By Jochen Bittner
HAMBURG, Germany — It was a warm June day in a northern German village, and I was talking to a Syrian friend outside a local shop. I had just bought some ice cream and offered to share it, but my friend refused. He was observing Ramadan: no food or drink until after sunset.
“If you had found asylum at the Arctic Circle instead of Germany,” I asked, “would you have starved by now?” It wasn’t an entirely academic question. In our village on Germany’s Baltic shore, the sun doesn’t set in summer until around 11 p.m.
My Syrian friend chuckled at the question about the Arctic Circle — where the summer sun never fully vanishes — but insisted: The law is the law; it’s what the Prophet Muhammad commands.
But wouldn’t the prophet be content if you observed, say, Damascus time? I wondered.
He chuckled again: No, this wouldn’t be what he had said.
The exchange left me with mixed feelings. I felt great respect for my friend’s willpower and the idea of Ramadan: to experience deprivation in order to stir empathy with the poor. What startled me, though, was his refusal to question religious commands and at least try to align them with reason without reducing their moral purpose.
This is an anodyne example, but it relates to a conundrum facing Germany as a country. To many non-Muslim Germans, the comparatively high significance that many Muslims attach to divine laws raises the question of to whom all the immigrants and refugees who have come to us in recent years would rather pledge allegiance and loyalty: the state that took them in, or Allah? Are the newcomers really convinced of the blessings of an open, liberal society, or are they just happy to seize its advantages?
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