A matter of faith

Denise Marray
Filed on June 10, 2011

At the height of her TV career Kristiane Backer was a face recognised all over Europe. She had the coveted job of being the German presenter for MTV. Her work, interviewing the leading rock and pop stars of the day, was packed with excitement and glamour. It meant a move from her home city of Hamburg to London, but that was in itself a thrilling experience for the young presenter.

Today, in her early 40s, Kristiane is still in London but her life is far removed from those heady days mixing with the aristocracy of pop, film and fashion. You might think that this reflects a natural lifestyle transition, but in fact Kristiane’s career ended abruptly at the height of her popularity due to a major turning point in her private life. She became a convert to Islam, and once this was made public, she says, all her work in Germany dried up. “When I became a Muslim in 1995, a very negative press campaign ensued in Germany and I lost my work; my youth show almost overnight and soon after MTV,” she explained.

On the advice of her TV agents she kept quiet about her faith, but as she recalls, “despite keeping quiet I still didn’t work anywhere in Germany; it took me nine years to get back just five minutes on air.”

Asked how she felt about this sudden exclusion from her high-profile career, she said. “It was just a big shock. I’d won awards and I was really popular.” But her religious faith didn’t waver. As she put it, “This experience strengthened my faith in Allah but it shook my faith in contracts and the media world!”

Kristiane was raised as Protestant in the Christian faith. In her own family she feels she is more a reflection of her paternal grandmother, great grandmother and great aunt. These were women with strong religious conviction who belonged to a free church, the Pentecostal Church. Her own father was not religious.

Her introduction to Islam came through a Pakistani friend. “What I like about Islam is that the doctrines make sense, there is no such thing as blind faith involved but reason, and through praying five times a day you cultivate a very close relationship with Allah. You are mindful of Allah all the time and of course the fasting at Ramadan helps you to curb the ‘inner monster’ — the ego”, she said. She also added that in her view, “Every revealed religion is a wonderful path to God.”

In her private life Kristiane is today single. She married a TV journalist of Moroccan descent, but what started out as a love match didn’t last as the couple differed over their interpretation of what constituted best practice of their faith. Kristiane didn’t share her husband’s conservative attitude to women with regards to practising full segregation while in London, or working outside the family home. The marriage ended in divorce which clearly saddens her but she hasn’t given up on finding lasting love.

Currently, her main focus is on working on the English manuscript of her 2009 book Von MTV nach Mekka (From MTV to Mecca), which she hopes will be ready for publication next year. Kristiane feels there are many misconceptions about Islam in Europe.

“When I go home to Germany I get upset by the debate in the media”, she said. “Islam is depicted in a very negative way. I want to make my contribution to build bridges. I think the values of Islam are the best kept secret in Europe. Everyone is scared about it but no one knows what it is really about!”

She regards the UK as being far more inclusive and accepting of all religious faiths, while recognising that there are still those who equate Islam with terrorism and repression of women. It was to counter such negative stereotypes that last year she fronted a London based campaign called ‘Inspired by Muhammad’. Teachings of the Prophet (Peace be upon him) were displayed on posters across the capital, including on public transport.

As part of her work on spiritual matters, Kristiane hosts a programme on the Turkish/German Ebru TV called Matters of Faith, which promotes inter-cultural and inter-faith dialogue. A new series has just been commissioned. She also moderates events around Europe, most recently a fundraiser for Yusuf Islam’s Islamia School in London.

After the abrupt ending of her TV career Kristiane travelled extensively. She admired the great masterpieces of Islamic art such as the Al Hambra in Granada, Spain “where stone is turned to lace,” the Blue Mosque in Turkey, the Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo, the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, the Menara Garden, the Bahia Palace and Koutoubia mosque in Morocco and the Moghul architecture in Lahore.

Last year, she visited the UAE and Qatar where she was impressed by the “many highly educated women active in business with supportive husbands.”She was amazed at the role played by two first ladies: Sheikha Jawaher al Qasimi, wife of the Sultan, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed al Qasimi, of Sharjah, who she was delighted to meet personally, and Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Misnad, wife of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

“They both do so much to empower women, not only in Sharjah and Qatar but in the entire Arab region, with the backing of their husbands,” she said. “I found these Sheikhas so inspiring,” she added.

Speaking as a “European Muslim,” Kristiane believes that many of the restraints on women in Islam are cultural rather than theological. She would like to see “more female scholars interpreting the original sources of Islam.” Noting that interpretation of the holy texts has been “in the hands of men for centuries,” she said that “men need to open their minds and look at things afresh.”

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