Islamic Associations in Germany

A Plea for More Democracy and Transparency

If Muslim organizations wish to attain greater capacity for action and to be more readily accepted by the German government and society, they first need to re-orient their structures, according to Aiman A. Mazyek

Aiman A. Mazyek (Photo: Privat)
Democratic structures and transparency do guarantee that the Muslim community will be able both to stand up to the modern challenges it faces in Germany and to adequately fulfill its own true task as religious community, Aiman Mazyek says

​​When in German politics and society the question is raised as to what the Muslim counterpart might be to organizations such as the Central Council of Jews in Germany or the Catholic Bishops' Conference, it soon becomes evident that the Muslims are not yet ready to present a unified platform.

Conflicts over dialogue partners and opinion leaders

For years now, this has provided a convenient pretext for politicians to neglect their responsibility – noting that Muslims simply do not speak with one voice. Notwithstanding the fact that the same can be said for Christians in Germany, this excuse is often used to sweep such topics as integration, religious instruction or Muslims right to a voice in society under the rug. This strategy is not going to make these problems go away.

Muslim functionaries also play their part in this dilemma, inasmuch as they have still not set any firm course that could help answer the question: How can Muslims in Germany manage to create structures that are more democratic and transparent, under the umbrella of a single shared dialogue partner?

Many a time, talk show hosts, interviewers or politicians have tried to tempt the chairmen of the Islamic Council in Germany (IR), the Turkish-Islamic Union of the Institute for Religion (DITIB) or the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) to take on the role of opinion-leader. Often with success.

Searching for representatives of "Islam light"

While the IR and ZMD have been conspicuously reserved in this respect during the past few months, the DITIB announced in an interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on February 8: "We are prepared to represent all Muslims in Germany."

This kind of self-assurance can surely be attributed in part to some very enticing stirrings coming from the political arena, where many believe to have found in the DITIB the new prototype for an "Islam light." This is a status to which the Central Council long laid claim.

However, this development neither answers the need for a common dialogue partner on the national level, nor does it pave the way for the so desperately needed push toward democratization within the Muslim associations.

In terms of theological orientation, the associations are hardly distinguishable from their affiliated mosques – they largely continue to adhere to classic Islamic jurisprudence. German constitutional law has long since been recognized, but, practically speaking, the congregations have only begun in the last few years to religiously and theologically reflect upon what it means to be a Muslim in a pluralistic European society based on the laws of a constitution.

Islamic Charter as guide

The Islamic Charter of the Central Council of Muslims is an important guide for coming to terms with this issue, but it also demonstrates that the process is still in its infancy.

Moreover, the charter must stand up against counter-tendencies within the Muslim community, such as ideological segregation or spiritual compartmentalization. These developments are not least a result of the increasing insecurity felt by Muslims, who are never sure if they have really been accepted by German society.

Apart from these problems, it is becoming increasingly evident that hardly any of the organizations' leaders have a clear picture of the future of Islam in Germany. What is needed is both a vision of how a contemporary Islam can be lived here, and role models who exemplify the envisioned lifestyle.

German Muslims in particular are called on here to play a leading role. However, they are often perceived by both German society and the Muslim community as being more of an exotic exception – either so-called "token Muslims" or Germans who have "strayed spiritually and/or culturally."

Other difficulties can be traced to the structure of today's mosques. Naturally, these problems are not always homemade – prejudice, Islamophobia and a lack of goodwill on the part of politics also present substantial obstacles to progress.

Often, a disproportionate number of the people in charge in the associations and mosques are members of the first generation of immigrants. Back in the "early days," the first generation of Muslims in Germany definitely had their work cut out for them.

No voice for younger generation

They are the ones who built the mosques, the "Islamic infrastructure" of today, while at the same time working or going to school and starting families. As time went on, however, they made less and less room for newer, as yet untapped forces.

The younger generation was often left to look on as, despite successful careers and in some cases a considerably higher level of education than their elders, the latter did not freely grant them a voice in their own community. Hence, the far-reaching renewal so urgently needed in the Muslim congregations is not yet forthcoming.

