German Muslims’ react to election results, rise of far-right AfD party

Germany has gone to the polls – and the results have thoroughly shaken the country’s political scene. The impression, prevailing at times in sections of the liberal international media, of Germany as a beacon of stability in a Western world marred by the rise of populism had for a long time been a faulty one. The election results of September 24th should finally dispel this myth.

A diminished Chancellor

To be sure, Mrs. Merkel will most likely remain Chancellor for a fourth term. Yet after her CDU/CSU party obtained only 32.9 per cent of the popular vote – its worst score since 1949 – many are expecting her to step down and make way for a successor before the next scheduled elections in 2021.((http://www.stuttgarter-zeitung.de/inhalt.kanzlerdaemmerung-in-berlin-wie-lange-bleibt-merkel-noch-kanzlerin.a322c77d-9fc8-4cff-9792-3569fd3cff5a.html ))

Not only the CDU/CSU took a drubbing, however – the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel’s junior partner in the outgoing coalition government, also suffered heavy losses. In what amounted to the SPD’s fourth electoral defeat since its ousting from the chancellery in 2005, the party only took 20.5 per cent of the vote – the worst results of the post-war era.

‘Jamaica’ coalition at odds on immigration, Islam

With the SPD immediately declaring that it would not join another Merkel-led coalition government, the Chancellor is now faced with the unenviable task of having to piece together a new government made up of her CDU/CSU party, the Greens, and the Free Democrats (FDP).

Whilst this coalition is gaily referred to as the “Jamaica” option because of the black, green, and yellow colours of its composite parties, reaching an agreement between conservatives, liberals, and ecologists will be anything but easy.

Not least with respect to questions of immigration, integration, identity, and Islam the three parties espoused strongly diverging positions throughout the electoral campaign. These differences are likely to harden now: the conservative wing of the CDU/CSU is attributing the severe losses of the election night to an insufficiently conservative profile. Long-standing critics of Merkel’s centrist course announced immediately after the publication of the first exit polls that they would seek to “close the party’s right flank”.((http://www.fr.de/politik/bundestagswahl/nach-der-wahl-seehofer-will-die-rechte-flanke-schliessen-a-1357158 ))

Ending Germany’s anti-populist ‘exceptionalism’

This ‘right flank’ had fallen prey to the large-scale electoral gains of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The AfD had started as an anti-Euro movement; it centred on dissatisfaction with what it perceived as an overly concessionary stance on Mrs. Merkel’s part towards Greece and other southern European countries during the Eurozone crisis.

Yet the group quickly took on an anti-immigration line, particularly since the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees in 2015. Ever since, it has developed a staunchly Islamophobic profile and relied upon the calculated breaking of taboos in order to gain attention. Leading party functionaries have strong ties to the Pegida movement, as well as to the neo-Nazi scene.((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/neue-abgeordnete-das-sind-die-radikalen-in-der-afd-fraktion/20361302.html ))

After scoring 12.6 per cent of the popular vote on September 24th, leading AfD politician Alexander Gauland announced to overjoyed supporters that this was the first step to “taking back our country and our people”. This statement built not only on the widespread populist slogan of ‘taking back control’, so widespread for instance in Brexit Britain. It also retained the völkisch-nationalistic tone of the AfD’s election campaign.((http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/bundestagswahl-gauland-afd-wird-die-bundesregierung-jagen.1939.de.html?drn:news_id=795978  ))

“What is wrong with this country?”

The AfD thus emerged as the biggest winner of the election night by far: in 2013, the party had failed to take the five-percent-threshold below which parties do not obtain any parliamentary seats. Whilst it had been expected that the AfD would make it into the Bundestag – and thus constitute the first far-right party to enter the national parliament since 1961 – the populists’ strong showing was nevertheless met with shock by German Muslims.

Many took to Twitter to express their incredulity: lawyer Serkan Kirli asked “What is wrong with this country?”(( https://twitter.com/RA_SerkanKirli/status/912216210045128704 )) And renowned journalist Hakan Tanrıverdi‏ felt like he “had been made a foreigner” by the millions who voted AfD.(( https://twitter.com/hatr/status/912026940986535936 ))

Religious leaders’ reactions

Religious leaders from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups have expressed their concerns over the AfD’s entrance to parliament. Many Christian leaders stressed that the party’s positions were irreconcilably opposed to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. (( https://www.domradio.de/themen/kirche-und-politik/2017-09-25/religionsvertreter-zu-den-ergebnissen-der-bundestagswahl ))

Among the initial Muslim voices, the most widespread fear has been that the established parties might adopt the AfD’s far-right positions in an attempt to regain the trust of the populists’ electorate. Burhan Kesici, leader of the Islamic Council of Germany (IRD), voiced the expectation that “not a single Islamophobic or xenophobic statement be tolerated in the Bundestag”(( http://islamrat.de/kesici-zum-wahlausgang-wir-alle-tragen-eine-historische-verantwortung/ ))

Muslim representatives demand AfD’s ostracism

The Islamic Community Milli Görüş (IGMG) stated that “we expect a clear demarcation against the AfD’s positions”(( http://islamrat.de/kesici-zum-wahlausgang-wir-alle-tragen-eine-historische-verantwortung/ )); a sentiment echoed by Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD). For even if the other parties should make the AfD’s suggestions their own, “in the end”, Mazyek asserted, “voters will not vote for the copy but the original”.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/gastkommentar-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-was-wir-im-umgang-mit-der-afd-falsch-gemacht-haben/20370900.html ))

Non-denominational organisations, such as those representing ethnic Turks in society and in politics, have taken a similar stance. For the Turkish Union in Berlin and Brandenburg (TBB), “the democratic parties are now called upon not to seek any cooperation with the AfD and to refrain from making any AfD positions their own.”(( http://tbb-berlin.de/?id_presse=634 ))

Approach towards AfD and its voter base unclear

What continues to be unclear from the formal statements of German Muslim figures, as well as from the post-election utterances of the mainstream parties, however, is how democratic forces should actually engage with the AfD and its sympathisers.

To many observers – Muslim or other – the desired ‘clear demarcation’ against the AfD amounts to de facto ignoring the populists. Yet it is not only that the AfD managed to gain millions of votes: judging from the party’s behaviour so far, its spite and disregard for democratic rules will simply be difficult to ignore in the Bundestag.

In a post-election opinion piece for the Tagesspiegel newspaper, Aiman Mazyek consequently noted that merely ‘ignoring’ the party would not do: “We should precisely not ignore [the AfD] but rather take on the controversial debate and lead it in the light of the defence of freedom and human rights”. What this might mean in practice remains of course to be seen.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/gastkommentar-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-was-wir-im-umgang-mit-der-afd-falsch-gemacht-haben/20370900.html ))

Explaining the AfD’s rise

In any case, the night of the election was less dominated by a discussion of how to deal with the AfD in the future Bundestag than by the attempt to make sense of its electoral success. Scrutinising the role of the media, ZMD chairman Mazyek highlighted the ways in which populists had managed to set the political agenda through their dominance of airtime.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/gastkommentar-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-was-wir-im-umgang-mit-der-afd-falsch-gemacht-haben/20370900.html ))

In particular, he criticised the TV duel, which had focused overwhelmingly on issues of migration, integration and Islam, and in which suggestions that migrants were dangerous scum wishing to drain the German welfare state and upend the country’s social order went unchallenged.

A deeper process

Yet whilst the media circus obviously boosted the AfD’s taboo-breaking messages by giving them a disproportionate share of the broadcasting time, the roots of right-wing populism in Germany are much deeper than suggested by a  mere focus on skewed pre-election media reporting.

The arrival of the AfD in the federal parliament only renders visible what had previously remained hidden under the surface (or, perhaps more accurately, been swept under the rug). On September 24th, mainstream observers and politicians alike were finally made to take note of the fact that a non-negligible part of the country no longer shares the very basics of the political consensus.

“Why did you vote AfD?”

In a sign of its befuddlement, the socially liberal Die Zeit newspaper asked “Why did you vote AfD?” and asked readers to describe their electoral motives in the comment section. The paper received hundreds of answers. These are of course not statistically representative; they are nevertheless illustrative of the parallel universe of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and paranoia many AfD voters live in.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-09/wahlentscheidung-warum-afd-gewaehlt ))

Responding to the Zeit’s question, one women commented that “I have voted for the AfD because I have thoroughly studied the Qur’an and the hadiths; terms such as ‘abrogation’ or ‘taquiyya’ [misspelling of the Arabic term original] are more than familiar to me.”

She went on to name the most trusted sources for her supposedly authoritative understanding of Islam. Pride of place was accorded to the right-wing blogs of ‘intellectuals’ such as Henryk M. Broder and Roland Tichy, both of which regularly pedal in conspiracy theories and anti-Muslim hatred.

‘Critics of Islam’

She also mentioned a barrage of books on the ‘Islamic danger’ that have often dominated Germany’s best-seller lists over the last few years. Authors include Hamed Abdel-Samad, Abdel Hakim Ourghi, Bassam Tibi, Zana Ramadani, or internationally-known Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Authors and activists such as Seyran Ateş and Ahmad Mansour also had the dubious honour of being included on her list. This shows the unfortunate development in which politically conservative voices get co-opted into the worldview of the radical right – even if they seek to avoid it and even if they might offer an understanding of issues such as jihadism that is at least in parts more nuanced.

A parallel discursive universe

All of these seemingly legitimate voices have created a far-right universe of immense depth. AfD sympathisers can move within this segregated sphere of ‘alternative facts’ without ever being confronted with diverging statements – or with a Muslim, for that matter: once more, support for the AfD was strongest in areas with the lowest number of immigrants.(( https://twitter.com/georgrestle/status/912271976185651200 ))

Consequently, the AfD’s stronghold continues to be the territories of the former GDR, where it obtained 21.5 per cent of the popular vote. In the state of Saxony, home of the Pegida movement and the site of some of the most vitriolic anti-Muslim and anti-establishment hatred, the AfD emerged as the largest party, outdoing even the CDU in its former heartland.

