German Muslim leaders react to the attacks in the UK

Muslim representatives in Germany have condemned the recent attacks in Manchester and London.

Especially the events of Manchester gave rise to expressions of shock and anger, as the targets of Salman Abedi’s suicide bombing that left 23 dead had been a pop concert by US singer Ariana Grande and its mostly very young audience.

Responses of the large associations

Germany’s largest Islamic association, Turkish-dominated DİTİB, issued a press release condemning the attack and any other form of terrorism, as well as expressing the organisation’s condolences to the families of the victims.

The chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), Aiman Mazyek tweeted: “In deep sorrow I look to #Manchester. We pray for the bereaved, injured, their relatives. Many child victims to be feared – terrible.”

Bekir Altaş, secretary general of the Islamist-leaning Islamic Community Millî Görüş (IGMG) also took to twitter: “#PrayForManchester! Aghast and shocked! In our hearts we are with all victims and their relatives.” The chairman of the Islam Council (IR) issued a similar statement.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/05/23/religionsvertreter-trauern-mit-manchester/ ))

Rehashing a well-rehearsed ritual

Representatives of Germany’s Church communities also voiced their condemnation of suicide attack in Manchester. Shortly afterwards, on May 23, the leading Catholic and Protestant clergymen of Berlin held a private vigil with the Great Imam of Al-Ahzar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, commemorating the victims.(( http://www.bild.de/regional/aktuelles/berlin/grossimam-und-bischoefe-gedenken-der-terroropfer-51881922.bild.html ))

At the same time, these statements did not – and in some sense could not – go beyond the by now well-rehearsed tropes of outrage that are being used after every attack. The demand that Muslims and their representatives must dissociate themselves from the suicide bombing hung in the air, and they duly complied.

This is not to claim that these demands the corresponding statements of Muslim leaders were made in bad faith. Yet it does underline the fact that there is little by way of a genuinely meaningful public conversation on attacks such as the ones that occurred in Manchester and London. Instead, in an involuntary expression of their helplessness, all sides continue to shelter behind the familiar ritualistic assertions.

Outspoken defender of women’s rights founds a gender-equal mosque in Berlin

 

The – patchy and insufficient – provision of religious spaces and services for Germany’s growing Muslim population has become a fiercely political issue. This is not only linked to a general and widespread sense of hostility towards Islam and its spatial visibility in the form of mosques, minarets, and headscarves. Rather, it is also due to the fact that much attention is now focused on the real and supposed political influence mosques and Islamic associations wield over Muslims.

The country’s largest Islamic associations have been a particular object of criticism in this regard: politicians from across the ideological spectrum have lambasted these organisations as too conservative or even reactionary and as too beholden to foreign interests. Whilst they continue to figure in government-sponsored forums of dialogue – such as the national-level German Islam Conference – as well as more local initiatives, they are increasingly viewed as unfit to be considered legitimate Muslim representatives.

A ‘liberal’ mosque

To these critics, the foundation of a self-consciously ‘liberal’ mosque community in Berlin must be a welcome sign of change: a well-known activist of Turkish-Kurdish heritage, Seyran Ateş, announced the opening of the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe mosque, marked by its gender equality and its openness towards all Islamic currents.(( https://international.la-croix.com/news/women-imams-to-help-lead-prayers-at-new-mosque-in-berlin/5201 ))

The mosque, which is an explicit counter-project to the established Islamic associations, will hold its first Friday prayers on June 16. Every Friday, a man and a woman will both function as Imams and jointly lead the service. Ateş herself is seeking to become an Imam. What is more, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, an openly gay prayer leader from Marseille, France, will also participate in the Friday session of June 16.(( https://international.la-croix.com/news/women-imams-to-help-lead-prayers-at-new-mosque-in-berlin/5201 ))

Defence of women’s rights

The project – notably with its feminist reading of Islamic religiosity, expressed by its insistence on gender-mixed prayers and on the prominent role given to female Imams – inscribes itself into Ateş’ long-standing fight against patriarchal structures of oppression.

A lawyer by training, Ateş has spent the bulk of her career defending the rights of Muslim women against abusive family relations, forced marriages, and so-called ‘honour killings’. During a consultation with a client in 1984, the client’s enraged husband made his way to Ateş’ office and shot both his wife and Ateş. While the wife died, Ateş spent several years recovering from her life-threatening injuries.

Following the 2009 publication of her book Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution (Der Islam braucht eine sexuelle Revolution), Ateş received a number of death threats that caused her to reduce her public appearances. She also closed down her lawyer’s practice temporarily, before reopening it in 2012.

Muslims ‘need to enlighten Islam’

Ateş laid out her vision for the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe mosque in an impassioned and highly personal op-ed for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. She recounts how her late father no longer felt at home in Berlin’s mosques due to their conservatism, and how at his burial the male Muslim clergy made her feel like a second-class believer. “Nowhere do I feel as discriminated against as in mosques”, she asserts – and goes on to ask: “Is my religion the business of men only?”(( http://www.zeit.de/2016/22/islam-reform-liberale-moscheen-berlin/komplettansicht ))

Against these entrenched tendencies, Ateş sees her new mosque as making a contribution to the “reform of our religion” and as helping to address the “modernisation problem in Islam”. For Ateş, Muslims “finally need to enlighten” their religion: “Not every tradition is worthy of being kept. Not every pious resistance to what is novel is truly pious.”((http://www.zeit.de/2016/22/islam-reform-liberale-moscheen-berlin/komplettansicht ))

A political minefield

At the same time, Ateş is aware that by opening a mosque, she is entering a political minefield where she faces opposition not only from the side of Muslim traditionalists but also from the political right. In her opinion piece she recounts how her past activism against the oppression of mainly Turkish Muslim women has – albeit unintentionally – made her a respected persona at the Islamophobic end of the spectrum.

According to Ateş, when she posted good wishes for a Muslim religious festival on facebook, some of her friends and followers were outraged – even though they very much appreciated Ateş’ acknowledgement of Christian and Jewish religious celebrations.(( http://www.zeit.de/2016/22/islam-reform-liberale-moscheen-berlin/komplettansicht ))

Undoubtedly for this reason, Ateş also refuses the label of ‘critic of Islam’ (Islamkritikerin), with which she is often connected in the German media: “I am not an ‘Islamkritikerin’”, Ateş asserted in a recent interview. “If anything, then I’m a critically-minded person overall. That I make critical statements on certain matters of religion, including of Islam, does not mean that I am not devout.”(( http://www.taz.de/!5395895/ ))

‘Liberal’ or ‘Islamophobic’?

These issues highlight the political difficulties the mosque project will encounter, squeezed between the Scylla of religious conservatism and the Charybdis of being co-opted by the far-right as a fig-leaf for an Islamophobic agenda. As to whether Ateş’ mosque in particular and her project of Islamic renewal in general will be able to withstand this test remains to be seen. Some doubts nevertheless appear apposite in this regard.

Notably, a number of the supporters of the ‘Freiburg Declaration of secular Muslims’ are to assume – as of yet unspecified – roles in the mosque and its community. These figures include Abdel-Hakim Ourghi, initiator of the Declaration, and Saida Keller-Messahli, chairwoman of the Swiss ‘Forum for a Progressive Islam’.(( http://www.taz.de/!5395895/ ))

The Declaration – whose language of religious reform and enlightened secularism Ateş echoes in her op-ed for the Zeithad divided Germany’s liberal Muslims. The Liberal-Islamic Union swiftly condemned its initiators of “having become the accomplice of racist and Islamophobic discourses”, adding that “[a] ‘liberal’ Islam stops being liberal where it unreflectingly falls into line with marginalising discourses of mainstream society.”

