German Islamic organisations publish an “electoral compass” for Muslim voters

In preparation for the upcoming federal elections on September 24th, three German Muslim institutions have joined hands in order to provide an electoral guidance on topics of particularly high relevance to the country’s Muslim population.

The Islamische Zeitung newspaper (IZ), the German Muslim League (DML), and the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) have published the “German-Muslim Electoral Compass”. The Compass is based on a questionnaire sent to Germany’s major parties. All of them – bar the openly Islamophobic AfD – replied, allowing a broad comparison of different parties’ approaches.

An alliance bypassing the Turkish associations

IZ, DML, and ZMD had already published the Electoral Compass ahead of the last two federal elections. Yet the fact that these particular three players have joined hands again reflects not only their established patterns of cooperation. It is also indicative of ongoing schisms within Germany’s Muslim community.

In fact, both the IZ and the DML have their roots among German converts to Islam. Traditionally, they are politically and ideologically sceptical of the large traditionalist Turkish-dominated Islamic umbrella organisations (such as DİTİB, VIKZ, and IRD/IGMG).((For an academic study of the difficult relationship between ethnically German converts to Islam and the majority of Germany’s ethnically Turkish and Kurdish Muslims, see Esra Özyürek (2015), Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion and Conversion in the New Europe, Princeton: Princeton University Press. ))

Vying for political influence

This makes IZ and DML excellent allies of the ZMD, a predominantly non-Turkish Islamic association whose ambitious chairman Aiman Mazyek has striven for a long time to dethrone the Turkish organisations as the leading representatives of Islam in Germany.

With President Erdoğan having called upon German Turks to boycott the established parties,((https://dtj-online.de/erdogan-zu-deutsch-tuerken-waehlt-nicht-die-tuerkeifeindliche-cdu-spd-oder-die-gruenen-872222 )) Islamic associations with strong ties to the Turkish state are in no position to engage in a political dialogue ahead of the election. The ZMD with Aiman Mazyek has gladly used the opportunity and mounted a flashy advert campaign calling upon Muslims to vote on September 24th.(( http://islam.de/29128 ))

Broad-ranging questionnaire

Topics covered in the “Electoral Compass” include general questions on Islam and religious freedom, racism and Islamophobia, hijab bans, dual citizenship, as well as foreign policy issues (notably arms exports, relations with Turkey, and the German army’s deployment in Afghanistan).(( The questionnaire and parties’ responses are available at http://deutsch-muslimischer-wahlkompass.de/. ))

Overall, the differences between the parties’ responses are gradual yet noteworthy, if not too surprising in their content. Commenting on the results of the “Compass”, Stefan Sulaiman Wilms, editor in chief of the IZ, noted that parties had shown different positions on Islam and Muslim life, ranging from “liberal” to “conservative”.

Yet Wilms was contented to observe that no party had “shown a fundamental resentment against our way of living” and that all had declared their wish to “protect and respect our civic rights.”(( https://www.islamische-zeitung.de/irgendwo-zwischen-konkretem-und-allgemeinem/ ))

Does Islam belong to Germany?

Particularly striking about Chancellor Merkel’s CDU/CSU was its continuous stress on the need for an Islamic practice in line with “our fundamental liberal-democratic order”. The CDU/CSU also implicitly refused to endorse the statement that ‘Islam belongs to Germany’, although Muslims do.

This touches upon a long-standing debate, in which Conservatives have regularly emphasised the notion that while Muslims may belong to German society, ‘Islam’ cannot be part of a country that is exclusively defined by its ‘Judeo-Christian’ traditions.

State “neutrality” and the headscarf

Other potential conflicts revolve around the notion of ‘state neutrality’ emphasised by the economically liberal FDP: ‘neutrality’ clauses have often been interpreted as necessitating a ban on hijabs in public functions or at the workplace.

The CDU/CSU, as well as the Greens stressed their commitment to anti-discrimination but also greeted the ECHR’s recent ruling that allows employers to prohibit employees from wearing hijabs at work. By contrast, The Left – perhaps surprisingly for a staunchly socialist and hence atheist party – was most clear-cut in its rejection of hijab bans.

