The Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade has chosen Navid Kermani, the German author, essayist and expert in Middle Eastern Studies, as the recipient of this year's Peace Prize. The award ceremony took place on Sunday, October 18, 2015, in the Church of St. Paul in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The laudatory speech was held by Norbert Miller.
The German Publishers and Booksellers Association is delighted to award the 2015 Peace Prize to Navid Kermani. As an author, essayist and expert in Middle Eastern Studies, Kermani is one of our society's most important voices. Indeed, if our society is to establish and cultivate peaceful coexistence based on dignity and human rights, then today, more than ever, it must rise to the challenge posed by the experiential worlds of individuals from the widest possible national and religious backgrounds.
Kermani's academic work, in which he explores questions of mysticism, aesthetics and theodicy in particular in the Islamic world, have marked him as an author who uses his tremendous knowledge to engage in gripping theological and social discourses.
His novels, essays and especially his reportages from war-torn areas, show the extent to which he is committed to the dignity of all individuals, but also to garnering respect for all cultures and religions and to fostering an open European society that provides shelter for refugees and space for all humanity.
For all of us on the Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Navid Kermani is such a man. He is an enlightened citizen, one who loves Hölderlin and poetry, and who draws from literature and his own religiosity the inspiration, insight, and strength we all need in light of a world that has seemingly come apart at the seams.Heinrich Riethmüller - Greeting
President of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association
You walk above in the light,
Weightless tread a soft floor, blessed genii!
Radiant the gods' mild breezes
Gently play on you
As the girl artist's fingers
On holy strings.
Fateless the Heavenly breathe
Like an unweaned infant asleep;
In modest bud
For ever their minds
Are in flower
And their blissful eyes
Eternally tranquil gaze,
But we are fated
To find no foothold, no rest,
And suffering mortals
Dwindle and fall
Headlong from one
Hour to the next,
Hurled like water
In his poem "Hyperion's Song of Fate," Friedrich Hölderlin – an important presence in my life in Tübingen as well as in Navid Kermani’s – repeatedly evokes the notion of the suffering of the world, particularly in contrast to the gods who walk "on a soft floor." He reminds us of the fate of mortals, which is merely to endure the full weight of life, unable to control it, unable to take it into our hands, to be but a plaything of the gods. Today, because we no longer believe in "the gods," the suffering of the world has taken on a different dimension for any enlightened and politically minded individual. While Hölderlin was able to complain that mortals on earth were fatefully doomed to suffer because the gods had determined so, we "modern non-believers" know that we can no longer blame any other, supernatural forces for causing the suffering.
In fact, mortals themselves are responsible for the world's suffering and thus also for our suffering from the world. We can no longer claim to not know; we can no longer claim that life is subject to fate. Instead, we must face up to our responsibilities, because never before have we witnessed more of the misfortunes of the world than today. We are informed about everything. One terrible news item follows the next. Images of wars, refugees and catastrophes are delivered to our living rooms every day. Against this backdrop, ignorance is no longer a valid excuse; instead, we are confronted with the allegation that we are consciously looking the other way.
As an author moving in various guises – explorer, academic, human being – Navid Kermani has investigated and deeply acquainted himself with different cultures and at least two world religions by means of gathering his own, hands-on experience. The result is an impressive oeuvre consisting of speeches, essays and academic books, but also of novels that invite us to understand him and his points-of-view, and also to analyze our own opinions and cross-examine our own judgments and prejudices. Kermani explores worlds and perspectives that many would argue are foreign to one another, only to reveal just how much the world's major religions are indeed deeply connected to one another. And, finally, he proposes alternatives for our peaceful coexistence, all the while knowing that this would be an almost unfathomable undertaking.
Our world needs role models; people who provide us with orientation, who show that it is worth it to get involved and stand up for each other. People who prove that peace and freedom can only succeed if we look beyond our own immediate horizon, that is, if we become actively involved and if we are prepared to stand up for freedom against any of its internal and external enemies.
For all of us on the Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Navid Kermani is such a man. He is an enlightened citizen, one who loves Hölderlin and poetry, and who draws from literature and his own religiosity the inspiration, insight, and strength we all need in light of a world that has seemingly come apart at the seams.
Ladies and gentlemen, Germany's publishing and bookselling community is extremely proud to be awarding its Peace Prize to Navid Kermani. Indeed, it is a privilege to honor this sincere cosmopolitan who is committed to tolerance, openness and peace. And it is to him that we extend our warmest congratulations today.
Text translated by the Hagedorn Group.
Poem translated by Michael Hamburger.
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Greeting of the president
Kermani always surprises us by providing inconspicuous, spoken clues to elucidate circumstances that would otherwise be hard to understand.Norbert Miller - Laudation for Navid Kermani
Faith in Words – Trust in Images. Navid Kermani's Explorations of West-Eastern Peace
Laudation for Navid Kermani
As "The Novel I'm Writing" ("Der Roman, den ich schreibe") headed towards its first and – how could it be any another way? – only temporary ending, the publisher of this gigantic tome was deeply moved and took recourse to a Bavarian figure of speech to express his admiration: Michael Krüger knew that the "meal" he had just ingested, which consisted of very different ingredients mixed together, seasoned and refined by the author at whim, would present itself to readers as "a real Knödel" – literally a boiled dumpling. Krüger did not refine his culinary interpretation any further than that. And, indeed, the aim of the author lies quite close to this prosaic description of his book, especially when Kermani refers to it – persistently, and with good reason – as a novel, a fiction, a play of imagination that reaches into the unknown and whose hero "is named Navid Kermani in some places."
The author cites Thursday, June 8, 2006, 11:18 am as the beginning of a new phase in his life and simultaneously as the first sentence of the novel to be written. On Saturday, June 11, 2011, at 10:15 am, as he waits in vain in front of the closed doors of a Presbyterian church in Los Angeles, the author also knows that this random moment marks the instant in which there is irrevocably no space left in the book for addenda. And he underlines this with the meticulousness of an accountant: the present action is the writing present, and it contains everything that the real-fictitious author Kermani experiences, imagines and invents for his own purposes in these five years, including the crisis of his marriage, the separation from his children as well as his confrontation with political events and his travels to conflict areas in the Near and Far East. They are just as inherent to the plot structure of this open-ended novel as the reading of Adorno – sometimes even Heidegger – and the discoveries that our author-reader and Persian poetry connoisseur makes in Hölderlin's verse and in the novels of Jean Paul – that lone Levantine lead in German lyrical poetry.
All of this flows into the vast river of narration: for example, many of the reportages of his trips to a troubled world that emerged concurrently between 2006 and 2009, feed into chapters in the novel. In contrast, in 2008 – a year that was so important for his literary development –in the Romanic-style Villa Massimo, a couple of the artistic awakenings he experienced at the foot of Caravaggio's baroque altar images managed to loosen themselves from the bonds of the diary-novel and were published on their own. The reflections on Hölderlin and Jean Paul ultimately formed the basis of his Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics. These reflections preceded the publication of the novel; indeed, when they were published one year after the book, the title under which they were published revealed them to be part of the ongoing project: "Jean Paul, Hölderlin und der Roman, den ich schreibe" ("Jean Paul, Hölderlin and the Novel I'm Writing"). At this moment in time, however, the novel already bore the new and unloved title "Dein Name" ("Your Name"). This act of clinging to the process of writing as the concept of life embodied by the author Kermani – working against finiteness – also comprises in itself all future utterances. They are all, to this day, part of a roman à faire.
The dominant figure lurking behind the ever-present bars forged by these family tragedies is the grandfather. As a bank director from Isfahan who trusted in the idea of bourgeois advancement – and, as the head of a family rooted deeply in age-old Islamic traditions – this man has a tremendous influence on the thoughts and memory of his grandson. How was it possible, as a deeply devout Muslim, to be a vocal champion of the British constitution and education system? And, from his social position, how was it possible to maintain a balance of progress and tradition – of enlightenment and certainty in one's faith – without gradually assimilating with the West?
When reflecting on cultural and political catastrophes, Kermani always comes back to the lived utopia of this patriarch, to his hope of finding a sustainable and common new beginning for two religions born of the same soil. The unassuming notebooks – which went unnoticed by the family and in which the grandfather recorded his thoughts and memories – became an obligation for the grandson; indeed, they became a kind of preliminary draft for the book that was to be written. The grandfather's era – one the grandson knows only from these notes and from stories, and perhaps also from the grandfather's writing style – also shape his perception when he turns his gaze not to the early, comparably intact world of Iran, but to the distorted present day. Much of the grandfather's optimism that grace will conquer any hopeless situation seems to have rubbed off on this rather more skeptical chronicler, except he speaks of chance. He is convinced that only a mutually held belief in the common core of two religions so abruptly divorced can afford our modern society the chance of a new beginning. In this, too, the author takes conscious recourse to the grandfather. And so, at the first Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics on May 11, 2010, the huge book was still titled "Das Leben seines Großvaters" ("The Life of His Grandfather"), even though the grandfather appears as an active character only relatively late in the work.
