always been: “Adapt or go back to your country!” Exactly what culture people should adapt to or how that culture is defined is never quite clear, but anyways: here you have a kind of Islam that is perfectly compatible with the principles of a Western political, secularized culture, respecting the separation of Church and State. This separation goes both ways, of course. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes it very clear:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Sherin Khankan defends an Islam that does not interfere with the fundamental rights in a modern, Western democracy, so what are some extreme right-wing parties making such a fuss about? Aren’t they defending their “own” Western culture and values? Apparently, we shouldn’t expect too much rationality from them. What happens is quite simple: extreme right-wing parties partly need an “enemy monster” to justify and manage their own existence. If the so-called monster that is Islam turns out not to be such a monster after all, their reason for existence is threatened. That’s why extreme right-wing parties always make reasonable Muslim voices “the exception”. Sometimes they also argue that those reasonable Muslim voices are to blame for the infiltration of Islamist extremists in Western society, as if they function as “hosts” for extremist “parasites”.

What extreme right-wing parties rarely notice, of course, is the result of research done by security services all over the world: when people feel very oppressed or frustrated, they can radicalize very quickly one way or the other (extreme right-wing parties, as advocates of the reasoning that “our own culture is under threat”, are also an example). So to suppress a religion like Islam and Muslims is a very bad idea. The British Security Service MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5) claims there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization. Indeed, as the research by MI5 reveals, the vast majority of extremists participating in terrorist attacks in the UK, are British nationals. They are not illegal immigrants and, far from having received a religious upbringing, most are religious novices.

Ah, well… Are we strong enough to create identities beyond the need for an enemy monster? What if “the Wicked Witch of the West” isn’t wicked after all? I can’t help but mention in this context a great book that deals with the recurring dynamic of the need for a monstrous enemy: The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things by Suzanne Ross. It is about the musical Wicked, the subversive and challenging prequel to the well-known story of The Wizard of Oz. Indeed, today we could ask the question: “What if the Wicked Witch of Islam isn’t wicked after all?” Maybe we remain anti-rational weaklings who need witches… Or maybe there’s hope, if we just listen to women like Sherin Khankan.

 

That is (not) the question…

THE QUESTION IS NOT JUST: TO BE OR NOT TO BE?

THE QUESTION IS: WHO/HOW DO YOU WANT TO BE?

French rap star Diam’s (born Mélanie Georgiades) shed some light on her conversion to Islam, after a few years of silence. Only 32 years old, she recently published a revealing autobiography, explaining the matter. While some people regard her decision as proof for an ongoing “Islamization of Europe” (from the right wing), or as proof for the fact that “she lost her mind”, or that “she gave in to the false consolations of irrational religious beliefs” (from the left field), other observations are possible.

This line struck me in an interview she gave for French radio (click here for more information):

Commenting on her decision to wear a veil or hijab, she said: Pour certains, une femme qui porte le voile le fait forcément sous la contrainte. Mais non! Ca peut être par amour aussi, pour Dieu… (translation: To some, a woman who wears a veil does this because she is forced. On the contrary! It can equally be done out of love, for God…).

What some people fail to realize in Europe’s secularized society is the nature of traditional spiritual experiences, which also explains why they don’t understand decisions like Diam’s to wear a hijab. “Spirituality” today is often reduced to relaxation techniques or management tricks, helping people with busy schedules to cope with the demands of a performance oriented social life. But that’s not what spirituality in the traditional sense is about. A spiritual experience befalls us, and inspires us to question ourselves and our way of life. It literally inspires us to critique systems of oppression we help to sustain. This kind of self-critique is truly liberating, and cannot be reduced to the world we were functioning in until then, precisely because it looks at that world from another perspective. This is exactly the kind of experience which drew Diam’s to Islam.

Talking about her life before her conversion to Islam, Diam’s said in an interview: “I was very famous and I had what every famous person looks for, but I was always crying bitterly alone at home, and this is what none of my fans had felt.”

She added: “I was heavily addicted to drugs and went to a mental asylum to recover, but this was in vain until I heard one of my Muslim friends say ‘I am going to pray for a while and will come back.’ I told her that I wanted to pray as well.”

Recalling that moment, Diam’s continued: “It was the first time that I touched the floor with my head, and I had a strong feeling that I had never experienced before, and I believe now that kneeling in prayer shouldn’t be done to anyone but Allah.”

