"I can reach young Muslims in Germany and other countries"
It is sometimes enough to drive one to despair. For twenty years, Islam scholar Thomas Bauer has been working hard to create a nuanced image of Islamic culture, writing books and articles, giving interviews, and speaking with politicians. And then what happens? Germany is suddenly talking about “barbaric hordes of Muslim men gang-raping women”, or about whether politicians of the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany; AfD) are guilty of hate speech in their tweets.
But fortunately for him – and for his research – Bauer has a tendency not to lose hope. “I build upon the force of the arguments”, says the 56-year-old about the perception of Islam in Germany. He will not be able to banish the – deliberately – wrong ideas held by people with prejudices. But his depictions of the enormous cultural diversity in the tradition of Islam find a sympathetic audience among young, educated Muslims in Germany and other countries – among those, “looking for a third way between a rigid, conservative Islam and a superimposed, liberal Islam that seeks to break with all traditions.”
And fortunately – again! – Bauer has developed a concept for his literary-studies view of “a different history of Islam”, a concept that has become a hermeneutic key for under-standing Islamic culture better and that has been repeatedly taken up in a short space of time in cultural studies: namely, “tolerance of ambiguity”, by which Bauer means the ability or lack of ability of a person or a society, “to endure equivocality, to allow conflicting values and truths to stand side-by-side without insisting on the validity of one’s own convictions”.
Bauer adopted the term “tolerance of ambiguity” from psychology, and transferred it to the level of cultural mentalities. It occurred to him in dealing with a thousand years of Islamic art and poetry that Islam had cultivated a virtual “relish” for ambiguity and diversity in all basic realms of life – politics and religion, art and jurisprudence, family and sexuality – up until the nineteenth century. Restriction, rigidity, and strict dogmatism only arose when Islamic societies came into contact with “the West”, and believed that they needed to assert themselves with their own identity to counter the supposedly superior other. “It can be shown, for example, that homophobia – supposedly a timeless characteristic of Islamic masculinity – first arose as a reaction to Victorian prudery”, says Bauer. “It allowed a tradition of homoerotic love poetry that was more than a thousand years old to lapse into silence in the Arab world of the 1830s.
In his book Die Kultur der Ambiguität (The Culture of Ambiguity), Bauer masterfully traces these kinds of devel-opments and connections. His work was awarded the Leibniz Prize in 2013 by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation; DFG); Bauer’s colleagues at the Cluster of Excellence see his work as one of the most important catalysts in the entire research group for stimulating discussions with a broad social impact.
Bauer himself, it would seem, also takes pleasure in life’s ambiguities. “He is the artist among our professors”, jokes Viola van Melis, Director of the Cluster of Excellence’s Centre for Research Communication. Bauer lives not only for classical Arabic literature, but also for coins and music. He clearly takes great pleasure in talking about initiating many song recitals and the lecture series “Music and Religion” in Münster. “That is a card I keep up my sleeve as a scholar of Islam”, says Bauer, who in 2012 was admitted into the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts. In addition to many lecture tours, visits to all the important German opera houses have helped fill Bauer’s German railway card with abundant loyalty points. The Nuremberg native has discovered that there are twelve musical venues close enough to Münster for him to attend performances without staying overnight.
But the opera repertoire since the late eighteenth century is one example of the constructed, picturesque, and also condescending and discriminatory, ideas present in the “Occident” about “the Orient”, “the Musselmen” and their culture. Osmin and Bassa Selim in Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), harem ladies, eunuchs and choirs of Janissaries, coffee cantatas, and rondo alla turca – can someone like Bauer, who knows so much more about the subject than the librettists and composers, endure all this? No problem, he says and laughs. Peter Cornelius’ Barbier von Bagdad (Barber of Baghdad) is even his favourite among the genre operas – with its material from the “One Thousand and One Nights”. Bauer even recently reviewed the work for a guidebook, calling it “probably the most caricature-free of all the Orient operas”.
t is the changing clichés and (hostile) images that also give Bauer hope that, with patience and perseverance, persuasion may be possible – and that not only the majority society but also Muslims themselves might learn about the richness of their tradition. He undertook the first institu-tional attempts in 2002, two years after his appointment to the University of Münster, by founding the Centre of Religious Studies, whose director he remained until 2005, and which was one of the springboards for the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”. The Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies has also grown continuously since Bauer became director in 2000. He also helped in setting up the Centre for Islamic Theology (CIT) at the University.
A different form of enlightenment regarding the cultural diversity of Islam is represented by another of his projects in Münster. Bauer and his team are working on an edition of the work of the popular Mamluk-period poet Ibrahim al-Mi‘mar (d. 1348). His Diwan, a collection of highly erotic, sensual poems bursting with life, is completely unknown today even in Arabic regions and, in Bauer’s opinion, could not “appear in a single country there, with the possible exception of Tunisia.” The edition consists of a textual-critical comparison of the surviving manuscripts and a commentary.
Bauer also follows current social developments passionately. One of his diagnoses is that there has been an increasing loss of tolerance of ambiguity in all realms of life – up to and including art. The reproach that scholars in the humanities have abandoned their former function of “public intellectuals” rankles him. And he is therefore all the more committed to working with the Cluster of Excellence to communicate about scholarship in the humanities. Wherever the opportunity presents itself, he shares his expertise. And word has long since spread in university and media contexts that Thomas Bauer has something to say – and he says it clearly, comprehensibly, and with humour.
Author: Joachim Frank