Furthermore, a not insignificant number of mosque congregations continue to carry the weight of a considerable amount of historical baggage. Their representatives often bring the religious and political views of certain movements in their home countries back with them to their congregations in Germany. They simply can't let go of the political visions they held fast to during their exile and student days.

The conflation of religious and social tasks on the one side, along with support for diverse types of campaigns for political change outside German borders – from the founding of new parties to the creation of secret societies – could not go on for long without causing difficulties.

These activities, almost always fixated on the country of origin, have usually neglected to respond to the religious needs of the growing Muslim community here in Germany. Fortunately, however, many congregations have by now distanced themselves from such pursuits.

Deficits in the Islamic associations

On the other hand, German associations subject to foreign (government as well as non-government) influence, for example the DITIB, are not really a viable alternative as long as they do not adapt their structures to fit German specifications.

Because of the foreign control exerted over their structures, they are hardly in a position to answer the need for a dialogue partner who represents a united front. The DITIB seems to have acknowledged this problem by now and its dialogue manager, at least in his official appearances, promises that changes will be made in the near future.

Another example is the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers (VIKZ). As the group with the highest membership, the VIKZ left the ZMD in the year 2000.

This decision came about when, following the death of the VIKZ leader in Turkey, the management cadre there dismissed the old board in Germany without notice and – to the detriment of the Muslims – immediately put a stop to the lively dialogue then underway with the churches and society.

Associations as pawns of political interests

Some Islamic association representatives have come to the realization that they cannot accomplish much on their own, since they often wind up serving as pawns for various political interest groups and in some cases still evince structures that are far from democratic.

From these experiences, the associations concluded that they could only achieve progress by banding together. Thus, on February 26-27, 2005, a conference was organized for the first time, in Hamburg, in which almost all major Muslim associations participated: the Central Council, the Islamic Council and the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers. They discussed how to prepare the ground for new structures in inner-Islamic work and for Muslim representation in government and society.

Despite the strong urging of the Central Council, the DITIB refused to attend the event. Nevertheless, in the end the DITIB will not be able to shut itself off from the push for unity among Muslims. After all, the ZMD, IR and VIKZ together make up the majority of "organized Muslims" in Germany and the DITIB's own grass-roots supporters have always cooperated on the local level with the other mosques.

A so-called steering group has been entrusted with working out a mutually agreeable structure on the basis of this groundwork, with the results to be realized within the year.

Fusions and Muslim Parliament

Ideas range from a possible fusion of the associations to a "Muslim Parliament," which would be made up of democratically elected representatives from the various mosque congregations.

At the end of a road which will certainly be rocky and lined with many unexpected hitches – for example, the federal structure on the state level appears to present a special challenge – what will probably result is some kind of hybrid form.

In the new structure, the central associations (in particular the ZMD and IR) will "do their part" and the groups that grew up organically in the 1970s and 80s, such as the Turkish, Bosnian and Arab associations, will be replaced in significance by new, democratically legitimated state and federal organizations.

Ultimately, this will make the new organizational form more transparent and more effective in working with the German government and society. Whether or not the new alliance will also be able to achieve recognition, is another question. The Muslims today are not so naïve as to believe this will happen automatically.

Democratization and unification are not guarantees for being acknowledged as dialogue partner. This instead requires a political will that is not much in evidence these days in Berlin and the other state capitals.

Democratic structures and transparency do, however, guarantee that the Muslim community will be able both to stand up to the modern challenges it faces in this country and to adequately fulfill its own true task as religious community – namely, supporting the Muslim faith. To ensure these capabilities, it is definitely worth carrying on down the path toward unity and democracy. And, especially for the Muslims, it is not only worthwhile, it is vital to their very survival.

Aiman A. Mazyek

© 2005

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Aiman Mazyek is editor-in-chief of the German-Islamic Web portal and deputy chairman of the Green Helmets. He was formerly press spokesman for the Central Council of Muslims in Germany.

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