Northern Light

A Litmus Test of Tolerance

German journalist, author and activist Günter Wallraff has taken the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) on its word of openness, tolerance and denunciation of a fatwa against the Indian born British writer Salman Rushdie. Wallraff, 64, therefore wants to read passages from the novel The Satanic Verses in a new mosque in Cologne, Germany, and have a discussion about the passages that have caused offense to Muslims.

“It’s a litmus test,” he said to a radio station.

Wallraff, who left the Catholic Church some years ago, is a friend of Mr. Rushdie who stayed in his house after having been subjected to a fatwa. The fatwa was issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni in 1989, and Rushdie, fearing for his life, had to go into hiding. 10 years later the Iranian government said that they could’nt withdraw the fatwa, but that they would not act upon it. When Rushdie last month was knighted by the Queen of Great Britain it caused riots and protests in Pakistan and Iran.

Mr. Wallraff’s proposal has provoked a heated debate in Germany adding fuel to an already intense discussion about the building of the mosque that has divided Cologne, a city of almost 1 million people, of whom 12 pct. are Muslims, and has 45 mosques.

”Our hearts are open, our doors are open, our mosque is open,” Bekir Alboga, a 44 year old Turkish imam who moved to Germany at the age of 18, told the International Herald Tribune in the beginning of July.

Mr. Alboga is head of DITIB’s department for interreligious dialogue and invited Wallraff, who has supported the building of the mosque, to join a group of supporters. In doing so Mr. Alboga once again stressed the need for openness and dialogue. Mr. Wallraff, who is a long time resident of the working-class district, where the mosque is to be erected, accepted the invitation, and immediately made his controversial proposal. He said he wanted to test if the quest for dialogoue was meant in earnest and insisted that such an event would promote the integration of Muslims into German society.

Mr. Alboga didn’t reject the offer, but said it was up to DITIB’s board to decide. A week ago Wallraff after a second meeting with Mr.Alboga appeared to be optimistic that the reading and debate would actually take place.

”We had a constructive conversation,” Wallraff told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung after the meeting at the end of last week.

He also took issue with some of his critics who has denounced his proposal as a provocation, and said that DITIB never would have responded to his invitation to discuss The Satanic Verses if they had perceived it as a gratuitously provocation. In 1985 after the publication of the journalistic project Ganz Unten (At the Bottom), in which Wallraff as a reporter went undercover as an illegal Turkish guest worker by the name Ali Levent Sinirlioglu, the controversial reporter achieved almost cult status among Germany’s 2,7 million Turks. In the book he exposed big companies like MacDonald’s and Thyssen. In the words of Wallraff this experience has given him some credit of trust with the Turkish population.

”I am now taking advantage of this status,” Wallraff added.

Henryk M. Broder, a columnist of the newsmagazine Der Spiegel and author of the bestseller Hurrah, We Surrender, which is critical of German appeasement in the face of a growing Muslim population insisting on enforcing their rules on society at large, called Wallraff’s initiative ”actionism”.

”The issue isn’t whether you can read The Satanic Verses in a mosque or not. After all, it would never occur to anyone to serve non-kosher food in a synagogue or pork meat in a Catholic church on Good Friday.”

With all due respect – Henryk Broder is friend and I admire his writings and sense of humor – I think this is a false parallel. The right parallel to Mr. Broder’s examples would be to serve alcohol and pork meat in a mosque, and Mr. Wallraff isn’t calling for anything like that. Also, according to Mr. Wallraff, the mosque isn’t a holy building, but some kind of communal center where cultural activities take place.

Tolerance means one’s willingness to tolerate points of view that one actively dislikes, as long as they are expressed within the limits of the law. Threatening Salman Rushdie on his life because of a description of the prophet Mohammed that Muslims don’t like or perceive as blasphemeous is a terrifying example of intolerance, so if DITIB denounces the fatwa against Rushdie and sees the building of a mosque as an act of mutual tolerance and openness, wouldn’t it be an act of strong symbolic meaning to read and discuss the passages of the Satanic Verses in the very same mosque?

Wallraff, though, maybe too optimistic when he expects the discussion about the Satanic Verses to have a liberating effect marginalizing radicals.

”Can you imagine the scene in the mosque: It’s being read, and many won’t even find what they hear so bad, and some may even laugh. That would really break the ice,” Wallraff told Frankfurter Allgemeine.

So far the reaction from Germany’s Turkish population and opinion makers has been mixed.

Actress Sibel Kekilli said to Der Spiegel on line: ”It’s fundamentally important to confront Muslims with freedom of speech. But I wonder if the person who reads the book aloud would not endanger his or her life as a result. I would find it an interesting idea if the mosque were to take part in the event – after all, both sides have to adapt if there is not going to be gratuitous provocation.”

Ekin Deligöz, member of the German parliament for the Green Party, also to Der Spiegel on line: ”On the one hand I find it very brave, and if it really – as Günter Wallraff says – takes place as a joint event with the mosque then it could be a good signal for a modern Islam which is capable of dialogue. But if on the other it is just a protest event that is only intended to provoke, then on balance little would come out of it.

Ralph Giordano, a Holocaust surviver and writer, who also lives in Cologne, is strongly oppossed to building the mosque and has received death threats because of his opposition, is sceptical of Mr. Wallraff’s litmus test. Giordano basically thinks that integration of Muslims has failed.

”There is the Taquyya which in Islam allows for deception and simulation, when you have an disagreement with the infidels. DITIB is to me the materialization of taquyya. They will not be honest. Anyway, if the reading takes place, which I don’t think it will, it will be an alibi, pure tactics.”