Oguz Ücüncü (photo: IGMG)
Islamic Community under Suspicion

A Disservice to Reformers

The Islamic community Milli Görüs is the second-largest Muslim organisation in Germany. It is being kept under close observation by the federal and state offices for the protection of the constitution, impeding dialogue with policymakers and the public – as well as progressive reform from within. By Ursula Rüssmann

When, in mid-August, Hamburg's initiative to conclude an agreement with Muslims and Alevi made headlines, one detail was glossed over that rightly deserved more attention: namely, one of the parties to the Senate agreement is Schura Hamburg, an alliance of mosque communities in which the Milli Görüs association carries quite a bit of weight. The problem is that Milli Görüs, which operates in Germany under the name IGMG, is classified by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution as anti-constitutional.

According to the Office's reports, IGMG still has close ties with the Turkish parent organisation Milli Görüs. It allegedly rejects Western democracies and carries out "educational activities detrimental to integration". The association is said to discriminate against women and is also accused of anti-Semitic tendencies.

The Hanseatic City of Hamburg is hence attempting to walk a fine line in this case: On the one hand, the security authorities are keeping a critical eye on IGMG, which is represented in Hamburg by the "Alliance of Islamic Communities in Northern Germany" (BIG). On the other hand, the group is being integrated into a pioneering political process that has the potential to spread to other federal states and advance the institutional recognition of Muslims as a religious community, equal to the Protestant and Catholic Church and the Jewish community.

Internal struggles with modernisation

The state of Rhineland-Palatinate is also making overtures to IGMG, although the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution there is keeping close watch on the organisation. The state's Integration Ministry, led by a member of the Green Party, has appointed representatives to the new Round Table on Islam, a kind of regional Islamic Conference, which met for the first time in late March. "I prefer a critical dialogue to silence", says the state government's integration commissioner, Miguel Vicente, remarking on the "very open and communicative" conduct of Milli Görüs in his region.

Werner Schiaffauer (photo: picture alliance/Karlheinz Schindler)
Milli Görüs expert Werner Schiffauer views the continued hard line taken by the constitution protection authorities as a disaster. It is hurting exactly the wrong people, namely the reform-minded members of the group, he says

​​Particularly in the municipalities, the organisation "actively seeks dialogue with non-Muslims", says Vicente. It is "ready to play a role in shaping the socio-political environment – a willingness that should be taken into account in the big picture." Does this mean that Milli Görüs is casting off its unsavoury image?

The fact is that IGMG is the second-largest association of mosques in Germany after Ditib, with 30,000 members and 320 mosque communities. Many municipalities have no choice but to maintain contacts with it if they want to appeal to the local Muslim community.

And within IGMG as well there are major forces at work that are trying to cut ties with the Turkish parent organisation and open themselves to German society. This is the view held by the Islamic scholar and Milli Görüs expert Werner Schiffauer, who has been observing the organisation's development over the years. Schiffauer sees a vehement struggle taking place within IGMG between the young proponents of modernisation under the leadership of Secretary-General Oguz Ücüncü and first-generation Islamist forces that want to keep the organisation closed off from the outside world.

The new Chairman for Germany appointed in 2011, Kemal Ergün, although a compromise candidate chosen by the two wings, has in the meantime exchanged a few conservative regional chairmen for more open-minded alternatives: "He is avoiding making an open break with the old course, but he is nonetheless pursuing a reform-minded line," says Schiffauer.

Schiffauer is convinced that the reformers have discarded the idea of an Islamic state and "have reconciled themselves to a pluralistic society, even though they still claim the right to be different". He calls the accusation of integration-hindering educational activities "utter nonsense". In Berlin, the association is in fact implementing "the most progressive curriculum for Islamic religious instruction nationwide", he maintains, "but no one notices, because it still bears the stamp 'Milli Görüs'".

Guardians of the constitution as political agitators

And yet, even the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has acknowledged attempts at modernisation emanating from the IGMG leadership, based in the Rhineland town of Kerpen. And some of the state offices as well, such as those in Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia, attest that IGMG is taking its "first steps" toward reform and integration.