Traditionalism, Islamism, jihadism

Ateş otherwise moving defence of her mosque project in her op-ed is not free from some regrettable tendencies in this regard. At times, the piece appears to veer uncomfortably close to amalgamating Islamic traditionalism, Islamist activism, and jihadist violence.

To be sure, each of these forces are formidable; and they may – all in their own way – undermine a genuinely inclusive, progressive, and vibrant Islamic religiosity. Yet this does not make them one and the same: Islamic traditionalism, infused with local norms going back to the modus vivendi of ancestral generations in rural Anatolia, does indeed hold back many Muslim women living in Germany.

Nevertheless, the Islamist challenge is structurally and ideologically different, particularly insofar as Islamism seeks to break with many of these traditional fora and modes of authority. Jihadist violence is again different in both means and ends, and in its perspective on women. One is left to wonder as to whether it is either theologically accurate or politically far-sighted to castigate mainstream conservatism by ranging it with the most barbaric jihadist killings and doctrinal innovations.

Need for enhanced public clout and credibility

Against this backdrop, Seyran Ateş’ very public persona may very well turn out to be both a blessing and a curse for her new mosque project. On the one hand, her long and courageous struggle for women’s rights may enable her to make herself heard to all those who would otherwise regard the foundation of a mosque with suspicion.

Ateş might, in other words, be able to galvanise more political support among decision-makers in Berlin. This is an all-important asset: in the past, the foundation of strong, visible ‘liberal’ mosques that could function beyond the purview of the conservative associations has often failed due to a lack of political clout.

More generally, it is surely an important development to see someone like Ateş, who has for a long time fought the gender violence commonly associated with Islam in Western public perceptions and who thus cannot be seen as being ‘too soft’ on uncomfortable issues besetting the faith, should openly vindicate her right to be a practicing Muslim herself.

A difficult trajectory ahead

On the other hand, critical questions might be asked as to who or what legitimises Ateş, who has not shown a marked interest in Islamic religiosity in the past, to open a mosque. One might also wonder whether it is helpful for her to publish another book on the day of the mosque opening, titled Selam, Mrs. Imamin: How I Founded a Liberal Mosque in Berlin. There appears to be a real risk that the new mosque becomes Mrs Ateş’ vanity project rather than a way of supporting a process of reflection on the part of Muslim communities.

For now, although Ateş’ books are already in print, the mosque’s work remains unaccomplished as the first Friday prayers are yet to be held. The mosque also does not have its own buildings so far: initially, services will take place on the premises of the Church of Saint-John (Sankt-Johannis) in the Moabit district of Berlin.

Ateş hopes that she will be able to witness the construction of a true mosque building at a later stage. In this respect, it remains to be seen whether her project will come to be a powerful manifestation of a liberal Islam, or whether it will be derailed by political vicissitudes in the meantime.

Mosque closures in Munich highlight lack of Muslim prayer spaces in Germany

The Bavarian capital of Munich is one of Germany’s boom towns: rapid population growth in the past few years has driven up rents and strained public services.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/einwohnerprognosen-warum-das-bevoelkerungswachstum-in-muenchen-probleme-macht-1.2984306 )) Now, another consequence of the city’s expansion has become clear: a lack of mosques and Islamic prayer spaces.

Growing Muslim population – and mosque closures

By 2014, 100,000 of Munich’s 1.5 million inhabitants were Muslim.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/moschee-projekt-in-muenchen-schmid-will-idriz-unterstuetzen-1.2061937 )) This figure has only been on the rise since then, due to the arrival of large numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the city.

In spite of the increased demand for Islamic religious spaces and services, mosques within Munich’s city limits have, in fact, been closing down in recent years. At the end of March, 2017, the Kuba mosque, the last of what used to be nine mosques in the area surrounding the central train station – home to many Muslim shopkeepers and employees – shut its doors.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/moscheen-muslime-haben-in-muenchen-kaum-platz-zum-beten-1.3445341 ))

The stories of mosque closures tend to mirror each other: local Muslim associations have their rental lease agreements cancelled since their premises are overcrowded and hence violate fire safety regulations. In the case of the Kuba mosque, at Friday prayers up to 450 believers had crammed into a room designed to hold a maximum of 90.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/moscheen-muslime-haben-in-muenchen-kaum-platz-zum-beten-1.3445341 ))

Plans for a larger mosque

In the case of Munich, plans to build a larger mosque have been mooted for years without ever coming to fruition. The Munich Forum for Islam (MFI), an association bringing together Muslim representatives as well as local politicians from various political parties, had proposed the construction of a representative mosque north of the city centre.(( http://www.islam-muenchen.de/ ))

The project was set to include not only an Islamic house of prayer, but also training facilities for Imams, a library, a cultural space, and a café grouped around a public plaza. However, the project failed to gather the necessary funds to acquire the plot of land on which it was to be built.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/moschee-fuer-muenchen-muenchen-bekommt-kein-islamzentrum-zumindest-erst-einmal-1.3055209 ))

Reasons for the failure

The reasons for this failure were manifold. The notoriously divided and financially weak Muslim associational scene did not always speak with one voice and did not manage to function as a convincing lobby for the project.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/gescheitertes-projekt-mit-dem-aus-fuer-die-muenchner-moschee-scheitert-mehr-als-eine-idee-1.3055211 ))

What is more, the MFI always put great stress on the need to emancipate itself from any ties to the countries of origin of Muslim immigrants. Such ties have emerged as a core obstacle to the political and societal recognition of existing Muslim institutions in Germany. At the same time, however, the MFI’s attempts to gather donations focused mostly on attracting Arab funds from the Gulf. For many outside observers, this approach was not conducive to building confidence and trust.

Some commentators have pointed out, however, that another reason for the project’s miscarriage was a lack of political will on the part of the local administration: when it came to the crunch – notably the acquisition of the plot for the construction site – the political support on the part of the city’s decision-makers was lacklustre at best.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/gescheitertes-projekt-mit-dem-aus-fuer-die-muenchner-moschee-scheitert-mehr-als-eine-idee-1.3055211 ))

Enduring political dilemma for mosque communities

The fate of the MFI mosque highlights the enduring dilemma faced by comparable efforts elsewhere in Germany: a lack of financial and political capital confines Muslim prayer to the outskirts of town – Munich’s largest mosque is located on the city’s northern edge next to a sewage treatment plant – or to small and often insalubrious prayer spaces in apartments, ancient warehouses, or disused factories – so-called ‘backyard mosques’ (Hinterhofmoscheen).

Whilst politically ostracised as tools of authoritarian Middle Eastern governments, only those mosque communities backed by wealthy donors or state agencies from Turkey and the Gulf are, as of now, capable of building appropriate houses of worship. Any community wishing to emancipate itself from these backers – such as Munich’s MFI – is thus caught in a real bind.

Backlash against public prayer

To draw attention to this state of affairs, a number of Munich’s Muslims got together on social media and sought to organise a public Friday prayer at Marienplatz square, the city’s historical heart in front of the town hall.

