Islam in Germany
A poor second

Germany is a secular country, but the German legal framework approves of institutionalised religions in a biased way. The religions must organise themselves according to state standards and those standards are tailored toward the structures of the Christian religion. A commentary by Alexander Goerlach

Religion in Germany is not a private affair. Government at all levels recognises religious communities as public institutions and encourages participation in them — Germans who register with the state as Roman Catholics, Protestants or Jews pay a ″religion tax″, which the government then sends to their respective institution. Religious groups are also allowed to give faith-based instruction in public schools: it′s not uncommon for a small-town pastor, priest or lay person to have a spot on the local senior school faculty.

To enjoy this privileged status, religious communities must have a defined set of beliefs, their members must be recorded and they must have historical and social significance. The Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religious communities are organised as public institutions; in the state of Berlin, Jehovah′s Witnesses and the Mormon Church are as well.

It might seem as if Islam, with 4.3 million adherents in Germany, would have qualified easily. But so far, the German government has resisted including it.

Anachronistic criteria

The reason is both simple and complex: Muslim communities are separated along ethnic lines as well as along denominational lines among Sunnis, Shias and Alawites. Often there is little unity among these groups, hence they fail the most important state criterion: a unified religious body with shared goals and doctrines.

Theologian and linguist Alexander Goerlach (photo: Lars Mensel)
Alexander Goerlach is a visiting academic at Harvard University where he lectures in the field of politics and religion at the Center for European Studies. The linguist and Doctor of Theology has also conducted research at institutions such as Cairo′s Al-Azhar University and the University of Ankara′s Faculty of Theology. He is founder and publisher of, writes for the New York Times and is a senior advisor to the Berggruen Institute, a think-tank based in Los Angeles

These requirements for a religion to get a privileged status in Germany highlight the anachronistic state of the secular federal republic in its approach to faith. The idea that the state can co-operate with religious groups in the same way it co-operates with, say, labour unions presumes a certain unity and hierarchy on the part of those groups. But Islam doesn′t work that way. It simply doesn′t fit within criteria written for the structured Christian churches that have shaped Europe, with bishops and baptismal registers.

And Germany is more Christian than outsiders might believe. Christian holidays like Easter, Ascension, Reformation Day and Corpus Christi are official holidays, but the important holy days of Judaism and Islam are not. In cities and villages across Germany, church bells ring and Christian church representatives broadcast their programs on state radio and television. The title of the law says it all: the Staatskirchenrecht, or the State and Church Law.

For quite some time, there have been demands that the law be renamed the Religionsrecht (Religion Law) and for it to include a wider diversity of religions. Though nothing much has changed on the national level, there has been progress in the states, where most of the country′s religious laws are promulgated. Bavaria, a conservative Catholic state that polls very high in measurements of xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment, nevertheless has been running an Islamic-education pilot programme in schools; it is also home to Germany′s oldest mosques. Perhaps the Bavarians, precisely because they protect their own religious and cultural traditions so ferociously, are also the most willing to recognise and support the traditions of others.

″Islam belongs to Germany″

But it′s not only in Bavaria that reform is moving forward. In the Protestant-dominated north, Christian Wulff, a premier of Lower Saxony, set up training courses for future imams and Islamic religious teachers at the universities of Munster and Osnabruck. Later, when he was president of Germany, Mr. Wulff said, ″Islam belongs to Germany.″

Though Mr. Wulff served just two years as president before resigning in 2012 over allegations of corruption (since dropped), his actions on behalf of Islam — and that quotation in particular — set off a debate that continues across the country.

Critics of Islamic religious education in the schools, including many Muslims themselves, say that there is no group in the country that can speak for all Muslims. And indeed, it is estimated that the Central Council of Muslims and the Islamic Council for the Federal Republic of Germany, the two groups that have the best claims to speak for Islam in Germany, represent no more than 20 percent of German Muslims.

Germany is a secular country, but the German legal framework approves of institutionalised religions in a biased way. The religions must organise themselves according to state standards and those standards are tailored toward the structures of the Christian religion.

The result is a delegitimisation of the state′s relationship to religious groups in the eyes of many non-Christians, particularly Muslims — a dangerous prospect at a time when rapid integration is essential to maintain social peace. In the context of a growing Muslim community and a rising number of citizens affiliated with no religion at all, Germany may not be able to maintain an order that arose many generations ago.

Alexander Goerlach

© 2016

This article was first published in the New York Times on 15 December 2016

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