Interview with Bülent Ucar

"Fear of an Imposed State-approved Version of Islam"

According to Bülent Ucar, chair of Islamic Religious Education Studies at the University of Osnabrück, the religiously neutral state should not become embroiled in specific questions of Islamic theology. But he does expect the Muslim organisations to undergo major restructuring. Elbeyi Güvercin talked to Bülent Ucar

Bülent Ucar (photo: Elena Scholz / Pressestelle Universität Osnabrück)
Bülent Ucar is of the opinion that the religiously neutral state should keep out of theological questions

​​Professor Ucar, Osnabrück is one of three universities in Germany to offer courses in Islamic religious education for future teachers. How well are these departments accepted by Muslims and the public in general?

Bülent Ucar: Muslims have been a permanent fixture in Germany for nearly fifty years now. Islamic religious education still hasn't been introduced in schools, even though the Basic Law has very clear provisions on the matter. Section 7.3 clearly states that once the prerequisites are fulfilled, Islamic religious education must be introduced.

Now the relevant bodies in the various state ministries are saying that Muslims haven't met the necessary preconditions. That's a matter of interpretation. At the end of the day, it's always a discretionary policy decision.

However, I'm rather sceptical when it comes to the serious implementation of all the trial models that have been running for a few years now. I have the feeling that the ministries are working rather half-heartedly on the project. In recent years, everyone has realised that religious education of Muslim pupils can't be put on a back burner, especially with a view to preventing terrorism and violence in the name of religion.

There has been a fair amount of activity in this field since 9/11 in particular, with three teacher-training courses set up in Münster, Erlangen and Osnabrück. So there are three different training centres in the field, but two of these are staffed by Germans who have converted to Islam.

As you know, some 99 per cent of all Muslims in Germany were born elsewhere or have parents or grandparents from other countries; three-quarters are of Turkish origin. On the one hand, many of these Muslims don't feel adequately represented by converts and for this reason also fear an imposed state-approved version of Islam. On the other, this gives rise to theological conflicts, such as the current one in Münster.

Münster's Professor Kalisch prompted a heated debate with his statements on the historical existence of the Prophet Muhammad. How does the Islamic community in Germany stand on Kalisch's views? As an Islamic theologian and second-generation German Muslim, how do you feel about what he said?

Sven Kalisch (photo: DW)
The theologian Sven Kalisch came under heavy fire for calling into question the existence of the Prophet Muhammad

​​Ucar: My colleague Kalisch maintains that the Prophet never existed, or in all likelihood never existed. For me, that has little to do with academic discourse or freedom of science, because this opinion is only held by a minute minority in established western Islam Studies.

And you'd have trouble finding any Muslim who would doubt the existence of the Prophet. As a scholar of religion, Kalisch was in a position to advance this theory at a philosophical faculty, but anyone who holds these ideas as a theologian, with the aim of teaching and researching from a perspective within Islam, and of training teachers to provide faith-oriented religious education, has failed to understand the purpose of religious education lessons. To add insult to injury, Professor Kalisch has an absolute monopoly in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia.

There was the case of the Göttingen-based theologian Prof. Gerd Lüdemann, who represented a particular standpoint with regard to the existence of Jesus – as one of a hundred university lecturers – and was dismissed from teaching at the theological faculty, with the blessings of the constitutional court.

With this in mind, we have to apply the same yardstick; Muslims have to be treated in exactly the same way as Christians. Double standards are no help whatsoever; they only stir up resentment.

For this very reason, it is highly important that Muslims are placed on the same structural level as Christians and Jews in Germany. Until that happens, we'll continue to have problems, as is the case in Turkey, for example.

Is Turkey a good example of a religiously neutral state?

Ucar: Not at all! The entire religion is administered by the state, and theological faculties are controlled and financed by the state, which also determines what content they teach.

A Muslim woman writes the word integration on a blackboard (photo: dpa)
According to Ucar, both the Islamic associations and German politics have neglected the integration of Muslim immigrants for too long

​​It is a de facto form of state Islam. If things continue along the same lines in Germany, Islam will move in the same direction, and that can't be what anyone wants. In my opinion, the religiously neutral state must stay out of this area. The religious communities urgently need to have a say in appointing lecturers at universities and teachers at school level.