Yet the right-wing backlash online against the planned public prayer was so fierce that the organisers decided to cancel the event. They feared both that they would not be able to guarantee the safety of potential attendees, and that such a highly public demonstration would make their attempt to raise awareness of the lack of prayer space seem too confrontational and thus counter-productive.(( http://www.br.de/nachrichten/moscheen-muenchen-demo-100.html ))

This week, the local Jesuit community of Saint Michael offered a pray er room to all those who had wished to attend the event at Marienplatz. Whilst this amounts to a precious gesture of interreligious dialogue, the picture of Munich’s Muslims having to pray under an almost life-sized crucifix struck many belivers and observers as at the very least odd.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/raumnot-moscheenot-in-muenchen-muslime-beten-in-der-michaelskirche-1.3513855 ))

German Interior Minister revives the debate on a ‘guiding culture’ to which Muslims must assimilate

 

Periodically, the German discourse on immigration is marked by the resurgence of a distinctly German notion – the idea of a ‘guiding culture’ (Leitkultur), supposed to connote an essence of Germanness that needs to be safeguarded amidst what appear to be accelerating migratory flows.

Leitkultur – history of a debate

The term was first coined in 1996 by political scientist Bassam Tibi, who asserted that, in the face of Muslim immigration, Europeans needed to develop and uphold a “European guiding culture”. For Tibi, central elements included the dominance of reason over religious revelation, democracy and the separation of religion and politics, pluralism, and tolerance.

Tibi’s critique of what he saw as cultural relativism and as unlimited immigration was subsequently taken up in political circles – most notably by the CDU politician Friedrich Merz, at the time one of his party’s leading young faces. In the process, it assumed a more narrowly German meaning.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/leitkultur-merz-geht-in-die-offensive-a-99435.html ))

Ever since, calls for an official recognition and – in one way or another – an enforcement of a ‘guiding culture’ are regularly voiced on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

De Maizière’s comments

The latest – and particularly crude – attempt to do so was recently kick-started by the German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière. In an op-ed for the Sunday edition of the country’s best-selling tabloid, Bild, de Maizière wrote that “I like the term ‘guiding culture’ and want to stick with it.” The piece was titled: “We are not burka (Wir sind nicht Burka)”.(( http://www.bild.de/bild-plus/politik/inland/thomas-de-maiziere/leitkultur-fuer-deutschland-51509022,view=conversionToLogin.bild.html ))

The remainder of the relatively long text includes somewhat repetitive musings on the notion of a ‘guiding culture’, followed by a platitudinous as well as random ten-point checklist supposedly summarising its core elements. Essentials of Germanness mentioned range from giving a handshake by way of greeting to Germany’s embedding in the NATO security architecture.

To paper over the cracks of the rather flimsy content of the article, Bild underlaid the entire text with the black-red-gold of the German flag, further enhancing its nationalistic overtones.

Buttressing Germanness against Muslim immigration

As the title intimates, Muslim immigration lies at the heart of de Maizière’s intervention. The first of the ten theses starts by highlighting the need to shake hands and to show one’s face in order to participate in the democratic community.

The fourth section asserts that “religion is a glue rather than a wedge in our country”. This also means upholding the Christian heritage of Germany through Christian festivals and buildings. The seventh point then takes a swipe at notions of “honour” that many immigrants may – illegitimately – connect with “violence”.

Other elements of de Maizière’s declaration stray much further afield, making a good level of “general knowledge (Allgemeinbildung)” constitutive of Germanness (thesis 2), as well as defining Germany via its capitalist ‘social market economy’ (thesis 3). Particularly tortuous manoeuvring is reserved for the issue of patriotism, which – in view of 20th-century German history – de Maizière strives hard to separate from nationalism by asserting that “we are enlightened patriots” (thesis 8).

Political praise and criticism

Reactions to de Maizière’s statements were mixed. While he drew considerable applause from the CDU party, others pointed out that his ’10 points on guiding culture’ were indicative above all of an attempt to fend off conservative challengers from within his own party.

Notably, the Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann is mooted as a replacement for de Maizière should Angela Merkel return to the chancellery after the upcoming German federal election.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/leitkultur-thomas-de-maiziere-und-seine-thesen-sorgen-fuer-aufregung-a-1145587.html ))

Politicians from the Social Democrats, Greens, and the Left remained critical of the discourse on Leitkultur, dismissing it as a political ploy.

Talking about Muslims

As usual, however, the voices of those being ‘talked about’ in this debate were much less likely to be heard. Immigrants, and more particularly Muslim immigrants (as well as their descendants), were not party to the debate being led in the country’s main media outlets and on the political stage.

This state of affairs was criticised by Armina Omerika, Bosnian-born professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Frankfurt((https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-12-mai-2017-100.html )): she noted that the ostentatious targets of the Leitkultur debate were never reached by and included in these discussions; a fact which, since Friedrich Merz’s comments in 2000, had made all talk about a ‘guiding culture’ a rather sterile and inane exercise.

More broadly, Omerika questioned the attempt to legalise and commit to paper inherently changeable and shifting social conventions. Giving examples from the university context, Omerika noted that social life in Germany was totally different today when compared to even the recent past of only 50 years ago.

Refugees stress the need for respect

When interviewed about the Interior Minister’s ideas on Leitkultur, a group of Syrian refugees from the town of Rüsselsheim had very little to say about it.((https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-12-mai-2017-100.html )) The common consensus appeared to be that it did not really matter what de Maizière said but that it was important to interact with others respectfully in everyday life and respect the ‘ways of the German people’ (whatever that might mean), even if that did not necessitate giving up all one’s own cultural particularities.

A social worker underscored the point that most new arrivals would not even be able to read de Maizière’s article due to the language barrier, making his text a purely ‘domestic’ exercise catering mainly to the established population and to political rivals.

“Germany is my country, too”

More self-consciously Muslim voices were dismayed by what they perceived to be de Maizière’s exclusivism: Malika Laabdallaoui, Moroccan-born psychologist and chairwoman of the Central Council of Muslims in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, stressed somewhat defiantly that not only church spires, handshakes, and carnival belonged to Germany, as insinuated by the Interior Minister.((https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-12-mai-2017-100.html ))

“Germany is my country, too”, she asserted. “I belong here with all my values, my religion, my mindset, my engagement for society, my German as well as my Christian and my Muslim friends, with my family.” Addressing de Maizière, she added: “How can it be that you just think me away out of this society?”

German Turks debate the results of the constitutional referendum

On April 16, Turkish voters approved President Erdoğan’s proposed constitutional changes, transforming the country into a presidential republic. Turkish voters domestically were close to being evenly split on the issue, with only a narrow majority 51.4 per cent voting Yes.

Strong Yes vote among Turks abroad

Turks living abroad generally supported Erdoğan by a much larger margin, with 59.1 per cent of them casting a Yes ballot. In Germany, this number stood even higher, at 63.1 per cent.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2017-04/deutschtuerken-tuerkei-referendum-volksabstimmung-recep-tayyip-Erdoğan ))

National differences are striking in this respect: while more than 70 per cent of Turks living in Belgium, Austria, and the Netherlands approved the constitutional changes, the Yes camp received only 20 per cent or less in Great Britain, the United States, and the Czech Republic.(( http://diepresse.com/home/ausland/aussenpolitik/5202096/Tuerken-in-Oesterreich-stimmen-klar-fuer-Verfassungsaenderung ))

Politicians’ reactions to the referendum

German media has expressed shock at the comparatively high number of Yes votes coming from German Turks. Some politicians have echoed this sentiment. A diverse number of CDU members has called for the abolition of dual citizenship provisions, as well as for the abandonment of plans that would allow foreigners to vote at county level.(( http://www.wn.de/Muensterland/2775255-Nach-Tuerkei-Referendum-Neuer-Streit-um-Doppelpass-CDU-fordert-strengere-Regeln ))

While remaining critical of the Yes voters, the co-chair of the Green Party, Cem Özdemir, nevertheless struck a different note. He interpreted the strong showing of the Yes camp as a sign of failed integration policies. In particular, he pointed to belated reforms to German citizenship law that had compelled many immigrants to remain foreigners in Germany.(( http://www.daserste.de/information/politik-weltgeschehen/morgenmagazin/videos/FN__moma_Oezdemir_Meier_2504nl_8000-100.html ))

