Filling a void in the discourse
Members of the media who deal with topics concerning Islam and Muslims all face the same problem. In trying to sort fact from fiction, it is difficult to find specialists who are willing to answer questions – and not just on camera. Journalists are therefore often forced to rely on the same old set of supposed "experts", despite being aware that a willingness to give interviews and make statements doesn’t necessarily mean you have the requisite expertise.
The Academy for Islam in Research and Society (AIWG) intends to change all that. The institute officially began its work in Frankfurt am Main in the autumn of 2017, its first goal being to build a database of experts on Islam.
Anyone from the media looking for experts to comment on Islamic theology or on Muslim practices and everyday issues should now have an easier time finding them. The database will comprise Islamic theologians and scholars who conduct research and teach at German universities. In addition, the AIWG plans to offer media training courses to instruct this group of specialists on how to deal with journalists.
Supplying a factual basis for public discourse
The Academy wants to contribute to "objectivising the public discourse on Islam". As unwieldy and abstract as the institute's name may sound, and as difficult as it is at first to ascertain what its acronym stands for, the AIWG is certainly one-of-a-kind in Germany.
As a university platform for research and knowledge transfer in matters both academic and social relating to Islamic theology, the Academy aims to promote Islamic theological research, foster exchange between the academic realm and civil society – and in particular to encourage more objectivity when discussing Islamic issues.
All of this is to be accomplished through programmes and projects that are conceived based on "intensive and far-reaching discussions with Islamic theologians, scholars and representatives of Muslim civil society". "We are filling a void that has hitherto existed," explains Jan Felix Engelhardt, AIWG's managing director.
The AIWG co-ordinates and promotes research activities by scholars from the ten universities in Germany that conduct Islamic theological studies on topics related to Islam and religion. As an "interface between theology, academia and society", it also finances various formats for communication among academics, as well as between academics and members of Muslim civil society.
Funding for the AIWG has been secured from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Mercator Foundation until 2022. While the BMBF is providing some 8.5 million euros to implement the academic formats, the Mercator Foundation has granted 3 million euros for the Academy's so-called transfer formats. These include small-scale roundtable discussions.
Funding for one-year and multi-year research projects
After a one-year start-up phase, the AIWG, whose offices are located at the Goethe University Frankfurt, has launched some of the planned endeavours. In one of them, "Linked Open Tafsir", a four-year project that started in September 2018, a group of scholars under the direction of Professor Omer Ozsoy (Goethe University Frankfurt), Professor Yasar Sarikaya (University of Giessen) and Professor Serdar Kurnaz (University of Hamburg) is working on an online database of early Islamic exegetical traditions.
According to Engelhardt, the basis is provided by the commentary of the Muslim scholar At-Tabari, "the most complete collection of accounts in the early 10th century of the Koran and its revelation context". The online database is intended to provide a solid long-term resource for scholarly research on the revelation dynamics of the Koran in early exegesis.
In addition to "Linked Open Tafsir", the AIWG is also supporting another four-year project: "Normativity of the Koran". A team of scholars from the universities of Erlangen-Nuremberg and Tubingen is investigating the relationship between norms and ethics in the Koran. The focus is on practical issues faced by Muslims in Germany. The project thus analyses "individual self-determination as an ethical principle in the classical and modern interpretations of the Koran's 'verses of rules'".
Since September of last year, research teams funded by the AIWG have also been working on the subject of "Religious Diversity in Islamic Theological Studies Curricula" and on "Religion, Diversity and Social Work". As part of the project "Guidance in Theological Paedagogy for Questions Asked by Muslim Pupils and Teachers", a third group is drafting guidelines that "didactically address controversial topics in Islamic theology that are relevant to young Muslims for the purpose of Islamic religious education in Bavaria".
Mentoring programme for young Muslim talents
"MENTi", the mentoring programme of the AIWG, is unique in the German-speaking world, says Engelhardt. It supports young Muslims working in the field of Islamic theology and in civil society. By 2022, 60 tandems will have been formed in three rounds between mentees from Islamic Theological Studies or Muslim civil society and mentors from areas including politics, academia, the media and culture.
The programme aims to expand and strengthen social participation by Muslims, to enrich public discourse on Islam and Muslims, and to contribute "to dealing in a matter-of-fact way with religious plurality".
The AIWG is the brainchild of Professor Bekim Agai, conceived shortly after he took up his post at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. From 2013 to 2017, the Islamic scholar was director of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Culture and Religion at the university.
"I noticed that people have certain expectations associated with the subject of Islamic theology and that many of my colleagues were unable to do them all justice due to their everyday workload and the lack of proper structures," says the professor for Islamic culture and society both past and present.
Agai points out that Islamic scholars are expected not only to carry out their everyday work at the university, but also to offer answers to core questions of Islamic theology, to participate in the public discourse on Islam and to promote the integration of Muslim civil society in Germany.
Agai is now director of the Academy for Islam in Research and Society, heading a staff of 20. Even though the database of experts is not yet online, members of the press and organisers of panel discussions or other events can already contact the AIWG for access.
© Qantara.de 2019
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor