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Between the Sex Pistols and the Koran

Zafer Senocak tells how he bridged the impossible gap between teenage life in Germany and a strict Islamic upbringing

After each terrorist attack carried out by young Muslims, we experience the same ritual. The media gropes around in the dark excitedly trying to pin down the motives of the perpetrators and asking questions about the potential dangers in the various European countries where Muslims live. Religious leaders are hastily summoned together to emphasise the importance and necessity of a dialogue between the religions as if they were there to prevent a religious war. At table discussions of this kind the emphasis is always on communicating how peaceful the message of the religions is. Muslim functionaries and clerics try their best to allay the worries and fears of non-Muslims. They are the stopgaps of a non-existent Islamic public domain, reminiscent of gravediggers, because they only appear after a terrorist attack. These brutal attacks have nothing to do with Islam and cannot be condoned in any way, they intone in unison. Clear words that have no meaning.

Because the things that have to happen are not happening. Muslims have to ask themselves why the killers come from within their own ranks. Where does the hate come from which stretches so far that it allows people not only to destroy other's lives but also their own. What is needed is not so much a dialogue between religions as between Muslims. But where will this happen? And who will lead it?

Islam has always been a community-based religion rather than a belief of the individual. Membership in the community of believers is existential for practising Muslims. It is where Muslims receive support and familial warmth. The community is particularly attractive for all those with doubts and despairs about a modernity centred around individualism. Muslims are intensely exposed to group dynamics that starkly restrict the freedom of individuals and their development potential.

In contrast to Christianity which to a great extent has an psychotherapeutic function for the individual believer, Islam makes demands on society and social life. These demands are not, however, the result of extensive thought but of memorisation and emulation of a passed-down tradition. This has created an ideology starved of creative energy, which is predestined to break out in violence and to set latent aggression in motion. There is such a deep rift for many Muslims between what they believe they are entitled to and what they actually experience, that they find themselves in a permanent schizophrenic state.

Twenty years ago, I was working on a translation of the lyrical works of Yunus Emre, a thirteenth century Anatolian mystic. How did I, a budding poet born in Turkey raised in Germany and writing in German, arrive at translating the poems of an Islamic mystic from the Middle Ages. Admittedly the writings had aesthetic appeal. They are not only full of poetic power, they testify that Islamic literature does have individual voices, ones that describe the loneliness and doubts of lone wolves a far cry from dogmatic convictions and group mechanics. Yunus Emre's view of the other is very different from the view one finds in religiously motivated texts by Muslim scholars. The borders between belief and non-belief and between the religions were porous, the perception of others was not clouded by the personal rhetoric; much more it was an alienated view of his own person.

"My love reaches out beyond my heart/ I know a way deeper inside/Unbelieving is the one who strays from belief/what an unbelief further inside still/ Don't say I'm in me I'm not/There is an I further inside me.../Belief and Law do not effect me/which direction do I take further inside."

The translation of these poems was a linguistic challenge, absolutely fascinating from a literary point of view. But they had almost no relevance on the reality of my German life and thinking. Or did they? All around me the No Future generation was running riot. Anyone who still saw a sense in political involvement found themselves in the arms of 68ers hungry to establish themselves.

Yunus Emre anchored me in another time and world. It was as if someone from my childhood was guiding me through the translation, a childhood in which Islamic culture, as lived and conceived, played a huge role.

How should one understand the general and yet amorphous term Islamic culture? A religion which determines the believers' way of life down to the last detail, the ultimate meaning machine focussing solely on technical functions, ensuring that believers remain fully functional through constant observation. That at least was the claim. Reality, however, provoked people to disobey the strict rules, to question the Muslim way of life. Was there in this world of prayers and regulations such a thing as a room for the senses, a form of existence for the mind? If there was such a place, then it could be found in texts of the sort left behind by Yunus Emre, the Anatolian Dervish. These texts did not stonewall my surroundings and the time in which I was living and which was so far away from that in which they were written. Far more they transferred smoothly into the world of others which had long become my own.

Had I not been working on Emre's oeuvre, there would have been a solid barrier between my inner world and the one in which I lived, and I would have fallen victim to the irreconcilable contradictions between the Sex Pistols and the Koran. My parents' house on the one side, school and free time on the other, Turkish origins versus a life centred round Germany. For my creative work, indeed for my entire existence, I depended on the permeability of these borders.

Every border separates and joins at the same time. It can be a fence but also a crossing. We have long lived in a world in which pain arises not from what separates but from what joins. The aesthetic agenda of the present is to find a language to describe the pain felt today by the many people who are exposed to the most diverse cultural influences. Our perception of the world is selective but we mentally reconstruct it to a whole. But what happens when this ordering system fails? When the individual fragments can no longer be accommodated into a personally structured form? When the hard break-lines become festering interfaces, the pain unbearable, the wounds incurable? The collision of contradictory worlds necessitates a translating power whose aim is not the levelling of differences but the transfer of different interpretations.

Every translation is an interpretation, shedding light on a term from different perspectives. When the luminosity wanes, much is left in the dark. And darkness breeds fear and aggression. It is understandable that after each terrorist attack carried out by young Muslims, the loud appeal for a liberal tolerant Islam is weirdly accompanied by a call for more state intervention and control. But in view of the vast philosophical and psychological dimensions of the conflict, these well-meaning objections seem like the caricature-like gestures of a general helplessness.

Is the God of the holy books really as non-violent as we are repeatedly told these days? Is there not a raging, punishing God who demands accountability in all three monotheistic religions who is at least as powerful as the merciful, forgiving one. Is there not a tendency in the culture of modernity that traces back at least as far as the Renaissance, to place man in God's position, in good as in evil? And what is the tense relationship between this hubris and the relativisation of power and truth, which likewise has become a cornerstone of an open, pluralistic society?

Questions which are mostly left on the wayside because we have prematurely opted to agree on the so-called common denominators such as love for one's neighbour and esteem for human life. But there's no longer any such thing as common denominators in the form of easy-to-eat chunks, just as there are no longer cultures which could be described as closed circles.

Orient and Occident, Islam and Christianity, tradition and modernity meet at best in museums or anachronistic events. What shapes people today, what makes them behave as they do, how they behave is a mish-mash, an amalgamation of the huge collection of exploded fragments of cultural entities which are not clearly geographically locatable. The Taliban are not only situated in the mountains of Afghanistan, but also in the minds of people living in London, New York and the rest.

People today are suffering from a state of exhaustion provoked by diversity. This makes the call to unity dangerously attractive and a rigid modernity which demands differentiation and individualisation, ineffective. Half-heartedly formulated cosmopolitan ideals are no more likely to tackle the male rituals of religious fanatics than the newly strengthened nationalist voices.

So, a return to order? But which one? Back to which time? No, we the enlightened, cannot return. What we could do would be to attempt to understand ourselves better. Ask ourselves the questions we put to others. Start an inner dialogue before we turn our words on other people.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on 20 July, 2005.

Zafer Senocak, born in Ankara in 1961, has lived in Germany since 1970. A poet and essayist, he has become a leading voice in German discussions on multiculturalism, national and cultural identity, and a mediator between Turkish and German culture.

translation: lp. - let's talk european