Outcome of the Second German Conference on Islam

Tough Dialogue

In her essay, migration researcher Ülger Polat says that until such time as there is a willingness in German society to truly and comprehensively recognise Islam, the German Conference on Islam will continue to exist in a vacuum

In her essay on the second German Conference on Islam, migration researcher Ülger Polat says that until such time as there is a willingness in German society to truly and comprehensively recognise Islam, the German Conference on Islam will continue to exist in a vacuum

Second German Conference on Islam (photo: AP)
Why is the dialogue with the Muslim community called "Conference on Islam" when the majority of participants are secular representatives or even critics of Islam, writes Polat

​​In the run-up to the second German Conference on Islam, the positions of the dialogue partners were poles apart. While Federal Minister of the Interior Dr Wolfgang Schäuble repeated for the umpteenth time the conditions that would have to be fulfilled for Muslims to achieve the recognition they seek, Ayyub Axel Köhler, chairman of the recently founded Co-ordination Council of Muslims, which represents no less than four Muslim associations in Germany, complained that there was no will to even agree on specific steps to take in order to reach this goal.

The reason that the gulf separating the two sides is so wide is that notoriously illusory issues have been dominating the debate since the start of the conference and are driving a wedge between participants.

The stumbling blocks on the road to rapprochement between the Muslim associations and the German state are of a fundamental nature: even before the conference got underway, questions as to whether equal rights for men and women are possible in Islam, how the Muslim associations would react to girls' participation in physical education classes, and the issue of the headscarf gave the impression that the obstacles to putting Islam on an equal footing with other religions were almost insurmountable.

In particular, the fact that Islam is per se considered not to be in favour of the separation of Church and state seemed to consolidate the assumed incompatibility of the German state and the Islamic faith.

Parallels to the naturalisation test?

This meant that the four largest Muslim associations in the country, which joined forces in March of this year to form the Co-ordination Council of Muslims in Germany, quickly had to abandon the illusion that Muslims would be recognised as a religious community in the German state in the same way that Christians already are.

Veiled Muslim women are attending the second German conference on Islam (photo: dpa)
In order to have the same rights as others, Muslims in Germany repeatedly have to declare their commitment to the constitution, non-violence, and the equality of men and women

​​They were accused of being incapable of organising themselves into a unit – because their organisational structures and religious issues were not transparent for outsiders – and of representing a conservative, even fundamentalist view of Islam.

These reproaches are all too reminiscent of the debates about the introduction of a special "naturalization test" for Muslim migrants twelve months ago. The goalposts for the social recognition of Muslims are constantly being shifted and the conditions they have to meet made harder to reach.

In order to have the same rights as others, Muslims in Germany repeatedly have to declare their commitment to the constitution, non-violence, and the equality of men and women. This pressure to justify their actions shows that Muslims are still considered to be backward and a threat to Western social order.

Muslims are confronted with these kinds of ascriptions on a daily basis. Nevertheless, despite the fact that it shaped the discussions significantly, this aspect was not mentioned at any stage of the conference.

Lack of recognition for associations

Another decisive obstacle for a rapprochement between the two sides is the fact that in sharp contrast to the Christian institutions, the organisational form of Muslim associations is considered to be inadequate.

Even though Schäuble made it clear that the recently founded Co-ordination Council of Muslims is an "interesting association", he went on to say that it "cannot claim to represent all Muslims" and act as a "religious community" in this capacity. He also said that Muslim associations have taken their first important step by coming together and founding a Co-ordination Council.

Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and the Chairman of the German Central Council of Muslims Ayyub Köhler (photo: AP)
German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (left) talks to the Chairman of the German Central Council of Muslims Ayyub Köhler prior to the German Conference on Islam in Berlin

​​If the political arena does not respond to this positive initiative, Muslims will have to call into question the earnestness of the state's efforts to take a constructive approach to putting Islam on an equal footing with other religions. It goes without saying that Muslims are not organised in the same way as the Christian Churches. This does not, however, mean that they are not worthy of recognition.

The situation is made more difficult by the fact that secular Muslims are very sceptical about the four Muslim associations in the Co-ordination Council. They caution that the council represents a "conservative Islam", which could overshadow a secular view of Islam.

For example, Kenan Kolat, the chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany ("Türkische Gemeinde in Deutschland"), wants to prevent this brand of "conservative Islam" from becoming an integral part of German society at all costs. He is currently planning the establishment of a competence centre where Islamic theologians would develop a secular interpretation of Islam.

The critics of Islam are in the majority

The dissent among practicing and secular Muslims, on the other hand, results not only from their different perceptions of Islam, but also from their different expectations regarding the conference. A female secular participant, for example, said that for her, the conference was "not about theological discussions, but about the secular co-existence of Muslims and the German majority society."

However, a Conference on Islam cannot meet this particular requirement because if and how Muslims can be integrated into German society is not determined by Muslims alone; German society's willingness to absorb Muslims is a fundamental prerequisite in this regard.

It is even less plausible to claim that the problems associated with the integration of Muslim migrants can be flatly laid at the door of incompatible Islamic doctrines. The social problems experienced by Muslim migrants, which are often the result of structural problems in their life, have little to do with Islam.

In the first instance, a conference on Islam can advance the recognition and integration of Islam as a religion in the German state by comparing constitutional and religious principles, thereby paving the way for putting Islam on an equal footing with other religious communities.

In this regard, it is worth asking why the dialogue undertaken with the Muslim community was given the name "Conference on Islam" when the majority of participants are secular representatives of Islam or even critics of Islam and the minority are practicing Muslims. It is reasonable to assume that critics of Islam involved in this dialogue will reinforce the usual clichés about Muslims.

On the other hand, the four Muslim associations that make up the recently established Co-ordination Council should endeavour to get other Muslim associations on board – e.g. the Alevis – in order to form a lobby with a broader base, and not just because they have been refused permission to act as the sole representative of the Muslim community. A lobby such as this would then be a political, not a religious lobby that would represent the Muslim community in discussions with the German state.

Islam as an integral part of German society

The reason being that only an administrative unit such as this capable of representing a variety of theological orientations could effectively represent the joint legal and administrative interests of the associations in all dealings with the German state.

A schism of Muslim associations, on the other hand, would be of no use to any Muslim migrants in Germany. This is why Muslims should try to strengthen contact between these associations and overcome old political conflicts.

As far as the recognition of Islam is concerned, German society must for its part testify to its true willingness to consider Islam to be an integral part of society. Until such time as this willingness is fundamentally declared, a conference on Islam will exist only in a vacuum.

The institutional integration of Muslims opens up a variety of opportunities for German society. Once the attributes "Muslim" and "German" are no longer considered to be a contradiction in terms and mutually exclusive, Muslims will be able to demonstrate their loyalty to German society in a variety of ways.

At the same time, by recognising Islam, German society would have the chance not only to live up to its own constitutional requirement of religious freedom, but also to send out a clear message that the western, liberal world order is truly valid.

Ülger Polat

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Dr. Ülger Polat is a migration researcher and lecturer in intercultural social work at the Fachhochschule Hamburg, Germany.

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