Benjamin Idriz, an imam who leads the Islamic Community Penzberg (Islamische Gemeinde Penzberg or IGP) in a town south of Munich, has achieved prominence in Germany as an exponent of a rational, modern understanding of Islam. Yet aspects of Idriz's biography and public positions call into question his enlightened image with unsettling links to radical Islamic elements.
Idriz presents his conception of Islam in his autobiographical 2010 book Grüß Gott, Herr Imam!: Eine Religion ist angekommen (Greetings Mr. Imam!: A Religion has Arrived). As Idriz describes in it, and online at his mosque's website, he "grew up in Macedonian Skopje in a multilingual house." His family counts a "series of venerable imams reaching back generations." Correspondingly, Idriz memorized the Koran by the age of 11, earning him the traditional Islamic honorific of hafiz.
Idriz's opus describes an Islam supportive of human morality and not sectarian barbarism. He regrets that "unfortunately there are in fact Muslims who mistake jihad for violence and terror, understand under sharia medieval corporal punishments, and propagate a conflict between Islam and the so-called Western culture." Idriz places in his "weekly sermons the main emphasis upon universal values…as old as our cosmos."
These universal and sectarian understandings, he writes, correspond to "two various forms of Islam." There is one version that "formed itself in the process of revelation as it was given to Muhammad." A second corrupted version "was instrumentalized for political goals after Muhammad's death…and was also strongly dogmatized in its dogma-free aspects."
Idriz concludes that "Islam, as Muhammad interpreted and lived it, possesses a universal character and has the capacity to adapt itself to every epoch and every place." In Muhammad, Idriz sees a person who encouraged people "to follow the voice of their conscience" in the name of a philosophically and theologically undefined "justice". Idriz thus places himself in the tradition of "rationality emphasizing" Muslims such as the Mutazilites of the 8-10th centuries.
Accordingly, Idriz argues that regressive behaviors often associated with Islam such as the oppression of women derive from particular cultural conditions, not from Islam. Throughout history, Idriz claims, the "essential principles of Islam's belief remained the same" while Islam's "conception and practice…correspondingly adapted to the sociopolitical conditions of individual countries." Drawing upon his Balkan heritage extensively discussed in the book, Idriz contrasts the "proximity of the Bosnian understanding of Islam to the European mentality" with Islamic "oriental societies" supporting practices such as "honor murder."
Thus Idriz sees personal Islamic faith as compatible with a free polity. In his understanding of Islam, "stand in focus two authorities, which harmonize one another: the Koran and the Prophet on the one hand and the Grundgesetz [Germany's Basic Law or constitution] on the other hand." "In matters of faith," Idriz elaborates, the Koran and Muhammad
are the standards of measure; in worldly matters, in contrast, it is reason and experience. The first are unchanging, the latter dynamic. Blind imitation is worthy of reproach; God emphatically demands from the person the application of reason.
Idriz's "Euro-Islam" therefore "means turning towards Mecca in prayer and towards Brussels and/or Berlin in politics: to be with the soul there, but with the body and mind here." "Islam's fundamentals of belief and morals" and Muhammad's "universal validity" for the "proclamation of religion" remain unchanging. Yet his "solutions for the social and political questions of his society, sharia," are "historically conditioned." This "historically contingent" relativism "includes a renunciation of those Koran verses that deal with war" and of "behavior that could provoke and frighten others," including the "wearing of all too foreign clothing such as a black chador."
Befitting this "Euro-Islam" is Idriz's "ideal Muslim personality with reference to integration" among European immigrant communities. Such a Muslim should actively engage in all aspects of civic life from school boards to politics. Particularly important for Germans, this ideal Muslim would remember "to separate appropriately the trash" among other modern codes of conduct. She (as identified by Idriz) would also "support at international meets the sports team of the country in which she lives," thereby meeting British Conservative Party and lifetime peer Norman Tebbit's "cricket test."
As one Bavarian publication has noted, Idriz's vision has made the IGP a "glowing example for integration extending beyond the borders of Bavaria." Accordingly, many policymakers have visited the IGP, including Alois Gluck, the president of the Bavarian provincial parliament (Landtag) from Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU); Munich's mayor Christian Ude from Germany's social democrats (SPD); German federal politicians such as Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger (from the free-market-supporting free democrats or FDP), and Green Party chairman Cem Özdemir (who inaugurated the IGP's solar panels). Foreign figures, such as Israel's former ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, and the American ambassador to Germany, Robert D. Murphy, have also stopped in Penzburg.