In a somewhat ironical take on the election results, Green Party politician Belit Onay noted that it was therefore not Muslim immigrants who had created ‘parallel societies’ in Germany – a supposed development often presented as proof of insufficient integration. Instead, he argued, the true ‘parallel society’ existed in the AfD milieus of the East. ((https://twitter.com/BelitOnay/status/912010309031915521 ))

“Anxious citizens” and their fear of Islam

Many Muslims have also taken offence at mainstream politicians’ insistence – both before and after the election – that they would ‘take seriously’ the fears and worries of the AfD electorate. In a euphemistic turn of phrase, Pegida marchers and populist supporters have become known in Germany as ‘anxious citizens’ (besorgte Bürger).

This term connotes a predominantly but not uniquely Eastern swathe of the electorate that is in part hard-pressed by socio-economic conditions, yet whose overall fearfulness is squarely directed at cultural change associated with immigration.

According to statistics published by the ARD public broadcaster, 95 per cent of AfD voters feared “the loss of German culture and language”, and 92 per cent were afraid of “the influence of Islam in Germany”.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/afd-im-bundestag-hier-spricht-eine-besorgte-buergerin-kommentar-a-1169716.html )) This resonates with previous studies, in which 40 per cent of German respondents believed that the country was being ‘infiltrated’ by Islam.

Minorities not present during the campaign

In a piece titled “Here is an anxious citizen speaking”, journalist and activist Ferda Ataman castigated the fact that all parties rushed to embrace and legitimise the fears of the AfD electorate. Conversely, she observed, “no one spoke of the anxieties of Muslim, Jewish, or homosexual voters” in the face of the AfD’s rise.

In fact, she asserted, the voice of these minorities had been almost completely absent during the campaign, ensuring that everybody talked about them but that they were never at the table. In this way, racist, xenophobic, and sexist claims were never effectively contested in public.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/afd-im-bundestag-hier-spricht-eine-besorgte-buergerin-kommentar-a-1169716.html ))

Pushing back against populism

Some hope that such contestation will take place now, and that the arrival of the AfD in the Bundestag will reinvigorate civil society activism – especially among those groups most targeted by the AfD’s programme. Christian religious leaders have already urged their community members to step up against nationalism, xenophobia, and racism, and to become politically active.(( https://www.domradio.de/themen/kirche-und-politik/2017-09-25/religionsvertreter-zu-den-ergebnissen-der-bundestagswahl ))

The Liberal Islamic Union (LIB), a small group of self-definedly ‘progressive’ Muslims, wrote in a Facebook post that the LIB was now “confronted with an important task: to continue to work together for an open and tolerant society, in which everybody has his or her space.”(( https://www.facebook.com/liberalislamischerbund/posts/1487350311300459 ))

Many existing Muslim civil society initiatives will also take the election result as a call to action: Ozan Keskinkılıç, one of the co-founders of the Berlin-based “Salaam-Shalom” initiative for Jewish-Muslim dialogue, emphasised his willingness to take up the fight with the surging forces of populism: when asked whether he was contemplating emigration from Germany, he vowed “I stay and thereby I resist”. ((https://twitter.com/ozankeskinkilic/status/912012221026271232 ))

Limited organisational footprint

It would surely be a most welcome development if the AfD’s success at the ballot box should lead to increased Muslim engagement in society and in politics. At the same time, financial and organisational resources of many Muslim initiatives continue to be exceedingly limited, and the political climate is likely to worsen in the coming years.

Against this backdrop, some think that the best hope for Germany’s Muslim community is the potential breakup of the AfD amidst infighting between its national-conservative and quasi-fascist factions. Indeed, the party’s short history has been thoroughly marked by infighting. Although these disputes have shifted the party to the right countinously, some observers expect the party to lose popular appeal as it becomes ever more radical.((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/demoskop-richard-hilmer-zu-afd-das-geht-bis-tief-in-die-mittelschicht-hinein/13318392.html ))

Waiting for the AfD’s break-up?

Indeed, on the morning after the vote, AfD leader Frauke Petry (who had just been elected to the Bundestag) announced that she would not join her party’s parliamentary group. For months, Petry had wished to take her party on a firmly ethnonationalist yet parliamentary course, with the ultimate aim of forming a coalition with the CDU/CSU.

Her party base thoroughly rejected her ‘moderate’ stance, however, opting instead for an opening to the neo-Nazi flank and a more rabble-rousing style. Following Petry’s departure from the parliamentary group, leading counter-terrorism expert Peter Neumann commented sardonically: “The AfD is radicalising itself through successive schisms. Social scientists know such processes from terrorist organisations as well.”(( https://twitter.com/PeterRNeumann/status/912270720440373249 ))

Waiting for the AfD’s self-destruction nevertheless seems a risky gamble. Not only is the implosion of the populists not a foregone conclusion; even if it did happen, they might still manage to do severe harm to German democracy in the process.

Who would refugees vote for? Recent immigrants to Germany observe the election

As Germany prepares to go to the polls, there are many inside the country who will not be able to cast a ballot on September 24th: roughly 10 million of Germany’s 82 million inhabitants do not hold German citizenship. Of these, 5.7 million residents have a non-EU nationality. (( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2017-06/auslaenderzentralregister-deutschland-auslaender-zuwanderung-gestiegen ))

No vote at the end of an immigration-centred campaign

Roughly 1.3 million men and women from outside the EU have arrived since 2014 – most of them refugees from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. Whilst they will not be able to vote themselves, they have nevertheless figured prominently in political debates running up to the election, which displayed an ample (if often ill-informed) focus on immigration, crime and terrorism, as well as Islam.

