Milli Görüs

The Right to Be Different

The German internal security agency regards members of the Islamic Community Milli Görüs as politically suspect – and thereby forces them outside mainstream society. A mistake, as Werner Schiffauer argues

On July 20th, 2004 Osman Karabey (not his real name) received a letter from the regional government of Darmstadt dated July 19th. It told him his naturalisation, which made him a German citizen on January 6th, was being looked at again. It appeared he was an official in the Islamic Community Milli Görüs (known as IGMG from its German initials).

The IGMG was an organisation, said the letter, which worked against the free democratic fundamental principles of the Federal Republic of Germany – and someone who was one of its officials must be assumed to support its unconstitutional aims.

Karabey's declaration that he would never support attempts to work against the free democratic fundamental principles of the Federal Republic must have been false. If the interior minister of Lower Saxony were to get his way, from January 2005, Karabey, together with the other 28,000 IGMG members, would be listed in a new database designed to fight Islamist extremism and terrorism.

ID check when visiting the mosque

Karabey is no exception. IGMG members can expect to have their IDs checked by police when they go to the mosque. Police sometimes inform employers that a member of their staff belongs to an extremist association.

This assessment is based on the reports of the federal and state security agencies, the "Offices for the Protection of the Constitution". The IGMG is defined by them as promoting a "legalistic Islamism."

It's accepted that, in contrast to terrorist or revolutionary Islamists, the organisation obeys the law and does not threaten violence. But it's accused of "using political activity to promote Islamist positions in German society." It wants at least "to create space for organised Islamist activity in Germany."

Alarming errors in translation and transcription

Local government, tax offices and courts are not in a position to check this assessment in individual cases. That gives the security agencies considerable power. It means that, even without a law or a decision of the constitutional court, an organisation which operates entirely within the law could find itself facing exclusion.

A critical analysis of the reports of the security agencies shows how questionable this procedure is. They contain alarming errors in translation and transcription, misinterpretations and quotations taken out of context. These can have serious consequences.

For example, in the brochure "Islamism in North Rhine-Westphalia", published in Düsseldorf in 2001, the word "batil" (which means "wrong, incorrect, nonsensical, mad" in Turkish) is obviously confused with the word "bati" (which means "west" and is translated as "imperialism"), thereby turning a religious into a political statement.

The writers of the brochure conclude that the pluralistic secular society is being demonised, and that pious Muslims are being warned that they might lose their Muslim identity if they do not distance themselves from corrupt Western society.

Preconceptions blurring judgement

The same publication purports to bring evidence of values which the IGMG allegedly promotes among its young members by quoting an extreme statement which includes a reference to the fact that Muslims "may gently hit" women who are disobedient. The source is given as Temel Bilgiler (Basic Information 2), a book used in Turkish summer courses. But there is no such quotation in the book. Instead, dialogue in the family is given as the Muslim ideal.

Another example: in the 2002 report of the security agency for Lower Saxony, the former chairman of the IGMG, Mehmet Sabri Erbakan, is quoted as saying that Muslims should establish parallel societies in which to live. But the speech to which this refers includes no reference to parallel societies or anything similar.

In fact, Erbakan calls on his audience to get involved in the wider society, and to take up the values, traditions and language of the country in which they live.

The 2001 report of the security agency for Baden-Württemberg criticises the fact that the writings of Emine Şenlikoglu were to be found on the literature stands of the IGMG. The report says she "approves of—indeed, calls for—the death penalty for critics of her interpretation of Islam." But the relevant passage of Şenlikoglu's book contains an uplifting hagiography of an eighth century saint, at the end of which an opponent of the faith is murdered. The story is not about how to deal with sectaries nowadays; it's about a conflict over a theological issue.

"The man sees what he wants to see"

The security agency report for Hamburg for 2002 accuses the leadership of the IGMG of making calls to their members to open up to German society which are only token statements. The accusation is justified with a quotation from an interview given by Mustafa Yoldas:

"Germans expect from us that we dye our hair blond, wear blue contact lenses, go to the pub after work, eat pork, drink beer, and shout 'Foreigners out.'" The report says that Yoldas said this in the context of rejecting valid concerns about anti-Semitism in the Milli Görüs communities. But the quotation comes directly after the line "Members of the communities … are encouraged [by the IGMG] to learn German and to take up German citizenship."

In other words: yes to integration, no to assimilation—is that unconstitutional?

Aside from the obvious errors, the characterisation of the IGMG in the security agency reports is tendentious and unbalanced. Facts which fit the picture of an anti-constitutional, rigidly hierarchical organisation are included, facts which don't are simply ignored.

Much space is given to anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic statements made by people connected to the IGMG's sister organisations in Turkey, such as the Saadat party led by Necmettin Erbakan. But the reports do not mention that Milli Görüs Europe has issued press statements condemning anti-Semitic incidents, or that mosques have invited Jewish communities to celebratory meals to break the fast during Ramadan.

Where there are facts which could be interpreted in different ways, it's the problematic way which is chosen. That's the interpretation put on the IGMG's campaign for members to take up German citizenship.

A commitment to integration?

The report of the Bavarian security agency regards the campaign as an attempt to create a fifth column. The North-Rhine Westphalia report for 2002 sees the fact that the IGMG criticised Islamist terrorism after September 11th not as an attempt to distance itself but as a tactical manoeuvre to avoid a ban on the organisation.

The IGMG offers varied leisure activities and training opportunities, but that's seen as aimed at keeping children and young people away from the influence of western society. There's no mention of the fact that the IGMG offers extra tuition in its mosques to help young people get into more academic schools.

Students of sociology and religion who have studied the Islamic Community Milli Görüs come to a different conclusion from that of the security agency reports. They see the IGMG as a community at a turning point, in which a generation of innovators is emerging alongside the old-style Islamists. These young members want to live as believing Muslims in this society. They want neither to recreate this society in an Islamist form, nor do they want to build a parallel society.

Fighting for one's right to be different

It wants to wear a headscarf as it starts its "march through the institutions"—but it doesn't want to withdraw from this society. The innovators are by no means a marginal group in the communities. For years they've been taking on leadership roles. Some observers see this change at the top as a way of overcoming Islamism in the community from within.

The state internal security agencies don't seem to have noticed this development in the communities of Milli Görüs. Criticism of the sources they quote is usually met with reference to "other sources which we can't reveal without putting them at risk"—in other words, to informers. But informers are a dubious source for assessments of the way an organisation sees the world.

Werner Schiffauer

© Werner Schiffauer / 2004

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

This article was previously published in Germany's weekly DIE ZEIT.

Werner Schiffauer teaches cultural and social anthropology at the Viadrina European University, Frankfurt/Oder. His most recent book is "Die Gottesmänner. Türkische Islamisten in Deutschland" ("Men of God: Turkish Islamists in Germany"), Suhrkamp Verlag 2000.

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