"To be fair", notes a federal official in conversation, "we must concede that the organisation's leadership no longer supports anti-Semitism". According to him, the ideological component, Islamism, is also dying out for the most part, with "sermons becoming more religious".

The security expert, who has been keeping watch over the Muslim scene in Germany for years, cites as an example of the trend toward more openness the online magazine "Migazin", which looks at migration and integration issues primarily from the migrants' perspective. The magazine is alleged to have ties to IGMG – for example, publisher Ekrem Senol was formerly cited regularly as an author on the organisation's official homepage. But the "Migazin" even won the prestigious Grimme Online Award for Internet journalism in 2012 – for its positive approach to integration, which the jury hopes will "set an example for other projects of this sort".

Oguz Ücüncü (IGMG), Aiman Mazyek (Central Council of Muslims) and Ridvan Cakir (former leader of DITIB) (photo: Oliver Berg/dpa)
The investigation of IGMG Secretary-General Oguz Ücüncü (on left) by the public prosecutor’s office for alleged formation of a criminal association with Islamist goals was discontinued in autumn 2010 for lack of evidence. The Munich public prosecutor’s office dropped its charges

​​The guardians of the Constitution have certainly noticed developments such as these in sections of the movement, but this is not enough for them. Why? "The organisation has yet to distance itself openly and explicitly from Islamist positions. The leadership must take a stance once and for all and renounce that ideology."

Schiffauer in turn considers the continuing hard line taken by the offices for constitutional protection to be disastrous. It is hurting "exactly the wrong people, namely the reformers", because it complicates cooperation between moderate Milli Görüs representatives and other social forces.

One example can be found in Baden-Württemberg, where the state integration minister, Bilkay Öney (SPD), invited guests to participate in the second Round Table on Islam in early May – while leaving Milli Görüs out in the cold. The only reason given was that the association was "under observation by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution".

IGMG Secretary-General Oguz Ücüncü has complained about how this surveillance is causing his organisation to be ostracised at all levels: "If IGMG wants to open a new mosque, alarm bells go off immediately. We are not allowed to sit on the councils of the university departments of Islamic theology, and there are also difficulties in many forums for dialogue." Ultimately, he criticises, "the Constitution protection authorities determine integration policy through these measures. But this clearly goes beyond their statutory mandate."

Rigid interpretation of law

Jürgen Micksch, Chairman of the German Intercultural Council (IR), which has organised dozens of dialogue forums between Muslim groups and policymakers on both the local and regional levels, confirms that the mention of IGMG in the reports of the constitutional protection authorities creates a stigma. Associations that cooperate with IGMG have to worry about the future of their subsidies "because the Federal Youth Ministry's extremism clause might be applied".

The situation can also entail significant disadvantages for individuals who belong to a Milli Görüs community. An insider reports that the Constitution protection offices already register community members as "functionaries" when they lead a local youth group or act as treasurer. If the persons concerned then try to become naturalised citizens or change their residence status, they encounter "the kind of toughness last witnessed in the 1972 decree against radicals", says Frankfurt lawyer Reinhard Marx.

The expert in residence and asylum law has many clients in the Milli Görüs milieu. In his experience, administrative courts regularly refuse naturalisation to so-called 'functionaries'. "These people often have no choice regarding which mosque they become involved in, because the only one that exists in their area may be run by Milli Görüs."

Immigration authorities even go so far as to frequently base expulsion decisions on minor IGMG activities – a practice that however rarely holds much water before the administrative courts. According to Marx, the denial of naturalisation is based in many cases only on "doubt about willingness to integrate. In fact, however, proof of an anti-constitutional attitude would have to be produced, but that never succeeds." Higher-ranking functionaries, who are better educated and have better rhetorical skills, often come away better in such procedures, he points out.

As a result of this situation, IGMG Secretary-General Ücüncü is observing increasing frustration in young, dedicated members of the association. He does not expect to see any rapid improvements. But in the medium term, the dynamics of greater openness in parts of IGMG might very well bear fruit. If the process continues, the Constitutional protection official estimates, "the organisation will no longer show up in our reports ten years from now".

Ursula Rüssmann

© Qantara.de 2012

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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