German Islam Is fine, But Where Is The Parity?

While Germany plans to pursue a moderate version of the religion by training its imams, there are no long-term measures to curb Islamophobia, which is on the rise.

At the newly-established German College of Islam in Osnabrück, students listen attentively to the Quran recital. But wait, why are the lessons in German and not in the traditional Arabic or Turkish? And why are women at the college that grooms imams? The answers lie in the Western European country’s decades-long quest for cultural amalgamation of its immigrant Muslim population.

At the state-backed college, both Shi’ites and Sunnis, women and men, young and middle-aged sit next to each other exchanging ideas on the many facets of Islam. The German government believes such an environment would broaden the perspective of future imams and thereby foster religious tolerance. The course, open to those holding a bachelor’s degree in Islamic theology or an equivalent diploma, offers practical training in Quran recital, preaching techniques, worship practices, and politics. Interestingly, the college is part of an initiative coming under Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who in 2018 had claimed that “Islam does not belong to Germany”.

Presently, German mosques have imams mostly arriving from Turkey under the banner of the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) and National Vision (Milli Görüs), which together represent nearly half of Germany’s estimated 2,500 mosques. The clerics are hired for a certain period of time and return home once their contract is over. They preach in Turkish or Arabic and are paid by Ankara for their work. The German government does not have any role in this arrangement or have a mechanism in place to check in case the clerics veer into preaching extremism to mosque-goers.

Bouquets & brickbats

The first batch of home-grown imams may be ready for duty only after two years, but the move has already had its share of positivity and controversy. The Muslim youth in Germany speak better German than Arabic. Most of them do not understand the Turkish sermons at mosques, deepening their religious disconnect. It’s a case of not belonging anywhere, the non-Germans who speak German and the Arabs who do not understand Arabic very well. Many believe it is this identity crisis that extremist groups try to take advantage of. If clerics could preach in German, the youth can stay in touch with both their ancestral roots and foster country, they say.

The language barrier is a problem for the Turkish imams as well. They cannot interact with younger members of the community as they barely speak German. They largely remain oblivious to the daily realities of European life and the problems faced by Muslims in particular. The government, however, wants clerics to preach in a way consistent with the country’s democratic and traditional values, besides upholding religious tolerance.

A handful of Muslim religious leaders raised and educated in Germany have tried to find a balance by endearing themselves to both the older and younger generations. They hold Friday sermons in German but stick to Turkish on other days. They command authority and respect, yet they are easy to get along with. They do not shy away from discussing subjects such as drug addiction and sexuality. The Arab world’s taboo topics – sex education, mental health issues, sexual assault, racism, and divorce, to name a few – are not swept under the carpet here.

As Ankara provides half of the country’s faith leaders, Germany is worried about the political influence Turkey wields on its imams, especially with the government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan adopting a conservative and authoritarian approach in recent years. After the failed coup against Erdoğan in 2016 and the German police raids on houses of four imams suspected of spying on critics of the Turkish government, the issue has become paramount. In 2018, the DITIB itself came under fire for allegedly exhorting worshippers to pray for Ankara’s success in a military offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. Incidentally, the DITIB gets its imams from Turkey’s religious affairs directorate Diyanet, which comes under the President. Some of the faith leaders are Turkish civil servants, who aim at pursuing a political agenda in Europe.

Beyond the cultural and political reasons, the course was launched to address shortage of imams with knowledge of German. Less than 10% of the imams in Germany can speak the language. Simultaneously, the demand for sermons in German has been consistently growing among the Muslim immigrant community, who form over 6% of the country’s population. A pilot program to train imams was launched at the University of Osnabrück as early as 2010.

The DITIB, however, has opposed the German program saying it conflicted with the very principle that religious community leaders alone have the right to train new clerics. In fact, it has pre-empted the government plan by launching its own two-year German course last year. Together with Milli Görüs, it has tried to paint a bleak picture of Germany’s free training for imams by questioning its funding pattern. They claim the federal government would exercise undue influence on imams and thus hamper religious freedom as the course is partly financed by it.

College of Islam chairman Dr. Esnaf Begić pooh-poohs such a suggestion. “The institution was created with absolutely no influence from the State, which did not interfere in the development of the programs,” he clarifies. As many as 12,000 books imported from Egypt would be used to teach the aspiring imams. However, there is no clarity on who will pay the pass-outs once they get employed in mosques because member donations would not be sufficient to retain them.

Another point of contention is why ‘German Islam’ is the need of the hour when the same does not seem to take effect in the case of other religions. More and more public schools in the country now teach Islam in German, citing the need to understand their religion from a local perspective. Strangely, advocates of ‘German Islam’ do not think non-Muslims should also take Islam classes to know the religion better. In the past, Muslim-bashing politicians such as Thilo Sarrazin and political parties like far-right opposition Alternative for Germany (AfD) have shown why such training was imperative.

Though many European countries have experimented with imam training, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that it kept ‘dangerous preaching’ at bay. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with promoting a tolerant version of the religion as long as the federal government and local authorities leave curriculum and educational activities solely to experts. But steps are needed to curb Islamophobia as well, and the way forward is to educate the Christian majority on Islamic virtues. It’s time we took note of parity.

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