By Akbar Ahmed
“Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is our role model,” murmured Kristiane Backer. I was in London with my research team for my project Journey into Europe on Islam in Europe, and we were interviewing my friend Kristiane, a German convert to Islam and former star presenter on MTV Europe.
Kristiane’s love for the Prophet is, as is ultimately all love, a mystery and a miracle in itself. Consider: a European TV presenter and author, hobnobbing with the likes of Mick Jagger, Robbie Williams, and Annie Lennox, voluntarily converts to Islam and becomes a champion of the faith.
A freethinking German, born and raised in Hamburg, and a top presenter on MTV Europe by the age of 24, Kristiane was introduced to Islam, Sufism, and Qawwali, or South Asian Sufi music, in a period of personal crisis, when she by chance befriended the then-cricket star, Imran Khan. Kristiane explained how through her first interactions with Imran she began questioning how women sometimes carry themselves in Western society. “The first thing I changed was my sense of dress,” Kristiane said. “I ditched the mini-skirts…I felt more feminine…Who needs those whistles on the streets?”
Believe in God and do good deeds, was the essence of Islam, Imran explained.
Kristiane began to study Islam through a wide array of books, including my book, Living Islam. “What I discovered was mind-blowing. It was like a whole new universe. “And I learned about the spiritual dimension of life…that the soul needs nourishment like the body.” Her frequent travels to Pakistan opened her eyes to a different way of life; the warmth, the generosity and the humanity of the Pakistanis she met touched her deeply.
After three years of research, travels to Pakistan and contemplation, Kristiane converted in1995 in London.
“Being a Muslim by choice involves a lot of intellectual engagement, self- reflection and really is a process of transformation, an alchemy that leads the soul from lead to gold.”
On the subject of the Hijab and Muslim female dress, Kristiane said she saw a Western double standard: “It is fine if you show your tummy and have a piercings in your body and wear miniskirts, but it is not fine to wear long clothes and a headscarf? That’s wrong.”
Kristiane expressed pride in her German identity and finds it “absolutely compatible with Islam.”
Some of Germany’s greatest literary figures were themselves influenced and shaped by Islamic and Eastern thought. “In the past, writers like Heidegger, Goethe, and even Schiller, were inspired by Eastern literature, they loved Rumi and Omar Khayyam, Hafez, and other Persian poets in particular.” “Goethe was so profoundly influenced by these writers that he wrote The West-Eastern Divan, where he uses a lot of imagery from Hafez and Rumi.” Unfortunately, she said, “We do not see this Germany right now.”
‘The first thing I changed was my sense of dress,’ Kristiane said. ‘I ditched the mini-skirts . . . I felt more feminine. .. Who needs those whistles on the streets?’
A hugely popular TV presenter in Germany, she explained, the media reacted badly to her conversion “with a very negative press campaign and I was sacked from all my TV programs and as a consequence lost my TV career in Germany.” Yet after her popular autobiography, From MTV to Mecca: How Islam Inspired My Life was published and she began to comment on Islam in the media, attitudes changed, even among Germans (German, English, and now Urdu editions available).
Contrasting the situation of Islam in Germany to that in her current home of England, where British imperial history has fostered a greater exposure to Islam, Kristiane explained, “There is a mix of Muslims here, some came to study at the universities in England, not everybody came as guest workers like in Germany….Muslims are well integrated and some occupy top positions are in Parliament, in finance,, in law, medicine, and many other professions. You can even find Hijabi women working at mainstream fashion boutiques and presenting the news on TV.”
She encourages young Muslims not to “blindly follow what people tell you, even what your parents tell you. “The problem is that Islam here, in Europe, can be a bit fossilized and it is up to the young people to do their research to take things forward. They must really look into the sources of Islam, study the religion well through contemporary and classical scholars, and then educate not only the mainstream society but even their own families.” To those born Muslims who lost their faith and think Islam is backward, she says, “Islam is compatible with science. Islam is a religion for people who think.”
In addition to the above strategies, Kristiane said Muslims need to put more effort into the media. There should be “documentaries on the rich Muslim culture in mainstream TV, and positive Muslims characters need to feature in soap operas, we need Islamic art exhibitions, music concerts and literary events.” Her autobiography, she said, is an attempt “to show the mainstream society the true values of Islam, its inner core, the spiritual dimension, Sufism and to show that I as a modern woman living in London, in Europe, I can live Islam very happily.”
When my film, Journey into Europe, was screened in Berlin in June 2016, the host organization, Stiftung Mercator, requested Kristiane to moderate our screening. We had a full house and a distinguished audience and Kristiane handled the event masterfully; she was a bridge between the West and Islam.
Akbar Ahmed is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland.