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The events of 9/11 shook up Islamic Studies (‘Islamwissenschaft’) in the German-language academy (including Switzerland and Austria) and left a deep imprint on the discipline. New institutions were founded, BA and MA programs were initiated, and multiple chairs were doled out to younger professors with a more modern orientation. Student expectations of a rather niche field rose considerably. German Islamic Studies have long been a somewhat odd construction. It has always been a small discipline, relatively free-floating in the canon of subjects of study offered by social sciences and philological faculties in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Interestingly, this fact didn't change much after the groundbreaking publication of Orientalism in 1978. This might have to do with the fact that its author, Edward Said, explicitly excluded German Orientalists from his harshest criticisms, stating that “at no time in German scholarship during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century could a close partnership have developed between Orientalists and a protracted, sustained national interest in the Orient. There was nothing in Germany to correspond to the Anglo-French presence in India, the Levant, North Africa.” 1 Annemarie Schimmel, one of the most famous German Orientalists in the 20th century, couldn’t agree more when she wrote in her overview of the history of Islamic Studies in Germany: “Germany had no interest in the political field in the Islamic world. For the German orientalists, the study of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish was purely academic, a study aimed at finding the truth for truth’s sake and hence Edward Said’s verdict against the orientalists had nothing to do with the scholarly work of German scholars in the various universities.” 2 However, that Orientalism- as Said understood it- was actually constitutive of German national culture is without doubt. As Jennifer Jenkins argues, while it might be true that “[b]ecause its empire came late and stayed small, Germany did not have a colonial empire on the model of either the British or the French,” the Orient was nevertheless “the site upon which and through which German national and imperial visions were articulated and acted upon.” 3 This realization, however, only came in the early 2000s; until then the main representatives of a discipline that was neither in the public spotlight nor in the crosshairs of postcolonial criticism seem to have hardly exerted any self-reflection on their field, compared to their counterparts in the U.S. or elsewhere in Europe. Despite the emerging postcolonial criticism of the 1980s and 1990s, scholars in Germany were still focused on translating medieval Arabic texts and continuing the strong German tradition of research, especially on the Qur’an and early Islam. 4 But 9/11 was a decisive turning point for German Islamic Studies. The attacks brought the subject into the public spotlight in Germany for the first time. Suddenly, there were calls for a more political orientation of the discipline. Shortly after 9/11, for example, the German Foreign Office circulated an advertisement that was looking for “Islamic Studies scholars and/or terror experts.” 5 Moreover, the sudden and increased media attention created a demand that scholars could hardly satisfy, as a new generation of students chose the subject with hopes of a career in political consulting or German security structures. 6 Overall, 9/11 created an indefinable but productive discomfort across Islamic Studies. The lasting impact on the direction of the discipline’s curricula has not been resolved to this day. The growing unease about the state of Islamic Studies found prominent expression in a 2008 collected volume that originated at my institute, the Oriental   Seminar   of   the   University   of Freiburg . 7 In the volume, titled “Das Unbehagen in der Islamwissenschaft” (“Discomfort in Islamic Studies”), the German-Iranian public intellectual Navid Kermani, himself a graduate of Oriental Studies at Bonn University, labeled German Islamic Studies a “monstrosity.” 8 He criticized the spectrum of topics, disciplines, methods, and historical epochs bundled under the umbrella term “Islamwissenschaft” and noted they were far too broad to be meaningfully explored and taught in a single discipline. No one, he argued, would think of implementing a “Christian Science” curricula in which one would claim to study the religion, culture, history, language, literature, philosophy, politics, law, etc. of the Christian-influenced world, alongside whatever else is deemed “connected” to Christianity. Kermani’s critiques capture the observation that Said’s Orientalism didn’t shake German Islamic Studies like it should have. Islamic Studies, of course, was not abolished overnight, nor was the curriculum turned upside down. However, 9/11 can still be considered a crucial moment of reckoning for the field. Since 9/11, German language scholars have found themselves in the position of being asked to make their scholarship more “political” and “modern” so as to provide answers to recent events and explanations of contemporary developments. This somewhat uncomfortable predicament marked the beginning of a phase of self-reflection and new directions. As the Islamic Studies professor Albrecht Fuess, a specialist in the history of the early modern Middle East, put it recently, everyone “working in the field of medieval studies has to deal with the tensions in the Middle East, refugee issues, migration, [and] gender issues” and integrate these topics into their research and teaching. 9 Perhaps on account of this newfound pressure after 9/11, scholars in the field started to define what Islamic Studies actually is and should be. There are those that argue for a return to the philological core of the discipline and believe the deep and focused study of “Islamic languages” (especially Arabic, Persian, and Turkish) should take center stage. 10 Others are trying to redefine Islamic Studies as a form of area or cultural studies. 11 These discussions have not concluded and the outcome is uncertain, but German Islamic Studies has reorganized itself in the past two decades. For example, in 2006 the federate state of Hessen bundled all subjects concerned with the Middle East in one center situated in Marburg ( Center   for   Near   and Middle   Eastern   Studies ), while in 2008, the Berlin   Graduate   School   Muslim   Cultures   and   Societies   was established as a joint project of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO). By the same token, numerous programs of studies have been reoriented to the study of the modern Islamic world - including the MA program that I am responsible for in Freiburg, “ Islamic Studies - Modern Islamic World ”. The current popularity of the topic of Islam presents itself as double-edged sword for the field of Islamic Studies in the German academy. On the one hand, projects related to Islam in any way, shape, or form are much better funded than prior to the 9/11 attacks. On the other hand, there is an ongoing public demand for scholars to research only the most current and pressing issues, running the risk that an entire field turns its wholesale attention to the study of war, terrorism, migration, and so on. As Fuess laments, topics related to the radicalization and de-radicalization of Salafists or the so-called Islamic State are more likely to get funded “than research into the Mamluk art of the Middle Ages.” 12 Be that as it may, the strength of the German tradition in Islamic Studies is to be found in topics more like the latter.
September 9, 2021 Productive Discomfort:  German Islamic Studies after 9/11
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The events of 9/11 shook up Islamic Studies (‘Islamwissenschaft’) in the German-language academy (including Switzerland and Austria) and left a deep imprint on the discipline. New institutions were founded, BA and MA programs were initiated, and multiple chairs were doled out to younger professors with a more modern orientation. Student expectations of a rather niche field rose considerably. German Islamic Studies have long been a somewhat odd construction. It has always been a small discipline, relatively free-floating in the canon of subjects of study offered by social sciences and philological faculties in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Interestingly, this fact didn't change much after the groundbreaking publication of Orientalism in 1978. This might have to do with the fact that its author, Edward Said, explicitly excluded German Orientalists from his harshest criticisms, stating that “at no time in German scholarship during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century could a close partnership have developed between Orientalists and a protracted, sustained national interest in the Orient. There was nothing in Germany to correspond to the Anglo-French presence in India, the Levant, North Africa.” 1 Annemarie Schimmel, one of the most famous German Orientalists in the 20th century, couldn’t agree more when she wrote in her overview of the history of Islamic Studies in Germany: “Germany had no interest in the political field in the Islamic world. For the German orientalists, the study of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish was purely academic, a study aimed at finding the truth for truth’s sake and hence Edward Said’s verdict against the orientalists had nothing to do with the scholarly work of German scholars in the various universities.” 2 However, that Orientalism- as Said understood it- was actually constitutive of German national culture is without doubt. As Jennifer Jenkins argues, while it might be true that “[b]ecause its empire came late and stayed small, Germany did not have a colonial empire on the model of either the British or the French,” the Orient was nevertheless “the site upon which and through which German national and imperial visions were articulated and acted upon.” 3 This realization, however, only came in the early 2000s; until then the main representatives of a discipline that was neither in the public spotlight nor in the crosshairs of postcolonial criticism seem to have hardly exerted any self- reflection on their field, compared to their counterparts in the U.S. or elsewhere in Europe. Despite the emerging postcolonial criticism of the 1980s and 1990s, scholars in Germany were still focused on translating medieval Arabic texts and continuing the strong German tradition of research, especially on the Qur’an and early Islam. 