Ultimately, and above all, the novel is "at its core, a 'book of the dead.' It commemorates the people in my life who die. I doubt whether the dead need someone to preserve their name. While writing my book, I learned that it is we who need them, that something in us dies when we don't invoke them: the life that we shared with them." Much like in the novels of Jean Paul and other authors he admired, the shadows of those who were close to him and then departed while he was still writing move past him in long rows. And they do so with ominous frequency: Istvàn Eörsi, the actress Claudia Fenner, the Islamic scholar Friedrich Niewöhner, to whom he was close thanks to the generosity that informed even their disputes, the uncle Djavad Ketabi and the composer György Sandor Ligeti, whom he admired at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. At irregular intervals, these memorials and commemorative pages accompany the novel that continues to write itself, further expanding the perspectives. For example, the old Frankfurt carpenter who installs a desk for the bourgeois Kermani insists that "he really did exist; he has to have existed, seeing as he's dead now. In the novel that I'm writing, only the deadare real; all of the others are only 'ideal,' which I put in quotation marks because Hölderlin saw the ideal as the only thing that was real. When somebody dies, the author of the novel says 'I.'"
The novelist Kermani continues to hold fast to this today. Indeed, in an acceptance speech at an awards ceremony last year, he mentioned five names; names that have now moved out of the virtual realm into the reality of memory. In this way, that which had to remain a fragment in the novel now clearly forms a thread of continuity in the writing of his own life: "Because it must attempt to be complete, the book of the dead only ends with one's own death."
Kermani did not decide in favor of Adorno and the Frankfurt School, which would have been fitting considering his philosophical tendencies; instead, he chose a course of studies that would do justice to his life and thought in two cultural circles. While he began writing at a remarkably early age for the Feuilleton section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he pursued Islamic Studies in the field of Middle Eastern Studies and received his doctorate in 1998 in Bonn with his work "Gott ist schön. Das ästhetische Erleben des Quran" ("God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Quran"). Treading lengthy paths through often fantastical traditions but also engaging in a precise examination of the Quran's reception – one that is renewed daily – and its effect on the faithful, he proves a seemingly simple, obvious thesis: "The Quran presents the doctrine of the igaz, [the miraculous character of the Muslim revelation] as being formally too excellent to have been written by a man, too artistic to be a work of art, stylistically too original to be an invention, and too beautiful to be explained by anything other than the work of the divine. This line of reasoning, which continues to this day to be the most important pillar of the proof of the miracle, relies intrinsically on aesthetic premises."
In other words, the special position of the Quran among the holy scriptures of all monotheistic religions is ascribed to the aesthetic perfection of the text – one that can only be attributed to Allah. Moses as the author of the Pentateuch, the four Evangelists as witnesses of Jesus' work on earth, the visionary of the apocalypse – these are all divinely inspired announcers of divine will. Mohammed – the prophet called upon by Allah – only seemingly belongs in this series, for he wrote down the one-hundred-and-fourteen Surah and thus made them binding. However, he is not the author of the perfection of the Quran, which is a perfection that goes beyond man. Instead, Mohammed is the voice, the medium through which God speaks to the people. This is why the glory of each verse – lived out and repeated thousands of times every day by the faithful – is the most perfect proof of the existence of God.
Unfortunately, my synopsis of Kermani's basic idea leaves out how brilliantly and with what broadly drawn arches he places the relationship of the Prophet and his inspiration to poetry, but also to the literature and the aesthetics of the West. Nor does it reflect how expertly he, in the concluding prose hymn, evokes the omnipotence of Allah's Surahs, which are known intimately by each believer, and which unfold in their ritual recitation in the Mosque: "No one responded with more enthusiasm – and yet also with more fear – to the euphony of the divine speech than the Sufis, the mystics of Islam (...). A recurring image in its lines is the pious man who sinks down, overwhelmed by the Quran. His figure is a role model, even in the manner of his extinguishing." Nothing disturbed Kermani more, when he returned to the Cairo of his student years, than the disappearance of the previously ubiquitous Quran recitations, in which each person was able to come together in the truth of the community via their own very different perception of the divine word.
The second work of this Orientalist, published in 2005, was entirely devoted to the relationship between literature and the experience of God: "Der Schrecken Gottes. Attar, Hiob und die metaphysische Revolte" ("The Terror of God: Attar, Job and the Metaphysical Revolt"), with the intent of creating a monograph about a work written by Faridoddin Attar, one of the seven classical poets of Persia, called "Buch der Leiden" ("Book of Sufferings"), which is "probably one of the darkest works ever in world literature." Indeed, Attar's poetry takes up the question posed by Job as to why God so often subjects the faithful and the pious to immeasurable suffering. Can the Almighty betray his own righteousness? Goethe took up this theme – the game played by the Creator with his creations – in the wager with the devil in the prologue in heaven and used it as the framework of his "Faust." Kermani, on the other hand, depicts the existential distress of this question – which he brings back entirely into the private realm – in the form of the suffering of his pious aunt, whose pain he must watch helplessly, much like Job's reporter.
Kermani had already thematized the incomprehensible horror of God at the end of his first book, most likely based on the same experience and using his usual approach of interdependence. Here he repeats the question, this time as a student and dragoman of the great poet Attar. Much like Dante at the beginning of the Commedia, Attar, too, stands in the "Book of Sufferings" as a thought wanderer at the precipice of a mystical journey of the soul upon which he seeks to penetrate remote realms of the universe in thoughts and dreams. Forty days of Quran meditation and prayer provide the framework for this pilgrimage inspired by the rapture of the Prophet. A Pir or tutor explains the spiritual experiences to the disciple, be they uplifting or frightening, much like one hundred years later, in the "Divine Comedy," first Vergil and then the Virgin Mary would interpret the stations and relate them to Dante. The persecutions of God as well as their inherent justification pass by the hereafter-journeyman in a seemingly endless series and in many verses, and Attar illustrates the paradox of how it is possible that the two – the supplication to God and the accusation against him – could fit together: "See how the creatures, in the face of their destruction, cling lovingly to God, not in spite of, but rather because they pronounce him guilty."
The beauty and the horror of God: the connection of the two works creates an image whose relevance extends far beyond academia; an image of an Islamic conceptual world that is enhanced by the wealth of the essays and war reporting issued by the man we are honoring today. Westöstliche Erkundungen (West-Easter Inquiries) is the name the reporter Kermani gives to a comprehensive volume of his essays. In a work that carries the ironically fragmented title "Ausnahmezustand. Reisen in eine beunruhigte Welt" ("State of Emergency. Travels in a Troubled World"), individual episodes are used to depict a situation that is ongoing. It is under this title that we can summarize all of the books in which he traces the changes taking place in the political situation in the Middle East and increasingly also the practiced relationship between the three monotheistic religions.
Kermani always surprises us by providing inconspicuous, spoken clues to elucidate circumstances that would otherwise be hard to understand. And at every turn, we feel the involvement of the witness, his often helpless willingness to be a friend. Separated by five years, Kermani's two essays on Afghanistan create the temporal panorama of a downfall calculated for eternity. In 2011, what could have been described in 2006 as the grim normality of an isolated protective power has moved beyond any attempt to decipher it from outside and become the half-organized chaos of a long-since forgotten conflict. No cipher could depict the gruesomeness more powerfully than the carefully furnished tent of Nur Agha – young even in his old age – who lost his wife and all five kids twenty years ago in a bombing and now, at the age of 81, lives in a cemetery with a shorn sheep and a radio recorder. There is no sentimentality here, as is always the case with Kermani, even though he goes beyond the borders of what is reportable! And yet, anyone who has read his books senses in this scene of devotion the proximity to the interminable series of epitaphs in this novel!
In an appraisal of his most recent work "Ungläubiges Staunen. Über das Christentum" ("Incredulous Wonder. On Christianity") – an appraisal that ranged from thought-provoking to critical – it was noted that Kermani's imagination is set on fire most of all by the sensuous rendering of religious events in Western painting, rather than in the beliefs themselves. Anything that was achieved in recent theology in terms of the exegesis of writings or the turn towards the written word that took place in Protestantism and others – all of this remains outside his sphere of interest, as does modern church art. Incarnation as a principle: this is how we can characterize Kermani's relationship to Christianity evoked by the title. From "Dein Name," we know how much he was fascinated by the Baroque pictorial world during his stay in Rome in 2008; we know how he stood in amazement in the churches, avowing the creations of the grand Bolognese veritable revelations. In San Luigi dei Francesi, it is likely that he experienced Caravaggio's "The Calling of St. Matthew" as a personal challenge: "It could be any one them, any of the four men sitting around the table, and the boy, too. It could be taking place now, as Caravaggio shows us by [....] dressing the biblical figures in the garments of his own, Caravaggio's, era." For Kermani the spectator, Jesus' outstretched index finger is referring to that one among the men sitting at the table, the one who takes cover in the act of counting money, the one who appears to have not yet noticed the outstretched beam of light. Indeed, the calling appears to have not yet taken place. The moment as yet is without consequence. The quotidian, though meticulously recorded, still prevails over the extraordinary. "This would have to mean that the miracle is not the appearance of the redeemer; the miracle is that somebody notices it – and, if I am not mistaken, it is about to happen to precisely the person who doesn't even notice the Savior. The men will only be stunned when their colleague gives up his family, his profession and his view of the world from one second to the next."
