The War Over Germany’s Imams

Paul Hockenos, Foreign Policy, July 2, 2010


But today, Germany’s Turkish imams find themselves square in the public spotlight. Berlin and Ankara are wrapped up in a fierce battle–and it’s not just about religion. Both countries are vying for the allegiance of the 3-million-strong Turkish diaspora in Germany, a population that represents two-thirds of the country’s Muslims. And both sides see the imams as the lynchpin to Germany’s Turkish community. The imams are uniquely trusted authority figures among the Deutschtürken (German Turks) who first came to Germany as Gastarbeiter–cheap, imported labor–in the 1960s.


In a book recently published in Germany, religious scholar Rauf Ceylan, himself the son of Kurdish labor migrants from Anatolia, offers the most explicit, penetrating examination to date of Germany’s foreign-born imams, showing exactly how crucial they are to Europe’s fate. “Ultimately,” he writes, “they determine whether young Muslims will endorse a liberal, conservative, or extremist Islam.” His book, however, Die Prediger des Islam: Imame–Wer Sie Sind und Was Sie Wirklich Wollen (The Preachers of Islam: Imams–Who They Are and What They Really Want) is not optimistic.

It’s not that the imams are breeding potential terrorists–in fact, quite the opposite. When it comes to fundamentalism, German and Turkish interests overlap. The last thing Ankara wants is the German Turks reimporting radical strains of Islam back into the Ataturk republic. Of Germany’s Islamic holy men generally, fewer than 1 percent are extremists, according to Ceylan, and those young, media-savvy leaders operate outside the purview of established mosques and often beyond the reach of both German and Turkish authorities. Germany has only narrowly escaped terrorist attacks like those in Madrid and London, and Ceylan warns that this “new quality” of fundamentalism has powerful, destructive potential.

But most of Germany’s imams are “traditional-conservative,” or, as Ceylan labels them, “the Prussians among imams.” These preachers are overwhelmingly Turkish civil servants–employees of the Turkish state–on postings, most placed in parishes through Germany’s largest Islamic organization, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), known in Germany as “Ankara’s long arm.”


Although DITIB denies it, its imams are Turkey’s primary mechanism for keeping German Turks, now in their fourth generation, from becoming, simply, Germans. A look around the premises of just about any of DITIB’s 900 German facilities attests to their ultimate allegiance, after Allah: On sale are red-and-white Turkish flags, Turkish postcards, and made-in-Turkey sweets, games, and T-shirts. DITIB officials work hand in hand with the Turkish Embassy in Berlin and its regional consulates. The religion ministry in Ankara writes the Friday sermons both for Turkey and the diaspora, including DITIB-run mosques in Germany.


{snip} Study after study shows the Turkish community poorly integrated, failing in German schools, and unable–Ceylan himself obviously an exception, not to mention Mesut Ozil, the ethnically Turkish star of Germany’s World Cup soccer team–to advance past the lowest rungs of the social ladder.


The issue of Germany’s Turks has become a nasty sore spot in the often troubled relationship between Turkey and Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel snapped back to Erdogan that “integration” isn’t “assimilation.” Germany doesn’t want to turn Turks into Germans, she says, but the one-time migrants should join in German public life.

And Merkel is taking action to bring Turks into the fold. Proponents of ethnic integration widely agree that a new generation of religion teachers should be trained in Germany, where they could better blend Islam and the values of modernity. {snip}

Just this year, Germany committed itself to creating several Islamic theology departments at German universities that would nurture imams, other Islamic personnel (including female clergy), and religious scholars. The thought–now in vogue across Western Europe–is that, independent of the doctrinaire Turkish seminaries, a new stripe of self-critical, democracy-friendly Islam might emerge, one better suited to life in modern Europe. At the moment in Germany, one such pilot faculty exists in the northwestern city of Osnabrück along the Dutch border, where Ceylan currently teaches. But its early years have been marred by bitter disagreements within the Islamic community and between local Muslims and German academia, a foretaste of what it means to get such faculties up and running.


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