The Third "German Islam Conference"

Muslim Pluralism Must Be Encouraged

The third "Islam Conference" has shown once more: the debate about institutionalising Islam in Germany by creating a single umbrella organisation for all Muslims is one which raises questions as to whether such an organisation would be really representative. A commentary by Loay Mudhoon

​​The "German Islam Conference" has achieved its first concrete result: Muslim religious education will be introduced as a subject in German schools from next year on. The move was agreed by representatives of the state and the Muslims – in spite of what was sometimes bitter controversy. A number of the Muslim participants wanted to see a different kind of religious education – the sort of neutral education about Islam which half the German states already offer.

The Federal Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble sees Muslim religious education as a clear signal to encourage Muslims to integrate into German society. But he quickly had to scale down his initiative after it became clear that there were many open questions and possible risks involved. He had to admit that the main preconditions for the introduction of Muslim religious education have not yet been fulfilled.

Who has the power to make definitions?

Before Muslim religious education can be introduced, it will be necessary for there to be an organisation representing all Muslims in the country. This organisation will also have to be recognised by the state as a Corporation in Public Law. The German churches and the Jewish community already enjoy such a status, which gives them certain semi-state rights and duties.

The right to such an organisation is a central demand of the four largest, mainly conservative Muslim associations: The Central Council of Muslims in Germany, the Muslim Council, the Turkish DITIB and the VIKZ.

These four organisations got together in March 2007 to found the "Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany", and since then they have taken it upon themselves to define the terms of negotiation for the process of developing a consensus in society over the integration of Islam in Germany.

An unintended side-effect of Schäuble's position has been to place the core question of the institutionalisation of Islam in Germany into the centre of the public debate. Who has the power to define what German Islam is? And who speaks for German Muslims?

Islamic education and education about Islam

It is obvious that, in respect of its interpretation of Islam, the contents of its teaching material and its educational objectives, any proposed Muslim religious education can only take place under the control of the constitutional authority of the state and can only be carried out by teachers educated in Germany. Anything else would simply be reckless and scarcely in conformity with the German constitution.

But it remains questionable whether such a Muslim religious education would "provide competition for the preachers of hate," as Schäuble has said he wants it to. The real causes of the segregation and radicalisation of parts of the Muslim community are far too multi-layered and complex for them to be countered with a single initiative.

No artificial "churchification" of Islam

Federal Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (left) and Bekir Alboga (photo: AP)
Federal Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble sees Muslim religious education as a clear signal to encourage Muslims to integrate into German society

​​It is understandable that the state should want a representative partner for negotiations which will represent all Muslims, especially when one thinks that the state needs to be able to make binding agreements with representatives of any social grouping.

All the same, this wish is scarcely to be realised in the context of the Islam Conference in its current form – not just because Islam doesn't have church-like structures, but also because the discussions so far have shown clearly that Muslim representatives are themselves not in agreement as to whether they should recognise the value system of the German constitution in its entirety. That applies particularly to the representatives of the Muslim associations.

Since the setting up of the German Islam Conference eighteen months ago, it has become clear that the front line in this debate over how Islam should be integrated into Germany does not run between the secular state and Muslim representatives.

The confrontation over the power to define "German Islam" and the nature of Muslim life in Germany is in fact between the mainly conservative officials of the Muslim associations and the liberal, unorganised Muslims attending the conference who long ago adopted the German value system as their own and who see Islam as an important part of their cultural identity.

The role of critical Muslims voices

This criticism of the current structure of the German Islam Conference, of course, is not intended to hide the fact that there is and can be no alternative to the difficult process of dialogue with the various representatives of the Muslims. In addition, such a dialogue cannot be based on fear of Islamist terrorism but must be based on the self-interest of the parties and their simple awareness of its necessity.

The desire to see Islam institutionalised in Germany by the creation of a single umbrella organisation is one which raises questions as to whether such an organisation, however politically desirable it might be, would be really representative. And there is also a danger that it will be subject to political exploitation. For this reason the state must not allow the Muslim associations to take over the power of definition as far as Islam is concerned.

The state must be more open to the critical Muslim voices which are independent of organisations, and it must do more to encourage Muslim pluralism. It is only this inner-Muslim pluralism which provides the urgently needed protection against political exploitation. Above all, it is in full conformity with our basic principles – those of a free democracy which is able to stand up for its values.

Loay Mudhoon

© 2008

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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