Indeed, we can only marvel at Caravaggio's masterpieces; we have no choice but to be deeply and directly affected by a reality that has moved into the unknown. Only in Caravaggio's omnipotent imagination, still tied to the misery of the world, was it possible to successfully and repeatedly link the horror and the muck of our everyday lives to metaphysical rapture: Thomas the non-believer sticks his index finger into Jesus' wound, the executioner wipes his bloody sword on the coat of John the Baptist, whom he has just beheaded. It is surprise more than irritation that sparks Navid Kermani's religious imagination. A wonder both incredulous and incredible characterizes each of Kermani’s image encounters with Jacob’s battle with the angel; simultaneously the utmost heightening and the fundamental restriction of wonder. In the long series of these interpretations, which uses three thematic circles to chart the orbit of salvation in Christianity – and which ranges from the legendary Late Antique image of the Virgin Mary to Gerhard Richter's Cologne Cathedral window – the chapter about Paolo Dall’Oglio takes up a special place. In this case, it is not an image that is being observed; instead, it is a lived encounter of Islam and Christianity, beyond the syncretism dammed by both religions and their beliefs. To this Jesuit priest, the ideal of the Imitation of Christ meant that “he would devote his life to Islam, which he had seen on the horizon forty years prior. I don't know a Muslim who could communicate the message of the Quran more convincingly and believably than he." In the Mar Musa monastery at the edge of the Syrian desert, Pater Paolo weaves elements bit by bit from Sufi religious practice into everyday religious life – however without diluting Catholic rituals. "Mar Musa thus became a site not only of discussion among the religions, but also one of shared living and praying: or, as Pater Paolo called one of his books, Out of Love for Islam, With Faith in Jesus."
The final sentence of Kermani' chapter, written in May 2015, is the following: "He taught us hope in this world, but also hope for another world." It is not possible for skepticism and trust in the world to come any closer to one another than this. It is in light of this proximity that Navid Kermani experiences Christianity: as a distinctly religious thinker, as an engaged contemporary and as an author of a novel that is to be written. He experiences Christianity in his images and in literature; but he does so beyond the liturgical calendar. With the new book in hand, in amazement and inspired to dialogue, we wait with an uncomfortable tension for the next chapter in the novel that Navid Kermani is writing. But not just the one he is writing, others too!
Permit me one addendum: In September 2008, the reporter Kermani travelled to the Island of Lampedusa off the coast of Italy and the African continent to report about the refugees packed onto boats by human smugglers. There he met the French captain of a FRONTEX ship whose function was actually to keep refugees away from Europe. He was, however, able to save 65 Somalis cast adrift in a storm. When asked how he could possibly reconcile his behavior with the obligations of his job, the captain exclaimed: "When I see a wooden boat with 65 people in it on the open sea, I don't give a shit about FRONTEX. I don't think about immigration, IDs or customs officers. I save them, damn it." And Kermani comments on this dialogue with the following: "I'm sure that the captain would have behaved the same a way even without the approval of his superiors." Human rights are a human obligation.
And today, the jury is bestowing the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to Navid Kermani at a moment where the intensity of the refugee movement has reached that of a mass migration. I am proud and happy to be the first one to congratulate him on behalf of all of us today.
Translated by the Hagedorn Group.
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Laudation for Navid Kermani
Can the winner of a peace prize call for war? I am not calling for war. I am simply pointing out that there is a war – and that we too, as its close neighbours, must respond to it.Navid Kermani - Acceptance speech
Beyond the Borders – Jacques Mourad and Love in Syria
On the day I received the news of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, that same day, Jacques Mourad was abducted in Syria. Two armed men entered the monastery of Mar Elian on the outskirts of the small town of Qaryatain and called for Father Jacques. They seem to have found him in his bare little office, which also serves as his living room and his bedroom, grabbed him and taken him with them. On 21 May 2015, Jacques Mourad became a hostage of the so-called ‘Islamic State’.
I first met Father Jacques in the autumn of 2012, when I travelled through an already war-torn Syria to report on the events there. He was responsible for the Catholic community of Qaryatain and also belonged to the order of Mar Musa, which had been founded in the early 1980s in a derelict early Christian monastery. It is a special, even unique community, for it has dedicated itself to an encounter with Islam and love for Muslims. While following the commandments and rituals of its own Catholic church conscientiously, the nuns and monks engage equally seriously with Islam and take part in Muslim tradition, during Ramadan too. It sounds mad, even ludicrous: Christians who, as they themselves express it, have fallen in love with Islam. And yet this Christian-Muslim love was a reality in Syria only recently, and it is still in the hearts of many Syrians. With the work of their hands, the goodness of their hearts and the prayers of their souls, the nuns and monks of Mar Musa created a place that struck me as a utopia, one which they would not have said anticipated, but certainly reached ahead for no less than eschatological reconciliation, presupposing that this reconciliation would come. A 7th-century stone monastery amid the overpowering solitude of the Syrian desert mountains that was visited by Christians from all over the world, but where even greater numbers of Arab Muslims – dozens, even hundreds – knocked at the door to meet their Christian brethren, to speak, sing and be silent with them, and also to pray according to their own Islamic ritual in a corner of the church where there were no images.
When I visited Father Jacques in 2012, the founder of the community, the Italian Jesuit Paolo Dall’Oglio, had been expelled from the country shortly beforehand. Father Paolo had been too outspoken in his criticism of the Assad government, which responded to the Syrian people’s call for freedom and democracy, a call that had remained peaceful for nine months, with arrests and torture, with truncheons and assault rifles, and finally with horrific massacres and even poison gas, until the country descended into civil war. But Father Paolo had also opposed the leadership of the official Syrian churches, which remained silent about the government’s violence. He had attempted in vain to persuade Europe to support the Syrian democratic movement, and called in vain on the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone or at least send observers. He had warned in vain of a war of confessions if the secular and moderate groups were abandoned and foreign aid went only to the jihadists. He had tried in vain to break through the wall of our apathy. In the summer of 2013, the founder of the community of Mar Musa secretly returned to Syria to help recover some Muslim friends who were in the hands of Islamic State, and was himself abducted by Islamic State. There has been no trace of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio since 28 July 2013.
Father Jacques, who now bore sole responsibility for the monastery of Mar Elian, is very different in character: not a gifted orator, not a charismatic, not a temperamental Italian, but rather, like so many Syrians I met, a proud, thoughtful and extremely polite man, quite tall, with a broad face, his short hair still black. I did not get to know him well, of course; I attended mass, which consisted of enchantingly beautiful singing as in all Eastern churches, and observed how warmly he chatted to the faithful and to local dignitaries at the subsequent lunch. When he had said goodbye to all the guests, he led me to his tiny room for half an hour, placing a chair for me next to the narrow bed upon which he sat for the interview.
It was not only his words that amazed me – how fearlessly he criticised the government, and how openly he also spoke of the hardening in his own Christian community. What made an even more profound impression on me was his demeanour: I experienced him as a quiet, very conscientious, introverted and also ascetic servant of God who, now that God had given him the task of caring for the beleaguered Christians in Qaryatain and leading the monastic community, was also carrying out this public duty with all his might. He spoke quietly and as slowly – usually with his eyes closed – as if he were consciously slowing down his pulse and using the interview as a time to rest between two more strenuous commitments. At the same time, he chose his words very carefully and articulated his thoughts in perfect statements, and what he said was of such clarity and political incisiveness that I kept asking whether it might not be too dangerous to quote him directly. Then he opened his warm, dark eyes and nodded wearily – yes, I could print everything, otherwise he would not have said it; the world had to learn what was happening in Syria.
This weariness, it was also a strong, perhaps my strongest impression of Father Jacques – it was the weariness of one who had not only acknowledged, but indeed affirmed that he might not be able to rest until the next life; also the weariness of a doctor and a fire-fighter who rations his powers when hardships become too great. And Father Jacques was indeed a doctor and fire-fighter in the midst of the war, not only for the souls of those living in fear, but also for the bodies of the needy whom he offered food, protection, clothes, accommodation and, above all, caring in his church, regardless of their religion. To the end, many hundreds if not thousands of refugees, the vast majority Muslims, were given shelter at the monastery and provided for by the community of Mar Musa. And not only that: Father Jacques managed to maintain peace, including confessional peace, at least in Qaryatain. It is chiefly thanks to him, the quiet, serious Father Jacques, that the different groups and militias, some of the close to the government and some in the opposition, agreed to ban all heavy weapons from the little town. And he, the priest who was critical of the church, succeeded in persuading almost all the Christians in his parish to stay. ‘We Christians are a part of this land, even if the fundamentalists don’t appreciate that fact either here or in Europe’, Father Jacques told me: ‘Arab culture is our culture!’