In spite of their outsized presence in the electoral campaign, refugees’ own political leanings have remained by and large unexplored. In the last days prior to the vote, some of their voices are, however, being heard.

Disillusionment with a lack of opportunities

Two years after Chancellor Merkel’s momentous decision in early September 2015 to open Germany’s borders to refugees stuck on the Western Balkans route, the initial beneficiaries of this policy are by no means uniform in their view of the election.

For some, the journey through Germany’s immigration system and bureaucracy has been a thoroughly disillusioning experience. Speaking to the Tagesspiegel newspaper, Iraqi artist Akil expressed this dissatisfaction: “We are stuck in Germany”, he said. Whilst Merkel had opened the door to people fleeing war and misery, Germany’s rigid legal framework continued to prevent him gaining a foothold and starting a new life.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/bundestagswahl-2017-wenn-fluechtlinge-waehlen-wuerden/20359154.html ))

Continued support for Chancellor Merkel …

Disenchantment might also lead refugees to remain aloof from politics altogether, since different parties are perceived to be mirror images of each other. For some, politics is also a bête noire for other reasons: having lost friends and family to the ongoing conflict in his home country, Syrian Mohammed al-Naid asserted that “politics only brings trouble”.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/bundestagswahl-2017-wenn-fluechtlinge-waehlen-wuerden/20359154.html ))

Yet for a large number of those who have come to Germany in recent years, Angela Merkel continues to be a much-respected and even revered persona. They stress the Chancellor’s willingness to take them in at a time when neighbouring states and Muslim-majority countries refused to step up in solidarity((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/bundestagswahl-2017-wenn-fluechtlinge-waehlen-wuerden/20359154.html )) – a sentiment shared among many in the Arab world.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2017-09/bundeskanzlerin-angela-merkel-araber-fluechtlingsdebatte-wahl ))

… but an uneasy relationship with the CDU

Whether this could eventually translate into a higher level of support for the CDU among Germany’s Muslims remains to be seen. Not only will it take a long time for the recently immigrated refugees to acquire German citizenship (provided that they choose to do so); refugees’ loyalty is also oriented more towards Mrs. Merkel than her party.

Over her twelve years in office as Chancellor (and 17 years as chairwoman of the CDU), Mrs. Merkel has steered her party sharply to the political centre on a number of social issues, including immigration. Whilst she is expected to win a fourth term at the Chancellery this Sunday, her tenure will not last forever, raising the spectre of a return to a more conservative profile under a potential successor.

Particularly since Mrs. Merkel’s decision to allow the arrival several hundred thousand refugees, she has faced pressures from the party base. At the CDU’s last party congress at which Mrs. Merkel announced her intention to run for another term as Chancellor, the party forced her against her will to shift to the right on immigration, burqa ban, and dual citizenship.

German Muslims’ stance on immigration

Socially conservative Muslim immigrants and their offspring have long been touted as a potential electoral reservoir for the CDU. Yet at the ballot box many German Muslims may continue to feel that the Christian Democrats (and CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, even more so), do not govern in their interests.

This does not mean, however, that German Muslims are automatically supportive of a permissive immigration policy. Among the country’s Muslim population, fears about immigration seem almost as widespread as among members of mainstream society.

To be sure, German Muslims have been active volunteers in charitable efforts to help refugees. Yet many established Muslim voters also view new immigrants as potential rivals on already tight labour and housing markets. Others fear that immigrants from war-torn Middle Eastern countries might bring social unrest or even jihadist violence to Germany.((For such opinions, see http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/umfrage-stimmen-zur-deutsch-tuerkischen-beziehung-a-1137631.html or http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2016-01/michel-abdollahi-angst-migranten-koeln ))

Stability and change in Muslims’ voting behaviour

In sum, even without the votes of refugees who could express their gratitude to Mrs. Merkel, electoral analysts expect a slight uptick of the Muslim vote benefiting the Chancellor’s Christian Democrats. A recent poll suggested that 12 per cent of German Turks now support the CDU, compared to 9 per cent in 2013.(( http://taz.de/Wahlverhalten-der-Deutschtuerken/!5449200/ ))

This comes against the backdrop of a dynamic in which the traditional bond of Germany’s Turkish Muslims with the Social Democrats appears to be weakening. The scale of Germany’s Turkish, immigrant, and Muslim communities distancing from the SPD remains to be seen, however.

Recently, a rapper, enormously popular also among young refugees for his rags-to-riches story – his family had come to Germany in the 1990s as asylum-seekers from Iraqi Kurdistan – posted a photograph of his ballot paper on a social networking site. He had ticked the SPD’s boxes.(( http://hiphop.de/node/307308#.WcUBh7JJbBU ))

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

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

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

An alliance bypassing the Turkish associations

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

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

Vying for political influence

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

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

Broad-ranging questionnaire

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

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

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

Does Islam belong to Germany?

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

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

State “neutrality” and the headscarf

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

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

Disagreements on dual citizenship

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

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

Lack of questions on jihadism, counter-terrorism

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

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

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

No Muslim “pressure group”

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

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

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

Call for more civil society activism

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

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

Need for political engagement

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

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

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

Integration of Muslims progressing in Germany, study finds

The German Bertelsmann Foundation has published a new report examining the lives of Muslims in Europe. Taking a comparative approach, the study’s authors rely on data from five countries – Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, and the UK. More than 3,000 Muslims participated as respondents in the surveys for the report.

Enhanced labour market participation

According to the study, successful integration is visible particularly from second generation onwards. Particularly in the field of labour market participation, the sample drawn from Germany’s Muslim population did not diverge significantly from the country’s average: 60% of respondents held a full-time job; 20% were employed part-time. Unemployment figures of the two groups were similarly comparable. (Pay remained unequal, however.)

According to the study’s authors, the advances in Muslim labour market participation are linked to the high demand for labour in Germany, as well as to the eased labour market access for newly arrived migrants.

Growing societal integration

Growing rates of labour market integration appear to be based on enhanced linguistic skills: 73% of children born to immigrant Muslim parents assert that German is the language they speak best. The share of native German speakers is further increasing with every successive generation.

Successful integration, however, goes beyond the purely utilitarian sphere of the labour market. 84% of Muslim respondents regularly spend their free time with non-Muslims, and two thirds assert that their circle of friends is made up of pre-dominantly non-Muslim acquaintances. While only every second Muslim holds a German passport, 96% of respondents asserted that they felt a close bond with Germany.

An inegalitarian educational system

Yet even the Bertelsmann study concedes that significant challenges remain. The most notable one is linked to Germany’s educational system. The country’s schools have been repeatedly criticised by national and international experts for entrenching and reinforcing existing social divides through an early and rigid separation of children into different academic tracks.

Consequently, the all-important factor determining pupils’ educational achievement remains their parents’ social and economic capital. Unsurprisingly, the sons and daughters of the large group of Muslim blue collar immigrants tend to fare poorly in such a context: in Germany, 36 per cent of young Muslims leave school before the age of 17 – compared to only 11 per cent in France.

Hurdles for ‘pious’ Muslims

Nor is ‘integration’ equally easy for everyone: the group of (visibly) pious Muslims struggles to participate in the labour market and to find employment that matches their qualifications.

The researchers attribute this at least in part to discriminatory practices in the workplace: in Great Britain, where rules and regulations concerning e.g. the wearing of the hijab while at work are more permissive, the more pious segments of the Muslim population are active in the same jobs as their less observant co-religionists.

According to Yasemin El-Menouar, one of the Foundation’s experts, there are considerable improvements to be made when it comes to the full legal recognition of Muslim religious communities, as well as to the fight against discrimination in Germany: “Religious symbols should not lead to disadvantages in job applications, and religious needs such as obligatory prayers and mosque visits should be reconcilable with full-time employment” – or so El-Menouar argues.

Reactions by policymakers

El-Menouar’s demand was taken up by Volker Beck, the Green Party spokesman for migration and religious affairs: he stressed that – in line with existing legislation – the discrimination of hijab-wearing Muslim women in the workplace needed to be addressed and prevented.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/08/26/bertelsmann-studie-stoesst-auf-gespaltenes-echo/ )) Beck’s comments are interesting particularly against the backdrop of renewed wrangling in German courts surrounding the hijab.

Beck’s counterpart from the Social Democrats, Kerstin Griese, focused on the inequalities in Germany’s educational system and challenged all political forces to address them in a systematic manner.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/08/26/bertelsmann-studie-stoesst-auf-gespaltenes-echo/ ))

Questions concerning the reliability of the findings

Generally, the study’s positive findings were received as something of a pleasant surprise by many commentators.((https://www.tagesschau.de/multimedia/video/video-321263.html )) Yet there have also been critical voices.

Some have questioned the reliability of the study’s findings. The pro-business think-tank Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft, for instance, has drawn attention to other data sets that paint a different picture. Here, Muslims do appear to be significantly less likely to hold a job than other members of society.(( https://www.iwkoeln.de/presse/iw-nachrichten/beitrag/holger-schaefer-arbeitsmarktintegration-von-muslimen-vermeintlicher-erfolg-358606 ))

Moreover, the Bertelsmann Foundation’s research only incorporates the voices and the data of Muslims who have arrived in Germany prior to 2010, meaning that its findings do not cover the recently arrived Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans. Of course most of these men and women are still relatively far removed from firm and lasting labour market participation and social inclusion.

Politicised critiques

Other criticisms were less technical and more ideological in nature. Conservative daily Die Welt complained that the study had failed to tease out supposed “mental or cultural hurdles to integration”. More particularly, the paper demanded that Muslim respondents be systematically questioned about their affinities to religious fundamentalism.(( http://hd.welt.de/politik-edition/article167983092/Einseitiger-Blick-auf-Integration.html ))

The chairman of the Islamist-leaning Islamic Community Millî Görüş (IGMG), Bekir Altaş, came at the results from a different, albeit equally intransigent angle. Altaş read the study’s findings less as a sign of successful societal participation than as a damning indictment of the German state’s treatment of its Muslim citizens.

German Muslims, according to Altaş, were victimised by a “restrictive policy on Islam” and by the “inadmissible and generalistic demands” placed upon them by politicians. Especially in the area of foreign policy, he argued, German Muslims had become a mere “plaything” of policymakers’ attempts to “settle accounts” – a thinly veiled reference to recent German-Turkish diplomatic spats.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/08/26/bertelsmann-studie-stoesst-auf-gespaltenes-echo/ ))

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.

May’s anti-Islamaphobia claims conflict with her political history

Following the attack on Muslims near the Finsbury Park Mosque, Prime Minister called for an end to anti-Muslim right-wing extremism.

Mehdi Hasan, a prominent Muslim British journalist, argues that May’s claim is contradictory with her own political history, which is steeped in support for Islamaphobic policy and tolerance of Islamaphobia in her Conservative party.

As Home Secretary, she largely ignored “hundreds” of incidents of anti-Muslim violent incidents while focusing intensely on the “Islamist” threat. She ignored a warning from an official in her department that this focus could foster right-wing violence. The official wrote, “I wouldn’t want to get to the point where something happens and we look back and think actually, we should have addressed that as well.”

In 2014, she was an active voice in claiming that Birmingham schools were being taken over by Muslims “extremists” despite limited evidence of radicalisation.

As home secretary, she never formerly met with the Cross-Government Anti-Mulsim Hatred Working group. The inattention to this important issue from the Conservative government resulted in leading academics resigning from the group.

Former Conservative minister Sayeeda Warsi has been disappointed in the limited support the Conservative party has given her in fighting Islamaphobia. Hasan believes she is being polite and measured in her condemnation, as she has been almost entirely ignored.

As Prime Minister, she hired a political strategist who told the conservatives to ignore “[explitive] Muslims” and supported the allegedly Islamaphobic campaigns, such as that of Zac Goldsmith.

She is also accused of purposefully limiting the presence of both Muslims and Muslim-related issues in the party. As such, the author is sceptical that she will fight Islamaphobia effectively.

 

Forever in transit: New report highlights plight of Syrian refugees

For his reportage “Stranded. Refugees Between Syria and Europe” the writer Tayfun Guttstadt travelled to the cities of Turkey and along the Turkish-Syrian border. In conversation with Sonja Galler, he talks about the precarious situation faced by Syrian refugees, their legal status and Turkey′s lack of any kind of integration concept

Turkey is one of the most important transit nations for refugee flows en route to Europe. At the same time, Turkey has itself become a migration country in recent years: at around three million, the nation hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees worldwide. NGOs estimate the actual number of Syrians in Turkey is closer to 3.5 million, as not all refugees have been registered yet.

For the EU and the Turkish government, the six-figure number may first and foremost serve as an argument in a domestic and foreign policy game that both areplaying to serve their own political ends. But how are the refugees themselves faring? Those that are “stranded” in Turkey and decided to remain there for a wide variety of reasons.

The Hamburg writer Tayfun Guttstadt, who reported on the Gezi protests in his first book “Capulcu“, has resumed his travels and spent time talking to (among others) Syrian refugees between Istanbul, Hatay, Gaziantep and Diyarbakir about their lives, political views, hopes and disappointments.

Strong desire to return home

The resulting work is a densely narrated reportage, abundant with conversations with friends, casual acquaintances and people from all walks of life, sprinkled with observations and background information. It provides a manifold insight into the precarious social and legal situation of Syrians and other refugees in the country, people who fluctuate between staying and travelling on.

“Most refugees live in hope of being able to return soon. Others feel at home in Turkey, because for example the culture is quite similar, or they’ve found a job, or made friends. Others stay because they don’t know what else to do. Other reasons to stay are the fear of continuing illegally to Europe or doubts over whether things would be better there,” says Guttstadt.

Only a small percentage of the refugees are living in one of the camps set up by the Turkish government close to the Syrian border and from which only a few more than airbrushed images reach the public domain. Just as it is to other journalists, access is also denied to Guttstadt on his travels.

Poverty risk in the metropolis

The overwhelming majority muddle through in one of the country’s cities. There may be more opportunities here, but the risk of falling into poverty is also high: refugees often live in over-priced, cramped accommodation working without permits “for a pittance in industry or on a building site, fielding accusations that they’re taking work away from Turks and Kurds,” says Guttstadt.

Without a work permit – something that few employers go to the trouble of obtaining for their employees – access to welfare is barely possible. Child labour, in the textile industry for example, is also an issue. However, the authorities frequently turn a blind eye to illegal work or new businesses that haven’t been correctly registered.

But Guttstadt does include more positive biographies in his book and reports on wealthy individuals who have rented or even bought apartments and houses and who have relocated their businesses to Turkey. Artists, intellectuals and musicians gather in Istanbul, which has developed into one of the exile centres of Syrian intellectuals alongside Gaziantep and Berlin.

A peculiarity of the Turkish asylum system means, however, that in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention, the refugee status does not apply to Syrians for whom a special status was created in Turkey, which officially allows them to use the public health system and now the education system too. But there is often a lack of appropriate capacity to guarantee these promised rights.

In this context, the reportage also shines a light on civil society efforts: the local initiatives and aid organisations that offer support to the refugees, sometimes under makeshift conditions, trying to offer language courses and provide psychosocial support. Guttstadt also visits the controversial aid organisation IHH, predominantly active in the Sunni milieu – the offshoot of which was banned in Germany.

No integration concept

But we also hear the views of people on the street, taxi drivers and their highly subjective comments, which range from racist resentment through to understanding and expressions of empathy, show that in Turkey too, the issue is emotionally charged.

“First and foremost among nationalist AKP opponents, there is a commonly-held view that the Syrians are living the high life at the expense of the country’s citizens. The most vociferous supporters on the other hand are full of religious pathos, in which the needs and interests of the refugees barely play a role. Very few actors in Turkey recognise that the refugees deserve the same rights as any other person,” says Guttstadt.

Guttstadt also has unequivocal words of criticism for the Turkish government: “There is no discernible integration concept, the situation is characterised by emergency solutions. Always under the assumption that a few ‘guests’ have to be looked after just for a short while, because Assad will in any case be toppled tomorrow or the day after. None of the parties giving serious attention to the rights of refugees. The AKP uses a romanticised rhetoric, which barely conceals its political exploitation of the situation, above all in domestic and EU policy,” says Guttstadt.

The discussion concerning the naturalisation of Syrian refugees is also to be viewed in this context: It is “controversial because the AKP is doing all it can to fit the majority Sunni refugees – non-Sunnis only come to Turkey unwillingly – into its social model.”

Sonja Galler

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Anti-terror march highlights activism as well as divisions among German Muslims

Initially, reactions on the part of German Muslim leaders to the attacks in Manchester and London had been muted, with a sense of the routinized and somewhat hapless repetition of well-worn formulas of shock and condemnation prevailing.

Fighting against complacency

This limited response has not gone unnoticed, with many criticising Islamic associations and Muslim representatives for their relative silence on recent events. The psychologist and renowned expert on jihadi radicalisation Ahmad Mansour spoke for many when he accused the country’s Islamic organisations of complacency.(( https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/zdf-morgenmagazin/zdf-morgenmagazin-clip-14-242.html ))

Now, however, Islamic scholars and activists have called for a public demonstration in Cologne on Saturday, June 17. United under the slogan #NichtMitUns (#NotWithUs), protestors gathered to reclaim their religion from what they deem to be its usurpation by extremists.(( http://www.ramadan-friedensmarsch.de/ ))

Striving for greater visibility

One of the organisers, Islamic scholar and chairwoman of the Liberal-Islamic Union (LIB), Lamya Kaddor, asserted prior to the event that she was hoping for the demonstration to send a strong and noteworthy signal to terrorists and mainstream society alike.

Kaddor observed that “every Islamic organization writes a press release after every attack, and Islamic legal opinions have been drawn up by leading theologians. Yet these things are not publicly noticed.”(( http://www.ksta.de/koeln/muslime-demonstrieren-gegen-terror–manchester-hat-das-fass-zum-ueberlaufen-gebracht–27778146 ))

Broad endorsements

The initiative started by Kaddor and others, including peace activist Tarek Mohamad, has received broad support. Fellow religious leaders, such as Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairman of the Lutheran Church in Germany, have tweeted their support.(( https://twitter.com/landesbischof/status/875301959284248576 ))

Politicians, such as Cemile Giousouf, the CDU’s first Muslim Member of Parliament, are equally supportive of the rally. Approving statements have also been made by Social Democratic and Green Party politicians.(( https://www.domradio.de/themen/islam-und-kirche/2017-06-16/kritik-ditib-wegen-absage-anti-terror-demo ))

Reception among Muslim representatives

The echo among other Muslim leaders has been somewhat more complex. Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), stated that his organization would take part in the march.(( http://www.rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/aiman-mazyek-vom-zentralrat-der-muslime-zur-demo-in-koeln-aid-1.6873750 )) The Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat, so far the only Muslim group to obtain full legal recognition in some of Germany’s 16 states, also announced its participation.(( https://twitter.com/presseahmadiyya/status/874666652864040962 ))

Further support came from authors and activists, such as Islamic feminist Kübra Gümüsay, who called upon Muslims to “emancipate themselves” from a situation in which they are merely reactive to Islamophobic insinuations: according to her, the Cologne march offers the possibility for a Muslim voice to “become the driving force of a peace movement”.(( http://www.ndr.de/ndrkultur/sendungen/freitagsforum/Kommentar-Muslime-demonstrieren-fuer-Frieden,freitagsforum488.html ))

Critical voices

Nevertheless, even within ZMD, support for the march has not been unanimous. The association’s deputy, Mehmet Alparslan Çelebi, has voiced his suspicion that the event will merely reinforce the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims.

The chairman of the Islamic Council (IR), of which the Islamist-leaning Islamic Community Millî Görüş is the biggest member, has been even more categorical in his rejection of the demonstration. He points to the considerable number of comparable public events in the past two years; events that, according to him, have neither helped to dissipate Islamophobic prejudice (as exemplified by repeated calls for Muslims to ‘distance’ themselves anew after every attack), nor been conducive to addressing the root causes of terrorism.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/06/13/zeichen-gegen-terror-setzen/ ))

DITIB refuses to participate

Yet public attention has, once more, focused on Germany’s numerically largest Islamic association, DITIB. Although the organisation’s Chairman had initially welcomed the announcement of the rally((http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/berlin/friedensmarsch-in-berlin-tausende-muslime-wollen-gegen-terror-und-gewalt-demonstrieren-27783342 )), a DITIB press release subsequently stated that “demands for ‘Muslim’ anti-terrorism demonstrations fall short, stigmatise Muslims and unduly focus international terrorism on Muslims, their communities and mosques – this is the wrong path and the wrong signal, for this kind of assignation of blame divides society.”(( http://ditib.de/detail1.php?id=603&lang=de ))

On a practical level, DITIB asserted that – due to their commitment to fasting – Muslims could not be expected to take to the streets and demonstrate on a summery day in the month of Ramadan. (Although it might be noted that with the weather forecast predicting temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius and an overcast sky, health risks should have been manageable.)

