Interview with Wolfgang Schäuble on the Islam Conference

"We Are Tolerating One Another"

His long-term goal is to give Islam equality in Germany. German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble talks about the dialogue with the Muslims, German fears, and the Milli Görüs movement. Interview Sabine am Orde and Ulrich Schulte

Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's Minister of the Interior (photo: AP)
Wolfgang Schäuble: "My statement that Islam is part of Germany certainly got noticed. I see that from the reactions I get. People can see that we are making the effort!"

​​Mr Schäuble, your ministry did not invite any representatives of the Muslim community to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the German constitution. But you have said that Islam is a part of Germany. Is this not a contradiction?

Wolfgang Schäuble: Clearly, the fact that they were not invited was a regrettable mistake. Right after the act of state on May 22, I asked my people why we had not done this.

And why?

Schäuble: We didn't think about it.

Embarrassing.

Schäuble: Yes, integration is a learning process, in my department too. The next time such an event takes place we will make sure we invite Muslim representatives – and representatives of the churches, the Greek Orthodox and the Jewish community.

Are Germans still afraid of Islam?

Schäuble: No, I don't think so.

According to an Allensbach survey in 2006, 80% of Germans believe Muslims to be fanatics, 60% said they thought Islam and democracy were not compatible.

Woman wearing a headscarf (photo: AP)
Resentment against Islam lingers on in Germany: A 2006 survey by the Allensbach market research institute concluded that 80 per cent of respondents believed Muslims were fanatics

​​Schäuble: First of all, I don't have much faith in polls. And I believe that in the last few years especially, we have learned quite a lot. Prejudice is on the decline, the opposition to the building of mosques, for example, as well.

The building of the Cologne mosque aroused fierce protest.

Schäuble: That was a good two years ago now. In the end, the journalist Ralph Giordano was about the only one who was still against it. And a few weeks ago when a few anti-Islam fundamentalists wanted to hold a congress in the city to mobilise against Islam, they got nowhere, a popular alliance was formed to oppose them.

You are sitting around the table with Muslim representatives at the Islam Conference again this week. What has surprised you most so far?

Schäuble: I was surprised by how quickly, despite all the quarrelling, we have managed to create a constructive and enjoyable working atmosphere. There is a real feeling that we are tackling something together. I was worried at first that we wouldn't last ten minutes. I wondered if Islam Council chairman Ali Kizilkaya and women's rights activist Seyran Ates would manage to share the same room? But it is working. We are tolerating one another.

Does that count as a success? Tolerating one another?

Schäuble: It's better than coming to blows.

If that's the standard...

Islam lesson in a school in Stuttgart, Germany (photo: AP)
Islamic Studies is already being offered at 128 schools in the state of North Rhine Westphalia. In the coming school year, classes in Islam are to be introduced onto the regular curriculum in Bavarian schools

​​Schäuble: Seriously, the conference participants argue with one another, they are maintaining a democratic culture of discussion. That alone is a major success. It shows that Muslims in Germany, too, have acknowledged the plurality of Islam. And something in the attitude of the German government representatives at the conference has also changed.

That's all very well. But what has the Conference actually reached agreement on?

Schäuble: We've made quite a bit of headway on the objective of being able to offer Islamic children religious instruction in schools, for example. We have come to a more precise understanding of the fact that religious education is going to require cooperation. What we need – and this is a constitutional requirement – are organisations which meet the necessary preconditions for recognition as religious communities.

But a situation where Islamic religious instruction is on an equal footing with the situation for Catholic and Protestant is still a long way off. The conference has surely failed in this.

Schäuble: No, this process is going to take some time. Many German states have now introduced pilot projects to teach Islamic children something about their religion – through Islamic Studies courses, for example. The Islam Conference has done a lot to define the preconditions for the introduction of Islamic religious education, if the Muslims want it – and then there is the question of whether or not Muslim organisations want to fulfil these conditions.

During the Islam Conference (photo: AP)
Open and democratic culture of debate: 15 Muslim representatives and 15 representatives of the German state meet at the plenary session of the Islam Conference. Federal and state governments as well as local authorities represent the German state. Other participants include representatives of the Islamic associations and the Alevi community as well as non-affiliated Muslims

​​An existing organisation such as the Islamic Council, for example, is a religious association, but it is not a religious community in the sense required by the constitution. It needs to be, however, for the purposes of religious education.

