Faithfully Urban

Pious Muslims in a German City

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Petra Kuppinger
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , June
     2015.
     296 pages.
     $120.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781782386568.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“I am a Stuttgarter ... with all my heart,” comments Lale towards the end of Petra Kuppinger’s book, Faithfully Urban: Pious Muslims in a German City (234). The etymology of “citizen” is rooted in the Latin word “civitas,” meaning “city.” In her astute and nuanced account of contemporary Muslim life in Stuttgart, a southern German city, Kuppinger reanimates this understanding of social belonging as inextricably linked to the urban. Stuttgart provides the backdrop on which the protagonists of her text emerge, aware that they remain in a precarious position as Muslims in Germany, but equally aware of their own agency in shaping local sociocultural life. Through colorful ethnographic accounts of everyday pious lifeworlds, neighborhoods, and debates that shape the public sphere, Kuppinger leads the reader through the implicit and explicit place-making strategies of Stuttgart’s at once “subconsciously local and piously Muslim” denizens (124). Sophie tearfully converts to Islam in the Al-Nour Mosque, while Emine returns to being a pious Muslim in response to her social marginalization as the child of immigrants. Fear produces lasting resentments. Cultural negotiations abound in myriad public spheres, from the swimsuits worn by Muslim girls in public school to the public celebration of Muslim holidays. City and citizen are both undone and remade. 

One of the great strengths of Kuppinger’s book is her capacity, through deeply detailed storytelling, to ground dominant—and often borderless—debates over Islam’s questioned belonging to Europe. She counters the ambiguities of such debates with the clear, quotidian negotiations of the Muslim city-dweller, her/himself. Through the lens of the neighborhood, from mosques to a popular hair salon, Kuppinger brings to life the “creative neighborhood cultures” where Muslim Germans live, work, practice their religion, and learn (197). While her book is broadly organized into six sections, it is largely made up of the interwoven stories of individual enactments of piety and belonging in the city. Through these short biographical accounts, Kuppinger explores how they come to understand their responsibilities as Muslims to mosque communities, neighborhoods, the city, and humanity. The minutiae of everyday life, from deciding what to wear to how to structure romantic partnerships, from interfaith work to schooling, are all bound up in the agency of these individuals. 

For instance, contending with stereotypes of Muslims living in ethnically-exclusive, “parallel” communities, Kuppinger showcases the diversity of urban life. Even in traditional Muslim spaces, like mosques, she explores the mixing of ethnic groups and intra-religious interpretations of pious practices among young Muslim Stuttgarters. She also links contemporary diversity and struggles over belonging to historical experiences in the city, such as the “multi-ethnic working-class quarter” of Zuffenhausen (160). Kuppinger provides a cultural geography of this neighborhood without naming it such, from Protestant peasant inhabitants to Jewish families who fled or perished during the Holocaust, to arrive at the emergence of the Hussein Mosque within its bounds. Here, and throughout the text, the inner lives, historical echoes, and timeless scars of the city provide a culturally-infused stage on which Muslim negotiations come to life. That is, Kuppinger takes seriously the inner- and after- lives of the city, as well as the inner- and outer- lives of the “civitas” citizen, in shaping opportunities for belonging, “connecting fates and histories” (179). 

Of course, as with any book, Faithfully Urban evokes in the reader questions it does not answer. Can belonging at the local level translate into belonging at the national level? Do urban attachments and identities replace national attachments/identities, or emerge in response to inequalities/exclusivities at the national level? Can and does the city replace the national as the primary site of lived citizenship? And can we see patterns emerge not only in, but beyond the case of Stuttgart, where the post-migrant self is closely linked to an urban center? There is, furthermore, insufficient exploration of the decentralization of legal/legislative power across Germany, which would strengthen Kuppinger’s analysis that negotiations over public-religion boundaries and intersections largely occur at the local level.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this book is that it elucidates the extent to which Muslims in Stuttgart grapple with the very same questions as non-Muslims in this post-secular age, in particular pertaining to their “global links and local lives” (95). How do religious subjectivities and citizenship intersect? How are local, national, and global mobilities related in a rapidly-changing world? By the end of the book, the reader is attuned to the shared experiences of Muslim and non-Muslim urban inhabitants. Kuppinger has effectively undermined taken-for-granted assumptions about the difference and distinctiveness of Muslims in contemporary Germany through detailed accounts of their everyday lives. This is a remarkable feat, replacing projections of otherness with understandings of the shared experiences that accompany cultural particularities. 

In a particularly evocative passage towards the end of the book, Kuppinger describes how Mr. Friedrich, a Catholic Stuttgarter, and Lale Ozturk, a child of a Turkish family “never met. Yet they have much in common as they both are typical Nordbahnhof ‘children’ despite differences in gender, generation, ethnicity, and religion” (234). In spite of his then-stigmatized identity, Mr. Friedrich speaks of his family in the post-WWII era: “But we were Stuttgarters,” just as Lale (in the words with which I began this review) states: “I am a Stuttgarter ... with all my heart.” This reveals not only the shared experience of two city-dwellers, born in different historical eras, but Kuppinger’s book as at once a study of Muslims and a study of the city. As she hints throughout the text, the “fates” of Muslims in the city and of the city, itself, are inextricably intertwined. Stuttgart changes and thrives in tune with its citizens, who today include a large minority of Muslims embracing both piety and urban belonging.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elisabeth Becker is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Religion & Its Publics project at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Petra Kuppinger is Professor of Anthropology at Monmouth College and President of the Society of Urban National and Transnational Anthropology (2014–16). Recent publications include “Flexible Topographies: Muslim Spaces in a German Cityscape,” Social and Cultural Geography (2014) and “Crushed? Cairo’s Garbage Collectors and Neoliberal Urban Politics,” Journal of Urban Affairs (2014).

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