College Training for Muslim Imams in Germany

A Laborious Process

One German state is hoping to improve the integration of its Muslim community by offering imam training programs at university. Michael Hollenbach reports

man reading text in Arabic (photo: picture-alliance/ dpa)
In future, the man reading the text may be able to translate it into good German

​​ In most mosques in Germany, prayers are said in Arabic and the sermon is usually given in Turkish. German is rarely heard.

"We have 2,600 mosques in Germany and I don't know a single imam who has a European education," said political scientist Bassam Tibi, a professing Muslim. "How can they show the Muslims who live here how to live? These imams would probably tell me I shouldn't integrate."

Bulent Ucar, professor for Islamic studies at the University of Osnabrueck, said that it's crucial to the authentic development of Islam in Germany and Europe that imams are educated on the continent.

"Only then can we have religious leaders who are informed about the country and the people and are aware of the cultural sensibilities here in Germany and can act accordingly in their work in the mosque," he added.

To address the issue, the interior minister of Lower Saxony, Uwe Schuenemann, who is also the state's integration minister, has announced a new education initiative for imams.

"A continuing education program should be offered very soon," said Schuenemann. "Imams from Turkey will be able to take courses in the teaching of religion, civic education and German."

The first batch of German-educated imams is set to graduate in Osnabrueck in three years.

Job prospects for new imams

In the past, imams have taken a reverse path: Even German Muslims with Turkish roots have returned to Turkey to complete their training.

University of Osnabrueck (photo: picture-alliance/ HB Verlag)
A degree course at the University of Osnabrueck will help to train imams better for their work in Germany

​​ Now Schuenemann wants to work together with Schura, a state-wide umbrella organizations for Muslim groups, and DITIB, the national association of Turkish Muslim congregations, to establish an imam training program in Germany.

"There are plans later on to add a masters program to the new bachelors program," said Schuenemann, "so that these imams can also teach courses in the Muslim religion in schools."

In Germany, elementary and high schools offer religion courses, generally in Catholic or Protestant Christianity. Alternatively, students can choose to take ethics. Recognized courses in Islam were approved by the German government earlier this year, but have not yet been implemented in schools.

Hiring the imam graduates as part-time public school teachers would give them a secure income, said the interior minister. Otherwise, imams in Germany are often subsidized by the Turkish state because the mosques cannot afford to pay their complete salaries.

Strong ties to Muslim countries

portrait of Schuenemann (photo: Lower Saxony ministry of interior affairs, sport and integration)
Lower Saxony's interior minister Uwe Schuenemann wants to use the newly trained imams to teach Islam in schools

​​ While other German states are looking to Lower Saxony as a possible trailblazer in the integration project, the state's plan has not been particularly well received by religious leaders in the Muslim community. Around one fifth of the imams who preach in German mosques tend toward conservative fundamentalism, concluded a current study by social scientist Rauf Ceylan of Duisburg.

Many of the imams who are active in Germany are convinced that an acceptable imam must have been educated in the home country's Muslim community.

According to Ceylan's study, integration isn't yet a high priority for the majority of Muslim leaders in Germany.

Michael Hollenbach

© Deutsche Welle 2009

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