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'German Islam': Can a state-led project succeed with a new interpretation of religion? Open in fullscreen

Stasa Salacanin

'German Islam': Can a state-led project succeed with a new interpretation of religion?

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer speaks during the opening ceremony of the German Islam Conference [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 April, 2019

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The German Islam Conference, an initiative to redefine and adjust Islam to German values and stimulate integration of Muslims into society, has triggered many controversies and heating debates.
In late November the German Islam Conference was held in Berlin. The project triggered many controversies and heating debates in Germany and beyond.

While the programme was launched in 2006 by the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, it was mainly initiated to promote dialogue between representatives of the German government and the country's Muslim community, it significantly transformed over the years. Even though it was originally designed as a mechanism of communication and dialogue between the German state and Muslims living in Germany, the conference added a completely new dimension to its programme: redefining Islam.

The initiative to redefine and adjust Islam to German values combined with efforts to stimulate the integration of Muslims into German society is not an entirely new idea. In early 2000's former Interior Minister Otto Schily for example, raised this issue when saying that Muslims had to be assimilated and be prepared to adopt a "European Islam".

The German Islam Conference seems to continue this approach. It has been also interpreted as a governmental identity-building project through an initiative to create a German version of Islam. But while integration of 4.6 million strong Muslim community into the German society is welcomed and necessary goal of every responsible state, the current approach conducted by the German authorities have been debatable.

The initiative to redefine and adjust Islam to German values combined with efforts to stimulate the integration of Muslims into German society is not an entirely new idea

Defining the 'German Islam'

Many have expressed serious scepticism whether state-imposed or state-led project of a new interpretation of religion can succeed and whether it will be adopted by a wider Muslim community. Traditional circles fear that such project aimed to transform religious identity by promoting "secular and enlightened" version of new "German" Islam is completely unacceptable and counterproductive.

According to them, there cannot be multiple versions of Islam based on nationality. On the other hand, religion and life practices may differ from culture to culture, while at the same time observing Islamic norms.  

Prof Dr Dr h.c. Mathias Rohe, M.A., Director of The Erlangen Centre for Islam and Law in Europe (EZIRE) observes that many Muslims would reject the idea of an established regional Islam but would at the same time condone the idea of their religious life and their convictions how to be a good Muslim being influenced by their regional and social environment.  

According to Dr Yasemin El-Menouar, Senior Expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, the term "German Islam" is misleading and sparked a critical debate in Germany at that time. Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer then specified that the issue is "an Islam for Germany, an Islam of the Germans."

Many have expressed serious scepticism whether state-imposed or state-led project of a new interpretation of religion can succeed and whether it will be adopted by a wider Muslim community

Thus, while a normative definition of "German Islam" is highly disputed, the factual description is virtually uncontested, Prof Dr Rohe added. He explained that the term of a "German Islam" aims at defining the scope and limits for religious life in the country. The German president has recently said that millions of Muslims are living their everyday life in the country in a way that "belongs to Germany".

"This means that concrete needs and creeds of Muslim citizens and immigrants to Germany should be tackled, rather than mixing them up with traditionalist and extremist movements and political systems abroad, which are inimical to the standards of democracy and the rule of law governing the country," he told The New Arab.

Moreover, Dr El-Menouar noted that the topic is less about a new identity-building project and more about the recognition of the reality that Islam has arrived in Germany and has become native, from both the side of the German majority population and the side of the Islamic associations.

"Religion Monitor" series of studies, conducted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung show empirically that the 4.6 million Muslims in Germany have found independent, pragmatic ways to reconcile their religiosity with their living in German secular society. They are meanwhile strongly guided by the fundamental values of German society. For example, 96 percent of the interviewed Muslims feel closely connected to Germany; 90 percent are committed to democracy, 93 percent to openness toward other religions, and 83 percent to gender equality.

The 4.6 million Muslims in Germany have found independent, pragmatic ways to reconcile their religiosity with their living in German secular society

Not very tactful approach

But although the integration of migrants is necessary in order to prevent ghettoisation, German officials have often acted like an elephant in a porcelain store when dealing with this sensitive issue. This is especially true for the statement given by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who also chairs the German Islam Conference when said that Islam "doesn't belong in Germany." His deputy latter responded that, "If there is to be an Islam that belongs to Germany, German Muslims must define it as 'German Islam." Such strong and imperative language caused nothing but great disappointment and annoyance within the Muslim community.

Finally, the most grotesque was certainly a scandal that made the world headlines, when the organisers from the Ministry served a blutwurst – or "blood sausage" – which is made of ingredients including pig's blood, pork, and bacon. An incident, which completely overshadowed the Islamic conference meeting has been viewed as a deliberate provocation by controversial Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, rising the suspicions about true intentions and goodwill of German authorities when dealing with Muslim issue.

Read more here: German ministry apologises for serving pork 'blood sausages' at Islam conference

Stop to foreign influence and funding?

Regardless of the latest scandal, the conference addressed other important issues that sparked heated debate in the country. However, the issues such as the role of Islamic theology in German universities, training of imams and question of funding Muslim organisations, have been met with great suspicion by some.  

Some conservative and traditional circles especially those from large Turkish community believe that the true aim of the authority efforts is to diminish the role of traditional Muslim/Turkish organisations which are believed to be directly influenced by official Ankara.

The current efforts of German state are therefore seen as a creation of an institutional mechanism that would keep the Muslim community under control and surveillance either by offering financial incentives or taxing mosques while cutting the funding (and influence) from foreign sponsors.

The current efforts of German state are therefore seen as a creation of an institutional mechanism that would keep the Muslim community under control and surveillance either by offering financial incentives or taxing mosques while cutting the funding (and influence) from foreign sponsors

German political elite perceives countries like Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia as promoters the radical interpretation of Islam, which is "in violation of Western values."  

After series of violent attacks in Eastern Germany last year, Markus Kerber a State Secretary at the Interior Ministry, said that government will tighten control over foreign influence of its Muslim community, calling into question the future role and existence of well-established and traditional institutions such as the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB).   

According to Prof Dr Rohe, there is no doubt that the German Islam Conference was at least in part a consequence of 9/11. The government expressed its vivid interest in fostering Muslim self-organisation and cooperation with the state for security reasons. But this was not the sole motivation.

Germany is uniting Muslims of all Islamic faiths from different countries of origin. In the past, a patchwork of very different Islamic organisations has been created, each representing only a minority of Muslims.

The German Islam Conference tries to bring together all these organisations, but also non-organised Muslims, in order to negotiate a form of cooperation with the German state. Prof Dr Rohe, who has been involved in all stages of the German Islam Conference from the very beginning, have noticed that "remarkable shift from strong state-directed procedures to a dialogue on equal footing and to the reduction of the state representatives to the role of a moderator between different Muslim organisations and stakeholders. If the Conference were a simple instrument of exercising control, Muslim representatives would have rejected to participate, which is obviously not the case." 

Traditionalists vs new actors

The debate about the aims of the conference and the role of the Muslim organisations in the country has also divided the Muslim community. Some conservative and their traditional organisations who reject "German Islam" project and favour foreign funding like that of DITIB, have clashed with Germany's more liberal-minded Muslims, who appear willing to embrace secularism.

Since the German state focuses on the cooperation with the various religious communities, several prominent Muslim individuals and unorganised groups were also invited at the conference causing a great deal of disagreement among traditional groups which have been the only invitees so far.  The presence of new groups and individuals has been understood as an attempt to impose a state-designed brand of religion.

Read also: Islam and the European Reformation

One of such groups, the Initiative Secular Islam, was founded shortly before the start of the 4th Islam Conference in November 2018 and attracted a lot of media attention. However, Dr El-Menouar said that the initiative is currently supported by only about 2,500 Muslims and non-Muslims is neither financially nor otherwise supported by the state. It is merely a legitimate voice of civil society.  

Meanwhile, many Muslim organisations are unable in terms of staff/members and financial means to organise their work without cooperation with the state on all levels, be it local, regional or on the federal level. Thus, according to Prof Dr Rohe, most of them welcome the ability to discuss their needs and projects and to get the latter supported within the legal framework (e.g. for financing social and cultural activities). Most Muslims have perceived the state initiatives as being part of a "policy of recognition" from the very beginning.

So, "as long as the state initiatives respect the right of Muslim self-determination, and interact with Muslims on equal footing, this can be considered as a major contribution for preventing Muslim radicalisation and disintegration," he added. 

Real problems in everyday life of Muslims in Germany very often are not rooted in their religion, but in socio-cultural circumstances and in distrust in "Islam as such" among large parts of the population, which nevertheless supports a peaceful and respectful living together with the Muslims living in the country. 


Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence. 

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