The Muslim associations launched a fierce attack on Prof. Kalisch for his statements…

Ucar: There are plenty of reasons to criticise the associations. We can accuse them of being too conservative; we can accuse them of being too oriented to their countries of origin, of ultimately being controlled from abroad, but any criticism on this point is absolutely unfounded and unjustified, in my eyes.

It's not just the associations that hold this opinion; if we were to carry out an empirical sociological study on the subject, over 90 per cent of Muslims would agree with them. Training Islamic religious education teachers and at the same time denying the basic tenets of Islam simply don't go together. Professor Kalisch wants to have his cake and eat it too.

Of course Muslims in Germany won't put up with that, and it would be foolish to reproach them for it. If we want to establish Islamic theology and religious education training in Germany, it has to be accepted by the country's Muslims.

Two women wearing headscarves at the German Conference on Islam (photo: dpa)
"The German Conference on Islam has now issued specific guidelines on how the associations should be organised," says Bülent Ucar

​​This kind of attitude will only put people's noses out of joint; what we need is authentic Islamic voices in Germany, people who come from the tradition, who adopt an interior position but are simultaneously oriented towards dialogue and work on an inter-faith basis, take academic structures seriously and of course work in a historically critical manner, but at the same time are at home in the Islamic faith and in Germany.

Is this fierce attack on Professor Kalisch by the Muslim associations not a threat to the freedom of science?

Ucar: I am absolutely convinced of the freedom of science. Of course teaching and research have to be free. On the other hand, theology occupies a special position at the universities. Questions about God, about life after death and about the beyond can neither be proved nor disproved by scientific methods. So there is no way to either verify or falsify in this field. When it comes down to it, these are matters of conviction.

And that's also an argument for why the religiously neutral state must not get embroiled in specific theological issues and dogmatic guidelines. The Catholic and Protestant Churches have a veto on the appointment of religious education teachers and theology lecturers, because these lecturers primarily have to represent the perspective of the theology in question at the universities.

The nihil obstat procedure exists for this case. You can't apply the black-and-white scheme of freedom of science versus freedom of religion here, of intolerant, barbaric Muslims versus western enlightenment. These generalising, over-simplified arguments are no way to lead a serious discussion.

You mentioned that Muslim and Christian communities must be treated in the same way. But do the Muslim associations have the structure needed to play a similar role to the Christian churches?

Ucar: I think the associations have to undergo major restructuring on this issue. The criticism of the associations is sometimes too drastic in my opinion, but it's not always unfounded.

The associations are very strongly oriented towards countries of origin and for a long time they were not particularly interested in the integration of Muslims in Germany. But the same applied to the other side; the authorities here had little interest in integrating Muslims into German society either. For decades, they thought differently about integration or not at all, because they assumed that the Muslims were guest workers who would one day return to their "native countries".

Young boy in the middle of a row of praying men in a mosque (photo: dpa)
Bülent Ucar: "What we need is authentic Islamic voices in Germany, people who come from the tradition, who adopt an interior position but are simultaneously oriented towards dialogue and work on an inter-faith basis"

​​The associations thought and argued the same way, with the effect that little was done in this area. So in principle, criticism of the associations is justified on this point.

At the same time, the ministries – and in particular the German Conference on Islam and the state government of North-Rhine Westphalia – have now issued specific guidelines on how the associations should be organised. In my view, they shouldn't be structured from the top down, but from the bottom up – democratic structures on a grassroots basis – and this is how they must legitimise themselves. They must switch their orientation much more towards Germany and check whether their staff has the language skills and the theological training they need.

The model of a mosque, where the members of each community elect representatives and these representatives form the regional organisational boards in a large synod, is a model that Muslims could take as a guide.

Yet we can't make this a prerequisite for participation and reproach the associations for their largely undemocratic structures without demanding the same of the Catholic Church. Ultimately, this is an internal matter for the associations themselves.

Interview: Elbeyi Güvercin

© Qantara 2009

Bülent Ucar wrote his postdoctoral thesis on "Modern Qur'an Exegesis and the Mutability of Shari'a in the Current Discussion in Turkey". Since June 2008 he has been a professor of Islamic Religious Education Studies at the University of Osnabrück.

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