Critical voices from among German Turks

Özdemir’s argument was echoed by Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper living in German exile. Dündar criticised the widespread expectation that German Turks should be immune to Erdoğan’s propaganda effort. Erdoğan’s success among German Turks was linked by Dündar to his ability to present himself as the defender of the interests of those Turks excluded from their host communities.(( http://www.zeit.de/2017/18/verfassungsreferendum-tuerkei-deutsch-tuerken-meine-tuerkei ))

Gökay Sofuoğlu, leader of the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD) organisation, which had openly campaigned for a No vote, also rejected any calls for the curtailment of political rights of Turks living in the country. Only greater possibilities for political participation in Germany could be a sensible reaction to the referendum outcome, he argued.(( http://www.stuttgarter-nachrichten.de/inhalt.interview-zur-tuerkei-abstimmung-wir-muessen-endlich-aus-der-opferrolle-raus.dcb4866b-2d0b-416c-b441-9981e4836821.html ))

Others, such as comedian Serdar Somuncu, asserted that German decision-makers had failed to stand up to Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies as long as it suited them not to do so (mainly as long as he prevented the arrival of further refugees to Europe). This, together with the inability and/or unwillingness to curb racially-charged polemics or even violence against Turkish immigrants, was seen by Somuncu as rendering somewhat hypocritical the belated demand that German Turks act in accordance with democratic norms now.(( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KH6vVl9Jj9w ))

Islamic associations’ muted response

German’s Muslim associations have generally stayed silent in response to the referendum result. DİTİB, the country’s largest association, has been embroiled in a succession of scandals linked to its pro-Erdoğan line, including spying activities of some of its Imams directed at suspected members of the Gülen movement. Conceivably, by not commenting on the referendum result, DİTİB wishes to keep a somewhat lower political profile and not attract renewed negative attention.

The equally Turkish-dominated Islamic Community Millî Görüş (IGMG), an organisation with roots in the same Islamist milieu as Erdoğan’s AK Party, also sought to project an outward image of neutrality, asserting that both Yes and No votes deserved respect.(( https://www.igmg.org/das-ziel-muss-jetzt-kompromisskultur-heissen/ ))

Only the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), which is ethnically more mixed and whose current chairman Aiman Mazyek has pursued an ambitious policy of rendering the ZMD politically visible and influential, struck an openly critical note, warning of the threats of dictatorship in Turkey.(( http://islam.de/28665 ))

Need for self-criticism

At the same time, many Turkish German commentators also engaged in self-criticism. TGD chairmain Sofuoğlu asserted that the TGD and other immigrant organisations had made mistakes in the past: “We were too focused on the role of the victim. We have shown too much understanding to those who just stay out of everything [in Germany].”

More particularly, Sofuoğlu noted that only 20 per cent of Turks holding a German passport regularly cast a ballot in German federal or state elections, signalling a lack of interest in German politics.(( http://www.stuttgarter-nachrichten.de/inhalt.interview-zur-tuerkei-abstimmung-wir-muessen-endlich-aus-der-opferrolle-raus.dcb4866b-2d0b-416c-b441-9981e4836821.html ))

Unpacking the numbers

At the same time, Sofuoğlu’s comments also apply to some extent to German Turks’ participation in the Turkish referendum. Only half of Germany’s population with a Turkish background was allowed to vote in the referendum because they still hold Turkish nationality. Of these, only 46 per cent actually went to the polls. Consequently, the Yes vote did not represent 63 per cent of all German Turks but only 29 per cent.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2017-04/deutschtuerken-tuerkei-referendum-volksabstimmung-recep-tayyip-Erdoğan ))

Others noted that the intimidation tactics used by the Turkish secret service even on German soil had had an impact in keeping opponents of the constitutional changes away from the ballot box. Many German Turks also reported of acquaintances suspected of being critical of Erdoğan having been arrested when they temporarily returned to Turkey to visit friends and family.(( https://www.rbb-online.de/politik/beitrag/2017/04/tuerkei-referendum-reaktionen-neukoelln.html ))

Diverse reasons for support

Yet the reasons German Turks espouse for supporting Erdoğan are undoubtedly diverse. When interviewed during and after the referendum process, respondents often expressed admiration for Erdoğan’s ability to transform Turkey “from a developing country to the 17th-largest economy in the world”. Nationalist tropes of Turkish pride and greatness were often emphasised.

At the same time, many also presented much more nuanced arguments as to why they supported a presidential system under Erdoğan. And, to be sure, some of them patently felt out of touch with Germany in general and with its political scene in particular. These individuals would not shy away from denouncing those campaigning against the presidential system of being “traitors” and of “having become German”.(( https://www.rbb-online.de/politik/beitrag/2017/04/tuerkei-referendum-reaktionen-neukoelln.html ))

Yet many Yes voters interviewed felt in no way to be on the margins of German life. They asserted that their home country was Germany and that ‘their’ president was “definitely” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the new German head of state, rather than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Nevertheless, they deemed it their duty to strengthen the position of the only man they deemed able to prevent Turkey from sliding back into instability.(( https://www.zdf.de/kultur/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-vom-14-april-2017-100.html ))

A community divided

In the aftermath of the referendum, old and new disagreements within the German Turkish community have come to the fore again. The opponents of enlarged presidential powers accused their fellow German Turks for failing to even comprehend the latitude of the proposed constitutional changes, instead voting blindly in favour of their strongman Erdoğan.

Others could not get over what they saw as an enormous cognitive dissonance – the fact that the partisans of a Yes vote cast a democratic ballot in Germany in order to undermine democracy in Turkey.(( https://www.rbb-online.de/politik/beitrag/2017/04/tuerkei-referendum-reaktionen-neukoelln.html ))

The most pervasive sentiment among opponents of the constitutional changes has been fear – fear of being targeted by communal violence or by the organs of Erdoğan’s state. The president’s supporters were, nevertheless, unfazed: they celebrated their Erdoğan’s win in Germany’s streets.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-04/deutschtuerken-referendum-tuerkei-evet-hayir-berlin-kottbusser-tor ))

Elected Politicians with a Muslim Background in the UK, France and Germany


The UK

Information collected by euro-islam contributor Shayna Solomon

In the most recent elections, in 2015, the 13 Muslims were elected (or reelected) to the House of Commons, of which 6 were women. Only one Muslim former MP, Anas Sarwar lost the election in his Glasgow constituency. In 2015, Sadiq Khan also was elected to become the mayor of London, making him the first Muslim mayor of a major Western city. The current Muslim members of parliament are as follows:

Imran Hussain

Born 1978 in Bradford, West Yorkshire to a working class family, he started his political career in 2003 at the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council. In his first run for Parliament, he unexpectedly lost to George Galloway in 2012. He mostly fits within the Momentum branch of the Labour party.

Labour since 2015
Khalid Mahmood

Born in 1961, trained as an engineer. 1990-1993 Birmingham City Councillor. He entered the parliament in 2001, failed to be re-elected in 2005, but won his seat back in 2010.

Labour 2001-2005 since 2010
Naseem ‘Naz’ Shah

Shah is the Labour MP for Bradford West. She is a women’s rights activist, advocating for policies to protect women from domestic violence and stopping forced marriage. She has also challenged the Prevent policy.