For him, the calls of some Western politicians to specifically take in Arab Christians left a bitter taste. The same West that did not care an iota about the millions of Syrians of all confessions who had demonstrated peacefully for democracy and human rights, the same West that had devastated Iraq and supplied Assad with his poison gas, the same West that was an ally of Saudi Arabia, the main sponsor of jihadism – this same West was now concerned about the Arab Christians? He could only laugh at that, said Father Jacques with a completely straight face. And continued with his eyes closed: ‘With their irresponsible statements, these politicians promote the very confessionalism that threatens us Christians.’
The responsibility grew constantly, and Father Jacques bore it as uncomplainingly as always. The community’s foreign members had to leave Syria and found refuge in northern Iraq. Only the seven Syrian monks and nuns who inhabited the two monasteries of Mar Musa and Mar Elian remained. The fronts were constantly shifting, meaning that Qaryatain was sometimes ruled by the state and sometimes by opposition militias. The monks and nuns had to come to terms with both sides and, like all the citizens, endure the air raids whenever the little town was in opposition hands. But then Islamic State advanced ever further into the Syrian heartland. ‘The threat from IS, this sect of terrorists who present a ghastly image of Islam, has arrived in our region’, Father Jacques wrote to a French friend a few days before his abduction. The message to her continues: ‘It is difficult to decide what we should do. Shall we leave our homes? That is difficult for us. The realisation that we have been abandoned is dreadful – abandoned especially by the Christian world, which has decided to keep its distance so that the danger will stay far away. We mean nothing to them.’
Just in these few lines of a mere e-mail, no doubt written in haste, one is struck by two formulations that are characteristic of Father Jacques and at once set a standard for any intellectuality. The first statement reads: ‘The threat from IS, this sect of terrorists who present a ghastly image of Islam’. The second statement, about the Christian world: ‘We mean nothing to them.’ He defended the other community and criticised his own. A few days before his abduction, when the group that invokes Islam and claims to apply the law of the Qur’an already constituted a direct physical threat to him and his parish, Father Jacques still insisted that these terrorists were distorting the true face of Islam. I would disagree with any Muslim whose only response to the phenomenon of Islamic State was the worn-out claim that violence has nothing to do with Islam. But a Christian, a Christian priest who had to reckon with the possibility of being driven away, humiliated, abducted or killed by followers of another faith, yet still insisted on justifying that same faith – such a servant of God displays an inner greatness that I have only encountered in the lives of the saints.
Someone like myself cannot defend Islam in this way. They must not. Love of one’s own – one’s own culture, one’s own country and equally one’s own person – proves itself in self-criticism. The love of the other – of another person, another culture and even another religion – can be far more effusive, it can be unreserved. It is true that the prerequisite for love of the other is love of oneself. But one can only be in love, as Father Paolo and Father Jacques are with Islam, with the other. Self-love, on the other hand, if it is to avoid falling prey to the danger of narcissism, of self-praise, of self-satisfaction, must be a struggling, doubting and ever-questioning love. How true that is of Islam today! Any Muslim who does not struggle with it, does not doubt it and does not question it critically does not love Islam.
It is not only the terrible news and even more terrible pictures from Syria and Iraq, where the Qur’an is held up to accompany every act of barbarism and “Allahu akbar” is called out at every beheading. In so many other countries too, even most countries in the Muslim world, state authorities, state-associated institutions, theological schools or rebel groups all invoke Islam when they oppress their own people, disadvantage women or persecute, drive out or massacre those with different ideas, religious beliefs or ways of life. Islam is invoked when women are stoned in Afghanistan, entire school classes murdered in Pakistan, hundreds of girls enslaved in Nigeria, Christians beheaded in Libya, bloggers shot in Bangladesh, bombs detonated on marketplaces in Somalia, Sufis and musicians murdered in Mali, critics of the regime crucified in Saudi Arabia, the most important works of contemporary literature banned in Iran, Shiites oppressed in Bahrain, or Sunnis and Shiites set against each other in Yemen.
To be sure, the vast majority of Muslims reject terror, violence and oppression. This is not an empty slogan, it is something I have experienced directly on my travels. On the contrary: those who are not in a position to take freedom for granted are all the more aware of its value. All of the mass uprisings of recent years in the Islamic world were uprisings for democracy and human rights, not only the attempted, albeit mostly failed revolutions in almost all Arab countries – also the protest movements in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and not least the revolt at the voting urns in the last Indonesian presidential election. The streams of refugees likewise show where many Muslims hope to find better lives than in their home country: certainly not in religious dictatorships. And the reports that reach us directly from Mosul or Raqqa do not testify to enthusiasm, but rather to the panic and despair of the populations. Every significant theological authority in the Islamic world has rejected the claim of IS to speak for Islam, and have shown in detail how its practices and ideology go against the Qur’an and the basic teachings of Islamic theology. And let us not forget that those on the frontlines in the battle against Islamic state are themselves Muslims – Kurds, Shiites and also Sunni tribes and the members of the Iraqi army.
All of this needs to be said to thwart the illusion that both Islamists and critics of Islam present in identical forms, namely that Islam as such is waging a war against the West as such. Rather, Islam is waging a war against itself, that is to say, the Islamic world is being shaken by an inner conflict whose effects on the political and ethnic cartography would seem to match the dislocations resulting from the First World War. The multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural Orient, whose magnificent literary products from the Middle Ages I studied and which I learned to love as an endangered and never intact, yet still vitally alive reality during long stays in Cairo and Beirut, as a child during summer holidays in Isfahan and as a reporter at the monastery of Mar Musa – this Orient will cease to exist, just like the world of yesteryear on which Stefan Zweig looked back full of melancholy and sorrow in the 1920s.
What happened? Islamic State was not just founded today, nor did it only emerge with the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Though its methods meet with disapproval, its ideology is Wahhabism, whose effects extend to the furthest corners of the Islamic world today and which, in the form of Salafism, has become especially attractive to young people in Europe. If one knows that the schoolbooks and curricula of Islamic State are 95% identical to the schoolbooks and curricula in Saudi Arabia, one also knows it is not only in Iraq and in Syria that the world is strictly divided into what is forbidden and what is permitted – and humanity divided into believers and unbelievers. Sponsored with billions from the oil industry, a school of thought has been promoted for decades in mosques, in books and on television that declares all people of other religions heretics and reviles, terrorises, disparages and insults them. If one denigrates other people systematically, day after day, it is only consistent – how well we know this from our own history, from German history – that one will end up declaring their lives worthless too. That such a religious fascism even became conceivable, that IS finds so many fighters and even more sympathisers, that it was able to overrun entire countries and take over cities of millions with barely any resistance – this is not the beginning, but rather the provisional endpoint of a long decline, a decline also and especially of religious thought.
I became a student of Middle Eastern Studies in 1988; my topics were the Qur’an and poetry. I think that anyone who studies this subject in its classical form reaches a point where they can no longer reconcile the past with the present. And they become hopelessly, hopelessly sentimental. Naturally the past was not only peaceful and colourful. As a philologist, however, I was dealing mostly with the writings of mystics, philosophers, rhetoricians and also theologians. And I, or rather we students, could and still can only marvel at the originality, the intellectual scope, the aesthetic power and also the great humanity we find in the spirituality of Ibn Arabi, the poetry of Rumi, the historiography of Ibn Khaldun, the poetic theology of Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani, the philosophy of Averroes, the travel reports of Ibn Battuta, and even in the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, which are worldly – yes, worldly and erotic, and incidentally feminist too, while being infused with the spirit and the verses of the Qur’an on every page. These were no newspaper articles; no, like any reality, the social reality of this advanced civilisation was greyer and more violent. And yet these products of their age tell us something about what was once conceivable, even self-evident within Islam. None of this is to be found in the religious culture of modern Islam, nothing whatsoever that is even remotely comparable and similar in fascination or depth to the writings I came across during my studies. And this is to say nothing of Islamic architecture, Islamic art or Islamic musicology – they no longer exist.
Let me demonstrate the loss of creativity and freedom in the context of my own field: it was once conceivable, even self-evident that the Qur’an is a poetic text which can only be grasped using the means and methods of poetology, just like a poem. It was conceivable, even self-evident that a theologian was at once a literary scholar and connoisseur of poetry, and in many cases a poet himself. In our time, my own teacher Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid in Cairo was charged with heresy, lost his university post and was even forced to divorce his wife because he understood Qur’anic scholarship as a form of literary scholarship. This means that an approach to the Qur’an which was taken for granted, and for which Nasr Abu Zaid could draw on the most important scholars of classical Islamic theology, is no longer even acknowledged as conceivable. Anyone taking such an approach to the Qur’an, even though it is the traditional one, is persecuted, punished and declared a heretic. And yet the Qur’an is a text that is not only composed in rhymes, but speaks in disturbing, ambiguous and enigmatic images; nor is it a book so much as a recitation, the score of a song that moves its Arab listeners with its rhythms, onomatopoeia and melodies. Islamic theology not only took the aesthetic peculiarities of the Qur’an on board; it declared the beauty of its language the authenticating miracle of Islam. What happens when one ignores the linguistic structure of a text, however, when one no longer understands it correctly or even acknowledges it, can be observed all over the Islamic world today. The Qur’an is degraded to a manual in which one can search via Internet for some catchphrase or other. The powerful eloquence of the Qur’an becomes political dynamite.
