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»I got annoyed that no one wanted to talk about retreat rooms as religious«

Retreat Rooms — "Retreat Room" debate is too euphemistic, says Thomas Hoffmann, professor at the Department of Biblical Exegesis. And the room at Søndre Campus has strong Islamic features. But to talk about that we have to cultivate »religious literacy«.

Although it has been over a month since the parliamentary debate on the ban of the so called “retreat rooms”, the discussions around this subject do not seem to end. One of the main themes includes the allegedly Islamic character of these spaces. But is it true? Can we spot certain traces that would confirm this thesis? And what about the arguments that were used by MPs? To get an expert’s opinion, University Post talked with Thomas Hoffmann, an internationally recognised professor specialising in Quran and Islamic Studies who works at the Faculty of Theology.

De facto Islamic?

The Danish “bederum” controversy started from the Dansk Folkeparti MP, Marie Krarup, stating that the multi-faith rooms in Denmark are “de facto Islamic”. Do you think that these spaces, in the form that they are present at, among others, University of Copenhagen, confirm this thesis?

»I think that this is an exaggeration by the politicians. It is used by other people, according to the users themselves. But such rooms can be built in many different ways in different institutions, and the one at the Søndre Campus has certain features, that, so to speak, fashion it in a more Islamic manner than is perhaps recognised. My observations are mainly based on my visit to the room, which I discovered by accident. And there were few things that struck me.

A third thing, which reminded me about mosques was the lack of chairs. You are supposed to sit on the floor.

Thomas Hoffmann

First of all, there is a wall to wall carpet. And not a usual office carpet, but a Persian one. You know the design. The only sacred spaces using these carpets are mosques. You will not find them in churches; you will not find them in synagogues; you will not find them in other temples. It is quite typical to mosques. And I happen to know that this carpet was a donation from some of the room’s Muslim users. Also when I went into the room there was a prayer rug laid on in the direction of Mecca. Later that day the rug was gone, but during the day I noticed that there was a single Muslim woman doing her prayers there.

A third thing, which reminded me about mosques was the lack of chairs. You are supposed to sit on the floor.

Another thing that struck me related to the regulations, in the form of a printed page, that stipulate how to behave in the room. One of them includes taking off your shoes, or wearing these rustling blue overshoes. The only place where I tell my students to take off their shoes is the mosque.

There was a debate on Facebook about this, and some people pointed out that it is a practical matter: “we have these nice carpets and we should loose our shoes or it will get dirty”. I agree, it is a practical regulation, but it suprises me that nobody wants to address the fact that this is in fact quite a unique feature of mosques. Moreover, there is no explanation why you should do it. And sometimes the spatial power of religiosity comes from the fact, that it goes without saying. You do not have to explicitly indicate it, only indirectly.

Another rule states, that we should not put any images of animals and human beings. And there was only a pseudo-explanation in the form of addition: “for the respect of for instance Jews and Muslims”. And I asked myself, why use the phrase ”for instance”? It was a strangely euphemistic way of putting it – we do not want to explicitly say that these rooms are for Christians, Muslims or Jews. And yet the only rooms where you have a prohibition of putting these kinds of images are synagogues, at least the conservative ones, and mosques.

Moreover, it is not the case that you should not put up these images because you might hurt feelings of Muslims or Jews. Rather, it is religious law, that forbids this kind of practice. The rules perform a kind of psychologisation on behalf of the people using the room then. And of course people have sensibilities and would notice these images. But ultimately these sensibilities are created, and governed, by the religious law. That is why the images are forbidden within the confines of the mosque. One of the basic things that I teach my students when we speak about sacred spaced of Islam, is that it is a very visual world. There are lots of images all around the place in Islamic countries, but we have never ever excavated a mosque in which living creatures were depicted. As soon as you leave it, however, there are plenty of them.«

How then would you describe the character of the room?

»I would say that rooms are to a certain extent defined by the people who use them. And if we will take into account that salah, the ritual prayer of Islam, should, according to the rules, be done five times a day. If you are a Muslim then, in a normal work schedule you will not go to that room five times a day, because you would certainly not be here in the early morning and late evening, but perhaps two or three times. That means, however, that statistically speaking the room will be used mostly by Muslims, because they have to do their obligatory prayers, of course if they do not plan to use other places. In that sense the room becomes embodied and characterised by the presence of its users. But I never made any statistics about the use of the rooms.

But one more thing struck me. I read some time ago an article in the University Post written by Christoffer Zieler. There were some students passing and Zieler asked them if they used the “retreat room” to which some of them responded responded: “No, we thought it is for Muslims”. So on the perceptual level this room is also defined. An average person has a certain idea about the purpose of this room.

I must emphasise that I do not claim that Muslims have taken hold of the room. I’ve seen other people using the room. It is, rather, an expression of a negotiated place and can democratically be reserved by anyone, who would like to use it for ritual or other purposes. In that sense it can become a Christian, Hindu, Mindful or any other kind of room. My point is that I got a little bit annoyed about the fact that no one wants to talk about the room as religious and no one wants to recognise the Islamic features and styling that are the part of the room. And this is visible for example in the naming of the rooms. “Retreat room” is a very euphemistic label, sort of newspeak.«

My point is that I got annoyed that no one wanted to talk about the retreat room as religious and no one wanted to recognise its Islamic features and styling. And this is visible for example in the naming. “Retreat room” is a very euphemistic label, sort of newspeak.
Thomas Hoffmann

We should open up for the debate

Would you then support maintaining the room, or abolishing it?

