The German government has shown a new level of engagement with Muslims, but calls for a “German Islam” and mosque taxes raise questions about Germany’s future plan for the Muslim minority, and what role the German Islam Conference will play.
Long before the starting session of the German Islam Conference (GIC), German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer had announced that he wished that Muslims should take part in shaping what he called a “German Islam” or an Islam “from Germany and for Germany”.
Among the popular political slogans in Germany when it comes to Muslims, such as parallel societies, foreign infiltration, oppression of women, forced marriage and extremism, the term “German Islam” might be for the first time directly targeting the religion of Islam, symbolic of a new state approach towards Muslim life in Germany.
In an exclusive Interview with TRT World, Bulent Ucar, Professor of the Islamic Theology Chair at the University of Osnabruck, supported Seehofer by suggesting that the “Muslim practice of belief” has to regrow from a “German context” to be able to say that Islam has really arrived in Germany, implying that the existing context, especially the Turkish context, is considered a threat or at least an obstacle to Germany’s policies for Muslims.
Yet with little information on what Seehofer means by “German Islam”, the idea of a nationalised version of the Islamic religion met a unified opposition from Muslim groups. Secretary of the Islamic Council for Germany (Islamrat) Murat Gumus, told TRT World that “such constructs were rejected” and he believes that “there is no national Islam”. Indeed, despite the growing efforts of Muslim communities, the standard German citizen has a suspicious or at least mystified perception of Muslims - a view that is influenced strongly by local German and at times bizarre news coverage. Mosque communities, with their origins in Turkey, the Middle East and the Balkans, pray and preach in their mother tongue, which is why there is a strong sympathy to the idea of “Germanising” Muslim communities.
Thriving Islamophobia in Germany
The session of the German Islam Conference took place in December 2018 and was hosted by Seehofer as an opening pitch for a platform ostensibly aiming to bring Muslim community and government representatives together. Obviously, it was no hindrance for Seehofer, from the Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU, that he had previously said “Islam does not belong to Germany”.
Twelve years after the first session of the German Islam Conference, pork sausage was once again served during the meeting. Be it a clumsy oversight or lack of care for Muslims’ dietary rules, other than media outlets, no great protests from Muslim groups were heard, probably because there were larger problems to worry about.
Also not fitting into the pattern of the promised “stronger partnership” between Islamic communities and the government was the attack by German politicians and the media on the largest Islamic organisation in Germany, which is responsible for more than 800 mosques: Just before the gathering of the GIC, German politicians accused the Turkish DITIB of “spying”, saying it promoted a “backward” Islam, functioning as the “extended arm of Turkey’s President Erdogan”, as well as levelling accusations of tax evasion. However, none of the accusations led to a lawsuit or a conviction in front of a court.
Germany selecting “compliant” representatives for Muslims
Bulent Ucar, who enjoys a strong backing by the German government when it comes to introducing official projects to the Muslim communities, was appointed by Seehofer as a keynote speaker at the German Islam Conference.
During the session, much attention was given to the controversial list of invitees to the conference. Murat Gumus highlighted that whereas the Islamic Council (Islamrat) represents more than 450 local mosques and communities in Germany, other participants only “represent themselves or a small circle of people”, but however receive “overdimensional attention” by politicians and media. Similarly, a group called “Initiative: Secular Islam”, hastily kicked off just before the event, with Cem Ozdemir, Seyran Ates, Hamed Abdel-Samad and others who all are notoriously known for their anti-Muslim rhetoric, and was also a fixed part of the GIC. Critics call some of the founders of the initiative “Islamophobic and racist”.
Prof. Ucar, who received the, said that there were some people among the attendants who “have no anchorages within the Muslim community and also do not attach importance to it, and in parts explicitly call themselves non-Muslims”. But still he noticed that such a constellation of guests can “possibly be reasonable, if all participants engage oneselves and form a civilised culture of debate” and important for the “the correct display of the Muslim community’s plurality”.
The Head of Turkey’s Parliamentary Human Rights Commission Mustafa Yeneroglu warned that “Muslims legitimise the discourse of the German Islam Conference by merely participating” and thus should not take part in the event.
Minimising Turkish Influence through Mosque Taxes and State Regulation in Germany
The potential of Turkey assuming influence in Germany through its ties with migrant organisations is a source of panic among the Germany’s ruling powers, ultimately triggered by the latest political tensions between Germany and Turkey over the presidential election in Turkey 2018, the refugee crisis and geopolitical issues.
Set against this background, it is not surprising that since the beginning 2006, the GIC session has been organised in terms of security primarily, with discussions on partnerships or societal issues becoming secondary item on the agenda. Despite never having posed a real danger to the public, or in terms of extremism, Turkish communities are viewed as an imminent threat that has to be cleared out.
As a concrete step against this situation, German politicians have repeatedly claimed Muslim organisations in Germany should be financially independent, calling for a ‘Mosque Tax’ regulation similar to the German Church tax system, ignoring the fact that Muslim communities’ activities are mostly financed by the communities themselves.
In a statement, Yeneroglu evaluates the German Islam Conference and comes to the conclusion that the GIC is “marginalising” Muslims. Also it is neither a carefully considered approach nor a result of natural development but a “project of the CDU” that is - aligned to its “party policy” - eager to create a “hierarchy and assimilate the Muslims” in Germany. Of course not everything depends on the politician’s camp. Muslims can also engage more in politics and improve their own communication channels. Yeneroglu invites Muslim organisations and individuals not to misconceive the conference as a “granted favour” and not to “legitimise the [German] politicians’ hegemonial discourse” by mere participation to programmes like the GIC.
Under scathing criticism and the worries of Muslims authorities, is there any hope for success?
Prof. Ucar said that he, in general, is “positive about the DIK [GIC] as a forum”. He is convinced that the GIC “directly or indirectly” paved the way for Islamic religion education at schools, attempts for Islamic welfare work as well as Islamic Theology as a degree at German universities. Still, with controversies and criticism, it seems that the German approach to assimilating Muslims under security and foreign policy aspects will be ineffective.
Yeneroglu writes that “Muslims are used for a party policy and strategic calculations” and the overarching plan is that sooner or later they will be “divided and assimilated”.
Although the addressees of any future GIC will be the young minority generations in Germany, who are well-educated and speak at least three languages, during this conference, the group was once again barely reached, and if so, more as the object of discussion than a conversation partner. But while public discourse put the young generation aside, Muslim organisations keep offering them opportunities to engage in society and express their very interests. However, it remains unclear how long Muslim organisations will be able use their potential and resist a looming German state doctrine that is meant to reshape the Muslim presence and subordinate it to political interests.