“Islam” as an Epistemic Field: Imperial Entanglements and Orientalism in the German-Speaking World since 1870

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the conference “‘Islam’ as an Epistemic Field: Imperial Entanglements and Orientalism in the German-Speaking World since 1870” which will take place 11–12 October 2018 in Berlin. The conference is a collaboration of the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin (Research Cluster “Trajectories of Lives and Knowledge”) and the Freie Universität Berlin.

Conference poster

Nils Riecken is a research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO). He holds a PhD from Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, Freie Universität Berlin where he graduated in 2013 with a study on “Abdallah Laroui and the Location of History. An Intellectual Biography”. In October 2012, he joined the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient where he is now working in the BMBF research program “Muslim Worlds – World of Islam? Conceptions, Practices, and Crises of the Global”.

You are one of the conveners of the conference “‘Islam’ as an Epistemic Field: Imperial Entanglements and Orientalism in the German-Speaking World since 1870”. Why did you organize this conference?

“Islam” is at the center of current societal and academic debates in Germany. These highly political debates revolve around such issues as the status and rights of refugees, of migrant workers, of Muslim women and headscarves, and the question of whether “Islam” and “Muslims” can belong to a politically- and historically-constituted entity called “Germany” – a nation-state that  identifies itself as secular. The idea that “Islam” itself poses a major political “problem” for German politics has important historical precedents. This German history extends beyond 2001, 1990, 1945, 1918, and even 1870. Already at the turn of the twentieth century, the German public discussed “the Islamic question” (“die Islamfrage”) and “Islamic policy” (“Islampolitik”) regarding German colonial policy. “Islam” constituted a “problem” to be analyzed, as the influential scholar of Islam (“Islamwissenschaftler”) Carl Heinrich Becker wrote in the first issue of the then newly-established journal “Der Islam” (1910). Imperial Germany had not only been concerned with Protestantism and Catholicism in the so-called “culture wars” (“Kulturkampf”), but Islam too held a central role. The same applies to larger narratives of the German polity—the notion that “German society” has successfully become “Westernized,” that it had completed its long journey to the West, and thus completely embodies a secular foundation in contradistinction to “Islam” as a completely theological one. A history of knowledge can critically address and inquire into how such narratives have shaped practices of producing knowledge about “Islam.”

We have organized this conference because there is a dearth of works concerned with a “history of knowledge” of “Islam” as a historically-constituted field of debate and state intervention in German-speaking settings that can address these historical, epistemological, and political dimensions of discursive practices and their varying degrees of institutionalization. To this end, the conference brings together for the first time historians, scholars in Islamic studies, and critical secular scholars that have been concerned with this “German” history of knowledge production on Islam in a transregional perspective.

In the call for papers, you argued that Islam can be understood as an unmarked center of what is called German history. In your opinion, what is at stake in the public und scientific debates about “Islam” and “Muslims”, and what are the particularities of the German case?

At stake in those debates is no less than the raison d’étre of “Germany” as a sovereign nation-state, and its very grounding in a certain understanding of the political as a “democratic”, “secular”, “liberal”, “Western”, “tolerant”, polity. The question is who and whose traditions get to have a say in the continuously-needed re-articulation of this grounding—only those who are deemed “German,” “secular,” “liberal”? Or also those coming from elsewhere in terms of other traditions and other places? Knowledge produced about “Islam” and “Muslims” forms part of such larger, historically-situated rationalities.

What we currently see is that struggles over how “Islam” and “Muslims” are seen and discursively defined in relation to what is authoritatively “German”  are tied to practices of racializing Muslims. One example is Thilo Sarrazin’s book Germany Abolishes Itself: How We Are Playing with Our Future, in which Sarrazin’s “apocalyptic vision” (Meng 2015) develops a biopolitical, racialized vision of a “German population”, where “Muslim migrants”, in having too many children are not “productive” enough and “conquer” Germany, what he makes look like a case of settler colonialism.

It is hard to stomach how such views can be circulated publicly in a nation-state whose very grounding is the claim to have overcome racism after 1945. We must therefore critically inquire into this narrative itself, the way it establishes a certain understanding of history, time, and politics. Moreover, as Gil Anidjar has pointed out, we must ask about the shared history of knowledge production about Jews and Muslims, the links between the histories of Imperialism, racism, Orientalism, and anti-Semitism before and after 1945.

What are the unique perspectives and insights that the participants might gain from attending your conference?

Let us imagine these potential participants. If they are interested in gaining a broader and methodologically-ambitious perspective on current and past debates on “Islam” and “Muslims” as essential to questions of “German identity”, and how “Islam” is framed as “Islam” in these debates and practices, they will probably benefit from the way the conference brings together approaches from the global history of knowledge, global intellectual history, and genealogy. They will partake in what we see as a collective experiment of discussing fourteen highly interesting case studies to think through how “Islam” has long become an epistemic and thus political object of contention, tied to certain claims and rationalities that have been essential to the contested imagination of the political in the German-speaking world.


Citation: “Islam” as an Epistemic Field: Imperial Entanglements and Orientalism in the German-Speaking World since 1870 – Interview with Niels Riecken, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.10.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/13722.


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