»People often put themselves either in opposition or in support for such rooms, and this defines their views. But I think it is not as simple. My own view is quite ambivalent. There are good reasons not to open more rooms in the future, but there are good reasons to open them too. If we will continue with putting more places in educational institutions where should we stop? Should we stop at the university level, in high schools, or should we do the same for primary schools? That is the debate for which we should open up. If we want to continue down that road, there will be multiple new places where some can argue for the need of such spaces. Is this something we want?

On the other hand, modern institutions are open to provide all kinds of services to the students and faculty. You have the “Friday Bar”, the occasional film club, exercising groups and gym facilities. Why should we not provide services for religious people, when you have a place for every other kind of special wishes?

I am also ambivalent to the whole “public-private” dimension. On the one hand these rooms are in public institutions. But it seems that we want to relegate religious people and those who have a public attitude towards religiosity to a certain kind of confined spot, a sort of safe zone American style. “You can have this little room, because we really do not like to see the public space polluted or predominated by religion”. So “we” create these special zones for religion. But if “we” would be really tolerant, we would say “it is not necessary to use these rooms, because you can use hallways and classrooms for the same purposes”. But “we” are not used to seeing Muslim prayer, as it is still seen as a kind of intrusion.

This is not just about symbolic politics, it is about how we want the state to regulate the religion and deal with religiosity, even how we deal with religion on the existential level. It was not a superfluous debate at all. It was an extremely important one.

Thomas Hoffmann

The last thing that makes me ambivalent about these rooms is that they are hailed as being rooms of harmony, tolerance and pluralism. That is true to a certain extent, as, to my knowledge, there are no open conflicts between the “retreat room” users. But at the same time there is a certain atmosphere of passive-aggressiveness in the air when discussing this subject. This became very obvious on my own Facebook account, where I addressed some of these issues.  People can become very offended if you will argue for the closure of such rooms. And the same applies if you argue against it. This became evident in the parliamentary debate. MP’s were unsure about what opinion to hold about the rooms. Some were pro, but didn’t know how it will affect Christianity. Others wanted to investigate the issue further. And they finally chose a middle way of relegating the responsibility to individual institutions.

These rooms work as catalysers of enormous polemic passions. This is not just about symbolic politics, it is about how we want the state to regulate the religion and deal with religiosity, even how we deal with religion on the existential level. It was not a superfluous debate at all. It was an extremely important one.

Of course we should not be naive about the fact that this debate was sparked by certain political actors. Dansk Folkeparti wants to keep this ongoing debate about Muslims and Islam in Denmark for their own interest. But there is no problem with it. There are many issues that are initiated by politicians, but then taken up by the public, and vice versa. We have to participate in the public debate. This is the great and crucial ideal of democratic discussion according to the Danish theologian Hal Koch.

A Middle Way of Danish Secularism

In the parliamentary debate, the issues of Christian heritage were mixed with the strive for secularism and neutrality. What vision of secularism is present in the Danish society?

The kind of secularism that we pursue here in Denmark is very different from the kind of secularity that you will find in for instance France, which has very strict laws on laïcité. In Denmark it is more mixed together. If you will look at the public space, you will find a lot of religiosity. But it is so familiar to the majority of the Danes that we really do not think about it as bing a religiously informed space. We have churches all over the place, we have crosses on the flag and in the passports, and, I guess, a form of living and thinking that is deeply influenced by protestantism. Christianity is everywhere. Even if people do not pursue active religious lives they are embedded in religion. It is especially visible during Christmas, when some places do not want to bring up the Christmas tree and everybody is alerted, saying that it is very important for us. It is not deep Christianity then, but a kind of Christianity that is mixed with Danish tradition.

We are in a transitional period now. We have been living along Muslims for forty to fifty years, which makes it a quite new thing. But I am sure it is not the last thing that we will hear about it.

Thomas Hoffmann

Some of the promoters of strict secularity in Denmark seem to be a bit radical. They want almost confrontational French model. Then we have another group, who wants the British model, where you can have actual “multi-faith rooms” instead of “silent rooms”, with pictograms of all religious traditions explicitly stated on the room’s sign. The British have a certain openness and cosmopolitan tradition when it comes to speaking about different religions. But they also have an extreme colonial past that made them accustomed to dealing with different cultures and religions. And because of this, British model has its weaknesses and dark legacies too – it is problematic if you do not have any kind of core on which you can rely. And in that sense the Danish secularism is the compromise between those two models. Most people are sympathetic to the idea of religious people exercising their beliefs, but in a non-visible way.

Is it neutral then?

The idea that you can create neutral rooms is very naive. Even if you will make a completely sterile room, it will not become neutral, it will be sterile because it is so afraid of prioritising this or that religion. And although Danes speak a lot about religion recently, much more about Islam than Christianity, they remain, to a large extent, religiously illiterate. People are not that familiar with the rich and colourful world of religions. It would be nice, cosmopolitan tradition to cultivate that.

This debate is also lacking skepticism or power critic directed towards religion. Religion is not only something belonging to the suppressed. Religion has its own power bases. Religions are also strong traditions with people sacrificing their whole existences. Both religious and non-religious have to acknowledge that there is also an element of power and negotiation in religion.

We are in a transitional period now. We have been living along Muslims for forty to fifty years, which makes it a quite new thing. But I am sure it is not the last thing that we will hear about it. There will be more wishes, negotiations, and polemics and more opposition against the “retreat rooms” and the like. And it will be fascinating to watch and participate in.