So often one reads that Islam must pass through the fire of enlightenment, or that modernity must win out over tradition. But that is perhaps a little simplistic if one considers that Islam’s past was so much more enlightened, and its traditional writings at times more modern, than the current theological discourse. Goethe, Proust, Lessing and Joyce were not benighted, after all, to be fascinated by Islamic culture. They saw something in the books and monuments that we, who are often enough confronted brutally with the presence of Islam, no longer perceive so easily. Perhaps the problem of Islam is less its tradition than the near-complete break with this tradition, the loss of cultural memory, its civilisational amnesia.
All peoples of the Orient experienced a brutal modernisation imposed from above in the form of colonialism and secular dictatorships. The headscarf, to name one example, the headscarf was not gradually abandoned by Iranian women; in 1936, the Shah sent his soldiers out into the streets to tear the scarves by force from their heads. Unlike in Europe, where modernity – for all the setbacks and crimes – could ultimately be experienced as a process of emancipation and took place gradually over many decades and centuries, it was largely an experience of violence in the Middle East. Modernity was associated not with freedom, but with exploitation and despotism. Imagine an Italian president driving to St Peter’s Basilica by car, jumping onto the altar with his dirty boots and cracking his whip in the Pope’s face – then you will have a rough idea of what it meant when, in 1928, Reza Shah marched through the holy shrine of Qom in his riding boots and responded to the imam’s request to take off his shoes like any other believer by striking him in the face with his whip. And you would find comparable events and key moments in many other Middle Eastern countries which, instead of slowly leaving the past behind, destroyed that past and attempted to erase it from memory.
One might have thought that the religious fundamentalists who gained influence throughout the Islamic world after the failure of nationalism would have valued their own culture. Yet the opposite was the case: by seeking to return to a purported point of origin, they not only neglected Islamic tradition, but decidedly fought against it. We are only surprised by Islamic State’s acts of iconoclasm because we never noticed that there are virtually no ancient relics left in Saudi Arabia. In Mecca, the Wahhabis destroyed the graves and mosques of the Prophet’s closest kin, and even his house of birth. The historic mosque of the Prophet in Medina was replaced with a gigantic new building, and the place where the house Mohammed inhabited with his wife Khadija stood until a few years ago is now the site of a public toilet.
Aside from the Qur’an, my studies were focused mainly on Islamic mysticism, Sufism. Mysticism – that sounds like something marginal, like esotericism, a form of underground culture. In the context of Islam, nothing could be further from the truth. Well into the 20th century, Sufism formed the basis of popular religion almost everywhere in the Islamic world; in Asian Islam, it still does. At the same time, Islamic high culture – especially poetry, visual art and architecture – was infused with the spirit of mysticism. As the most common form of religiosity, Sufism was the ethical and aesthetic counterweight to the orthodoxy of the legal scholars. By emphasising God’s compassion above all and seeing it behind every letter of the Qur’an, by always seeking beauty in religion, acknowledging the truth also in other forms of faith and expressly adopting the Christian commandment to love one’s enemies, Sufism infused Islamic societies with values, stories and sounds that could not have resulted purely from a devotion to the letter. As a lived Islam, Sufism did not invalidate legal Islam but rather augmented it and made its everyday form softer, more ambivalent, more permeable, more tolerant and especially, through music, dance and poetry, also opened it up to sensual experience.
Barely any of this has survived. Wherever the Islamists established themselves, from present-day Saudi Arabia in the 19th century to Mali only recently, they began by putting an end to Sufi celebrations, banning the mystical writings, destroying the graves of the saints and cutting off the long hair of the Sufi leaders or killing them directly. But not only the Islamists. To the reformers and religious enlighteners of the 19th and early 20th centuries too, the traditions and customs of popular Islam were backward and antiquated. It was not they who took Sufi literature seriously, but rather Western scholars, orientalists like the Peace Prize winner of 1995, Annemarie Schimmel, who edited the manuscripts and thus saved them from destruction. And even today, only a handful of Muslim intellectuals engage with the riches found in their own tradition. The destroyed, neglected, rubbish-filled old city quarters all over the Islamic world, with their ruined monuments, represent the decline of the Islamic spirit as symbolically as the greatest shopping mall in the world, which was built in Mecca directly beside the Ka’aba. Just imagine this, which one can see on photos too: the holiest place in Islam, this plain and at once magnificent edifice, is literally overshadowed by Gucci and Apple. Perhaps we should have listened less to the Islam of our grand thinkers than the Islam of our grandmothers.
To be sure, people have started restoring houses and mosques in some countries; however, this took place only after Western art historians or westernised Muslims like myself recognised the value of the tradition. And unfortunately we came along a century too late, when the buildings had already crumbled, the architectural techniques had been forgotten and the books erased from memory. Yet we at least believed there was still time to study these things thoroughly. But now, as a reader, I almost feel like an archaeologist in a war zone, hastily and by no means methodically gathering up relics so that later generations will at least be able to view them in museums. Certainly Muslim countries are still producing outstanding works, as is evident at biennales, film festivals and also this year’s book fair. But this culture barely has anything to do with Islam. There is no longer an Islamic culture, at least none of quality. What we now find flying around us and falling on our heads is the wreckage of a massive intellectual implosion.
Is there any hope? There is hope until the last breath – this is what Father Paolo, founder of the community of Mar Musa, teaches us. Hope is the central motif in his writings. The day after his pupil and deputy was abducted, the Muslims of Qaryatain flooded into the church unasked and prayed for their Father Jacques. That must surely give us hope that love crosses the boundaries between religions, ethnicities and cultures. The shock from the news and images of the ‘Islamic State’ is immense, and it has released opposing forces. Finally, a resistance to violence in the name of religion is building up in Islamic orthodoxy too. And for some years – perhaps less in the Arabian heartland of Islam than on the peripheries, in Asia, South Africa, Iran, Turkey and not least among Muslims in the West – we have witnessed the development of a new religious thought. Europe likewise recreated itself after the two World Wars. And perhaps, considering the flippancy, contempt and open disregard which our politicians – no, which we as a society have shown towards the European project of unification, the most politically-valuable project ever initiated by this continent, perhaps I should mention at this juncture how often people bring up the subject of Europe with me on my travels: as a model, almost a utopia. Anyone who has forgotten why there needs to be a Europe should look at the gaunt, exhausted, frightened faces of the refugees who have left everything behind, given up everything, risked their lives for the promise that Europe still represents.
That brings me back to Father Jacques’s second formulation – which I found remarkable – namely his statement about the Christian world: ‘We mean nothing to them.’ As a Muslim, it is not my place to reproach the Christians of the world for remaining indifferent not only to the Syrian or Iraqi peoples, but even to their own co-religionists. And yet I too cannot help thinking that when I experience the disinterest of our public sphere in the veritably apocalyptic disaster in the East, which we try to keep away with barbed wire fences, warships, bogeymen and mental blinkers. Only three hours’ flight from Frankfurt, entire ethnic groups are being exterminated or expelled, girls are being enslaved, many of humanity’s most important cultural monuments are being blown up by barbarians, cultures are disappearing and with them an ancient ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity that, unlike in Europe, had still persisted to a certain extent into the 21st century – but we only assemble and stand up when one of the bombs of this war strikes us, as it did on 7 and 8 January in Paris, or when the people fleeing from this war come knocking at our gates.
It is a good thing that unlike after 11 September 2001, our societies have opposed terror with freedom. It is exhilarating to see how so many people in Europe, and especially in Germany, are supporting refugees. But too often, this protest and this solidarity remain apolitical. We are not having a broad debate in our society about the causes of terror and refugee movement, about how our own policies may even be exacerbating the disaster taking place in front of our borders. We do not ask why our closest partner in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia of all countries. We do not learn from our mistakes when we roll out the red carpet for a dictator like General el-Sisi. Or we learn the wrong lessons when we conclude from the disastrous wars in Iraq or Libya that it is best to stay out of genocide as well. We have not come up with any ways to prevent the murder being committed by the Syrian regime against its own people for the last four years. We have likewise come to terms with the existence of a new religious fascism whose state territory is roughly the size of Great Britain and extends from the Iranian border almost to the Mediterranean. Not that there are any simple answers to such questions as how a city of millions like Mosul can be liberated – but we do not even pose the question seriously. An organisation like Islamic State, with an estimated 30,000 fighters, is not invincible for the world community – we cannot allow it to be. ‘Today they are with us’, said the Catholic bishop of Mosul, Yohanna Petros Mouche, when he asked the West and the world powers for help in driving IS out of Iraq. ‘Today they are with us. Tomorrow they will be with you.’
