“Our Aim is to Show the Diversity of Muslim voices”: An Interview with Ulrike Freitag

Hardly a day in Western media and on the political stage goes by without a discussion about Muslims and Islam. Yet, we still seem to grapple with understanding the complexity of Muslim identities. We talked with Ulrike Freitag, director of Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, about internal diversity, hands-on research, and the importance of “unmuting” marginalized voices.

Since the September 11 attacks and the subsequent “global war on terror”, as well as the spread of the so-called Islamic state and the refugee crisis of 2015, the world has changed for Muslims. In the Western world, images of Islam and Muslims have become predominately negative, and the gap between what is often described as “Christian Occident” and “Muslim Orient” appears to have widened in past decades. Almost everyone in the West seems to have an opinion on Muslims and Islam, while at the same time differentiated and balanced information is scarce.

Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) wants to change this. The Berlin-based institute was founded in 1996 and since 2017 has been a part of the Leibniz association. It is devoted to research on the history and culture of Muslim societies in Africa, the Middle East, Central, South and Southeast Asia, as well as on Muslim communities elsewhere.

Between 2008 and 2019, the institute conducted a research program titled “Muslim Worlds – World of Islam?”, which recently culminated in an essay collection of more than a dozen contributors. What can we learn from such a diverse group of researchers and topics about Muslims and their life worlds? To find out, we talked to Prof. Ulrike Freitag, director of ZMO and professor of Islamic studies at the Free University of Berlin.

De Gruyter: By speaking about Muslim worlds, you highlight the diversity of Muslim identities. How do you define the terms Islam and Muslim?

Ulrike Freitag: Islam is usually defined as a religion based on a revealed book and traditions of its prophet Muhammad, and Muslims are seen as the followers of this religion. As we discuss in the introduction to the book, this standard definition does not grasp the many different ways in which the term Islam, which in Arabic means the submission to or reconciliation with the will of God, has been and currently is interpreted by Muslims. Thus, Islam is also often seen as a tradition at the heart of which lies the grappling with sacred texts, but which has come to encompass many everyday practices regardless of the actual religious or spiritual convictions of people.

We argue that historically specific Muslim identities are an articulation of Islam with a range of regional and transregional, but also social, political, and individual positions. This is not dissimilar to what we can observe in other belief systems, such as Christianity.

DG: To what extent can your approach be understood as a response to the notion of a “Clash of Civilizations”, which understands differences in cultural and religious identities of people as a primary source of conflict?

The US political scientist Samuel Huntington formulated the “Clash of Civilizations” idea as the Cold War was coming to an end and ‘the West’ seemed to be facing “The End of History” (Fukuyama). From the very beginning, these ideas were more informed by political concerns than by insights gained from history and the social sciences. The idea of cultures as rather homogeneous blocs seemed one way of identifying potential future challenges. Notions of a hostile “Islamic bloc”, in which age-old stereotypes of Muslims were wedded to the idea of a civilizational challenge, gained wide currency in the wake of 9/11. The subsequent and increasingly violent confrontations, which prompted the so-called “War on Terror”, resulted not only in the overthrow of the governments of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 but in the alignment of a host of similar conflicts.

We did not have this in mind when putting together the volume, so our response to it is indirect. Only the articles investigating state attempts at controlling Islam directly address the question of extremism, jihadism and religiously framed violence. These contributions also complicate conflicts by situating them in local conflicts about policies, accountable government or borders. They challenge the idea of contestations being reduced to a “problem of Islam”. We argue that simplification of these issues hinders conflict resolution.

Our contributions discuss how Muslims grapple to shape the worlds they live in. They address how “Islam” can provide a resource when it comes to international labor migration (between Pakistan, Central Asia, and the Gulf, for example). They investigate how ideal Islamic societies are imagined in novels, and how this changes over time. They also discuss the circulation of international ideas about Islam, post-conflict reconciliation, and sexuality, and how such ideas shape Muslims’ lives with one another, and with non-Muslims.

DG: Your proclaimed aim is to “unmute” marginalized voices. What do they have to tell us?

“Our aim is to show the diversity of Muslim voices and internal debates which are often quite akin to those taking place in our own societies.”

