An Experiment in Direct Dialogue
The event was attended by thirty selected participants. On the German side, there were political representatives from the federal and state governments, and on the Muslim side, five representatives of the leading Muslim associations in Germany, along with ten leading individuals from the areas of politics, culture, the media, and business and commerce.
Highly divergent expectations
Not surprisingly, there are highly divergent expectations of this long-term dialogue between the German state and Muslims in Germany, which is expected to continue for the next two to three years.
On the German side, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble hopes to see improved religious and sociopolitical integration for Muslims in Germany. He says that the conference focuses primarily on how Muslims view German society, basic democratic values, and the role of women in Islam.
Committees will meet six times a year with representatives of Muslim associations to work out the details of a variety of new approaches, for instance, concepts for Islamic religious instruction at German schools and making it mandatory for Muslim girls to take part in gym and swimming classes. Another area of focus brought forward by the politicians is the training of imams in Germany.
Preventing Islamist violence
But tough issues like domestic security and terrorism have not been left off the agenda. Both Bavarian Interior Minister Günter Beckstein and German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble agree that this meeting should contribute to enhanced domestic security.
They expect the Muslims to distance themselves, publicly and unequivocally, from violence and terror, and to report immediately to German authorities any violent members of their religious communities or associations. The politicians feel that by applying such preventative measures, Muslims can effectively help combat terrorism.
On the other hand, Muslim associations hope that Islam will finally be fully recognized in Germany as a religion that enjoys the same rights as other religions, and will become an accepted part of German society. In addition, they would like to improve ties through continuous dialogue with the state and the general public in Germany.
All sides agree that the conference on Islam is an important step in the right direction. After the event, this appeared to be the general consensus among the participants. Nonetheless, the emphasis placed on certain topics in the run-up to the conference sheds light on the parameters and objectives of this dialogue.
Although in his opening speech Schäuble clearly warned against viewing all Muslims with suspicion, the expectations of the organizers show to what extent previous conceptions and highly emotional issues, such as the status of women in Islam or the alleged readiness of Muslims to resort to violence, have dominated these talks.
The Germans are primarily motivated to enter into this dialogue by a need to enhance security, and they perceive Muslims in Germany as a possible safety threat. Accordingly, at the beginning of the conference, Beckstein called on "Muslims to clearly dissociate themselves from those who spread fear and terror in Germany."
It is precisely this fear-laden perspective, however, that creates barriers to an ongoing dialogue between Muslims and Germans – a dialogue that the organizers have just announced that they want to pursue. While indirectly linking Islam with violence and terrorism, the Interior Ministry has called upon Muslims to minimize the feeling of insecurity in German society.
One has to wonder if this is even possible when such violent scenarios, connected with Muslim culture in the minds of so many people, constitute the motivating force for dialogue. The choice of participants at the conference also reflects the enormous influence of such preconceptions.
Fostering dialogue without preconceived notions
Before the conference even started, Muslim associations criticized the inclusion of Necla Kelek and Seyran Ates, pointing out that in their publications and presentations they fail to speak of Islamic life from experience within the community, but rather fuel feelings of insecurity among the German middle class.
Although this conference represents a highly worthy initiative to promote more intensive dialogue with Muslims in Germany, we clearly need to critically examine the manner in which it is conducted.
If this dialogue succeeds without preconceived notions, then we will immediately face the challenge of extending it to many other walks of life where Muslims and Germans meet.
We should be aware that the vast majority of Muslims in Germany do not belong to any Islamic association, yet pursue a religious way of life, without being represented in one of the committees at the conference.
The quality of meetings between Germans and Muslims will determine whether a feeling of loyalty or even shared identity can grow between these two groups. The conference on the Islamic community is still in its infancy. Its success will be judged by the extent to which Muslims and Germans can live together in peace and mutual respect.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen