Should Dialogue Exclude Questionable Groups?
The official aim of the regular meetings of the Islam Forum is to improve the relations between the non-Muslim majority and the Muslim minority in Germany.
Jürgen Miksch, a Christian theologian and the chairman of the Intercultural Council in Germany, which runs the Islam Forum, believes that the proximity between the two groups offers great chances which haven't yet been exploited.
He concludes that the coexistence of Muslim and non-Muslims in Germany functions well, although there are problems.
For example, the fact the Muslims in Germany have no unified organisation to represent their interests. The German state would like to see such an institution, since it would like to have an authoritative partner to speak to on issues concerning Muslims.
Muslims lack cultural and religious unity
But such an organisation provided a unified representation of Muslim interests is unlikely to emerge in the future, since the largest group of Muslims – those of Turkish origin – are themselves neither culturally nor religiously unified.
Most are not organised in any of the various Muslim groupings. The level of observance among Muslims in Germany is also very varied.
But the Muslims do find that they have things to complain about. Yasar Bilgin, whose "Council of citizens of Turkish origin" supports the Islam Forum financially, criticises the general attitude towards Muslims which he encounters in Germany and Europe.
"The approach to different cultures in Europe is still based on the idea of conflict", says Bilgin. "It's unimaginative and in my view primitive. It's the politicians and the media which have the most influence in Germany, and they are practically speaking unable to get away from this kind of dialogue. In general, the dialogue – or what they call dialogue – I personally wouldn't call dialogue at all; it's rather a matter of determining positions. There isn't any dialogue! It's just an attempt from above to lay down what Muslims should do".
Positive approaches for mutual dialogue
Not everyone shares this harsh criticism of past dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. But the meetings of the Islam Forum which have been taking place over the last three years are certainly an attempt to bring about a real, two-sided dialogue
The Islam Forum now does not just exist on the national federal level – there are state-level Islam Forums in Hesse, Lower Saxony, North-Rhine Westphalia, Rhineland Palatinate, as well as in the states of the former East Germany.
Representatives of several Muslim groupings meet at the Islam Forum with those of other faiths, mostly German Christians. Those who take part have to be committed to the German basic law – the country's constitution – and to the separation of church and state.
And there's an unexpected side-effect of the meetings: they permit a dialogue within the Muslim community which otherwise scarcely exists in Germany.
The topics discussed may well be controversial. As well as global topics like war and peace, the relations between state and religion or between Islam and the media, the Forum meetings will discuss problems of daily life.
Among those issues might well be the frequently disputed participation of Muslim girls in school sports and sex education classes, as well as in school trips. Other topics might well include the issue of the Islamic headscarf, Islamic fundamentalism, or the problems of social integration.
The important thing, says Miksch, is to emphasise the common ground without ignoring the differences. And that's not easy. The work of the Forum is frequently praised, but there is also some criticism.
Some Muslim groupings complain that there always find themselves having to defend themselves at the meetings of the Forum. The Islam Forum itself claims that the US Department of State has found out about the Forum and has criticised that questionable Muslim organisations win credibility through their participation.
Controversy over the participation of questionable organisations
Whether this is the case cannot be proved. But it is clear which groupings might be described as "questionable:" the Islamic Council and the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. Both groups take part regularly in Forum meetings, and in both groups Islamist, or at least highly conservative tendencies have considerable influence.
The German Interior Ministry originally supported the Islam Forum project, but has changed its position in the last few months. The office of the Interior Minister, Otto Schily, says now that projects which include the participation of organisations which the secret services have on their observation lists – like, for example, Milli Görüs – should no longer be supported.
The decisive question from the German point of view is now: should dialogue with Muslims, which is widely seen as desirable, exclude politically questionable or even extremist organisations?
Rita Süssmuth, former president of the Bundestag, the German parliament, criticises a policy of exclusion. She says it's important for a real dialogue to involve precisely those organisations with which the German state has its problems.
"The most important thing is that we stop going on about how essential dialogue is, and that we actually get down to doing it in practice," she says.
"If you don't include in the dialogue those who have different opinions – and precisely those who have doubts about whether they want to integrate and live in this country on the basis of the constitution – then you run the risk that they will shut themselves off even more, and start taking a defensive attitude."
But since the Interior Ministry changed its attitude to the Islam Forum, the project is under threat because the Ministry is its major source of funding. In response, the organisers of the Islam Forum are calling for similar organisations to be set up all over the country and, at the same time, for further funding.
© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2005
Translation from the German: Michael Lawton