4 But 9/11 was a decisive turning point for German Islamic Studies. The attacks brought the subject into the public spotlight in Germany for the first time. Suddenly, there were calls for a more political orientation of the discipline. Shortly after 9/11, for example, the German Foreign Office circulated an advertisement that was looking for “Islamic Studies scholars and/or terror experts.” 5 Moreover, the sudden and increased media attention created a demand that scholars could hardly satisfy, as a new generation of students chose the subject with hopes of a career in political consulting or German security structures. 6 Overall, 9/11 created an indefinable but productive discomfort across Islamic Studies. The lasting impact on the direction of the discipline’s curricula has not been resolved to this day. The growing unease about the state of Islamic Studies found prominent expression in a 2008 collected volume that originated at my institute, the Oriental   Seminar   of   the   University of     Freiburg . 7 In the volume, titled “Das Unbehagen in der Islamwissenschaft” (“Discomfort in Islamic Studies”), the German- Iranian public intellectual Navid Kermani, himself a graduate of Oriental Studies at Bonn University, labeled German Islamic Studies a “monstrosity.” 8 He criticized the spectrum of topics, disciplines, methods, and historical epochs bundled under the umbrella term “Islamwissenschaft” and noted they were far too broad to be meaningfully explored and taught in a single discipline. No one, he argued, would think of implementing a “Christian Science” curricula in which one would claim to study the religion, culture, history, language, literature, philosophy, politics, law, etc. of the Christian-influenced world, alongside whatever else is deemed “connected” to Christianity. Kermani’s critiques capture the observation that Said’s Orientalism didn’t shake German Islamic Studies like it should have. Islamic Studies, of course, was not abolished overnight, nor was the curriculum turned upside down. However, 9/11 can still be considered a crucial moment of reckoning for the field. Since 9/11, German language scholars have found themselves in the position of being asked to make their scholarship more “political” and “modern” so as to provide answers to recent events and explanations of contemporary developments. This somewhat uncomfortable predicament marked the beginning of a phase of self-reflection and new directions. As the Islamic Studies professor Albrecht Fuess, a specialist in the history of the early modern Middle East, put it recently, everyone “working in the field of medieval studies has to deal with the tensions in the Middle East, refugee issues, migration, [and] gender issues” and integrate these topics into their research and teaching. 9 Perhaps on account of this newfound pressure after 9/11, scholars in the field started to define what Islamic Studies actually is and should be. There are those that argue for a return to the philological core of the discipline and believe the deep and focused study of “Islamic languages” (especially Arabic, Persian, and Turkish) should take center stage. 10 Others are trying to redefine Islamic Studies as a form of area or cultural studies. 11 These discussions have not concluded and the outcome is uncertain, but German Islamic Studies has reorganized itself in the past two decades. For example, in 2006 the federate state of Hessen bundled all subjects concerned with the Middle East in one center situated in Marburg ( Center for    Near    and    Middle    Eastern    Studies ), while in 2008, the Berlin   Graduate   School   Muslim   Cultures and   Societies   was established as a joint project of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt- Universität zu Berlin, and the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO). By the same token, numerous programs of studies have been reoriented to the study of the modern Islamic world - including the MA program that I am responsible for in Freiburg, Islamic    Studies    - Modern Islamic World ”. The current popularity of the topic of Islam presents itself as double-edged sword for the field of Islamic Studies in the German academy. On the one hand, projects related to Islam in any way, shape, or form are much better funded than prior to the 9/11 attacks. On the other hand, there is an ongoing public demand for scholars to research only the most current and pressing issues, running the risk that an entire field turns its wholesale attention to the study of war, terrorism, migration, and so on. As Fuess laments, topics related to the radicalization and de-radicalization of Salafists or the so-called Islamic State are more likely to get funded “than research into the Mamluk art of the Middle Ages.” 12 Be that as it may, the strength of the German tradition in Islamic Studies is to be found in topics more like the latter.
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
Productive Discomfort:  German Islamic Studies after 9/11
Written by
Research fellow in Islamic and Iranian Studies at the department for Oriental Studies, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Germany.
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
CONTACT