Labour since 2015
Yasmin Qureshi

Born in 1963 in Gujrat, moved to Britain in 1972, qualified as a barrister. Was the Head of the Criminal Legal Section of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the Director of the department of Judicial Administration in Kosovo. She served as the London Mayor’s Human Rights advisor and entered parliament in 2010 as one of the three first female Muslim MPs.

Labour since 2010
Shabana Mahmood

Born in Birmingham, she was educated at Oxford and worked as a barrister. In 2010 she entered the parliament as one of the first three Muslim women to become British MPs.

Labour since 2010
Rushnara Ali

Born in Bangladesh, moved to Britain at age of seven, grown up in London’s East End, educated at Oxford. She had jobs in Parliament, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office before being elected one of the first female Muslim MPs in 2010.

Labour since 2010
Sajid Javid

Born in the UK, studied economics and politics, worked as a banker. He was elected as one of the first two Muslim MPs of the Conservative Party in 2010.

Conservative since 2010
Rehman Chishti

Studied law and worked as a barrister before pursuing a political career. Along with Sajid Javid he is the first Conservative MP of Muslim background.

Conservative since 2010
Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh 

Born in Chelsea London in 1970 to a political family her father was the first Asian councilor in Scotland), Ahmed-Sheik is a lawyer, actress, and businesswoman. Ahmed-Sheikh serves as the Trade and Investment spokesperson for the SNP, as well as its National Women’s and Equalities Officer.

Scottish National Party Since 2015
Rupa Asha Huq

Dr Huq is a Sociology lecturer by training and currently serves as the MP for Ealing Central and Acton, both in London. She has also served as the former consort to the deputy mayor of Ealing.

Labour Since 2015
Tulip Rizwana Siddiq 

Siddiq was both in 1982 in London. She currently serves as the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn and the vice-chairwoman for the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism. She is also the Shadow Education Minister.

Labour since 2015
Nusrat Munir Ul-Ghani

Born in 1972 in Birmingham, Ghani is the MP for Wealdon in East Sussex.  She has worked for several charities and the BBC World Service. She lost her first parliamentary election in 2010 but won in 2015. She was the first Muslim Conservative woman to be elected to the Parliament.

Conservative Since 2015

 

There are also Muslim politicians in the immediately pre-Brexit European Parliament. In the 2014 European elections, the number of Muslim British MEPs doubled. There were previously two Conservative Muslim MEPs, Syed Kamall and Sajjad Karim. These MEPs retained their seats and were joined in the European Parliament by Afzal Khan (Labor) and Amjad Bashir (UKIP). More information about Muslims in the 2014 European elections can be found here.

 

FRANCE

Information collected by euro-islam contributor, Selene Campion

 

Muslim Parliament Members in France (out of 577)

 

  1. Ibrahim Aboubacar (Parti socialiste), Mayotte (2nd district), born 1965 in Comoros, Constitutional Acts, Legislation and General Administration Committee

 

 

  1. Pouria Amirshahi (unattached), French citizens living outside of France, born 1972 in Iran, Cultural and Education Committee

 

  1. Kader Arif, (Parti socialiste), Haute-Garonne (10th district), born 1959 in Algeria, Foreign Affairs Committee

 

 

  1. Kheira Bouziane-Laroussi, (Parti socialiste ), Côte-d’Or (3rd  district), born 1953 in Algeria, Social Affairs Committee

 

  1. M. Georges Fenech, (Les Républicains), Rhône (11th district), born 1954 in Tunisia, Constitutional Acts, Legislation and General Administration Committee
  2. 6. Razzy Hammadi, (Parti socialiste), Seine-Saint-Denis (7th  district), born 1979 in Toulon to Algerian and Tunisian parents, Financial Commission

7.  Kléber Mesquida, (Parti socialiste), Hérault (5th district), born 1945 in Algeria, Economic Affairs Committee

European Parliament

Karima Delli: Europe Écologie Les Verts (EEEV); since June 2009 in North West district, Algerian parents; born in France.

 

Tokia Saifi: Les Républicains; since 1999 North West district; Algerian father; born in France.

 

Rachida Dati: Les Républicains; since July 2009 in Ile-de-France district; Moroccan mother and Algerian

 

 

Muslim politicians in Germany

Information gathered by euro-islam contributor, Jacob Lypp

 

Following the 2013 Federal Elections, 8 Muslim representatives entered or re-entered parliament of which 4 were women. This means that 1.3 per cent of Germany’s 630 federal-level parliamentarians are Muslim. This compares to Muslim’s share of roughly 5 per cent of Germany’s 82 million inhabitants.

Sevim Dağdelen

After having worked as a journalist, Dağdelen joined the Bundestag in 2005. Since then, she has been one of the most prominent figures of the anti-capitalist wing of The Left. The professed atheist has caused a number of stirs, including by stating her support for the Kurdish PKK.

The Left Since 2005
Ekin Deligöz

After her studies of public administration, Deligöz, a long-time Green Party activist, acquired German nationality and quickly joined the Bundestag. Since then, she has been involved mostly in budgeting commissions.

Bündnis 90/ The Greens Since 1998
Cemile Giousouf

Following her studies in political science, Giousouf joined the CDU, becoming the party’s first Muslim MP in 2013. She serves as the CDU’s Commissioner for Integration.

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Since 2013
Özcan Mutlu

Mutlu studied electrical engineering and joined the Green Party in 1990. He was elected to the state parliament of Berlin in 1999 before joining the Bundestag in 2013, serving as his party’s spokesman for education and sport. In 2013, he received negative media attention for his attendance of an event organized by the Islamic Community Milli Görüş.

Bündnis 90/ The Greens Since 2013
Omid Nouripour

He is the Green Party spokesman for Foreign Affairs in the German Parliament. Despite being the chairman of the German-American parliamentary cooperation group, Nouripour was initially targeted by the first instantiation of President Trump’s executive order on immigration due to his German-Iranian dual citizenship.

Bündnis 90/ The Greens Since 2006
Cem Özdemir

A member of the centrist wing of the Green Party, Özdemir became the first Muslim MP in the country upon his election in 1994. After a stint in the European Parliament, he returned to the Bundestag in 2013. He has been one of the co-chairs of the Green Party since 2008 and is part of the leadership duo spearheading the Green effort for the 2017 federal elections. He has been a vocal commentator on German-Turkish relations and on the role of the Turkish-dominated Islamic associations.

Bündnis 90/The Greens Since 1994
Mahmut Özdemir

Born in 1987, Özdemir interrupted his law studies to take up his parliamentary seat. He represents the northern parts of Duisburg, an area of high poverty and neglect often presented in media discourses as an epitome of ‘failed immigration’.

Social Democratic Party (SPD) Since 2013
Aydan Özoğuz

An MP since 2009, Özoğuz became one of the SPD’s six vice-chairs in 2011. She is her party’s spokesperson on issues of migration and diversity. Since 2013, she serves as the Federal Government’s Commissioner for Migration, Refugees, and Integration.

Social Democratic Party (SPD) Since 2009

 

European Parliament

Ismail Ertug

While working in the healthcare sector, Ertug joined the SPD in 1999. After a stint in the city council of Amberg, Ertug was elected to the European Parliament in 2009. He has since worked on issues of infrastructure and tourism, as well as on environmental issues and on EU-Turkey relations.

Social Democratic Party (SPD Since 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

German Turks split on referendum, Erdoğan’s critique of Europe

In Turkey, voting for the country’s crucial constitutional referendum will take place on April 16, 2017. President Erdoğan is hoping for a resounding Evet (Yes) vote in order to transform Turkey into a presidential republic and to enhance the powers of his office. In Germany, 1.4 million German Turks holding a Turkish passport were already able to vote between March 27 and April 9 in consulates and 13 polling stations around the country.