The conservative Islamic organisations were hoping for recognition as a religious community during the course of the conference. You have dashed these hopes. Are the organisations moving in this direction?

Schäuble: I think the recognition will come from the mosque communities, because that is where religious faith is practised. The Turkish Islamic Union could develop towards becoming a religious community. We have already talked with the Turkish religious authorities about the need for reform of the Turkish Islamic Union.

The Turkish Islamic Union is tied to Turkey. The president is a Turkish government official.

Schäuble: Yes, but their representatives are freeing themselves to some extent, becoming more independent. Progress is being made.

Milli Görüs HQ in Cologne, Germany (photo: AP)
Under investigation by the public prosecutor's office: Milli Görüs is currently being investigated on suspicion of tax evasion and involvement in the formation of a criminal organisation

​​The problem is that Islam just does not fit into the constitutional law on religion, because that is geared towards the Christian churches.

Schäuble: No, we believe that the constitutional law on religion will prove to be sufficiently open to allow it to accommodate non-Christian confessions too. Especially because it is primarily about organisational issues.

Has the Islam Conference actually achieved anything?

Schäuble: There are no new laws or regulations, if that's what you mean. All Muslim representatives have committed themselves, without reservation, to the constitutional order. And I don't mean just in the sense of paying lip service to it. What this will mean in practical terms for the sports and swimming lessons, for example, is something we want to make a decision on Thursday.

And as usual when it comes down to specifics there is no sign of agreement. Some are for discussions with parents in order to prevent them from taking their daughters out of school; others insist that they should have this right.

Schäuble: Just wait and see. We have reached agreement in many areas after a lot of argument.

Does anything that goes on in the Islam Conference actually reach the Muslim communities?

Schäuble: Of course such discussions tend initially to be between elite groups. But we do expect the Muslim members of the Islam Conference to convey what goes on to their communities. My statement that Islam is part of Germany certainly got noticed. I see that from the reactions I get. People can see that we are making the effort.

Mr Schäuble, the Munich public prosecutors office is investigating Oguz Ücüncü, General Secretary of the Islamic organisation Milli Görüs, and Ibrahim El-Zayat, President of the Islamic Community in Germany (IGD), on suspicion of involvement in formation of a criminal organisation. Ücüncü is a participant in security discussions at the Islam Conference, El-Zayat pulling the strings in many places, at least where those represented by his organisation are concerned. Does that not discredit the Islam Conference?

Schäuble: No, because we have asked Mr Ücüncü to withdraw from the discussion group on security and that request has been complied with. Besides, one is innocent until proven guilty. Milli Görüs itself is not a member of the Islam Conference.

But Milli Görüs dominates the Islamic Council – and that is represented in the Islam Conference.

Schäuble: Milli Görüs continues to be monitored by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. This does not mean that we are not talking to them however. We want to win over the well intentioned.

Why do you want to continue with the Islam Conference in the next legislative period?

Schäuble: Because the problems have not yet been solved. Or do you think that the questions on the rights and legal status of religions and the improvement of social integration are so well advanced that the dialogue process has nothing more to offer?

What is your long-term goal?

Schäuble: My goal is to achieve a degree of equality of status for Islam, to reach a form of cooperation between the government and the Muslims in Germany similar to what we have with other religious communities. Bearing in mind the fact that this country has been shaped by the Christian religion and culture. There is no contradiction in this. And when Muslims and the majority population get to a point where they feel that a person's religion makes no difference, then we will really be getting somewhere.

Interview: Sabine am Orde and Ulrich Schulte

© TAZ / Qantara.de 2009

Wolfgang Schäuble, 66 has been German Interior Minister since 2005. The CDU politician already held the position of Interior Minister between 1989 and 1991.

Germany's Islam Conference

Objective: The German Islam Conference was set up by Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) around three years ago with the objective of encouraging dialogue between Muslims and the German state. "Islam is part of Germany," said Schäuble at that time, and: "Muslims are welcome in Germany."

Participants: 15 representatives of the German state and 15 Muslims, including leaders of the Islamic associations and the Alevi community as well as non-affiliated Muslims such as the writer Navid Kermani, chairman of the Turkish community Kenan Kolat, and Islam critic Necla Kelek.

Topics under discussion: Along with the plenary there are three working groups on the topics of values, religious issues and the German understanding of the constitution and media. There is also a discussion group on security and Islamism.

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