Yet Grüß Gott, Herr Imam also contains troubling passages revealing cracks in Idriz's façade. A book excerpt available at the IGP website, for example, lists some rather strange choices of "Muslim thinkers advocating democracy." As Franz Feyder of the Stuttgarter Nachrichten noted on April 24, 2012, one of these "role models" for Idriz is Rachid Ghannouchi, the Islamist leader of Tunisia's Al-Nahda ("Renaissance") Party, who has praised Palestinian suicide bombers and their mothers. In Germany, Feyder notes, the Baden-Württemberg Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz) has delineated Ghannouchi's Islamist deviations from "rule of law principles." In particular, Ghannouchi rejects apostasy from Islam and the subordination of sharia to non-sectarian law in contradiction to basic free society norms of equality for all. Another of Idriz's role models, suspect to Feyder, is Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia's president during the 1990s Balkans bloodbath. Izetbegovic's death in 2003 halted initial international war crimes investigations of him while his 1970 Islamic Declaration contained Islamist memes such as the incompatibility of Islam with non-Islamic societies.
Other Idriz role models appearing elsewhere in Grüß Gott, Herr Imam also raise Feyder's concerns. Like Ghannouchi, Bosnian mufti Mustafa Ceric has justified Palestinian suicide bombing in conjunction with the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) in Dublin, Ireland, and has called for the introduction of sharia into the Bosnian constitution. Disturbing to Feyder as well is Hussein Djozo, who helped forge a Nazi-Muslim alliance as the imam of the 13th Waffen-SS "Handschar" Division, containing Muslims from Djozo's native Bosnia, and who, after the war, retained his anti-Semitism.
Not discussed by Feyder, but appearing in the online excerpt, is Hassan al-Turabi, a Sudanese member of the Muslim Brotherhood who supported Sudan's adoption of sharia and gave Osama bin Laden refuge in the 1990s. Idriz also has approving words for Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. Ramadan has often drawn criticism for duplicitously hiding Islamist views behind a veneer of Islamic reform.
Various seemingly benign passages of Grüß Gott, Herr Imam also raise concerns for perceptive readers. Idriz, for example, cites the Koran's verse 5:82 with its statement that the "nearest of them in affection to the believers" are "those who say, 'We are Christians.'" Idriz, however, neglects to mention that this apparent reference to Christian-Muslim harmony exists juxtaposed in this verse with a description of the "most intense of the people in animosity toward the believers" being the "Jews and those who associate others with Allah." Given Islam's condemnation of the Christian triune God as such an association of "others with Allah", this verse might not even entail Christian-Muslim friendship.
Idriz also writes of Safiya, a Jewish woman who was one of Muhammad's wives, as proof of Muhammad's "close" relations to non-Muslims. The conservative German website Politically Incorrect condemned in Grüß Gott, Herr Imam as "extremist-anti-Islam," though, has a less positive view of this marriage. As Politically Incorrect explains, the captive Safiya became in canonical Islamic accounts Muhammad's "wife" precisely after he had her husband tortured and killed during a massacre of a Jewish tribe, as depicted in the controversial Innocence of Muslims film.
Beyond Idriz's writing, the Bavarian Verfassungsschutz cites in its annual reports from 2007-2010 the IGP as an entity having contacts with Islamist groups. A December 18, 2007 cable from the American consulate in Munich, revealed through Wikileaks, shows the then Bavarian interior minister and later minister president, Günther Beckstein (CSU), confiding to American diplomats that "Idriz plays two different pianos." These suspicions have led the small German Freedom Party (Die Freiheit) led by Politically Incorrect's Michael Stürzenberger to start a petition drive opposing Idriz's proposed Center for Islam in Europe-Munich (Zentrum für Islam in Europa-München or ZIE-M).
Such a Jekyll and Hyde mixture severely strains Idriz's credibility as a proponent of a 21st century Islam. If Idriz is not actually concealing a stealth agenda as frequently made accusations of Islamic taqiyya suggest, then he is, at the very least, seriously confused. At any rate, Idriz has ultimately failed to present a convincing vision of Islam as a rational religion and a faith in harmony with political freedom. The search for moderate Muslims in Germany and elsewhere continues.