German Turks as a critical constituency

As opinion polls in Turkey have tightened, German Turks have become a crucial factor in the election, potentially able to tip the scales either way. Consequently, AKP politicians have spent considerable energy on trying to mobilise Turkish voters in Germany in favour of the presidential system.

The German government and local administrations proceeded to prohibit several campaign speeches by Turkish ministers. None of these events had diplomatic consequences as severe as the Netherlands’ expulsion of the Turkish Minister for Family Affairs shortly before the Dutch election.(( https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/11/erdogan-brands-dutch-nazi-remnants-for-barring-turkish-mp )) Nevertheless, the Turkish leadership has not openly accused German authorities of fascist practices and of seeking to weaken Turkey by preventing a Yes-vote in the referendum.

Belated organisation of the No campaign

Compared to the Evet camp, their Hayır (No) opponents, have tended to organise late in Germany. Fears of potential repercussions of an open anti-Erdoğan stance appear to have played a role in this.

In recent weeks, German media have reported on extensive intelligence and spying operations of the Turkish secret service, MİT. The agency has a strong presence in Germany with reportedly 400 full-time employees. Observers noted MİT’s attempt to spread a “climate of fear” among Turkish dissidents in Germany – Kurds, Gülenists, Kemalists, and leftists alike.(( http://www.dw.com/de/geheimdienstexperte-t%C3%BCrkei-sch%C3%BCrt-ein-klima-der-angst/a-38158666?maca=de-domschule-de-pol-we-eur-1200-rdf ))

At first sight, the German Turkish vote appears Erdoğan’s vote to lose: In 2015’s parliamentary elections, 60 per cent of German Turks opted for the AKP. However, less than 50 per cent of those eligible to vote actually cast a ballot, leaving a considerable marge of uncertainty over the actual allegiances of the community.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/deutschtuerken-gegen-erdogans-referendum-14928470-p2.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

A loyalty questioned

Against the backdrop of this uncertainty, the outcome of the referendum among German Turks seems just as unforeseeable as the overall referendum result. What is certain, however, is that the Turks and people of Turkish heritage living in Germany have been placed in a real bind. As relations between Berlin and Ankara have soured, their loyalty to Germany has been questioned time and again.

What is more, on the conservative side of the political spectrum there have been repeated attempts to roll back dual citizenship provisions, with the aim of forcing German Turks to choose between their allegiance to Turkey or to Germany.

Europe and Germany as the villain

With the Turkish President – the strongman and thus the very embodiment of the Turkish nation to many of his supporters – receiving unprecedented opprobrium in much of mainstream German political and media discourses, some German Turks have shifted to a more pro-Erdoğan position.

Many young attendees at a loyalist rally led by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu evoked feelings of indignation at what they perceived to be a humiliation of Turkey in the German press. More generally, many of them asserted that the restrictions placed on Turkish politicians’ speeches showed that Germany was not a true democracy and that freedom of speech was systematically limited to their detriment.(( http://www.jetzt.de/politik/deutschtuerken-wie-denken-sie-ueber-erdogan-und-die-deutsche-politik ))

This line is also held by the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), a pro-AKP lobbying organisation active in Turkish communities across Europe. Its chairman Zafer Sırakaya asserted that “at the moment in Germany freedom of opinion and freedom of assembly only apply to the opponents of the constitutional reform”.(( http://uetd.org/meinungs-und-versammlungsfreiheit-haben-nur-gegner-der-tuerkischen-verfassungsreform/?lang=de ))

Taking a stand against dictatorship in Turkey

Conversely, the largest ethnically Turkish association in Germany, Türkische Gemeinde in Deutschland (TGD), has become a vocal critic of Erdoğan since 2013 and openly supports the No campaign.(( http://www.tgd.de/2017/03/22/referendum-in-der-tuerkei-worum-geht-es-eigentlich/ )). The association, together with a number of German Turkish politicians, also published a manifesto calling for a No vote and declaring solidarity with oppressed groups in Turkey.(( https://www.mehr-demokratie.de/tuerkei-aufruf.html ))

These sentiments are echoed in the statements of many of those German Turks willing to speak about their objections to the presidential system and Erdoğan’s quest for power to the media (although some only do so on condition of anonymity).(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/gelsenkirchen-was-deutsch-tuerken-ueber-erdogan-denken-a-1107002.html ))

Feridun Zaimoğlu, writer and public intellectual captured an oft-voiced argument when he stated that “as a Turk or German Turk one cannot benefit from freedom in Germany and then vote for the unfreedom of Turkey. Whoever does that is a coward. And sick.”(( http://www.zeit.de/2017/15/deutschtuerken-referendum-wahlkampf-tuerkei/komplettansicht ))

A community divided

Yet the sentiment perhaps most widely expressed by German Turks is a sentiment of regret. They perceive the diplomatic rows as a threat to their position in Germany. The stance on President Erdoğan and his constitutional referendum has become to many a choice between Turkey and Germany.

This choice also divides friends and family, with close family members breaking off contact or insulting each other as ‘traitors’.(( http://www.zeit.de/2017/15/deutschtuerken-referendum-wahlkampf-tuerkei/komplettansicht )) How these divisions could be healed in the future is anybody’s guess.

‘Diversity’ and its pitfalls: The role of Muslim representatives in German parliaments

Ahead of this year’s federal election in Germany, it is worth taking stock of the current assembly and its composition. More particularly, given the particular focus on issues of immigration and integration in the election campaign, the number of Muslim representatives it is worth scrutinising. To what extent do German Muslims actually have the possibility to contribute politically to debates and legislative reforms on issues that their own community will be most affected by?

A growing number of MPs of ‘migration background’

When it was elected in September 2013, the 18th Bundestag, as it is referred to in official nomenclature, was the most diverse in the Parliament’s recent history: of its 630 members, 5.6 per cent or 35 MPs had a ‘migration background’. In German parlance, this refers to an individual that is either an immigrant or has a at least one parent born outside of the Federal Republic.(( http://www.migazin.de/2013/09/24/bundestag-abgeordnete-mit-migrationshintergrund/ ))

This represents a marked increase over the previous legislative period, in which only 3.4 per cent of representatives had such a background. At the same time, these numbers remain a far cry from the 19 per cent of the overall German population who have at least one parent born abroad.(( http://www.migazin.de/2013/09/24/bundestag-abgeordnete-mit-migrationshintergrund/ ))

A higher number of Muslim representatives

A similar picture obtains with respect to Muslim representatives. The number of Muslims living in Germany is an unclear – and, by now, politically contested – figure; yet some estimates put the number of Muslims living in Germany at the moment of the 2013 federal election at roughly 4 million, equivalent to 5 per cent of the country’s population.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/umfrage-zahl-der-muslime-in-deutschland-wird-deutlich-ueberschaetzt/10975728.html ))

At the same time, only roughly half of Muslims living in the contry also held German citizenship in 2013. A fair share of these two million Muslim citizens will, furthermore, be underage and thus not hold the right to participate at the polls. The Federal Office of Statistics thus estimated in 2009 that only 750,000 German Muslims were eligible to vote.(( http://www.huffingtonpost.de/yasin-bas/parteien-islam-muslime_b_9819518.html ))

In spite of this, the Muslim share of the German population is still underrepresented in parliament: a mere eight of the current Bundestag’s members are of Muslim faith, making for slightly less 1.3 per cent of parliamentarians. At the same time it is worth noting that the number of Muslim MPs more than doubled in comparison to the previous session of parliament (2009-2013), which included only three Muslims.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/abgeordnete-im-neuen-bundestag-fieser-freiherr-trifft-film-kommissar-1.1798554-4 ))

Split along party lines

With four of their 63 lawmakers adhering to Islam, the Greens supply the largest number of Muslim parliamentarians. One of the party’s leadership figures, Cem Özdemir, had, in 1994, become the country’s first Muslim MP.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/abgeordnete-im-neuen-bundestag-fieser-freiherr-trifft-film-kommissar-1.1798554-4 ))

A very vocal presence has been the first ever Muslim member of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Cemile Giousouf. Nevertheless, in terms of their voting behaviour and political affiliation, German Muslims have traditionally been closer to the Social Democrats than to the Conservatives; a fact potentially influenced by the working-class background of many of the so-called ‘guest workers’.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/migranten-und-politik-diese-parteien-waehlen-einwanderer/14851994.html ))

As Euro-Islam reported, a group of Turkish Muslim politicians is currently seeking to challenge this status quo, by building a Muslim platform within the CDU. Whilst offering potential electoral gains by increasing the Conservatives’ share of the Muslim vote, their initiative has been viewed with some suspicion by the party leadership.

