German Islam Conference not well known among Muslims

Despite the hype in German newspapers, the Islam conference is not very well known among the country’s Muslims. 43 per cent of Muslims in Germany have never heard of it before. The Expert Advisory Board for Integration and Migration (SVR) conducted a survey among more than 5,500 participants on integration politics, which proved to be less well known among immigrants than among ethnic Germans. The percentage of those who have not heard about the Islam Conference is even higher among Muslims born in Germany than among those who immigrated. The non-migratory population generally knew most about various types of integration politics.

Second German Islam Conference takes place after weeks of controversies

The continuation of the German Islam Conference is worthwhile, writes Loay Mudhoon for Qantara. The public row over those attending and the new orientation of the second session of the conference must not be allowed to overshadow the meeting’s success up to this point in advancing Muslim integration in Germany, the author argues.

The circumstances in which German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière officially opened the second session of the German Islam Conference last Monday (17 May 2010) could hardly have been worse. The exclusion of the Council of Islam and the withdrawal of the Central Council of Muslims has undoubtedly inflicted serious damage on the credibility of the Islam Conference.

The absence of these two groups meant that the Islam Conference had failed to fulfill one of its primary goals, namely to discuss effective ways and means of “naturalising Islam” in Germany, on an equal footing with all representatives of the Muslim community in Germany.

When de Maizière’s predecessor Wolfgang Schäuble opened the first Islam Conference, for the first time in German post-war history, a German interior minister conceded that Islam has a place in Germany. While the prerequisites for a formal recognition of Muslims as a statutory body under public law are still lacking — the sense that Muslims have that they are being recognised in public life has increased tangibly, something that if nothing else was evident from the increasingly critical reactions to Islamophobic tendencies in the mass media.

“The new minister will notice she is not with the Greens”: Interview with Cem Özdemir

In an interview, Cem Özdemir calls for an international Islam conference in Germany. The leader of the Green Party, who currently participates in a similar conference in Washington, calls for an intensive exchange of Europe with civil representatives from the Islamic world. On the topic of the new Turkish-German minister, Özdemir welcomes that more migrants are becoming involved in shaping German politics, but claims that the conservative CDU is far from taking over the Green Party’s strength of integration politics, as long as the party continues to have politicians like Roland Koch. Koch, the prime minister of the state of Hesse, has stood out with his campaign against dual citizenship and repeated quasi-racist remarks.

Germany’s Islam conference: State Islam would be unconstitutional

The Muslims will have to organize if they want to ensure themselves of a place within the system of constitutional law on religion. In order to conduct negotiations on religious matters the neutral state requires someone to talk to. A commentary by canon lawyer Hans Michael Heinig

Symbolic Picture of Islam in Germany and the German Constitution (photo: dpa/DW) In Germany’s daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on March 16, Necla Kelek posed the question of who was going to protect the silent majority of Muslims in Germany from the traditionalists of the Islamic associations. The answer she proposed was that the German Interior Minister should abandon state impartiality in religious questions and show contempt for organized Islam by continuing the German Islam Conference without any association representatives. One can only hope that the minister will decide not to listen to his recently appointed adviser. The basic principles upon which our free and liberal society is based would be difficult to defend were we to adopt religious bias.

It took a terrible death toll in the wake of the religious civil war to suspend the question of religious truth in politics. The religious and ideological neutrality of the state in religious disputes is among the great achievements of European civilization. It is also one that is reflected in the German constitution. According to the Federal Constitutional Court, the state is “home to all citizens”.

“There can be no taking sides”

The constitution forbids the setting up of a state church, which, therefore, means there can be no state Islam either. There is no place within our constitutional system for the Kemalist solution of a state-led Islam. Nor can the state afford to take sides in any conflict between conservative and progressive factions within a religion. Were the interior minister to respond to the call to relinquish his role as mediator, he would be committing a violation of the constitution.

Ultimately, any criticism of Islam based purely on anti-Islamist anger runs the risk of doing the very thing it accuses the Islamic associations of doing, exploiting the state in the name of a religious-political power struggle.

Participants at the third Islam Conference, March 2008 (photo: AP) Of course, the state protects Muslims against any violent forms of Islam that violate German law, just as it does non-Muslims also. But it is only the German Muslims who can protect themselves against a “false” Islam. Those who feel that they are not being properly represented by the “hardliners” in the associations have to organize. That is the way the game is played in a liberal democracy. When groups of people unite they form a stronger whole and have greater political influence.

This applies as much to motoring organizations or trades unions as it does to a religious association. A state that maintains a neutral religious ideology has no other choice than to cooperate with the Islamic associations produced by its society. It may not create a partner particularly agreeable to itself.

Associations represent members, intellectuals represent no one

Reading Necla Kelek one can easily come to the conclusion that she sees all Muslim associations as a conspiracy to disenfranchise the individual believer. Without religious communities able and ready to cooperate with one another, however, the state could not give Islamic religious instruction, train Imams in state universities, nor organize the spiritual counseling of military personnel or prisoners. Religious communities unite their members. Membership gives a feeling of belonging.

Necla Kelek (photo: dpa) A state committed to neutrality and freedom of religion can build on this if it creates spaces for public religion and promotes religions as culturally important. The community has a strong interest in the well-known public forms of canon law and the promotion of religion, because in this way the state can stimulate what is best in the social form religion and counter destructive tendencies without sacrificing its neutrality in religious matters.

So long as the vast majority of religious Muslims in Germany decline to exercise their fundamental right to religious freedom of association, German society will have to live with the consequences of this sort of refusal to integrate. The existing associations can hardly be blamed. They represent their members. No more and no less. It cannot be claimed, therefore, that they are representative of Muslim life in Germany in its entirety.

Without the cooperation of the already existing associations, however, the German Islam Conference is doomed to failure. Individual Muslims are no substitute for the associations. Intellectuals and artists are not legitimized by anyone and need not justify themselves to anyone.

Islam Conference at crossroads

By including such figures in the German Islam Conference, former interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble was trying to respond to the existing associations’ inadequate reflection of the diversity of Islamic life in Germany. For a consultative body with no executive decision-making powers the solution was understandable, or at least acceptable, and at the same time reduced the political pressure on the majority of Muslims to organize themselves in accordance with the constitutional requirements.

Now, however, the Islam Conference model is threatening to take on a life of its own. Only recently, Germany’s Science Council advised the setting up of chairs of Islamic theology at state universities based on this concept. A reasonable organization of constitutional law on religion is hardly likely to come about on this basis however. It would amount to a special privilege and as such hardly reconcilable with the constitutional promise of equal treatment for all religions and ideologies.

The German Islam Conference has reached a crossroads. Its constitution led to the symbolic integration of Islam into the political system. The stolid silence between state and organized Islam under the SPD-Green Party coalition came to an end. Schäuble even went so far as to consciously include some of the more disreputable members of the Islamic associations in his invitations. This was linked to the hope that public recognition would change those who received the attention.

The state expects the solidarity of the associations

This was, to some extent, probably a forlorn hope. Currently, representatives of the IGMG (Islamic Association Milli Görüş) find themselves facing criminal charges that go beyond the mere suspicion of political extremism. The current interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, had to respond to this for the latest session of the Conference. He suspended the membership of the Islamic Council, which is dominated by the IGMG. Now, however, the other associations are hesitating over their further participation in the Islam Conference.

Germany’s former Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (photo: picture-alliance/dpa) This is understandable given that the associations had formed a joint coordinating council and the DITIB (the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs), ZMD (Central Council of Muslims in Germany) and VIKZ (Association of Islamic Culture Centres) now feel themselves obliged to consider the matter. This type of cooperation was something the politicians had been repeatedly calling for. It might have been wiser, therefore, to declare certain individuals undesirable rather than suspend the whole association.

Following the elections and consequent change in leadership, it took the interior ministry some time to come up with a concept for the second phase on the Islam Conference. The delay was unfortunate given that the Conference had been successful until then, and particularly since the integration of Muslims is such a key issue in German society.

Among the priorities the interior minister wants the Islam Conference to turn its attention to in the future are the need to find solutions on the questions of religious education and the training of imams. But these are things the government does not have the powers to do single-handedly. School and university policies are the responsibility of the individual states. The proposed increased participation from the Länder is, therefore, now urgently needed.f

Dictates of the pragmatic

It is worth remembering that one of the key aims of Schäuble’s Islam Conference was to provide a national platform where fundamental questions could be discussed alongside the small-scale development of local alliances and the initiatives of the Länder on individual questions of state church law.

The Islam Conference explored various forms of the societal conception of the relationship between religion and politics, of cultural freedom and societal expectations, of successful integration and undesirable marginal existence, of religion’s own response to averting danger and the productive contribution of the religions to the common good. Therein lies an intrinsic value that should not be underestimated.

Politics nowadays is always about tangible concrete issues. It is subject to the dictates of the pragmatic. But sometimes it is the discussion of the general that is the tangible and mere talking pragmatic.

Hans Michael Heinig

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung / Qantara.de 2010

Hans Michael Heinig teaches public law at Göttingen and is head of the juridical department of the EKD (Evangelical Church in Germany).

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp / Qantara.de

Discord at the German Islam Conference: Interview with Abu Bakr Rieger

Abu Bakr Rieger, the president of the EMU Foundation, an umbrella organization for informing about and promoting Islam in Europe, comments in an interview on the German Islam conference. According to him, the whole project has had its downsides from the beginning, when former German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble invited “liberal Muslims”, who were very critical of Islam themselves, to outnumber the more conservative representatives. Today, Abu Bakr Rieger sees similar problems arising from current Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière’s approach that caused two of the major Muslim organizations to withdraw from the Conference. Furthermore, while admitting that Muslims benefit a lot from the German rule of law, Abu Bakr Rieger is disappointed with de Maizière’s denial of anti-Islamic sentiments in Germany.

Representatives of Muslims, democratically elected? Thoughts on the composition of the German Islam Conference

In an article for Qantara.de, Hilal Sezgin addresses the peculiar and questionable composition of the German Islam Conference. First, she criticizes the invention of “secular Muslim” that are so welcome at the Conference: either they are in favor of separating church and state, which applies to roughly all German Muslims, or they are not religious, which is fair enough, but then they do not need to be essentialized as Muslims and be invited to form part of the Islam Conference.

Second, Sezgin shrewdly remarks that no place in the Conference is designed for hosting a Muslim politician – half of the members are non-Muslim politicians, the other half are Muslim representatives, no overlap intended. “The German Germans please take a seat on the political side. The rest, the ones with the funny names, kindly be seated on the Muslim bench”, she writes.

In conclusion, Sezgin attests that the participation policy has “deeply paternalistic, even un-democratic” traits and that the Conference is unlikely to result in true dialogue.

Disunity in the run-up to the German Islam Conference

The German Islam Conference, a much-valued institution that brings together Islamic associations, the Interior Ministry and representatives from politics and public life, is currently at stake. It will take place – probably on May 17 – but the list of participants has not been finalized, after a controversy between Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and the Islamrat (Islamic council). The Turkish organization Milli Görüş is largely represented in the Islamrat, and currently faces investigation on tax evasion, founding a criminal organization and money laundering by some of its leaders. For the time being, the Islamrat will not participate in the Conference.

Novelist and Islam expert Navid Kermani criticizes Interior Minister de Maizière for the exclusion. Mistakes have been made on the part of Milli Görüş, whose leaders should have stepped down, but excluding the whole Islamrat is more detrimental. The organization is extremely conservative and he does not agree with most of their views, says Kermani, but they do represent a reality in Germany and it is therefore imperative to engage with them.

Consequently, the other major Muslim organizations are considering boycotting the Conference. So far, they have not reached a unanimous demand to put forward. Today however, the chairman of the Central Council of Muslims, Ayyub Axel Köhler, has hinted that the organizations will probably decide in favor of remaining at the Conference.

Turks in Germany feel unwelcome

Over half of Turks living in Germany feel like unwanted guests. The survey was released ahead of the German Islam Conference on Thursday, March 13, where the thorny topic of integration tops the agenda. Over three quarters of the Turks surveyed, both with and without German passports, said German Chancellor Angel Merkel didn’t adequately represent those in Germany with a Turkish background. The report, based on 400 responses, was published in the Wednesday edition of Die Zeit.

Ninety-two percent said they thought that “Turks in Germany should preserve their own culture,” and nearly as many (89 percent) felt that German society should be more considerate about the customs of Turkish immigrants. Nevertheless, a sweeping majority (83 percent) considered the German language a key to success as an immigrant and two-thirds didn’t regret their decision to come to Germany.

Read full-text article (in German).

View report (in German)