Disagreements on dual citizenship

Another dividing line opened up on the issue of dual citizenship. The Social Democrats renewed their commitment to the status quo of the nationality law enacted under the red-green coalition in 2000. This reform had eased the acquisition of German citizenship and had also created some possibilities to hold two passports.

In the “Electoral Compass”, the Greens and The Left advocated a more far-reaching liberalisation of citizenship provisions, further facilitating the acquisition of a second nationality. By contrast, CDU/CSU and FDP restated their willingness to introduce a “generational cut” – i.e. provisions that would force children to choose one passport over the other after the second generation (in the case of the CDU/CSU proposals) or the fourth generation (in the case of the plan put forward by the FDP).

Lack of questions on jihadism, counter-terrorism

A noteworthy omission from the survey were any questions dealing with the phenomenon of jihadism. Perhaps IZ, DML, and ZMD did not want to entrench the linkage between ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism’ by touching upon the subject; perhaps they were of the opinion that the issue is already overrepresented in the media or that the current jihadist violence is inherently ‘un-Islamic’.

Yet it is surely a question of great interest to Muslim voters how different parties think about this issues. It might allow an interested electorate to gauge the stance different parties might take in the face of future attacks – for instance with respect to potentially discriminatory anti-terrorism legislation.

Equally, it would have been welcome to see the parties forced to take a clear-cut position on their willingness to enhance inter-religious dialogue and to foster existing de-radicalisation strategies. These are, after all, initiatives that would also benefit Muslims and their position in society.

No Muslim “pressure group”

On a critical note, the IZ’s chief editor Stefan Sulaiman Wilms noted that especially CDU/CSU, SPD, and Greens had remained relatively general in their answers to the “Compass”. Only The Left, he observed, had given more concrete indications on how it wished to support German Muslims in practical, everyday matters ranging from anti-discrimination to halal slaughtering.

For Wilms, the vagueness of parties’ responses is also due to a failure of German Muslims to organise and to constitute themselves as an effective lobbying group. He asserted that

“for some years, the activist discourse of some Muslims has focused a lot on empowerment. Yet so far this does not amount to anything more than the financing or funding of isolated projects. Unfortunately, we are not perceived by politicians as noteworthy addressees whose concerns could be electorally relevant.”(( https://www.islamische-zeitung.de/irgendwo-zwischen-konkretem-und-allgemeinem/ ))

Call for more civil society activism

Wilms thus called upon his brothers and sisters in faith to step up their civic and societal engagement. German Muslims could only make themselves an incontrovertible political player by become organised and more socially involved. Their disproportionately strong charitable activism in the domain of refugee and asylum aid showed German Muslims’ potential, or so Wilms argued.(( https://www.islamische-zeitung.de/irgendwo-zwischen-konkretem-und-allgemeinem/ ))

Indeed, German Muslims’ socio-political activism as well as their religious organisations are in urgent need of professionalisation. Both social involvement and the provision of religious goods are still overwhelmingly done on a voluntary basis. With central organisational capacities underfunded and understaffed, Muslims’ public voice and political impact continue to be limited.

Need for political engagement

Against the backdrop of these limitations, Cemile Giousouf argues that German Muslims should not devote all their energies to civil society activism only. In an interview with the JUMA network – with JUMA standing for Young, Muslim, Active – Giousouf urged Muslims to help influence the political process by joining political parties.

Giousouf, who is the CDU/CSU’s first Muslim member of the Bundestag, asserted that Muslims would have to engage more directly with the intricacies of policymaking in order to effectuate more durable change: “It is decisive that your [i.e. young Muslims’] concerns become part of everyday political work and are not only formulated in Muslim civil society initiatives”, Giousouf observed. (( http://www.juma-ev.de/2017/09/ich-finde-es-schade-wenn-religion-als-uncool-bewertet-wird-cemile-giousouf-integrationsbeauftragte-der-cducsu/ ))

As of now, roughly 1,000 Muslims have become members of the CDU/CSU.((https://www.islamische-zeitung.de/muslime-und-die-wahl-es-fehlt-an-daten/ )) It remains to be seen whether Cemile Giousouf’s party as well as other political players will gradually become the home of a more distinctly Muslim voice.

New data on charitable involvement in refugee help shows German Muslims’ civil society activism

A new study by the Bertelsmann Foundation has taken a closer look at Germans’ charitable work for refugees. According to the survey, 44 per cent of German Muslims volunteered their time by helping in asylum shelters or elsewhere over the course of the year 2016.

The study’s coordinators emphasised that these numbers could refute the widespread assumption that Muslims were neither invested in refugee aid programmes nor willing to take on responsibilities in civil society more generally.

This reproach had surfaced more and more often in recent political debates. For instance, Germany’s Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière, asserted that not enough German Muslims were involved in integrating the recently arrived refugees.((http://www.n-tv.de/politik/De-Maiziere-nimmt-Muslime-in-die-Pflicht-article18682541.html ))

Breakdown of the numbers

The study revealed that Muslims are considerably more active in charitable causes linked with refugees and asylum-seekers than their Christian counter-parts: of the latter, only 21 per cent became involved in these causes, compared with 17 per cent of respondents unaffiliated with any religion.

Within the heterogeneous group of German Muslims, 53 per cent of all those with roots in the Middle East were active in refugee aid efforts, compared with 42 per cent of their ethnically Turkish counterparts. This reflects the ethnic and linguistic origins of the large number of Syrian and Iraqi arrivals.((https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article163148827/Muslime-in-Deutschland-helfen-besonders-haeufig-Fluechtlingen.html ))

The study also revealed that while initially in many neighbourhoods considerable scepticism had reigned vis-à-vis the opening of large housing units for asylum-seekers, only a small fraction of neighbours (8 per cent in West Germany and 15 per cent in East Germany, respectively) subsequently felt disturbed by these housing complexes and their inhabitants.

Limited missionary zeal…

The authors of the study stressed that activists of Muslim faith did not seek to use their position in refugee aid efforts to proselytise. This had been another much-evoked fear in recent months. Yet three quarters of Muslim respondents asserted that they did not see themselves in a position to convince others of their religious convictions. This number mirrors the close to four fifths of Christian and atheist aid workers evincing the same missionary restraint.

This is not to deny the existence of smaller currents more actively engaged in missionary activity. Salafi preachers have sought to gain access to refugees’ housing projects, although the scope of the phenomenon remains unclear.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/krude-missionierung-salafisten-werben-nahe-fluechtlingsheimen-13793462.html ))

Similar—and, judging from the press echo, even more aggressive—proselytization activities have been conducted by Evangelical churches, as well as by the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/fluechtlinge-wie-evangelikale-christen-fluechtlinge-bekehren-wollen-1.3022011 ))

… but also limited institutional capacities

All of this should not suggest, however, that there are no obstacles to German Muslims’ engagement for Iraqis, Syrians, and other Middle Eastern or Muslim refugees. To be sure, on a personal level they often work as the kind of invaluable “cultural mediators” the report of the Bertelsmann Foundation describes. With respect to their institutional capacities, however, German Muslims’ possibilities are more limited.

Perhaps most notably, mosques across the country are still confronted with severe spatial and monetary constraints. This is partly due to the fact that Islamic communities have so far not managed to obtain a legal status comparable to the Christian churches or a of Jewish congregations; a status that would bring not just legal recognition but also a host of financial perks.

While Turkey remains a – controversial – source of funding for the mosques affiliated to the German branch of its DİTİB organisation, other, mainly non-Turkish communities have at times turned to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for funding.(( http://www.zeit.de/2016/30/muslime-in-deutschland-moschee-glauben-staat/komplettansicht ))

As a result, these mosques have often taken an increasingly conservative stance. These tendencies have, in turn, perturbed Syrian refugees who, when looking for Arab-speaking religious spaces, were often left with Wahhabi-tinged offers only.(( https://de.qantara.de/inhalt/syrische-fluechtlinge-und-arabische-moscheen-in-deutschland-allah-hoert-zu ))

Strengthening religious institutions

Thus, considerable work remains to be done to ensure that German Muslims can effectively realise their willingness to aid their fellow Muslims in making Germany their home. Indeed, the Bertelsmann study has shown that this willingness is strong. Some charitable organisations have latched on to this, with for instance the Bosch Foundation offering special financial support for civil society projects carried out by young Muslims.(( http://www.bosch-stiftung.de/content/language1/html/49624.asp ))

The more enduring challenge is the strengthening of Muslims’ religious institutions in Germany. Studies have consistently highlighted the importance of well-functioning Islamic (religious) organisations as a springboard for broader societal participation. Involvement in the charitable work of local mosques does not, therefore, lead to increased segregation – contrary to the oft-voiced fear.(( http://www.migazin.de/2016/10/12/geheimnis-der-integrationsdebatte-muslime-engagieren-sich-mehr-als-viele-glauben-wollen/ ))

Against this backdrop, enabling German mosques to leave behind their drab backyard quarters without having to rely on funding from the Gulf that often comes with strings attached re-emerges as an all-important concern.

In a New Novel, a Secular Muslim American Rejects the Burden of Labels

Into this maelstrom comes Ali Eteraz’s debut novel, “Native Believer.” Eteraz is the author of a memoir, “Children of Dust” (2009), that chronicled his journey from boyhood in a small town in central Pakistan to sex-obsessed adolescence in the American South to pious Islamic young adulthood to the broadly humanist activism that has marked his past 10 years. “Children of Dust” is, essentially, a description of the birth of “Ali Eteraz” — a pen name that translates to “Noble Protest,” which the author adopted several years after Sept. 11.
 

Book review: Youth Tsunami in Arab World: ‘The New Arabs,’ by Juan Cole

July 8, 2014

These days, alarming news continues to spill out of the Middle East. Syria’s continuing civil war has claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. Iraq — where the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, has stoked sectarian conflict by refusing to form an inclusive government — is hurtling toward civil war, as Sunni militants, led by the Qaeda splinter group ISIS, have moved close to Baghdad. Farther east, the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan.

In his book “The New Arabs,” however, the Middle East scholar Juan Cole provides an optimistic assessment of a new generation coming of age in the region. Mr. Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, gained recognition in the prelude to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and in its wake, with his “Informed Comment” blog, which was not only highly critical of Bush administration policies but also provided illuminating historical and social context for the war and its devastating aftermath.

“The New Arabs” focuses not on Iraq, but on the Arab Spring, and in particular on the role that youth movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya played in bringing down the authoritarian regimes in those countries. “Young people are the key to the rapid political and social change in the Arab countries that have been in turmoil since 2011,” Mr. Cole writes, arguing that members of this “Arab Generation Y” are more literate than their elders, more urban and cosmopolitan, more technologically savvy and less religiously observant than those over 35. Echoing what the veteran Middle East reporter Robin Wright wrote in her 2011 book, “Rock the Casbah,” Mr. Cole contends that “a new generation has been awakened” and that a positive new historical dynamic is taking hold.

Mr. Cole’s book is at its most illuminating when it takes the reader inside the youth movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, showing us how activists used technology and social media to amplify their message and connect with like-minded citizens across the region. Although this phenomenon has already been widely covered by Western media, Mr. Cole chronicles it in fascinating detail here, recounting the stories of prominent dissidents and their often pioneering use of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and cellphone technology to network and organize.

The creation of YouTube in 2005 and the growing reach of satellite television (most notably Al Jazeera) also gave dissidents important tools. In 2006, the blogger Wael Abbas began posting graphic videos, taken secretly, of Egyptian police brutalizing their prisoners, which provoked public outrage. And in Tunisia, videos of the police opening fire on young protesters — who had turned out in the streets after a fruit vendor burned himself to death (in December 2010) in response to being humiliated by government officials — received thousands of views and fueled the spread of demonstrations across the country.

In Egypt (where, according to The C.I.A. World Factbook, 49.9 percent of the population is 24 or younger), disgust with the Mubarak government had been building for years. Among the events that created “links and networks among a diverse group of leftist and Muslim fundamentalist organizations” opposed to Mr. Mubarak as an agent of the West, Mr. Cole says, were demonstrations in early 2003 against the coming United States invasion of Iraq and the Gaza war of late 2008 and early 2009.

Mr. Cole’s conclusion to this book is a hopeful one. He writes: “The youth revolutionaries of the Middle East inspired their peers throughout the globe by their ideals of liberty and social justice and their collective action techniques. Fundamentalist movements seeking to take advantage of the political opening to impose new forms of theocratic authoritarianism suffered severe setbacks at the hands of the same youth activists.”