For a long time, Islamic Studies was entirely comfortable in its cosy niche of being labelled an »exotic« subject. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 entirely reshaped the field, however. Suddenly, the focus was no longer on manuscript editions, medieval philosophy, or 19th century Ottoman administrative history. The anxious public rightly demanded clear answers. At first, the debate revolved around the nature of Islam, which was perceived as both a globalised and yet stunningly »medieval« phenomenon. Later, the discourse shifted toward the lived reality of Muslims in Europe. »Why do they hate us?« »Can we really trust them?«. When hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Europe within a few months in autumn 2015, many Germans perceived their migration as a direct threat because of their »foreign« religion. As a consequence, the expectations of Islamic studies continued to rise.

Our small subject has always presented the opportunity for an appealing balancing act in terms of content; there is even a certain thrill in thinking together the premodern and the present in research and teaching. This privilege has hardly been shaken within academia. The choice is still ours to offer a seminar on modern Afghanistan, Muslim empires since the 16th century, or the relationship between the state and religion in the Middle East.

But as soon as we venture into the public arena, this autonomy to set the agenda evaporates.. When we are asked to provide op-eds or appear on talk shows, or perhaps even decide to intervene on social media, it is not about feeding the latest scholarly findings into public discourse. Depending on our personal background, we are asked to speak on behalf of Islam about issues such as sexuality, conceptions of democracy, and Salafism.

Simon Wolfgang Fuchs

Fight Back or Go Unheard:
The Public Dispute over Islam


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Compared to the omnipresent and well-connected agitators and hate-mongers, our contributions quickly become submerged . There is no room for complex discussions. Sophisticated contributions without provocative take-away points simply stay under the media radar. Regrettably, if we want to be heard, we must not cling to multiple perspectives, but must clearly take »sides«, as difficult as that may be for us. This becomes an even more pressing concern since a vocal minority within our field strategically use their prestige of a university affiliation to »gather intelligence on the enemy«. They speak openly about impending cultural conflicts, »unbridgeable« divides, and the notion of a »dark Islam« as a supposed danger to the »beacon of freedom« that is Europe.

In addition, talk shows, the book market, and social networks are crowded by self-proclaimed experts in the field. They do not even bother to engage with current research. Negative or positive personal experiences, identity politics, or language skills provide seemingly much more convincing and authentic insights. This observation extends to conferences which aim at staying clear from empirical evidence. The most recent headscarf controversy at the University of Frankfurt in May 2019 has shown that the purpose of the gathering was primarily to let opposing ideological positions collide.

Such approaches are not about scholarship but aim to push emotionally-charged opinions. High time, then, that we accept this fact. The debate surrounding Islam needs more than just our sophisticated and differentiated publications. It is up to us to stand our ground. Armed with passion, clarity, and pointed statements. We should not fall into the trap of polemical temptations. But rather reason with full confidence in the strength and the appeal of an open society and the better argument.

Islamic studies scholar Simon Wolfgang Fuchs, member of Die Junge Akademie since 2019, is a lecturer in the Department of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg.