How often do girls talk about religion?

Immigration, Displacement and Asylum: Current Issues

Sineb El Masrar

Sineb El Masrar is a publicist, author, founder and editor of the multicultural women's magazine "Gazelle". So far she has published three books: "Muslim Girls - Who They Are, How They Live", "Emancipation in Islam" and "Muslim Men: Who They Are, What They Want".

A conversation with the author and publicist Sineb El Masrar about Muslim masculinity, religion and the search for identity and belonging.

Young Arab men on the Rhine promenade in Düsseldorf. The realities of life for Muslim men are more complex than the stigmatizing and stereotypical portrayal of Muslim masculinity suggests. (& copy picture-alliance)

Muslim masculinity is predominantly portrayed in public and media discourses as patriarchal, sexist and violent. The discourse has come to a head since the so-called "refugee crisis" and after the attacks in Cologne on New Year's Eve 2015/2016. Muslim or Muslim men are viewed critically by parts of the population. Sometimes they are even under general suspicion of being terrorists. In her book "Muslim Men", Sineb El Masrar shows that the realities of life for Muslim men are more complex than this stigmatizing and stereotypical representation of Muslim masculinity suggests.

Ms. El Masrar, for your book "Muslim Men", which was published in 2018, you conducted interviews with various Muslim men in order to portray the complexities of their lives. They wanted to give a voice to all those who remain invisible due to generalization and stigmatization by the majority society. How was it for you to write about Muslim masculinity?

Sineb El Masrar (& copy picture alliance)
Not only the majority society, but also Muslim communities reduce being Muslim to homogeneous concepts of masculinity. That became clear through the numerous conversations! For me it was not at all difficult to find people to talk to. On the contrary, there was a great deal of interest in being able to speak openly.

I had already dealt a lot with the question of the emancipation of Muslim women. But this cannot be thought of without the other part, namely the male, if we stick to the two-gender model. Especially because Islam is patriarchal, we cannot ignore men in this context. Why do some men manage to be liberal and progressive and to break up injustice - also within Islam - even though it is highly taboo to criticize Islam. And why don't others make it? These are questions I wanted to find answers to. There is an incredible amount of talk and debate about "the men". But who are "these Muslim men" actually?

Do "Muslim men" even exist?

No, of course there is no such thing as "the Muslim man", because there is no such thing as "the man". A person's personality depends not least on their socialization, i.e. which family they come from and what historical, cultural or social background they have.

There is no such thing as "Islam". There are versions and interpretations of Islam that differ from country to country. But of course certain traditions and practices dominate - such as the five pillars of Islam: prayer, fasting, giving alms, the creed and the unique pilgrimage to Mecca - which are the same everywhere, regardless of whether they are Sunni, Shi'a or Ahmadiyya or with liberal Muslims. Dealing with tolerance and theological questions differs, however.

There are thought leaders who have found different answers to certain questions of society over the centuries. Some reform currents within Islam, such as Islamism, are backward-looking and fascistoid. Other reform movements, on the other hand, do stand for an Islam that is oriented towards emancipation.

You address the diversity of interpretations of Islam and ideas of masculinity. Nevertheless, very one-sided images of Muslim men persist. How come

It is true that in many immigrant families and groups, patriarchal ideas of masculinity predominate. This is of course expressed in coexistence with non-Muslims or liberal Muslims and contributes to the solidification of this cliché of the very dominant, oppressive Muslim man. In order to understand why such traditional ideas of masculinity dominate, one has to look at various factors, such as developments in the country of origin, personal immigration history, family of origin and upbringing.

Many Muslim immigrants in Germany come from rural regions and poorly educated and socially disadvantaged homes. Often the fathers are absent. Violence in upbringing also plays a role. Families hold on to traditions because they give them stability and have proven themselves over generations, so to speak. Thinking differently quickly leads to being excluded from the community and costs the family strength. All of this - and much more - shapes the growing men. Such characteristics do not change overnight, but rather in the course of long discussions.

It is no different in Germany. Here, in the 1950s under Konrad Adenauer, society was not as progressive as it is today with regard to women's rights, for example. Today's equality could only be achieved because there were movements that articulated demands and were able to occupy appropriate spaces for themselves, even if they still encounter headwinds in some circles today. Emancipation was possible through breaking taboos, education and open debate.

The migrant workers from the 1950s to 1970s, for example, came from regions with traditional, patriarchal social structures regardless of their religious affiliation. This was also due to the time and, as mentioned, was also evident in society in Germany in the 1950s. The migrant workers were primarily concerned with securing their own livelihoods. That was why they had emigrated: They wanted to enable themselves and - more importantly - their children to enjoy a higher standard of living. There was no time for emancipatory reflection, nor were there corresponding spaces for articulating needs or political demands. It was also dominated by tradition rather than religion. Spaces to develop in order to question attitudes and values ​​were ultimately a luxury and this luxury must first be made accessible to all members of our society in order to recognize the benefits of liberal attitudes and values.

What role does the family play in terms of masculinity and gender relations?

Many Muslim men experience violence in their childhood and youth from their parents, including their mother - a fact that is not present in this form in public discourse. At the same time, the mother is the first woman they have a relationship with and that influences their later dealings with girls and women. The relationship between the parents also shapes the ideas of sexual relationships and relationship models. Some men realize this very early on and realize that there is a lot of injustice there. Ideally, they will also experience other relationship models or role models in their environment that are based on exchange and affection. This allows them a change of perspective and role models.

Then, of course, the question arises as to what freedom young men have in their families. Can you talk openly with family members, can you open up and talk about feelings, maybe also address contradictions within the family? If this is not the case, the boys get to a point relatively quickly where they have to decide: Do they submit and bear it in silence or do they rebel by emancipating themselves and looking for their own way? For this to work, you need a very strong sense of self-worth, and ideally, this sense of self must be supported by parents or other caregivers.

So there is often already a lot of tension within the family. I also noticed this in my conversations for "Muslim Men": Young men who use certain stereotypes are usually overwhelmed in life. On the one hand, they question family, cultural or religious values. On the other hand, there is no room for them to articulate and discuss these doubts and then to implement them in their own ideas about life. They are not caught anywhere for their own sake. Those affected often refer to Islam and Islamic traditions, as they already know from their families, for example, when they lack the space for negotiation - i.e. a space in which they can address their own contradictions and ambivalences, endure and break the rigid concept of masculinity . If the majority society then regards certain behaviors as typical, they employ these behaviors and may attract negative attention. Aggression and violence are often an outlet for unresolved conflicts.

The family is the first small society that a person experiences before he is released into large society. So it is important from an early age to be able to develop and discuss and to learn tolerance instead of hearing that this or that is against Islam. This is important in order to live with the large, heterogeneous society and to be able to enter into an exchange.

Why are some Muslim men more focused on their religion than others?

A strong return to Islam is the result of historical developments in the countries of origin and also in Germany, which are mutually dependent. It is about the search for one's own identity. Like right-wing extremist groups, Islamists also seek clarity and something supposedly pure. For them, the only thing that is true and pure is their construct of "Islam". In their imagination, "Islam" unites people regardless of their origin by, similar to nationalism, prescribing a binary worldview and increasing what is their own in the demarcation from non-Muslims. In various countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, social upheavals have taken place in the past: Various factors pushed the Islamic religion more and more back. When the Ottoman Empire fell apart, secular Turkey, for example, emerged, which under Ataturk was strongly oriented towards the progressive West. The occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet troops also led to the suppression of religion. Nevertheless, religion had become an important part of their identity for many people over the centuries. With immigration to Germany from Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Syria, for example, these people brought their religion with them - some with Islamist tendencies, because there are also persecuted Islamists from Syria and Egypt, for example or Tunisia received asylum. Some of these have continued and expanded their Islamist activities in Germany. If faith can offer a home that one does not believe to find in one's own family or in Germany, there is a risk that Islamist groups will find great approval among people who are looking for identity.

Do you see a connection between a strong connection to the (Islamic) religion and the feeling of not belonging to Germany or not being recognized as a German?

Many people with a history of immigration have the feeling that they are expected to have to give up their roots in order to really arrive in Germany and live in freedom. Everyone has the right to identify with their religion, culture or country of origin of their parents and grandparents as well as with Germany. It is also legitimate for a person to say that they define themselves as Turkish, Moroccan and / or Muslim. But that does not automatically mean that this has to be expressed in backward-looking or misanthropic attitudes.

The reflection on how important origin and belonging are for the formation of identity is only slowly beginning in Germany and will continue to increase over the next few years. This also means that the descendants of immigrants must recognize that there is no homogeneous culture of origin and that Islam was not always part of their region of origin. Identities are always fluid. Recognizing this is of course also the task of the majority society. It is becoming increasingly clear that the simplified explanation: "This is because they come from abroad or belong to a different religion" is not sufficient to understand our heterogeneous society.

There are so many ways to find your own way. But this variety of possibilities also overwhelms many people. The search for your own path takes time, calm and spaces for recognition and discussion. As long as these rooms - especially in the families - are not accessible to everyone, there will always be people who join (reactionary-religious) groups who give them the feeling that there they can be themselves and belong if they To follow the rules.

What role do notions of "honor" play in self-images of Muslim men?

Desires of honor are strongly linked to patriarchy, which thrives on men controlling the women in their families. If they do not, there is a constant risk that the image of the man and his family will be dishonored. It doesn't matter to people who are calm and who value themselves. You do not need external confirmation. They concentrate on the individual and their own freedom, which in the best case scenario has already been imparted to them in childhood, and they accept the self-image of women and girls. Others have never had this freedom in the family and have not learned to deal with freedom either. They are much more likely to need permanent confirmation from their mother, father, family, clan, community or Islamic community. If these people hold on to patriarchal structures, it is not a matter of finding themselves, but of always satisfying external expectations. Therefore, honor plays a very large role in conservative to reactionary families: In these circles, many men believe that the preservation of honor is the only thing with which they can please their family or the community at the end of the day.

How do Muslim men react to stereotypical notions of Muslim masculinity?

The ambivalence with clichés or prejudices is always that there are actually people who fulfill certain clichés or prejudices. Attributions do not fall from the sky, but are based on empirical values ​​that have been generalized by the majority of society. The important question here is: Why do some Muslim men use clichés and prejudices?

Regardless of whether they really grew up in traditional, religious families, the entire group of Muslim men is almost permanently confronted with certain worldviews - be it because of their name, skin color, origin or because they are Muslim or are marked Muslim. Depending on their personality, people take it with humor, feel hurt or express their displeasure sooner or later through aggressive behavior. For example, they react with defiance: "You want the macho Kanaken? Here you can get it!" - or they become radicalized. It becomes critical when they join Salafist and other Islamist groups. They also reject German heterogeneity and all non-Muslims and Muslims who do not conform to their beliefs, and are withdrawing more and more from society. Other men, on the other hand, react by specifically campaigning against racism, certain clichés and prejudices. But wherever they take the right to live freely or even to live atheistically and not internalize a certain understanding of Islam or a certain tradition, they are often viewed by "their own people" as traitors who deny their origins and their religion. And yet: To stand up against anti-Muslim racism, despite their way of life, at least re-opens the door to their peer group and community in which they have been socialized or with which they feel connected.

What the men have in common is that they try on different fronts to please the people in their environment or society. One is strongly attached to the patriarchy and its religious community and tries, so to speak, to please them with the concept of honor. The other tries to fight against racism and stereotypes. At the same time, he wants to please his own family or community, which he also views critically, and to belong.This can lead to the fact that he defends certain traditions or religious orientations or does not criticize them publicly in order to at least remain accepted in his own community. Overall, this struggle for recognition on all fronts is extremely tiring and difficult, and it is making debates about emancipation, democracy, integration and Islam increasingly difficult.

The interview was conducted by Laura Hartmann.