“Islam is portrayed as a problem for society”

Reinhard Schulze, the Director of the Institute for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University Bern © Valérie Chételat

When there is a conflict about swimming at school or building minarets, it’s because all those involved – including Muslims – want to secure their own structures, says the Islamic scholar Reinhard Schulze. But because systems are adaptive, the rules can change too. When it comes to integrating the Muslim population in Switzerland, we have to set up negotiation processes. By Susanne Wenger

(From "Horizons" no. 104, March 2015)

Prof. Schulze, you’ve investigated two cases of conflict: the dispute surrounding a Muslim father in Basel who won’t let his daughter go swimming at school, and the minaret that was planned in Langenthal but was prevented by the Bernese Administrative Court. How does our society deal with such controversies?

We can’t speak of there being a uniform set of problems in either case. And the situations that have been identified as conflicts – the refusal to go swimming and the planned minaret – have resulted in a communication framework that is perceived very differently by all those involved. The different protagonists have their own expectations and assessments of the situation. The courts want to enforce their rules, for example, whereas the officials charged with promoting integration are more oriented to achieving just that. These two positions can stand in contradiction to each other.

So who’s being constructive, and who isn’t?

You can’t put things as simply as that. Behaviour is always linked to one’s expectations. The clearest position is the legal one. Since the late 1990s it’s been the law that mixed-sex swimming lessons are necessary and compulsory for everyone up to puberty. No flexibility can be expected here – the law is not very adaptive.

But culture can be more flexible about things.

Exactly. The judiciary, the authorities, politicians and the media treat a refusal to join swimming lessons or the building of minarets as a problem. The cultural scene can treat this ironically and play with shifting meanings. The artist who installed a minaret on the roof of the Langenthal Art Gallery in effect placed a question mark against our conventional assessment criteria.

In your investigation, you’ve noticed a “rejection of Islamic difference”. Does that mean that Islam is regarded as ‘undesirable otherness’ in Switzerland?

All the protagonists, even on the art scene, play with the idea that anything Islamic has to be seen as something different from our society. Islam is portrayed as a problem for society – as if society had a problem with Islam just like it has a drugs problem. This helps to determine the general picture people have of Islam, which accordingly comprises minarets, swimming bans and headscarves. This inevitably stands in contrast to what seems to be the consensus in our society. Thus Islam becomes a ‘problem religion’.

Is it really a rejection of Islamic difference when authorities and courts enforce current laws and values?

We didn’t want to take a political stance in our study; we wanted to show the backdrop to the decisions that are made. You would expect that systems would continue to develop and would adjust to new environmental conditions. But as we have seen in Basel and Langenthal, society tends to aim for structural security. Incidentally, this also applies to the Muslims who are campaigning against compulsory swimming at school. They, too, want to safeguard their own structures and are just as unwilling to find a consensus with which everyone can live.

What is the origin of this need to safeguard existing structures?

In an effort to create social and individual security, the present situation is interpreted as something ‘other’, something that is a danger to that security – even if the situation in itself is far removed from one’s own realm of experience. If you don’t have any Muslim children, then you’re not affected by the problem with the swimming lessons. And you won’t ever see a minaret unless you actually live in the area where they’re planning one. Nevertheless, it’s very easy to decide that these are things you won’t accept.

So this has to do with scepticism towards Islam?

It’s more a scepticism towards an idea of Islam that reduces it to visible issues: minarets, headscarves, swimming at school, halal slaughter. All these things allow us to construct difference. Many a Muslim would say: what’s this strange kind of Islam you’re talking about? A belief in Mohammed’s teachings doesn’t have to create any differences on a social level. But as soon as Islam becomes visible, some people have a problem with it. Correspondingly, even Muslims reduce Islam to what’s visible. Then they fight a battle about visibility, right down to radical ideas about the full-body veil.

And the one side goads the other on?

In our current communication framework, the dispute about visibility is indeed blown up into a major problem by all sides. But ultimately it’s about integrating Islam into our society. It’s been far easier to carry through such integration processes with other issues – in our policy towards drugs, for example. The controlled distribution of heroin is recognised as a matter in which opinions differ, but at the same time the problem has been integrated by means of specific regulations. Islam, on the other hand, seems to be defined as a far bigger problem, and no one’s making provisions for its integration.

What’s your explanation for that?

The way Islam is judged is based on the notion that Islam is something that fundamentally defines a Muslim. When we see ultra-religious Islamic groupings in the Middle East such as the so-called ‘Islamic State’, and when we see ultra-religious terrorists attacking and murdering journalists and policemen as just happened in France, then this is perceived as an expression of Islam itself. However, Muslim communities are emphasising that these terrorists have in fact hijacked Islam for their own ends. We have fundamental differences of perception here that we have to iron out.

Instead of reacting to Islamic difference with fines and prohibitions, you write that society could learn instead from diversity. What does this mean in concrete terms?

If society is a system of communication, then it should be able to adapt. Diversity is reality, and it is on the increase. We should consider what new steering possibilities might be found to face this reality adequately, so that we are not simply at the mercy of the processes uncovered by our case studies.

So should we simply accept that Muslim girls won’t take swimming lessons?

Research has shown that the learning process is something that applies to society as a whole, including Muslim communities. Inclusion promotes a readiness to reconsider the very positions that one has been using to define difference. Many of our Muslim fellow citizens have long been doing that. Otherwise there would be more discussions about swimming at school, not just individual cases. Muslims in Switzerland turned up their noses at the ban on minarets, but there’s hardly any Muslim organisation that has actually insisted on having one.

What would a learning process in society actually look like?

It would mean saying this: integration requires that everyone keeps to all the rules and regulations of society. But because systems are adaptive, these rules can change. They don’t have to change when it comes to swimming at school, but perhaps they could change again with regard to minarets. It’s all about negotiation processes within society. The different positions that exist can in fact result in a productive space of social reality.

In concrete terms: how should we approach conflicts about Islam in future?

Let’s take the example of the roughly 60 young men from Switzerland who’ve gone to Syria to fight in the civil war. The old assessment model would promptly make an ‘Islamic issue’ of this and postulate the existence of difference. An adaptive system would construct channels of communication, and all the protagonists – Muslim and non-Muslim – would sit together and realise that they’ve got a common problem.

In what sense?

The fact that these young men join up with terrorists is not just a problem for the Muslim communities, but one for Swiss society too. What’s going wrong in our families and in our social environment that prompts young Muslims to leave like that? If these are the questions we ask, then we are allowing a learning process to take place and we’re making it possible for useful preventive measures to be enacted.

Some of the protagonists – political parties, certain media, but also Muslims too – are cultivating difference quite specifically and sowing the seeds of conflict. And acts of terror like we saw in Paris in January make dialogue all the more difficult.

The structural conservatism we can observe in certain protagonists isn’t conducive to an ability to learn, that’s true. And this also applies to some Muslims who want to hold on to their otherness. However, the events in Paris have resulted in ever fewer Muslims seeing any latent difference between themselves and our society. Instead, they are emphasising their fundamental objections to terrorism. Their solidarity is towards freedom in society, and this surely offers us an opportunity to overcome our differences.

Susanne Wenger is a freelance journalist based in Bern.

Reinhard Schulze

Reinhard Schulze is the Director of the Institute for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Bern. His key research areas include the history of Islamic culture and knowledge and Islamic religious history.