Divergences at state level

Data is much harder to come by for Germany’s 16 state parliaments, let alone for local administrations. Browsing through the lists of state representatives published by the respective assemblies, however, confirms the broad trends observable at the national level.

Policy-makers of an immigrant and/ or Muslim background tend to fall on the left of the political spectrum. Often the roots of their political activism lie in the labour movement. What is more, a glance at the list of elected decision-makers from the urban city-states of Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen – all traditional strongholds of the left – consistently (and perhaps unsurprisingly) show higher levels of MP diversity.

Conversely, the parliaments of the traditionally conservative, territorially larger and more rural states of the German south such as Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria scarcely contain members whose names do not strike the voter as immediately ethnically German.

Interestingly enough, this pattern is replicated in the capitals of these two states, Stuttgart and Munich, in spite of the fact that these two cities are among the most ethnically diverse in the country. Low degrees of representativeness of immigrants and Muslims cannot, therefore, be simply a function of an lower share of immigrants and Muslims in the population at large.

Going beyond mere numbers

The number of Muslims and persons of different ethnic backgrounds in state and federal parliaments is, undoubtedly, important. These figures do offer important insights into the dynamics that allow or disallow all sectors of the population to participate in political life. In this respect, obvious deficiencies are apparent: Germany’s parliaments are clearly do not ‘represent’ – in a very basic sense of the word – the diversity of the country’s population.

Beyond that, however, we may also ask what the Muslim members of parliament actually do. In this respect, it is striking – even though again not necessarily surprising – that many of them fill the offices of ‘commissioners for immigration’ or ‘integration ombudsman’ or other ostentatiously ‘diversity’-oriented positions.

To be sure, this is nothing to object to in principle: it seems logical to entrust for instance issues of migration to people who, perhaps because of their own biography, might have an affinity and a passion for the issue at hand. In a political climate in which voices from all sides of the spectrum talk of ‘integration of Muslims’, it is key that a Muslim voice is also heard in the relevant governmental departments; otherwise, the conversation becomes one that is always about Muslims but never involves them as actors.

Poster children of ‘diversity’

Yet this lopsided participation of Muslim and immigrant representatives in governmental functions also seems indicative of a dynamic in which all those whose names and physiognomy indicate ‘diversity’ are first and foremost shunted into departments and positions in which they deal with ‘people of their own kind’.

On this somewhat unkind but arguably realistic appreciation of Muslim representatives positioning on the political scene, mere numbers are not necessarily indicative of equal participation. Surely many of Germany’s aspiring Muslim politicians or even politically interested youth would be interested in pursing other political offices not oriented towards ‘diversity’.

No hijabs to be seen

Finally, in none of Germany’s parliaments there are female members wearing the hijab. In part, this is undoubtedly due to the abovementioned fact that leftist parties are more likely to include Muslims (or women, for that matter). Conceivably, the secularist views of left-wing parties’ female Muslim members mean that they are simply less likely to wear the headcovering.

At the same time, the saga of judicial wrangling about issues of ‘state neutrality’ has been long and is ongoing. Consequently, prohibitions on the display of religious symbols in some domains of the public sector are in force in some of Germany’s federal states. Against this backdrop, a hijab-wearing MP would be a major challenge to the status quo.

In 2014, Muslim associations reported with contentment that a female Muslim student wearing a headscarf had completed an internship in the Bundestag office of her local Conservative member of parliament.(( http://islam.de/24212.php )) Whether she and other young Muslim women will be able rise to the position of MP in the future remains to be seen.

Rising numbers of Islamic burials pose challenges to German cemeteries

For a long time, German Muslims have predominantly buried their dead abroad: especially the members of the country’s large Turkish community preferred to find their final resting place ‘back home’. Many of the so-called guest workers had envisaged a return to Turkey during their lifetimes but stayed on in Germany for work or for the sake of their families. The return home was delayed until after death.

Yet for some of the children of those who moved to Germany, the ties to their ancestors’ country of origin are increasingly remote. For others, the expense of a costly transfer of the body is simply too high; although this factor is often offset by the high cost of maintaining a grave in Germany. For yet others, warfare in their countries of origin makes a return for burial impossible.

All of this has led to a strong rise in demand for burials in conformity with Islamic rites in Germany. A seemingly innocuous issue, questions and perceptions surrounding these burials are indicative of the complex processes of adaptation Muslim communities undergo in the Western European context – as well as of the challenges this processes involves.

Running afoul of German law

To begin with, a number of Muslim traditions run counter to German legal regulations.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/menschen/bestattung-von-muslimen-teilweise-problematisch-14942392.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 )) In Germany, burial heeds to be carried out by an expressly hired professional undertaker; a notion unknown in other parts of the world. At the same time, there is not just a need for familiarity with the Islamic ritual on the part of the undertaker, but also for specific facilities to wash the dead body.

Muslim tradition encourages burial within 24 hours after death. Yet the slowly grinding mills of the German bureaucracy mean that burials cannot generally be accomplished in less than 48 hours. Medical regulations ate at times also adduced against quicker burial.

When it comes to the actual burial site itself, Muslims’ graves are customarily oriented towards Mecca – a requirement that cannot be fulfilled by most regular German cemeteries since the existing lines of graves are ordered differently.

What is more, in a somewhat macabre twist, an ‘eternal resting place’ in Germany generally means a maximum of 20 or 25 years – after that, graves are reallocated. Maintaining a grave beyond that point may be either impossible or dramatically increase the price of the grave lease. According to Muslim tradition, however, the dead should be buried in untouched earth and should have a genuinely eternal last home.

To name but one more hurdle, many administrations and cemeteries across the country require bodies to be buried in a coffin; a practice forbidden in Quranic tradition.

Pragmatic solutions

In many cases, practical solutions have been found.((https://www.welt.de/regionales/hamburg/article162782576/Wie-sich-deutsche-Friedhoefe-fuer-Muslime-veraendern.html )) Specialised Islamic undertaking businesses have cropped up all over the country, offering their services to a Muslim clientele. Especially larger towns and cities have begun to create Muslim sections in their cemeteries in order to accommodate graves oriented towards Mecca.

Some municipalities have been more lenient on the rules restricting early burial, provided that no medical reasons demand that the burial be postponed. A specifically Muslim cemetery is set to open in the city of Wuppertal, offering graves with an unlimited lease.