I am reluctant to imagine what else has to happen before we agree with the Bishop of Mosul, for it is part of Islamic State’s propagandistic logic to create ever higher levels of horror with its images in order to penetrate our consciousness. Once we were no longer outraged to see individual Christian hostages saying the rosary before being beheaded, IS started beheading entire groups of Christians. When we banished the decapitations from our screens, IS burnt the pictures at the National Museum in Mosul. Once we had grown used to the sight of smashed statues, IS began levelling whole ruined cities like Nimrod and Niniveh. When we were no longer preoccupied with the expulsions of Yazidis, the news of mass rapes briefly jolted us from our slumber. When we thought the terrors were limited to Iraq and Syria, snuff videos reached us from Libya and Egypt. Once we had become accustomed to the beheadings and the crucifixions, the victims were first beheaded and then crucified, as recently occurred in Libya. Palmyra is not being blown up all at once, but in fact edifice by edifice at intervals of several weeks, in order to produce a fresh news item each time. This will not stop. IS will keep escalating the horror until we see, hear and feel in our everyday European lives that this horror will not stop by itself. Paris will only have been the beginning, and Lyon will not be the last decapitation. And the longer we wait, the fewer options remain. In other words, it is already far too late.
Can the winner of a peace prize call for war? I am not calling for war. I am simply pointing out that there is a war – and that we too, as its close neighbours, must respond to it, possibly by military means, yes, but above all with far more determination than has so far been shown either by diplomats or in civil society. For this war can no longer be ended only in Syria and Iraq. It can only be ended by the powers behind the warring armies and militias: Iran, Turkey, the Gulf states, Russia and also the West. And only when the societies no longer accept the madness will our governments make a move. Whatever we do at this point, we will probably make mistakes. But our greatest mistake would be to do nothing or too little against the mass murder being carried out by Islamic State and the Assad regime at Europe's doorstep.
‘I have just returned from Aleppo,’ Father Jacques continued in the e-mail he wrote a few days before his abduction on 21 May, ‘this city which sleeps by the river of pride, which lies at the centre of the Orient. It is now like a woman who is consumed by cancer. Everyone is fleeing from Aleppo, especially the poor Christians. Yet these massacres not only harm the Christians, they harm the entire Syrian people. Our purpose is difficult to achieve, especially in these days after the disappearance of Father Paolo, the teacher and initiator of dialogue in the 21st century. In these days we are living dialogue as a communal, a common suffering. We are sad in this unjust world, which bears a share of the responsibility for the victims of the war, this world of the dollar and the Euro, which cares only for its own peoples, its own wealth, its own safety, while the rest of the world dies of hunger, of sickness and in war. It seems that its only aim is to find regions where it can wage wars and increase its trading in arms and aeroplanes even further. How do these governments justify themselves who could end the massacres but do nothing, nothing? I do not fear for my faith, but I fear for the world. The question we ask ourselves is this: do we have the right to live or not? The answer has already been given, for this war is a clear answer, as clear as the sun’s light. So the true dialogue we are living today is the dialogue of compassion. Courage, my dear, I am with you and hold you tight, Jacques.’
Two months after the abduction of Father Jacques, on 28 July 2015, Islamic State took over the small town of Qaryatain. The majority of the population managed to escape at the last moment, but two hundred Christians were kidnapped by IS. Another month later, on 21 August, the monastery of Mar Elian was destroyed by bulldozers. One can see in the pictures posted online by IS that not one of the 1,700-year-old stones was left standing. Another two weeks later, on 3 September, a website affiliated with Islamic State posted photos showing some of the Christians from Qaryatain sitting in the front rows of a school auditorium or festival hall, their heads shaven, some of them barely more than skin and bone, with empty gazes, all of them marked by their captivity. Father Jacques can also be identified on the photos, wearing plain clothes, likewise gaunt and with a shaved head, the distress clearly visible in his eyes. He is covering his mouth with his hand, as if unwilling to believe what he is seeing. On the stage of the hall one sees a broad-shouldered, long-bearded man in combat gear signing a contract. It is what is known as a dhimmi contract, which subjects Christians to Muslim rule. They are forbidden from building churches or monasteries, and can carry neither a cross nor a bible with them. Their priests cannot wear clerical attire. Muslims are not allowed to hear the prayers of the Christians, read their writings or enter their churches. The Christians cannot bear arms and must submit unconditionally to the directives of the Islamic State. They must bow their heads, endure every injustice without complaint and also pay a special poll tax, the jizya, if they are to live. It churns the stomach to read this contract: it divides God’s creatures quite clearly into humans of first and second class, and leaves no doubt that there are also humans of a third class whose lives are worth even less.
It is a calm, but utterly depressed and helpless gaze we see in Father Jacques’s face on the photo as he covers his mouth with his hand. He had reckoned with his own martyrdom. But to see his parish taken hostage – the children he christened, the lovers he married, the elderly to whom he promised the final sacramental unction – must be enough to make him lose his mind, to make even so thoughtful, so inwardly strong and God-loving a man as Father Jacques lose his mind. After all, it was on his account that the other hostages had stayed in Qaryatain rather than fleeing Syria like so many other Christians. Father Jacques no doubt believes that he has incurred guilt; but God, I know this much, God will judge him differently.
Is there hope? Yes, there is hope, there is always hope. I had already written this speech when, five days ago, on Tuesday, I received the news that Pater Jacques Mourad is free. Citizens of the town of Qaryatain helped to liberate him from his jail. They disguised him and managed to get him out of the "Islamic State"-controlled area with the help of Bedouins. He has now returned to his brothers and sisters in the Mar Musa community. Obviously, a number of people were involved in the rescue operation, all of them Muslim, and each one of them risked their life for a Christian priest. Love has prevailed over the borders of religions, ethnicities and culture. And yet, as magnificent as this news is – indeed, as wondrous as it is in the very sense of the word –, our worry must nevertheless outweigh our joy, most strongly our concern for Pater Jacques himself. Indeed, the lives of the two hundred other Christians in Qaryatain are most likely now even more in danger that before his liberation. And there is still no trace of his teacher, Father Paolo, the founder of the Christian community that loves Islam. There is hope until our last breath.
The winner of a peace prize should not call for war. But he can call to prayer. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make an unusual request – though it is not really so unusual in a church. I would like you to refrain from applauding at the end of my speech and instead pray for Father Paolo and the two hundred kidnapped Christians of Qaryatain, for the children baptized by Father Jacques, for the lovers he married, for the elderly to whom he promised the final sacramental unction. And if you are not religious, let your wishes be with those who have been abducted, and with Father Jacques, who must struggle with the fact that only he was freed. For what are prayers but wishes addressed to God? I believe in wishes and believe that they have an effect on our world, with or without God. Without wishes, humanity would never have laid the stones on top of one another that it so recklessly destroys in its wars. And so I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to pray for Jacques Mourad, pray for Paolo Dall'Oglio, pray for the abducted Christians of Qaryatain, pray or wish for the liberation of all hostages and the freedom of Syria and Iraq. You are welcome to stand up too, so that we can oppose the snuff videos of the terrorists by presenting a picture of our fraternity.
Translated by Wieland Hoban
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+ + + Lithuania becomes the 19th member of the euro area. + + + An attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo kills 12 people in Paris. + + + Hundreds of people are killed in a massacre by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in the Nigerian city of Baga. + + + Liberation of the city of Kobanê by Kurdish units fighting IS terrorists. + + + The deliberate crash of a Germanwings Airbus A320 in the Massif des Trois-Évêchés in the French Maritime Alps kills all 150 people on board. + + + About 675 people die in a shipping accident off Lampedusa when a refugee boat capsizes. + + +
+ + + As a reaction to the increasing refugee crisis in Europe, xenophobic riots lasting several days occur in Germany, including one in Heidenau in Saxony in August. + + + Massive forest fires in Indonesia lead to a smog crisis (Haze), which claims about 100,000 lives in Southeast Asia due to air pollution. + + + A truck with 71 killed refugees is discovered near the Austrian community of Parndorf. + + + Angela Merkel's sentence "Wir schaffen das" (We can do it) attracts worldwide attention in connection with the refugee policy. + + + The exhaust gas scandal is blown up. + + + At least 102 people die and more than 500 are injured in an attack in the Turkish capital Ankara. + + + Henriette Reker, who was elected as the new mayor of Cologne the following day, is assassinated and seriously injured. + + + In Paris, several serious terrorist attacks occur simultaneously, causing 130 deaths and 352 injuries. + + + UN Climate Change Conference in Le Bourget near Paris; the conference ends with the Paris Convention signed by all 195 participating States. + + + A large majority of the Members of the German Bundestag support a Bundeswehr mission in Syria. + + + In Cologne and other German cities, sexual assaults on women are frequently committed on New Year's Eve by a large number of men, most of whom, according to previous reports, speak Arabic. + + +
Navid Kermani was born on November 27, 1967 in Siegen, Germany. The fourth son of Iranian immigrant parents, Kermani was already writing articles for a regional newspaper known as the Westfälische Rundschau at the age of fifteen. After completing his Abitur (general qualification for university entrance) and an internship under Roberto Ciulli at the Theater an der Ruhr in Mülheim, he began his university education in Islamic Studies, Philosophy and Theater in Cologne, Cairo and Bonn. His dissertation titled "Gott ist schön. Das ästhetische Erleben des Koran" ("God is Beautiful. The Aesthetic Experience of the Quran") published by C.H. Beck in 1999, garnered him much attention in the arts pages and "Feuilleton" sections of major German-language newspapers as well as in the international press. In 1995, parallel to his studies, Kermani began writing literary criticism and reportages for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and in 1998 he became a permanent employee in that paper's Feuilleton department. In addition, he also worked as a dramaturg at the Theater an der Ruhr in Mühlheim (1994/95) and at the Schauspielhaus Frankfurt (1998/99). In 1994, he founded the first international cultural center in Isfahan, the hometown of his parents. The center was forced to close in 1997 due to tensions in German-Iranian relations.
From 2000 to 2003, Kermani was a long-term fellow at Berlin's Institute for Advanced Study (Wissenschaftskolleg) and also headed up the "Modernity and Islam Working Group" during that time. He additionally initiated many international research projects, including the project known as "Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique," out of which grew a proposal for a Jewish-Islamic Academy in Berlin. In 2003, after his first literary publications, Kermani decided not to pursue an academic career; instead, he committed to living as a freelance writer, which he has done ever since. He nevertheless attained the academic Habilitation in the field of "Orientalistik" at the University of Bonn in 2005.
In addition to his literary activities, Kermani went on to author many essays, reportages and observations on art in the major German-language newspapers and magazines, including Der Spiegel. From 2006 to 2009, he was a participant in the first German Islam Conference and in 2007 became the first writer belonging to the second generation of post-war immigrants to Germany to be inducted into the German Academy for Language and Literature. In 2008, he received a one-year stipend for the Villa Massimo in Rome and in 2010 was responsible for the prominent Frankfurt Literary Lecture Series. In 2013, Kermani was a guest professor for Islamic Studies at the University of Frankfurt and in 2014 guest professor in German Literature at Dartmouth College (USA).
Navid Kermani's literary work, which was first published by Ammann Verlag and since 2011 by Carl Hanser Verlag, repeatedly thematises the fundamental questions and "border experiences" of human existence, including love, sexuality, ecstasy and death. His academic work focuses to a large degree on the Quran and Islamic mysticism. In addition, Kermani has also worked time and again as a correspondent reporting from war-torn areas. In his public statements and appearances, he often deals with the relationship between faith and society as well as between the West and the Middle East.
Navid Kermani has lived in Cologne since 1988 and is married to Katajun Amirpur, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Hamburg. The couple has two daughters.
* 1999, Kermani published his doctoral thesis under the title "Gott ist schön" ("God is Beautiful"), and it would go on to be translated into many languages and become a definitive work in the field of Islamic Studies. Following that, he published a number of other works, including a collection of reportages with the title "Iran. Die Revolution der Kinder" ("Iran. The Revolution of the Children") and a collection of interviews titled "Ein Leben mit dem Islam" ("A Life with Islam") (2001), in which Kermani captures the autobiography of the Egyptian Quran expert Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid. After the 9/11terror attacks in New York, Kermani used his book "Dynamit des Geistes – Martyrium, Islam und Nihilismus" ("Dynamite of the Spirit – Martyrdom, Islam and Nihilism") (2002) to analyze the history of self-sacrifice and the genesis of Islamic terror.
The first ten years of Kermani's literary career included a story titled "Das Buch der von Neil Young Getöteten" ("The Book of Those Killed by Neil Young") (2002), which was conceived as the soundtrack for a life spent between baby colic and philosophical reflection. The book went on to become a major popular and critical success. These years also included the fine-spun narrative miniatures in "Vierzig Leben" ("Forty Lives") (2004) and the short story collection "Du sollst" ("Thou Shalt") (2005), in which he depicts situations of degenerate and brutalized sexuality using biblical commandments. The children's book "Ayda, Bär und Hase" ("Ayda, Bear and Hare") (2006) and the novel "Kurzmitteilung" ("Text Message") (2007), about an event manager who gets thrown off for a few days by the death of a distant acquaintance, are two further examples of this productive period.
At that same time, Kermani also published several collections of essays and academic works, beginning with "Schöner neuer Orient: Berichte von Städten und Kriegen" ("Beautiful new Orient. Reports from Cities and Wars") (2003). This work is a collection of reportages that depict the contradictions and ambivalences of today's Islamic world. The theme of his following book, his Habilitation thesis titled "Der Schrecken Gottes – Attar, Hiob und die metaphysische Revolte" (2005) and published in English in 2011 as “Terror of God. Attar, Job and the Metaphysical Revolt” (2011), focuses on the doubts held by men and women about God in the face of injustice and misery in the world. This book is a fundamental examination of the motif of rebellion against God within monotheistic religions: "In an era of politically motivated demarcations and exclusions between the Islamic-Oriental and Christian-West worlds, Kermani's enterprise literally breaks down these borders. In all respects, this book is more dangerous for religious fanaticism and totalitarianism than any attack on religion undertaken by an atheist." (Frankfurter Rundschau).
The volume "Strategie der Eskalation. Der Nahe Osten und die Politik des Westens" ("Strategy of Escalation. The Middle East and the Politics of the West"), which was also published in 2005, is a compilation of commentaries on the fight against terror and the many opportunities wasted in the attempt to root out extremism. In 2009, Kermani published "Wer ist wir? Deutschland und seine Muslime" ("Who is we? Germany and its Muslims"), a book in which he examines questions of integration and calls for a nuanced view of religions and their meaning in everyday life.
In 2010, Navid Kermani was asked to give the prominent Frankfurt Literary Lecture Series at Goethe University. His lectures were published as an independent work in 2012 under the title "Über den Zufall. Jean Paul, Hölderlin und der Roman, den ich schreibe" ("On Chance. Jean Paul, Hölderlin and the Novel I'm Writing"). A novel he began in 2006 – one that ended up being more than 1200 pages – was called "Dein Name" ("Your Name") (2011) and went on to win the Joseph Breitbach Prize. In this book, the narrator creates a five-year panorama of his everyday life and the course of world events: the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called it "a true monument to the human mind."
In the reportages collected in "Ausnahmezustand. Reisen in eine beunruhigte Welt" ("State of Emergency. Travels to a Troubled World") (2013), Kermani takes the reader on a journey to the crisis area that extends from Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran all the way to the Arab world and the borders and coasts of Europe. Taking a differentiated look at everyday scenes and interpersonal relationships, he is able to describe in an impressive manner the human fates that lie hidden behind the otherwise nameless reports from the world's most crisis-stricken areas. In 2014, Kermani travelled across Iraq for a series of reportages that were initially published in Germany's Der Spiegel magazine and shortly thereafter as an eBook.
In his novel "Große Liebe" ("Big Love") (2014), which takes place in the 1980s and climbed to number one on the literary ranking known as the SWR-Bestenliste, Kermani depicts the timeless drama of life in all of its majesty and exuberance as linked to the stories found in the Arabic-Persian mysticism of love. His latest book, "Zwischen Koran und Kafka. West-östliche Erkundigungen" ("Between Quran and Kafka. West-East Inquiries") (2014), traces the encounters between Western and Middle Eastern literature, art and religion and has "the most beautiful essayistic prose to be found in the German language today" (WDR).
In August 2015, Kermani's forthcoming book, "Ungläubiges Staunen. Über das Christentum" ("Incredulous Astonishment. On Christianity") will be a reflection on Christian art and religion from the personal viewpoint of a German writer of Muslim faith.
In addition to his many books and essays, Navid Kermani has always also contributed to political and social debates in the form of speeches and lectures. He is particularly committed to the preservation and further development of the European project. In 1995, for example, he attracted considerable attention for a speech he gave on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the reopening of the Burgtheater, in which he denounced Europe's refugee policy. In 2009, the Minister President of the Federal State of Hesse, Roland Koch, withdrew the Hessian Cultural Prize because of an article Kermani had written in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung about the "crucifixion" of Guido Reni. Koch would go on to apologize to Kermani, who was then given the prize again. Kermani donated the prize money to the Catholic Church in Cologne-Vingst, which itself had collected money for the construction of the Cologne Mosque.
In May 2014, in his oft-quoted speech held in Germany's Bundestag marking the 65th anniversary of the promulgation of Germany's "Basic Law" or "Grundgesetz," Kermani forcefully analyzed the language and normative power of the Grundgesetz. The speech was chosen as "Speech of the Year" by the University of Tübingen. In his address, Kermani cited Willy Brandt's famous genuflection in Warsaw as the symbolic event of the post-War era – one with which the Federal Republic of Germany found its contemporary identity and dignity:
"I am not inclined to sentimentality, especially in front of television screens. And yet, I experienced what many did that day, on the occasion of [Brandt's] 100th birthday, as we were shown footage of the German chancellor in front of the memorial in the former Warsaw Ghetto. We watched him take a step backward, hesitate a moment, and then, completely unexpectedly, fall to his knees.
To this day, I cannot watch this without getting tears in my eyes. And the strange thing is: alongside everything else, alongside the emotion and the memory of the crimes committed, each time it's a new amazement. They are tears of pride.
