GERMANY’S FAVORITE ARABIC Uncle Tom – Hamed Abdel-Samad – has just come out with a new polemic, Aus Liebe zu Deutschland – Ein Wachruf(Out of Love for Germany – A Wakeup Call). 

After such books as Islamische Faschismus(Islamic Fascism) and Mohammad: Ein Abrechnung (Mohammad: A Settling of Accounts), this text aims at instilling in the German public a healthy dose of national pride, necessary, in Abdel-Samad’s view, for Germany to steer its course amidst  contesting immigrant ideologies, “nationalisms”, “tribalisms” and “myths” which threaten to tear the country usunder.

In essence, Abdel-Samad is just doing what many have done before him, arguing for a clear and decisive “Leitkultur” – (core culture) to set the tone alongside what he sees as Germany’s often misguided “Willkommenskultur” (welcoming culture).

However, while many a German arguing along these lines may feel stymied by allegations of racism, reeling under the blow of the Nazi cudgel (Nazikeule), Abdel-Samad, by nature of his foreigner status, enjoys what the Germans call Narrenfreiheit (fool’s license) to criticize Germany on some of its most sensitive points – and herein lies the appeal of Abdel-Samad’s book.

Abdel-Samad begins by hymning  praises of his host country, Germany, which allowed him to emancipate himself from the corset of his strict Islamic upbringing (his father was an imam in Egypt) and embrace critical thought and “enlightened philosophy” of Spinoza, Nietzsche and Sartre.

Abdel-Samad goes on to enumerate the things he loves about Germany, which range from Beethoven and Wagner, Goethe and Schiller, to black bread and the “Waldeinsamkeit” of Germany’s forests, which he posits as a founding notion underpinning German identity.

Halfway into Abdel Samad’s book, I couldn’t help but feel that this was a text I could have penned twenty years ago. Before coming back to Berlin – where I was born and where I spent a portion of my childhood, I too was enthralled by German Hochkultur. I had spent five years in Prague, immersing myself in Kakfa and the Prager Deutsche Kreis of Brod, Werfel, Kisch and Rilke etc, not to mention Goethe, Schiller, Adelbert Stifter, romantic painting and classical music.

In 2000 I came back to Berlin, my head buzzing with German classics but to my disappointment and extreme annoyance – much like Abdel-Samad, I found that Germany, once land of Dichter und Denker was selling out to a misguided multiculturalism and fetishizing of “the other”. 

But while Abdel-Samad wrings his hands at Germany’s lack of national pride, urging the Germans to wake up to the changing demographic and cultural realities of their country – I decided to seek my inspiration on the peripheries of Europe, heading to Serbia in search of the völkisch – a sense of ethnic and national pride and awareness. 

Quite by chance, I ended up in the Sandžak, a Muslim enclave in south Serbia, where I was able to observe and get into contact with my much maligned Muslims in situ. While I saw Muslims in Berlin as threatening and  undermining German core values, here I was surprised to find myself welcomed and treated to food and drink – and for the first time in my life I heard the ezan – the call to prayer – long an lingering as though I had been suddenly translated on to the streets of some mysterious and far off desert caravenserai.

Back in Berlin I found myself in search of the mood I had captured in the Muslim Balkans, seeking out Bosnian, Albanian, Turkish bürekerias and kebab shops, greengrocers and cafes – and eventually tekkes and mosques. What I had thought of as threatening before my trip to the Balkans, I now found intriguing, and ultimately it was the warmth and hospitality of Berlin’s Balkan and Turkish merchants, waiters and shop assistants that lead my along a path to Islam, which I would ultimately embrace eight years after my first trip to the Balkans.

And so, paradoxically, just as Abdel-Samad is thankful to Germany for encouraging him to escape from the “prison” of his Islamic upbringing, so I am thankful to Germany – in particular to Berlin – for its diversity and plurality of cultures, which enabled me to find my path to Islam.

Ultimately Hamad Abdel-Samad and I are like two ships passing in the night. We are like the principal figures in Flaubert’s unwritten orientalist novel Hassan Bey, about a man from the West who heads East, intrigued by the culture of the Orient and a man from the East who heads West, intrigued by the Occident. (The grass is always greener on the other side it would seem). 

Abdel-Samad grew up forced to recite sura from the Qur’an, having the hadiths drilled into his head, eventually finding redemption in Nietzsche and Sartre. In college I was forced to regurgitate Nietzsche, Freud and Marx but ultimately through my own “obstinacy”  found my way to Mevlana Rumi and the Qu’ran, which spoke to me on a more personal level than the negativist critical philosophy I was indoctrinated with in college. What Abdel-Samad and I have in common is Germany. Germany made Abdel Samad the critical thinker that he is today and Germany – specifically Berlin – made me, conversely, what I am.

Abdel-Samad writes disparagingly about the “myths”, archaic rituals and “tribal structures” which “backward” thinking immigrants from the Muslim world bring to Germany – things which fly in the face of Western enlightened individualism and present a danger to German democracy and way of life.

However what Abdel-Samad fails to see is that many people in Germany and the West are weary and sick of this unabated Western individualism, which leads to an atomized society, loneliness and depression. They long for collective rituals and celebrations of people and societies of the Orient and other parts of the non-Western world.

As someone who has written quite a bit about Balkan, Turkish and Middle Eastern music in Berlin and in the cities of the West I can refer to countless conversations I have had with Balkan, klezmer and Oriental musicians who attribute their success in the West to westerners’ longing for the music of communal ritual.

Before corona hit in 2019 I attended a Syrian dabke workshop in Berlin, led by a Syrian dancer and refugee who taught scores of Berliners the basics of Syrian-style circle-dancing at the Radial-System in Friedrichshain. As one of the organizers put it, Germans and westerners were able through dabke dancing to “connect with a communal spirit that was once known in Germany one hundred years ago, but which had been lost in the modern age.”

It is also this longing for communal ritual that accounts for growth of Islam amongst converts in Germany and in the countries of the West. The late Sufi Sheikh Nazim al Haqqani, whose task it was to bring Islam West, diagnosed a malaise in the West wrought by unbridled individualism, and identified how many sought in Islam – in particular in the mystical and tolerant Sufi brand of Islam an antidote to this.

“The sun will rise in the West,” Sheikh Nazim was fond of quoting from the Qur’an. He meant that, while people in the East were adopting the materialist values of the West, people in the West, who were sick of rampant materialism and unbridled individualism, were embracing Islam, thus engendering a western-powered Islamic revival. 

There is plenty to criticize in Abdel Samad’s book. He accounts for the surge in refugees in western Europe to Erdoğan’s military involvement  in Syria, ignoring the fact that the main wave of refugees from Syria heading west took place in 2015 while the Turkish border incursions against the YPG didn’t begin until 2019.

There are other falsities and glaring oversights and misinterpretations  in Abdel-Samad’s book. In the end he mentions participating in a conference attended by British atheist Richard Dawkins, remarking that while he himself couldn’t move about without bodyguards, Dawkins could move freely without bodyguards around his person. 

Abdel-Samad’s conclusion is that Christianity has been subjected to centuries of critical thought from the Enlightenment onwards so that Christians today are tolerant of criticism from without and within, while Islam has had no such history of being subjected to enlightened thought, so that many Muslims react violently to attacks on their religion. 

The fact of the matter is – and the reason why Dawkins can travel the world attacking Christian doctrine and not worry about violent retribution – is that Christianity is a dead religion; a spent force. No one cares about it anymore.

Islam, on the other hand, is very much a force to be reckoned with.