Enduring challenges

In some cases, however, such solutions have proved elusive. Three German states – Bavaria, Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt – continue to categorically prohibit burials without a coffin while others no longer require the casket.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/menschen/bestattung-von-muslimen-teilweise-problematisch-14942392.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

For some on the political right, upholding the so-called ‘coffin obligation’ (Sargpflicht) has become a matter of principled defence of autochthon values and traditions. (It should perhaps be noted that burials in a coffin were only introduced in Germany in the 18th century, making it a tradition presumably less essential to local identity than one might think.(( http://www.brauchwiki.de/Beerdigungsriten )))

Acts of vandalism

Nor have Muslims’ graves gone unnoticed in largely (post-)Christian neighbourhoods, with some expressing anxieties about the expansion of cemeteries’ Islamic sections. Only a month ago a series of Muslim graves was vandalised and desecrated by swastika signs in the southern town of Aalen.(( http://www.swr.de/swraktuell/bw/aalen-muslimische-graeber-auf-friedhof-geschaendet/-/id=1622/did=19107694/nid=1622/1tyli8u/index.html ))

Yet apparently it is not only the far right that has been bent on destroying graves: in 2011, Islamic religious purists appear to have embarked on a purge in the Muslim section of a cemetery in Bielefeld, smashing angel figurines, terracotta sculptures and other ‘German-style’ adornments.

Since the graves themselves and a number of other Islamic symbols remained untouched, police surmised that the vandals only attacked those elements they deemed offensive to their restrictive understanding of Islam.(( http://www.nw.de/lokal/bielefeld/mitte/mitte/4902487_30-muslimische-Graeber-geschaendet.html ))

The salience of identity politics

The question of death and burial is thus surprisingly revelatory about the nature of Muslim life in Germany. The scope for pragmatic accommodation balancing German legal frameworks and Muslim traditions seem large; yet a fair amount of intransigence from various players in the system also makes this room for manoeuvre more difficult to use. Identity politics in its more toxic forms – emanating from ethnically German xenophobes and Islamist fundamentalists alike – leaves its mark.

More generally, when following this issue in the centre-right section of the mainstream media, one is struck by the whole range of contradictory emotions and expectations that German Muslims are faced with: the implicit reproach of a lack of loyalty is directed at those who choose burial abroad. Yet at the same time, the expansion of Islamic segments on German cemeteries is greeted with a certain amount of suspicion and civilizational angst.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/menschen/bestattung-von-muslimen-teilweise-problematisch-14942392.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

In this manner, all sides manage to project their political ambitions onto Muslims’ final resting places. At times, the resulting debate seems almost as eternal as the peace people from across religious divides are seeking for their dead.

The ECJ’s ruling on the hijab in the workplace: Implications for Germany

On March 14, the European Court of Justice issued a widely expected and potentially consequential ruling on the right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf in their workplace. In its decision, the Luxembourg Court appeared to grant a surprisingly wide leeway to private sector employers to restrict their workers’ right of religious freedom.

The cases under scrutiny

The cases had been brought by two Muslim women from Belgium and France, respectively, who had been fired for wearing a hijab. In the case of the French plaintiff, the Court argued that her dismissal had been illegal insofar as it had seemingly been based on the complaint of a single customer who disliked the fact that she wore the Muslim head covering.

Conversely, a workplace ban on the hijab can be compliant with European directives on anti-discrimination, religious freedom, and worker’s rights, according to the Court. Preconditions for the legality of such a ban include (a) the generalised nature of the provision so that not just the hijab but all religious symbols are targeted; and (b) the existence of good reasons for such a ban.((See http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=188853&pageIndex=0&doclang=SV&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=333910 for the decision.))

German reactions to the verdict

Muslim figures and associations in Germany have reacted with dismay to the ruling. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) criticised that the ruling amounted to “a renunciation of guaranteed liberty rights”.

According to the ZMD, the decision risks forcing women to decide between religious convictions and employment, meaning that constitutional guarantees of anti-discrimination and religious freedom “are not worth the paper they are written on.”(( http://zentralrat.de/28546.php )) The sentiment was echoed by the chairman of the German DİTİB branch, Bekir Alboğa.(( http://www.handelsblatt.com/politik/deutschland/kopftuch-verbot-islam-verbaende-kritisieren-eugh-urteil-/19515956.html ))

Green party politician Volker Beck criticised that the verdict was “not a good signal for freedom and pluralism”, while the Commissioner for anti-discrimination of the federal government warned that employers should be careful and sparing in prohibiting the hijab.(( https://de.qantara.de/content/eugh-erlaubt-kopftuch-verbot-im-job-aber-mit-auflagen ))

Legal theory vs. politicised practice

The Court’s verdict does indeed raise numerous questions. The first of them is above all practical and concerns the decision’s real-life implications. To be sure, on paper the Court’s verdict displays a considerable amount of acumen: the judges highlight, for instance, that a workplace rule on religious symbols that is “apparently neutral” on paper but in fact results in discrimination of particular beliefs is illegal.((See http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=188853&pageIndex=0&doclang=SV&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=333910, paragraph 32))

Yet it seems that here the Court simply chose to hide behind what verges on legal sophistry. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper pointed out, in its practical repercussions the verdict will almost exclusively target Muslim women since it is the hijab—rather than any other religious symbol—that has become the object of political debate in recent years.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/karriere/religionsfreiheit-am-arbeitsplatz-der-islam-wird-als-stoerend-betrachtet-1.3419227 )) Legal decisions do not occur in a political void.

Fundamental questions of rights in a capitalist economy

The second issue that the verdict raises is of a more principled nature. It is indeed striking that the ECJ saw no problem with allowing private sector employers to restrict the religious freedom of their workers while only providing the haziest of all guidelines as to when such restrictions are legitimate.

Some commentators have asserted that the verdict constitutes a victory of French-style laïcité over the kind of tolerance other Member States have continued to exhibit vis-à-vis religion in the public sphere.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/karriere/religionsfreiheit-am-arbeitsplatz-der-islam-wird-als-stoerend-betrachtet-1.3419227 )) Yet in contrast to laïcité, which is above all concerned with the public sphere of citizenship, the Court’s decision signals an empowerment of the private sector and a victory of capital over workers’ rights.

The German legal context

Within the particularities of the German context, the precise implications of the verdict are, however, not yet quite clear. Legal contestation over the headscarf in Germany has focused on the public sector. In recent years, Germany’s Constitutional Court has declared blanket bans of the hijab in this area to be unconstitutional.

Yet courts have also dealt with private sector cases. In 2002, the Federal Labour Court decided in favour of a Muslim shop assistant who had been fired because of her headscarf. Conversely, church-related (and hence confessional) private sector employers were given greater leeway to prohibit their staff from wearing headscarves in 2014.(( http://www.zeit.de/news/2017-03/14/eu-kopftuch-verbot-am-arbeitsplatz-diskriminierung-oder-nicht-14075603 ))

Courts of lower instance have subsequently regularly—but not always—struck a comparatively permissive line, allowing the headscarf to be worn; or at least declaring that the particular prohibitions of the hijab that Muslim claimants had challenged were not legally sound.(( http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/07/15/german-hijab-debate-court-vetoes-current-restrictions-hijab-bavarian-justice-system-caveat/, http://www.euro-islam.info/2017/02/10/hijab-german-public-schools-new-court-case-lets-old-questions-resurface/))

Clashing legal doctrines

For now, the ECJ’s ruling raises the spectre of differential standards in public and private sectors, with the former governed by the more liberal German provisions and the latter under the influence of the more restrictive interpretation from Luxemburg.

In the longer term, the ECJ’s decision highlights the question of a possible clash between German and European law on the matter of the headscarf.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/karriere/religionsfreiheit-am-arbeitsplatz-der-islam-wird-als-stoerend-betrachtet-1.3419227))