And I'm talking about that very quiet yet unambiguous pride about a Germany that is capable of such gestures. This is the Germany I love. Not the boastful, bruiser-type, 'proud-to-be-a-German' Germany or the 'European-but-basically-just-German' Germany. It's much more that nation that frets over its history, that quarrels and struggles with itself to the point of self-reproach, but also a nation that has matured from its own failures, one that no longer needs all that pomp, one that modestly calls its constitution the "Grundgesetz" or Basic Law, one that approaches 'the foreign' in a too friendly way, an innocent way, rather than risk falling into the trap of xenophobia and arrogance."
As he goes on, however, Kermani also makes sharp criticism of the "distortions" that have been undertaken with regard to the Grundgesetz. Here he concentrates first and foremost on Paragraph 16, that "wonderfully concise sentence ('Politically persecuted individuals have a right to asylum') which has since been turned into a monstrous law containing 275 words, each desolately stacked upon the other and firmly intertwined with one another, with the ultimate goal of concealing one thing, i.e. that Germany has virtually abolished asylum as a fundamental human right."
In early 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Kermani spoke of his commitment to the core values developed during the Enlightenment in a keynote speech held at the Cologne gathering marking the tragedy. He argued that we need more freedom – not less – in order to avert the ambition of terrorism – but also of Europe's right-wing thinkers – to drive a wedge into society. At the same time, he called on Muslims to not simply dismiss terrorism as "un-Islamic": "In the very moment that terrorists make a claim to Islam, terror has something to do with Islam. We must seek to understand the doctrine that incites people worldwide to violence against one another and murders and humiliates people of different faiths."
2017 Staatspreis des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen
2017 Bürgerpreis der deutschen Zeitungen
2017 ECF Princess Margriet Award for Culture
2016 Bürgerpreis der deutschen Zeitungen
2016 Marion Dönhoff Preis
2015 Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels
2012 Kölner Kulturpreis
2011 Hannah-Arendt-Preis für politisches Denken
2009 Hessischer Kulturpreis
2004 Europa-Preis der Heinz-Schwarzkopf-Stiftung
2003 Jahrespreis der Helga und Edzard Reuter-Stiftung
Verlag C.H. Beck, München 2018, 447 Seiten, ISBN 978-3-406-71402-3, 14,95 €
Roman, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2016, 288 Seiten, ISBN 978-3-446-25276-9, 22,00 €
Einbruch der Wirklichkeit. Auf dem Flüchtlingstreck durch Europa
mit Photographien von Moses Saman, Verlag C.H. Beck, München 2016, 96 Seiten, ISBN 978-3-406-69208-6 , 10,00 €
Roman, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2014, 224 Seiten, ISBN 978-3-446-24576-1, 18,90 €
Zwischen Koran und Kafka. West-östliche Erkundungen
Verlag C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2014, 365 Seiten, ISBN 978-3-406-66662-9, 24,95 €
Album: Das Buch der von Neil Young Getöteten. Vierzig Leben. Du sollst. Kurzmitteilung
Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2014, 512 S., Paperback, 27,90 €, ISBN13: 978-3-446-24535-8
Wenn Ihr die schwarzen Flaggen seht - Eine Reise durch den Irak
mit Fotos von Ali Arkady und Sebastian Meyer, SPIEGEL-Verlag, Hamburg 2014, 63 S., epub, 2,99 €, ISBN13: 978-3-87763-119-5
Ausnahmezustand. Reisen in eine beunruhigte Welt
C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2013, 252 Seiten, 14,95 €, ISBN13: 978-3-406-68292-6
Über den Zufall. Jean Paul, Hölderlin und der Roman, den ich schreibe
Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2012, 223 S., Paperback, 17,90 €, ISBN13: 978-3-446-23993-7
Vergesst Deutschland! Eine patriotische Rede
Ullstein Buchverlage, Berlin 2012, 47 S., gebunden, 3,99 €, ISBN13: 978-3-550-08021-0
Roman, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2011 (3., durchgesehene Auflage), 1232 S., kartoniert, 34,90 €, ISBN13: 978-3-446-23743-8 - Rowohlt Taschenbuch, Reinbek 2015, 1232 S., Paperback, 16,99 €, ISBN13: 978-3-499-26971-4
Wer ist Wir? Deutschland und seine Muslime
C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2009, 170 S., gebunden, 16,95 €, ISBN13: 978-3-406-66459-5
Ammann Verlag, Zürich 2007, 156 S., gebunden, ISBN13: 978-3-250-60104-3 (vergriffen)
Ayda, Bär und Hase
Mit Illustrationen von Karsten Teich Picus Verlag, Wien 2006, 155 S., gebunden, 12,90 €, ISBN13: 978-3-85452-886-9
Der Schrecken Gottes. Attar, Hiob und die metaphysische Revolte
C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2005, 335 S., gebunden 24,90 €, ISBN: 3-406-53524-0 (vergriffen) - C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2011, 335 S., Paperback, Beck'sche Reihe 6017, 14,95 €, ISBN13: 978-3-406-62397-4
Ammann Verlag, Zürich 2005, 160 S., Leinen, 17,90 €, ISBN 3-250-60079-2 (vergriffen)
Strategie der Eskalation. Der Nahe Osten und die Politik des Westens
Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2005, 96 S., Englisch Broschur, Göttinger Sudelblätter, 12,00 €, ISBN13: 978-3-89244-966-9
Nach Europa : Rede zum 50. Jahrestag der Wiedereröffnung des Wiener Burgtheaters
Ammann Verlag, Zürich 2005, 47 S., kart., Preis, ISBN 3-250-20006-9 (vergriffen)
Ammann Verlag, Zürich 2004, 208 S., Leinen, 19.90 €, ISBN 3-250-60068-7 (vergriffen)
Schöner neuer Orient. Berichte von Städten und Kriegen
C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2003 (3. Auflage), 240 S., gebunden, 19,90 €, ISBN13: 978-3-406-50208-8
Toleranz. Drei Lesarten zu Lessings "Märchen vom Ring" im Jahre 2003
von Angelika Overath, Navid Kermani und Robert Schindel Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2003, 56S., Englisch Broschur, Göttinger Sudelblätter, 12,00 €, ISBN13: 978-3-89244-688-0
Das Buch der von Neil Young Getöteten
Ammann Verlag, Zürich 2002, 176 S., gebunden, 17,90 €, ISBN13: 978-3-250-60039-3 (vergriffen) - Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2013, 144 S., Paperback, suhrkamp taschenbuch 4461, 7,99 €, ISBN13: 978-3-518-46461-8
Dynamit des Geistes. Martyrium, Islam und Nihilismus
Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2002, 72 S., Göttinger Sudelblätter 42, 14,00 €, ISBN13: 978-3-89244-622-9
Auf den Spuren der Muslime: mein Leben zwischen den Kulturen
Gesprächsband mit Annemarie Schimmel, herausgegeben von Hartmut Bobzin und Navid Kermani, Herder Verlag, Freiburg im Breisgau 2002, 192 S., kart., Herder-Spektrum Bd. 5272, 9,90 €, ISBN: 3-451-05272-5
Iran. Die Revolution der Kinder
C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2001, Gebunden, 264 S., 19,50 €, ISBN 3-406-47399-7 (vergriffen) - C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2005 (4. erweiterte und aktualisierte Auflage), 288 S., Paperback, Beck'sche Reihe 1485, 12,90 €, ISBN13: 978-3-406-47625-9
Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid: Ein Leben mit dem Islam
Erzählt von Navid Kermani. Aus dem Arabischen von Cherifa Magdi Herder Verlag, Freiburg im Breisgau 2001, 222 S., kart., Herder-Spektrum Bd. 5209, 9,90 €, ISBN: 3-451-05209-1
Gott ist schön. Das ästhetische Erleben des Koran
C.H. Beck Verlag, München 1999, 546 S., Broschiert, 24,90 €, ISBN 3-406-46738-5 (vergriffen) - C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2011 (4. Auflage), 546 S., Paperback, 24,90 €, ISBN13: 978-3-406-46738-7
Offenbarung als Kommunikation. Das Konzept waḥy in Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayds Mafhūm an-naṣṣ
Peter Lang – Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaft, Frankfurt am Main et al. 1996, 138 S., Broschur, Reihe: Europäische Hochschulschriften / European University Studies / Publications Universitaires Européennes - Band 58, 35,70 €, ISBN13 978-3-631-30241-5 (vergriffen)
Norbert Miller, born 1937 in Munich, studied literature, musicology and art history. Together with Walter Höllerer, he founded the journal "Sprache im technischen Zeitalter" (Language in the Technical Age) in 1961, of which he is still editor today, and founded the Literary Colloquium Berlin in 1963.
From 1972 to 2005 Norbert Miller was Professor of German Philology, General and Comparative Literature at the Technische Universität in Berlin. He has edited the works of Jean Paul, Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding, among others, and is also co-editor of the Munich edition of Goethe's works.
For his numerous works, most recently "Paradox und Wunderschachtel" (2012) and "Fonthill Abbey. The Dark World of William Beckford" (2012), Norbert Miller has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Golden Goethe Medal of the Goethe Society Weimar, the German Language Prize and the Federal Cross of Merit 1st Class.