The chimaera of a ‘liberal’ Islam: the fate of the new mosque in Berlin

The opening of a self-styled ‘liberal’ mosque in Berlin – marked by the mixing of genders, the absence of headscarves, and the openness to pluralistic understandings of Islam – by lawyer and activist Seyran Ateş has sparked a media frenzy both in Germany and abroad.

Liberal and conservative media outlets have celebrated the mosque. Liberals see it as much-needed proof that Islam is capable of ‘reform’ and that Islamophobic discourse is not only morally objectionable but also factually mistaken. Conservatives welcome the establishment of the mosque as heralding an Islamicality that is thoroughly ‘integrated’ and ‘assimilated’ to the German context.

Muted reaction at home

The reaction of Islamic institutions from abroad – most notably from Turkey and Egypt – has been similarly loud, although fiercely critical: religious authorities in Ankara and Cairo have castigated the new mosque as a doctrinal abomination.

Yet while many media outlets were quick to pick up on the pugnacious hostility coming from state-controlled Muslim institutions in the Middle East, the arguably more important aspect of the Muslim response to the mosque went almost completely unscrutinised: hardly anyone bothered to take into account the perspective of German Muslims themselves. And in contrast to journalists across the world and state clerics in the Middle East, German Muslims have so far been comparatively unfazed by the mosque.

Isolated high-level endorsements

To be sure, a number of Muslim public figures have given their largely favourable opinions. Sawsan Chebli, high-ranking Social Democratic member of the government of the state of Berlin, took to Twitter to greet the mosque’s establishment. (She was then heckled by both an Islamophobe on the one hand and an infamous former journalist-turned-Salafi-activist deeming the mosque to be a desecration of Islam on the other hand).(( https://twitter.com/SawsanChebli/status/878268593359642625 ))

Beyond these isolated exchanges, however, responses of high-level Muslim actors have been scarce. Most notably, the ‘conservative’ Islamic foundations – i.e. the main targets of the mosque – have kept an icy silence.

Even the chairman of the ZMD association, Aiman Mazyek, the most vocal representative of the established foundations, contented himself with asserting that those who seek to distinguish a ‘liberal’ from a ‘conservative’ Islam unduly politicise the religion. When asked how he felt about Ateş’ mosque, he refused to comment, simply stating: “she should do whatever she wants”.(( http://vorab.bams.de/der-vorsitzende-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-aiman-mazyek-lehnt-eine-unterteilung-des-islam-in-liberal-oder-konservativ-ab/ ))

Lack of popular engagement

Yet the true disappointment for Ateş must be the extremely limited response of ordinary Muslim believers to her mosque. At the first Friday prayers, the congregation was far outnumbered by journalists; and one week later barely any faithful bothered to show up.

According to Ateş herself, this lack of attendees is due to the fact that liberal Muslims must be afraid of recriminations if they display their progressive ideas about religion openly.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article165832629/Die-meisten-liberalen-Muslime-haben-Angst.html )) Of course this possibility cannot be discounted and might very well be true in some cases.

Yet the much larger problem that appears to beset the new mosque is its lack of religious credibility. Most notably, Ateş herself has given very little indication in the past of any will to thoughtfully engage with Islam. Instead, she has chosen the populist route, with for instance her past polemics against headscarf and religious conservatism antagonising virtually all active Muslim politicians from among Greens, Social Democrats, and Christian Democrats.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/reaktion-auf-kommentar-gruene-muslime-greifen-islamkritikerin-seyran-ates-an/1603712.html ))

What is more, although Ateş has stated that she wishes to become an Imam, so far she does not hold any formal qualification to lead prayer. The fact that she also decided to publish a self-referential book on the day of the mosque’s opening – the work is titled Selam Mrs. Imam: How I Founded a Liberal Mosque in Berlin – adds to the perception that the project is too much about her rather than about a genuine attempt at religious reflection.

“Liberal Islam is a chimaera”

In a piece for Qantara.de, journalist Loay Modhoon takes up many of these issues, arguing that “liberal Islam is a chimaera”.(( https://en.qantara.de/content/berlins-new-mosque-liberal-islam-is-a-chimaera )) According to Modhoon, “fervent enthusiasm in the media and political realm cannot […] gloss over two fundamental problems”:

Firstly: so-called “liberal Islam” consists of individuals, public personalities; it has no structure to speak of. In Germany there are now a number of civil society initiatives by liberal Muslims, but their level of organisation is still low, as is their ability to connect with the conservative Muslim mainstream.

Secondly: so far, those who represent liberal Islam are still very vague as far as content is concerned. They usually define themselves by their rejection of conservative Islam. And that’s just too little substance to have a big impact.

Not the first mosque of its kind

Modhoon goes on to note that the Berlin mosque is not the first of its kind, and criticises the vacuity of the supposedly ‘liberal’ Islamic project:

No question about it: the opening of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque is a courageous and remarkable step. But outside Germany liberal mosques like these are not a new phenomenon. Similar mosque projects have already existed for a long time in Britain and the United States.

In addition, the heterogeneous supporters of liberal Islam should have explained – well before the mosque opened – on what Islamic principles their liberal understanding of the religion is based. They should, for example, have held a pertinent debate on the role of Sharia in a secular constitutional state. This would certainly have been helpful in terms of drawing a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable aspects of Sharia.

In other words, just as Turkey’s state authority for religious affairs, Diyanet, cites the “tenets of the Islamic faith” as its reference point, the liberal Muslims should also have justified their efforts with reference to genuine Islamic sources.

State-enforced ‘liberalism’ lacks credibility

In some sense, then, Ateş’ mosque suffers from a set of fairly predictable problems. At the same time, the political environment in which a liberal Islam is being articulated is particularly challenging:

Neither the meagre response to the Muslim peace and anti-terrorism demonstration in Cologne nor the hostile reactions to the opening of the mosque in Berlin can be taken as evidence that Islam is incapable of reform. We are, after all, seeing efforts by Muslim activists all around the world who are striving for reform. The battle over who has the prerogative of interpreting and defining “Islam” is being fought almost everywhere, with a vengeance.

In any case, politicians would be well advised not to privilege particular versions of Islam – neither liberal nor conservative. An Islam protected or even controlled by the state would have no credibility and would be unworthy of a pluralist democracy.

For the ongoing development of Islam in Germany it would therefore be better, in the spirit of our liberal-democratic constitution, to respect the real-life plurality of Muslims and their different understandings of what Islam is – and continue to promote its institutional naturalisation.

Turkish Ambassador to Germany wishes an official Ramadan Gala

July 8, 2014

The ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to Germany, Hüseyin Avni Karslioglu, expressed that he would like to see an official Ramadan gala hosted by the Federal Government. Recognizing the many events taking place within Germany’s constituent federal states, Hüseyin Avni Karslioglu referred particularly to the USA and the Obama administration as one positive example he could think of. He stated that such an event would be symbolic for the arrival of Islam in Germany. Thomas De Mazière as well, Federal Minister of the Interior, upheld Iftar for its capacity to overcome boundaries and described it as an event fostering “reconciliation”.

Young Islam Conference

March 17, 2014

 

The Young Islam Conference sees itself as both a forum for dialogue and a mouthpiece for young Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It seeks to counter prejudice and negative ideas about Islam in Germany. Shohreh Karimian spoke to Esra Küçük, the managing director of the Young Islam Conference, about the forum’s background and aims

 

Source: http://en.qantara.de/content/young-islam-conference-interface-between-politics-and-society

Major challenges for German Islam Conference

February 10, 2014

 

According to experts such as Islam Scholar Michael Kiefer, the German Islam Conference has not made progress, since it was found by former Minister of Interior Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) in 2006. The initial success was the creation of an institutional connection to Islamic representatives and the foundation Islamic studies in schools.

Since then, the dialogue between State and religion representatives has gone through difficult obstacles such as the debate on selection processes through home affairs politicians and constitution protection authorities. The exclusion of extreme Islamic organizations like the Turkish Milli Görüs represented.

