Eight things to know about Islam in Germany

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Emma Anderson - [email protected]
Eight things to know about Islam in Germany
Inside the Sehitlik mosque in Berlin. Photo: DPA.

The Muslim community has actually had a presence - though small - in Germany for hundreds of years. Here are more facts you might not know about Islam in the country.


1. First Muslims in Germany date back to the 1600s

The very first Muslims to come to Germany, as far as recorded history goes, arrived as prisoners of war from the Siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire in 1683. But many were either baptized or eventually returned to their homelands, according to the German Islam Conference (DIK).

Between 1735 and 1739, more Muslim prisoners of war ended up in Germany during the Russo-Turkish War. In 1739, the Duke of Courland ‘gifted’ 22 Turks to join the so-called “tall guys” - Lange Kerls - Prussian regiment, and a prayer room was set up for them. Tartar and Bosnian Muslims also joined Prussian forces in 1741.

Later, when Prussia and the Ottoman Empire had a more cosy relationship, a number of Muslims began to live in Germany regularly. In 1763, for example, the Prussian court in Berlin established an Ottoman diplomatic position. In 1798 when the third envoy died, Prussian King Frederick William III created a burial site for him, and with it the first Islamic cemetery in Germany, which still stands today along Columbiadamm in Berlin.

The first mosque was constructed during the First World War within a prisoner of war camp in Wünsdorf, just outside Berlin.

The number of practitioners of Islam in Germany remained relatively negligible after that until the 1960s, when a guest worker programme with Turkey brought in large numbers of labourers. The Turkish population in Germany now makes up the largest ethnic minority in the country at around 3 million people with Turkish roots.

A postcard depicting the mosque in Wünsdorf. Photo: Wilhelm Puder / Wikimedia Commons

2. Around 5 percent of the population is Muslim

The most recent government figures released last year showed that between 4.4 million and 4.7 million Muslims lived in Germany, or between 5.4 to 5.7 percent of the population. This was an increase of about 1.2 million people since the last census in 2011.

The government attributed the growth to the large number of immigrants who came to the country last year, including the record number of nearly 900,000 refugees, many coming from predominantly Muslim countries.

A poll around the same time by Ipsos research group found that Germans tend to overestimate the size of the country’s Muslim population. The survey showed that respondents generally thought Muslims made up as much as 21 percent of the population - roughly quadruple the actual size.

Experts predict that this population could grow by about another percentage point in the next four years.

3. Germany ranks fifth in EU for relative Muslim population size

While Germany has the largest population of Muslims in the European Union in total, its community of Islam followers is not the biggest per capita. One in four (25.3 percent) of Cyprus’ roughly 1.2 million total residents are Muslim, while in Bulgaria about one in seven (13.7 percent) practice Islam, according to a Pew Research Center comparison last year.

Therefore Germany ranks fifth in the EU for the size of its Muslim community relative to the rest of its population, behind France (7.5 percent) and Belgium (5.9 percent). This also places Germany slightly above Austria (5.4 percent) and Greece (5.3 percent).

And when looking at the entire continent of Europe, Russia has the overall largest Muslim population at 14 million people, or 10 percent of its total population, according to Pew.

4. Germans used jihad to fight the First World War

During the First World War, German officials created a newspaper called “El Dschihad” (Jihad) to encourage Muslim soldiers from other countries to fight their “holy war”, according to the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

The newspaper - published in various languages - was distributed to frontline areas, within German prison camps, as well as in places under French, English or Russian reign where Muslims lived.

Even the first mosque constructed in Germany was a part of this strategy, allowing prisoners to practice their religion, and then to teach them about the holy war in order to convince them to fight alongside Germany against the Allies.

5. Islam is not a recognized religious ‘public entity’

Germany’s constitution allows religious groups to become so-called “entities under public law”, which grants them the ability to levy taxes on their members, among other rights.

It’s up to individual states to grant organizations this status, and recognition is based on having a certain number of members, as well as a guarantee of permanence. 

But Islamic practitioners are not organized in the same structured way as Jews or Christians in Germany, meaning they do not quite fit these criteria. Islam in Germany is very diverse, with separate practices broken down across Sunni groups as the most predominant, as well as Alevi, Shiite, Ahmadi, Sufi, Ibadi, and more. A study by the DIK in 2009 found that only 20 percent of Muslims belong to religious organizations or congregations.

“The right to levy ‘church’ taxes - and with this to carry out official activities - cannot be performed with a vague sense of identification according to the standards, and rather must be done only through a legally verifiable membership,” explains German publication Legal Tribune Online as to why Islamic associations generally do not have public status.

“The blanket demand that ‘Islam’ finally be recognized as a religious community is as misleading as the perception that public entity status is only reserved for Christian Churches. What is crucial is whether a Muslim organization fulfills the constitutional requirements.”

The first time a Muslim community became recognized under the public status was in 2013 by the state of Hesse to a local organization.

6. The first Muslim MP was elected in 1994

Cem Özdemir. Photo: DPA.

Cem Özdemir was the first Muslim elected to the Bundestag (German parliament) in 1994 - at least as far as the Central Council of Muslims in Germany knows, their spokesman told The Local.

Özdemir was born in Bad Urach, Baden-Württemberg as the son of a Turkish guest worker. In 1983, he obtained German citizenship. Özdemir told Spiegel in 2008 that he was a “secular Muslim”.

7. North Rhine-Westphalia has generally had the largest Muslim population

Before Germany saw a record number of refugees arrive over the past two years, many from Muslim-majority countries, about one in three Muslims in Germany lived in the most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia. About one-fifth of Germany's total population lives in the western state, for comparison.

That’s according to data presented in 2009 by the DIK, which has not done a comparable study since. Because of the way Islam is organized and classified in Germany (as explained in number 5), there is no centralized way of counting the number of Muslims, so estimates rely on surveys.

8. German intelligence agencies have had their eye on radical Islamists since at least 1990s

Both the Central Council of Muslims in Germany and the DIK use their websites to denounce violence, terror and extremism in the name of Islam. The DIK also actively works with the German government to prevent radicalization.

A spokeswoman for domestic intelligence agency BfV told The Local that they have had their eye on possible Islamist extremists since at least the 1990s, but she said their focus on possible terror groups drastically changed after the September 11th 2001 attacks in the US.

That’s because it emerged that members of a Hamburg terror cell had been key operatives in enacting the plane hijackings.

Before 2001, Islamism was tracked as a form of “foreign extremism” by the BfV. After 9/11, it became its own field of analysis for reports and in 2004, Germany set up the Joint Counter-Terrorism Centre in Berlin to connect security authorities at the federal and state levels.

In 2010, after growing concerns about the rise of radical preachers inside the country - like German convert and suspected terrorist group supporter Sven Lau - the BfV spokeswoman said the intelligence agency also started writing official reports and keeping tallies on the estimated number of Salafists.

The Interior Ministry defines the fundamentalist Salafist movement as the “fastest growing form of Islamism in Germany” and says that Salafists pose a “particular threat to the security of Germany”.

“The Salafist spectrum in Germany ranges from political Salafists, who reject violence at least in Germany, to jihadist Salafists, who are generally in favour of violence and also use it,” writes the BfV. “There is no clear dividing line between the two groups.”

Currently the BfV estimates there to be about 10,000 Salafists in Germany. They also estimate there to be about 1,650 people who could be “potential Islamist terrorists”.



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