A Muslim, Turk, and Mainz resident on the German Ethics Council

30 October 2012

His appointment has caused quite a stir: Dr. Dr. Ilhan Ilkilic of the Institute of the History, Philosophy, and Ethics of Medicine at the Mainz University Medical Center is the first Muslim on the German Ethics Council. In this capacity, he views himself as an intermediary between cultures and academic disciplines.

His appointment in April 2012 was reported widely in the media, both in Turkey and Germany. "The Turkish daily newspaper Hürriyet pointed out I was the first Turk to be a member in the German Ethics Council. Zaman, a somewhat religiously oriented paper, stated that I was the first Muslim while the local Allgemeine Zeitung here in Mainz proudly wrote that I was the first Mainz resident on the Ethics Council," says Dr. Dr. Ilhan Ilkilic with a smile.

The simple facts are that Ilkilic has been a research associate at the Institute of the History, Philosophy, and Ethics of Medicine at the Mainz University Medical Center since 2005. He is currently in the process of acquiring his postdoctoral lecturing qualification. "I'm looking at the ethical aspects of medical decisions at the end of life in an intercultural context," he explains.

A jacket for the photo?

Ilkilic has been having a full schedule since he was appointed to the German Ethics Council. But today he is in his office and has time for a chat. "Should I put on my formal jacket?," he asks as the photographer unpacks his camera. "I brought it with me just in case. I've appeared in front of the camera for the German TV channel ZDF a couple of times and they were always glad I had a jacket with me." After all, he is now an authority figure and must act the part accordingly.

The German Ethics Council has 26 members, eleven of whom were newly appointed by Norbert Lammert, the President of the German Bundestag, in early 2012. These included Ilkilic as the first Muslim member and Leo Latasch as the first Jewish member. The Federal Minister of Education and Research, Annette Schavan, hopes that both of them will "enrich the interdisciplinary and intercultural dialog on bioethical issues".

"It’s been a rather long overdue decision to appoint someone like me," asserts Ilkilic. "This would have happened so much sooner in the USA or France." What may sound a little arrogant can be chalked up to eagerness. This is a man who wants to achieve things. That is immediately obvious.

The issue of circumcision

A little over two months ago, he gave a lecture on the circumcision of underage boys from the Muslim perspective before the German Ethics Council in Berlin. "The talk shows like to invite on people with extreme views," he says. "This doesn't help matters." The Holocaust is brought up, fundamentalist positions clash irreconcilably.

"I am concerned with objectifying the issue and with holding a constructive discussion. We should not look at things from an either or perspective but from an as well as inclusive point of view." He turns to a consideration of the matter: Admittedly, it does involve physical injury, but at the same time this form of surgical intervention is actually approved by the WHO, the World Health Organization, for health reasons when it is performed properly.

Circumcision plays a significant role in everyday religious life. Those who oppose it believe that by citing the potential effects on the child's well-being they have a knockout argument against it. Ilkilic sees it differently and views the issue against a broader background. After all, it is not just about physical well-being but social well-being as well, and an uncircumcised boy would face possible exclusion from and discrimination within his religious community.

Ilkilic in his Mainz office adds somewhat ironically: "Maybe it is much worse and dangerous for a child to be exposed just for one afternoon to the program of a low-quality TV channel."

Objectivity and expertise

Of course, Ilkilic is concerned with other issues apart from that of circumcision. As a member of the German Ethics Council, he views himself as being in the position of an "objective and academic intermediary." These are not just empty words; Ilkilic's entire career has taken him in this direction.

Born in 1967 in Kepsut in Turkey, Ilkilic studied human medicine in Istanbul. He acquired his first doctorate there. "However, I was also interested in the ethical side of medicine." So, in the early 1990s, he came to Germany, learned German, and began studying Philosophy, Islamic Language and Culture, and Oriental Philology. He received a scholarship from the German Research Foundation (DFG) and joined the research training group “Ethics in Science” at the Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen. There he used the opportunity to work on his dissertation project entitled "Medical and Ethical Aspects of the Muslim Understanding of Disease in a Value-Pluralistic Society."

Beyond the remit of the natural sciences

His dual qualification is important to Ilkilic. Again, this represents a bridge: between Turkey and Germany, medicine and philosophy. "The subject of circumcision is particularly interesting. We have come to the conclusion that this matter cannot be decided among scientists. The humanities scholars need to have a say, it’s their turn.”

Conflicts repeatedly arise when the Muslim understanding of disease and health clashes with German medical practice. The Mainz University Medical Center has a clinical ethics committee which takes a practical approach to such problems. Ilkilic is a member, of course.

To take one example: A child is beyond recovery, the team of doctors sees no point in further medical treatment. However, the parents, devout Muslims, insist otherwise. "Surely we cannot act differently. This is our duty before God," goes their argument.

Our muslims, our Christians

"People who come into a conflict like this need someone to explain to them what is going on in cultural terms," explains Ilkilic. The problem does not end there. Many people with an immigrant background have difficulty understanding the limitations of current medical science. They even may feel being treated as second-class citizens and suspect that their treatment is being terminated for financial reasons. This is not surprising since they might have already encountered discrimination when looking for work and accommodation. So why should they not also feel discriminated against when it comes to medical treatment?

Ilkilic then considers the wider social situation in Germany. "If something happens to Christians or Jews in Istanbul, then we in Istanbul talk about 'our Jews' or 'our Christians.' I wish that it was the same in Germany and that people here would talk about 'our Muslims'."

A change of thinking is necessary. "We must move on from the concept of mere tolerance towards one of acceptance. Tolerance always pictures a powerful and a weaker group. The powerful group specifies the boundaries within which the weaker group can act. Acceptance, on the other hand, means that all partners are on an equal footing."

Time for a Greek lunch

The interview could have continued for another hour. Abortion, organ donation, health care – all these topics are grist for the mill of the physician and philosopher. Irrespective of whether it is life in Germany, the lack of career opportunities for immigrants, or the success of his own daughters, Ilkilic always sees matters from three perspectives, i.e.., from that of the Mainz resident, that of the Turk, and that of the Muslim.

Suddenly, there is a knock at the door, a colleague looks in briefly, the door closes again. Voices can be heard outside. Ilkilic looks at his watch – it's lunchtime. "We go to a Greek restaurant every Tuesday," he says by way of explanation. "It's become a bit of a tradition. Would you like to join us?"