UF: Would you have guessed that there is an active LGBTQIA community in Amman publishing a journal in which they discuss not only the social problems they are facing locally but also patronizing attitudes of their European peers? What do we know about debates among Sri Lankan Muslims who are faced with discrimination while at the same time struggling with internal challenges about how Islam should be interpreted, for example with regard to women’s rights? Our aim is to show the diversity of Muslim voices and internal debates which are often quite akin to those taking place in our own societies. Also, in our volume this conversation is held between scholars of different origins and trainings, rather than just among Western area specialists who talk about Muslims and their world.

DG: Academic research often must put up with the criticism of being disconnected from everyday life, of being in an “ivory tower”. How do you reach out to a wider audience beyond academia? How does the research conducted at ZMO contribute to a better understanding of Islam and of Muslim life worlds in “Western” societies?

UF: Researchers at ZMO are primarily academics who use academic publications and lectures to disseminate their results. However, we engage the public in a variety of ways. Thus, we try to contribute to those public discussions to which our research is relevant – for example with regard to Islam and state or to migration. Some of our colleagues produce documentary films or exhibitions as part of their research, others suggest films to film festivals or engage in discussions on films. And of course, we’re happy to answer questions in interviews or speak in schools. We have participated both in talks with deputies to the German Parliament as well as in the “book a scientist”-format organized by the Leibniz-Association, in which we answer questions about the Muslim world.

DG: With its very global scope and its international team, the ZMO has what it takes to build bridges. To what extent does the research also take effect in Muslim societies? How are you dealing with the ambivalence between “research on” and “research with”?

UF: As mentioned earlier, our team of researchers at ZMO comes from varied backgrounds, as do the participants in our academic events. Researchers are required to know the languages of the regions on which they are working, and normally work in close contact with institutions and colleagues in the countries where they conduct their research. We pay particular attention to the ways in which concepts and theories are discussed in different regions. In our work we often “translate” between different notions, thereby paying attention to the culturally specific while relating it to the concepts familiar in Western societies. We also work to develop conceptual approaches which are reflective of different perspectives. Often, the research is presented and discussed both in the regions we work on as well as in Western academic contexts, and results are sometimes published in local languages as well as in Western ones.

DG: For twelve years, you have been exploring the facets of Muslim lifeworlds and the diversity of Islam. You have looked into constructions and representations of Muslim identities, within Muslims societies as well as from the outside. What were the most astonishing insights for you personally?

UF: On a personal level, there were many moments when I was astounded at the openness which I, as a foreign researcher, encountered, even in very conservative societies such as Saudi Arabia. I could establish good personal relations, even if my interlocutors and I held distinctly different views about a variety of issues. This has deepened my conviction about the importance of interpersonal relations when it comes to furthering intercultural understanding.

In terms of academic debate, I was probably most confused when finding myself in a Russian conference in which certain ethnicities were discussed in quite Orientalist terms in the presence of academic colleagues from these same ethnic groups, all Russian nationals. By “Orientalist” I mean very essentializing statements about how members of the – always Muslim –  ethnic groups function, without any differentiation regarding place of residence (urban or rural), level of education and/or profession, historical context etc. Had I been a member of one of these groups, I would have certainly felt very offended.

DG: Tell us a few words about the new program “Thinking through Translocal Entanglements: Perspectives from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.”

UF: The research fields we discuss are: Age and Generation, Environment and Justice, Representations of the Past and Contested Religion. This is done from the perspective of translocal entanglements. For example, how does care for the elderly change when younger generations migrate? How has this changed societal norms and expectations, or created new ones? Additionally, how are ideas of development impacted when it comes to the expansion of mining?

We seek to understand how people experience, debate, and contest these developments, which are only partly controlled by themselves. Our research program aims to understand and explain how global processes like capitalist development and environmental movements are fractured and reinterpreted, especially in Muslim societies. Therefore, the research contributes to a deeper understanding of these debates and conflicts, with perspectives of those from the Global South.

[Title Image by Flo P via Unsplash]

Ulrike Freitag

Prof. Dr. Ulrike Freitag is director of Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient and professor of Islamic studies at the Free University of Berlin.

The Editors

Articles signed by the editors were written in a collective effort.

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