So, the first question any convert seems to ask (whether it is a Christian like Ignatius of Loyola or a Muslim like Diam’s), is:

WHAT HAS BEEN THE SOURCE OF MY EXPERIENCES OF JOY AND OF SORROW,

UP UNTIL NOW?

Diam’s, like Ignatius of Loyola, had been leading a life of ambition, pride, competition, and she was led by a desire for recognition, fame and power. And like Ignatius, she discovered how this kind of life gave her joy when ambitions seemed to be fulfilled, but it also made her sad when some things didn’t work out the way she planned. Moreover, new ambitions kept coming up. In short, she was suffering from a hunger that was never satisfied. She discovered how she tried to live up to the expectations of her fans, and how this enslaved her. She was kneeling to an image of herself as the admirable idol her fans wanted her to be.

Kneeling to Allah, on the other hand, apparently meant that Diam’s no longer bowed to the demands of the music and entertainment industry. It was a turning point in her life. It enabled her to free herself, and to criticize the priorities in her life. From now on, she would seek and explore another source of motivations for her life. It was a source that had always been there, but that she had forgotten about: LOVE. Not love for one’s admirable self-image or some other idol, but self-transcending love for others.

A spoiled brat cries because he is frustrated in his ambitions. A caring child cries because he suffers from the suffering of others. Diam’s turned from spoiled brat to compassionate child in a truly spiritual moment.

It’s good to know that spirituality does not liberate us from pain and suffering,

LOVE DOESN’T MAKE YOU HAPPY JUST LIKE THAT,

but spiritual reflection enables us to distinguish between two possible sources of happiness or grief:

IS IT MERE AMBITION

OR IS IT LOVE FOR MYSELF AND OTHERS WHICH MAKES ME HAPPY OR SAD?

Diam’s discovered how obeying to the demands of love – “divine” because of its unexpected awakening from outside the perspective of her life until then – liberated her to experience a different kind of sadness, and a different kind of joy. She consciously made a choice to place a higher value to the source of these latter types of feelings. Or, put differently, she discovered this truth:

“Every finite spirit believes either in a God or in an idol” (Max Scheler, 1874-1928).

Make no mistake, secularized readers. Converts like Diam’s don’t ask themselves first whether or not God exists to become “believers”. THAT IS NOT THE QUESTION! Converts like Diam’s get a clear vision on the reality of their lives and inner motives, and question these after experiencing the reality of love in a profound and often unexpected way. They are also aware of the historical and situated character of this experience. Regarding this, another line struck me in the interview I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Commenting on her discovery of the Holy Qur’an, Diam’s said: J’ai ouvert ce livre, comme j’aurais pu ouvrir autre chose… (translation: I have opened this book, like I could have opened something else…).

So, God is always higher. The Holy Qur’an is not itself God. The Bible is not itself God. These books are ways and means to another end, and should not be idolized as ends in themselves. Some people are Muslim. Others are Christian. Others atheists. And so on. But each and every one of us has the potential to experience the liberating reality of love and compassion. Knowing that you could have defined yourself as a Muslim if you would have been born in another part of the world doesn’t mean that you should stop being a Christian, or an atheist for that matter. It’s like you shouldn’t stop loving your wife knowing that you would have met someone else if you would have been born in another part of the world. We are historical creatures, and the way we discover the liberating reality of love depends on some arbitrary circumstances. Some experience Islam as a source of oppression, which forces people (especially women) to act and behave in a certain way. Others, like Diam’s, experience the opposite: Islam as a liberating force in a world ruled and consumed by neverending ambitions. The same goes for other religious as well as atheist convictions.

Once again, according to traditional spiritual reflection, the question should not be whether one believes in God or not, but it should be whether one is guided by ambition, love for power, fortune and fame on the one hand, or by the transcending dynamic of love for oneself and others on the other… Or, to put it differently once more: whether one is guided by idols or by a reality that can never be fully “captured”, “controlled” or “imagined”?

Anyway, Diam’s testimony on dealing with a religious tradition deserves to be imitated, doesn’t it? Being in Istanbul, earlier this year, and visiting some beautiful mosques, I can imagine some aspects of Diam’s experience with kneeling to Allah. It is indeed astonishing to realize that you aren’t perfect as a human being, and that you will never be able to completely perfect yourself. It is liberating to realize the vanity of ambitions that can never be fully satisfied, the vanity of a hunger that just keeps coming… and to give up on this hunger. It is liberating to drink from that other source… imitating, like so many others at different times and places, the one who said:

Those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life. 

(John 4:14).