Faultlines among Islamic associations

DITIB went on to castigate the organisers of the demonstration for what it perceived as a failure to consult with DITIB and others in order to reach a consensus prior to publicly announcing the rally. DITIB also accused Kaddor of being too eager to please and of being the instrument of ulterior and potentially Islamophobic political interests.

Kaddor herself had sought to pre-empt such criticism, by arguing that “it’s not about distancing. We have no reason to distance ourselves, because we are not close to these criminals. But what is at stake is a clear affirmation on our part to our open and pluralistic society. What is at stake is a condemnation of terrorism. For yes, it does have something to do with Islam if other people blow themselves up in its name and kill others.”

To accuse Kaddor of pandering to Islamophobic sentiments, is, however, at least questionable if not outrightly disingenuous. Kaddor herself had in the past repeatedly taken a bold stance against supposedly ‘liberal’ Islamic initiatives that may in fact only serve as a fig leaf for marginalising discourses.

Criticism from the other end of the spectrum

Given this political positioning of Kaddor’s, it is not surprising that those who have taken a much more confrontational line against Islamic conservatism in the past – and whose activism has often earned them the praise of those on the political right flirting with Islamophobic prejudice – have been almost as critical as DITIB of the protest march.

For instance, Seyran Ateş, a lawyer and activist for women’s rights who recently made headlines with her planned opening of a gender-equal mosque in Berlin, asserted that the march was in some sense too little too late and disparaged Lamya Kaddor’s statements as “sad”.(( http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/berlin/friedensmarsch-in-berlin-tausende-muslime-wollen-gegen-terror-und-gewalt-demonstrieren-27783342 ))

Ideological divergences, political differences

In these squabbles, ideological or doctrinal differences, personal enmities, and jockeying for public and political influence seem to intermingle quite freely. Ateş’ and Kaddor’s dispute is in part reflective of substantive disagreements: the two women have a different understanding of Islam, a different agenda, and a correspondingly different set of political sympathies.

Yet Ateş’ categorical rejection to participate in any of Kaddor’s events might also be linked to the fact that Ateş’ gender-equal mosque is due to open its doors on the eve of the planned peace march in Cologne and that Ateş is planning her own anti-terror demonstration in Berlin.(( http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/berlin/friedensmarsch-in-berlin-tausende-muslime-wollen-gegen-terror-und-gewalt-demonstrieren-27783342 )) Any competition over the leadership of a ‘liberal’ Islam is therefore most unwelcome.

Political momentum

Initially, the political momentum appeared to be with Kaddor: DITIB’s non-participation has been harshly criticised, with the federal government’s Commissioner for Integration, Aydan Özoguz, stating that DITIB “is positioning itself even further on the sidelines and is threatened with an altogether final loss of credibility.” (( https://www.domradio.de/themen/islam-und-kirche/2017-06-16/kritik-ditib-wegen-absage-anti-terror-demo ))

The Green Party leader Cem Özdemir echoed this criticism, asserting that “it is beyond me that DITIB does not make use of this possibility to send a clear signal of solidarity.”(( https://www.domradio.de/themen/islam-und-kirche/2017-06-16/kritik-ditib-wegen-absage-anti-terror-demo )) Even Chancellor Merkel stated her support for the rally.((https://twitter.com/RegSprecher/status/875699500043689986 ))

A disappointing turnout

Subsequently, however, the march suffered from a disappointingly low turnout. Instead of the up to 10,000 demonstrators that had been expected, only roughly 1,000 ended up congregating in Cologne.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/demonstration-in-koeln-den-islam-von-den-terroristen-zurueckerobern-1.3548979 ))

For now, further marches are planned by Kaddor in other German cities, including Berlin and Hamburg. Whether these marches will still take place, and how the politics around them will evolve, remains to be seen.

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.

Bariza Khiari wants ‘to structure French Islam’

The national delegate for En Marche, Bariza Khiari, hopes to play a role in the transformation of French Islam. She also speaks out against the Foundation for Islam in France.

Her “last political struggle,” was Emmanuel Macron’s election, and she has big plans for her country’s future: she wants “to structure French Islam.”

“There are too many people at the head of Islam in France who are aligned with their countries of origin. That may have been useful when it was mostly immigrants, when there was the myth of return. Today, Muslims are settled in this country, and we need, like the Jewish community, completely independent affairs,” she said.

Khiari wants “young people of immigrant backgrounds, born in France,” to take the lead.

She also lashed out agains the Foundation for Islam in France.and its director Jean-Pierre Chevènement. His nomination sends the wrong signal that there were no Muslims “capable of assuming the role.”