Further challenges are questions related to the understanding and representation of Islam in Germany. The current Minister of Interior Thomas de Maizière (CDU) seeks a pragmatic oriented approach to Muslim associations with a “goal-oriented” and “issues-driven” agenda. Muslim associations have welcomed the Ministers approach by sidelining security policy issues, focusing mainly on issues such as the recognition of Islam as a statutory body under public law.

Again, there will be questions related to the representativeness of associations. The growing Islamophobia will be a further challenge to the German Islam Conference. Critics fear the conference to remain an event of political symbolism. The politician Lale Akgün (SPD) claims more representative rights for women. Female teachers of Islamic studies, female Imams would be necessary to enhance a feminist view of Islam, deliberately strengthening a “liberal” Islam in Germany.

 

Qantara: http://en.qantara.de/content/changing-the-orientation-of-germanys-islam-conference-new-agenda-same-old-faces

Germany’s Muslims Call on Designated President to Continue Integration Efforts

20.02.2012

While the debate about Germany’s designated President Gauck is on-going, with many politicians happy about Wulff’s successor, Germany’s Muslims are less euphoric. They have questioned Merkel’s choice of President and expressed their hopes that he will continue Wulff’s integration efforts. During his presidency, Wulff has especially reached out to Muslims in Germany (as reported), whereas Gauck has been silent about accommodating Islam in Germany.

Mathias Rohe on Islamic Theology in Germany *Triggering Global Debates*

In Germany, Islamic theology is being introduced as a university course – a much debated issue in academic terms, but also politically.
In this interview, Mathias Rohe, Germany’s most renowned academic expert on Sharia law, talks about what this means for the development of Islam in Germany and, potentially, on a global level

New Book on the History of Germany’s Islamist Scene

22.07.2011

In his book “Eine Moschee in Deutschland” (A mosque in Germany), which is based on research conducted for a TV documentary on the rise of political Islam in the West, historian Stefan Meinig offers an analysis of the emergence of political Islam in Germany. Meinig traces the rise of Islamist networks in Germany back to the Nazi period and reconstructs their development through the Cold War until the 9/11 attacks in the US. One of Meinig’s claims is that the Islamist scene in Germany was systematically nurtured by intelligence services, starting with Soviet Muslims who were recruited by the Nazis to fight alongside the Germans against the Russians. According to Meinig’s research, after 1945, German officials encouraged former Soviet Muslims to support German interests and prevented them from collaborating with the Americans; they also helped founding the first Muslim association in Germany in 1953. While Meinig claims that major threads of political Islam in Germany then came together in a mosque in Munich, which also has strong connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, reviewers have criticized that these claims seem a bit far-fetched at times. Nevertheless, the book offers a comprehensive overview of the development of Islamist networks in Germany.

Central Council of Jews in Germany Calls for more Tolerance towards Muslims

11.05.2011

The President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, called for more religious tolerance towards Islam in Germany. Graumann argued it was wrong to treat all Muslims as members of a suspect community, as the large majority was living peacefully with people of different faiths. According to Graumann, the idea of a Christian Church as the centre of a local community had to be adjusted to the current situation – the centre of a local community may very well be a mosque.

Social Democrats Pledge for More Muslims in Civil Service

06.05.2011

The Social Democrats have suggested hiring more Muslims for civil service positions in the German police force and in schools. This could be a way of undermining the work of hate preachers and radical Islamists and strengthening a moderate Islam in Germany.

Fighting Islamophobia with Rational Arguments: Interview with Gudrun Krämer

4 February 2011

Renowned scholar of Islam Gudrun Krämer regularly contributes to the public debate on Islam in Germany. She is director of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the Free University Berlin and director of the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies. Her special research subjects include religion, law, politics, society and the modern age of Islam. According to Prof Krämer, the problem with the discourse on Islam and Muslims in Germany is that it generally focuses on “problem areas”, completely ignoring the positive aspects of Muslim life and integration.