Erol Ünal, a young German Turk from Esslingen, near Stuttgart, has come out with a scathing anti-Muslim exposé entitled, Der Abtrünnige – 15 Jahre in Moscheegemeinden. Meine Einblicke in eine Welt von Fundamenalisten und Rechtsextreme, über Radikale bis zu Sufis. 

First off, let me say although I disagree with Ünal right from the get-go; taking issue with his tenets, precepts and conclusions, I am very grateful that this title has fallen into my hands. 

For more than ten years now I have moved in Turkish Muslim circles in Berlin, visiting a host of mosques and dergahs run by various – to my American mind – rather mysterious cliques and coteries, whether they be DITIB-run, Bozkurt, Millî Görüş or Naqshbandi. In the course of my ongoing religious evolution, a great many nagging questions have arisen in my mind. Ünal has elucidated much of what seemed strange to me. And yet while Ünal aims to throw critical light on – yes, to discredit – Turkish Islam in both Turkey and Germany, if anything, this book has only strengthened me in my iman.

The trick to distilling something out of Der Abtrünnige, if you are a Muslim, is to read between the lines. Although one’s first impulse may be to set the book down with distaste after the first five pages or so, one can glean some valuable facts on Turkish mosques and dergahs (tekkes) in Germany, as well as trends and tendencies of Islam in Turkey, such as the Grey Wolves (Bozkurt) the Gülen movement or Tayyip Erdogan’s policies of neo-Ottomanism.

Ünal begins the book with a harrowing (sic) account of his sunnet (circumcision), which he regards as “religious abuse” leaving deep scars on his psyche. What follows is a curiously curtailed two-page synopsis of the history of Islam, which makes no mention of the achievements of the prophet Muhammed,s.a.v.s., starting rather with the bloody internecine  battle for successorship amongst the four caliphs of Islam. Ünal then gives a few side thrusts to Sufi Islam, before following Muslim Turks to Germany, where they have established, in his mind, a dangerous  “Parallelkultur” – that old chestnut and favorite right-wing key-word. 

Thus begins a dizzying ride through Germany’s Turkish  Muslim confessions, orders, communities, sects and creeds of Sunni Islam, which Ünal is exposed to as a youth and later feels drawn to in his spiritual, and ultimately fruitless, quest for religious truth. Neither friends no family are spared his vitriol.

We learn about the “Grey Wolves”, the Bozkurt movement, a nationalist grouping into which Ünal was born, setting the tone for his bitter childhood experiences along with martial Ottoman music and the chauvinist rap songs of Cartel, whose nationalist lyrics play upon a German-Turkish inferiority complex, which Ünal is also partial to. Ünal describes his first  mainly negative impressions upon being dragged to the mosque, the imam barking commands, the old men in their various telltale mustaches drinking tea, smoking cigs and reading Turkish newspapers “like in some Italo-Mafia film”.

Then we learn about Turkish politician, academic and Prime Minister of Turkey, Necmettin Erbakan and his Millî Görüş organization, a religious-political movement and leading Turkish diaspora grouping in Europe, and how you can spot a member (full beard and knit takke cap). We read about Ünal’s early Qur’an lessons and his first critical enquiries and the unsatisfactory answers of his teachers. No one escapes his pen. Gradually Ünal reaches the limits of faith. He starts to feel “an inner coldness” creeping in.

Next, the Sufis come in for critique, described here as having all the hallmarks of a religious sect. We hear about the Menzil community and all their curious rites and rituals, such as the tendency some members have of falling into a trance while uttering frightening inchoate cries during their zikhr (reciting of religious mantras)– something which I also remarked upon in the various Sufi gatherings in Berlin I took part in, and which I was delighted to learn through Ünal  there was a particular word for, namely, “Cezbe”.

Covering all religious bases, Ünal mentions hallmarks of the various movements and sects, which I also picked up on during my ten years of being a Muslim, the difference being that while I reveled in the exoticism and utter strangeness of many of these practices, Ünal describes them is absurd and irrational, somehow ugly and abhorrent  to the enlightened Western mind.

Der Abtrünnige is precisely the kind of book that a German readership is bound to  eat up – professing to show  the inside story on Turkish Muslims in Germany, pandering to negative stereotypes and ringing familiar alarm bells.

Ünal concludes by asking the question how can someone who has spent fifteen years of his life in mosques, surrounded by Muslims – how can such as a person turn renegade and end up a left-wing agnostic. And so, just when one begins to long for a more personal narrative, Ünal launches into an intimate account of his transformation, explaining how he took the turn he did, describing a long process of initial questionings as a child, growing interest in Western philosophy as he gets older. Finally the quashing of the Gezi park protests gives him the ultimate impulse to cut with his religious-conservative past. This coupled with the advent of internet, which provides him with the opportunity to search ad infinitum    for “the truth”.

When I compare the spiritual path my life has taken with Ünal’s gradual progress of religious youth to free-thinking agnostic, it is as if, to use the metaphor, two ships were passing in the night. While Ünal has moved from the East of his religious upbringing to the West of his mature philosophic investigations, I have moved from Western traditions of thought to the East of Islam. He started with the Qur’an and ended with Kant. I started with Marx,Freud and Nietzsche, and yet somehow found my way to the Qur’an by a path that were I to go into it here, would explode the narrow confines of this book review.  

In another instance in which Ünal and myself are diametrically opposed, Ünal describes growing up in strong religious communities, rebelling against these networks and hewing out a place for himself as an individualist, as lonely and as  emancipating as that may be. I, on the other hand, found myself an individualist free spirit in Berlin, lonely and set adrift in the city’s various currents and countercurrents, who after a kind of drug-induced epiphany, followed by travels in the East and some serious soul-searching found Islam, and through it, a sense of community which I felt missing previously.

In the end, Der Abtrünninge is rather disheartening. Ünal pits the eternal message of Islam against his own brave but ultimately limited personal capacity  for rational thought. After dishing the dirt on every Islamic school, movement or community he has ever been a part of, he strikes out alone as an existential renegade, alienating himself from friends and family, subservient to none but his own reason, a glaring instance of hubris. Ünal’s is not an enviable position, but it is his own. This book is highly informative for an outsider to the German Turkish religious landscape, however it must be taken with a rather large grain of salt.