Our Austrian correspondent ESW has translated an interview with a Muslim convert from the German Islamic website Islamische Zeitung, as published on July 28, 2009:
Using Ramadan for “spiritual revival”
Silvia Horsch has a PhD in Arab and Islamic studies and works as a research assistant at the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. Since 2003 she has hosted the website al-sakina.de, and, together with two other German Muslim academics, the website nafisa.de.
Ms. Horsch has written and published articles on the topic of Islam. The Islamic Newspaper spoke to her about her life as a Muslim German and academic.
IZ: Ms. Horsch, what fascinated you about Islam and made you convert?
SH: I was a Christian, raised Christian, and I was also active as a Christian, having participated in children’s’ masses and later in a youth group. I have always believed in God. I got to know Islam through my husband. It was only then that I realized that Islam is a religion that addresses all humans, not only Turks and Arabs.
When I began to examine Islam more closely, I had to ask myself whether the Prophet Mohammed was truly a prophet. For me, as a believer in God, this was naturally a crucial question: Was this a new message? I then intensified my studies, learned and read a lot, especially the Quran, back then in an old and bad translation. The more I read and studied, the less I was able to deny the claim that Muhammad revealed God’s last message.
At some point the consequence was my becoming a Muslim. Islam solved a few theological problem I always had with Christianity, especially the concept of the Trinity and Jesus dying for our sins. Those were things I was never able to reconcile for myself, and I was relieved to get a different answer to the essence of God and the responsibility of humans.
IZ: What are your experiences have you had as a Muslim woman and academic regarding people associating with you? Has the reaction of society in response to being Muslim really deteriorated in the last few years?
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SH: I was lucky in that I embraced Islam at a young age, when I was just starting my studies of Spanish literature. I then switched to Arab and Islamic studies and in May I finished my dissertation on the topic of martyrs in early Sunni literature. I am currently conducting research on martyr figures at the center for literature and cultural research in cooperation with the Institute for Arab and Islamic studies at the University of Berlin.
I became a Muslim in 1996. The headscarf debate back then was already present, albeit not in as bad as after 2003. Actually, my experiences in the academic field have been positive. I was already wearing a hijab when a female associate professor asked me whether I wanted to run a tutorial; later I found a professor who supported me. The academic area is actually one of the more open areas, with less prejudice than in other areas. I have never had any problems, not with other students or colleagues. As a family we have experienced that those people in our immediate vicinity have a positive attitude, for instance our neighbors. My parents respect my decision regarding Islam even though they may not be able to relate to it.
There are, however, problems with strangers, with people on the street, on the bus or on the subway. I see this as a direct connection with the public and media debates as well as with certain incidents. At the peak of the headscarf debate, and in the aftermath of 9/11, I was frequently harassed and insulted. In my opinion, the climate has deteriorated due to the fact that existing resentments are addressed more openly. I believe that recently the clichéd view has changed from the hijab-wearing woman to the suppressed victim to a potential danger. I was frequently asked whether my husband forces me to wear the hijab; nowadays it is more that I am eyed strangely when I enter the subway with a backpack. This feeling is reduced after “incidents”, but it flares up again following the next debate or attack.
IZ: You have recently written that the hijab is overrated by Muslims and non-Muslims and given a symbolism is doesn’t have.
SH: It has always been seen as a symbol — a negative symbol signifying Islamism and suppression of women, etc. — by those in favor of banning the hijab. And many Muslims react to this by themselves seeing the hijab as a symbol, namely a symbol for morality, for chastity, for religiousness.
If you make the headscarf a symbol — it is an article of daily use and not a symbol — and overdo the whole thing by adding significance that it doesn’t have, it leads to an overestimation. That is the wrong direction. At the end of the day the headscarf is just a formality, it’s dress code, a prescription, but not a pillar of Islam, as one might believe when listening to Muslims talking about the hijab. The hijab alone reveals nothing about the woman wearing it, nor about the society in which it appears more or less often.
That said, we do have to react when hijab-wearing women are denied the right to work in certain jobs or are subjected to blanket judgments. But the point is not really the hijab. The debate should center on a woman’s right to choose her clothes and should be restricted, neither by Muslims nor by non-Muslims.
IZ: Islam and Muslim identity is still seen by many as being an immigrant issue and not as something indigenous. How do you see this problem and how do you think this may change over time?
SH: This relates closely with the way people “with an immigrant background”, in media speak, are accepted as indigenous. It is, after all, the immigrants who make up the largest group within the Muslim community; the converts are a small — although growing — minority, which, however, cannot shape and mold the whole picture.
That is why I believe that recognition of Islam as indigenous [to Germany] will not be effected by a larger proportion of German Muslims, but by the acceptance of people “with an immigration background” as indigenous Germans.
Of course, this process needs to be supported by the mosques by concentrating less on the countries of origin [of their followers], but on Germany. That has already started and there have been positive developments in recent years. There needs to be preaching in German language, just as preaching in England is done in English. I also think that a focus on the historical perspective in Islam important. Islam must be taught as part of European tradition — which it is, as seen historically in Andalusia and the Balkans — in history classes. As a result, Islam would be seen less as foreign or antagonistic in Europe, but rather as part of European culture, history, and the present.
IZ: Ramadan will start soon. What does this month of fasting mean to you and how will you spend it with your family?
SH: When I became a Muslim, Ramadan took place in winter and one had a lot of time in the evenings. We received many invitations and cooked for many guests. The collective aspect of Ramadan was particularly strong. Of course, now this is much harder if Iftar starts at 9.30 or 10 p.m. and the tawarih prayer is after 11 p.m., making it harder to get up in the morning and go to work.
I find Ramadan particularly impressive because it forces one to realize how much time is spent preparing and cooking food. Take that away during Ramadan and you suddenly have much more time and I hope that, just like last time, I will be able to use this time revive spiritually.
Now that I have a small son it will be different again: before, I was able to concentrate on myself during Ramadan, but now I also have to take care of my child since he wants to eat. However, I will definitely take a week or two off from work and try to concentrate on the Quran — things that are sometimes missed out during the daily routine.